Overturn the ruling against a humanist chaplain

Jun 18, 2014

By Robyn Blumner

Jason Heap wants to be a chaplain and by all measures he is more than qualified. He holds masters’ degrees in Divinity and Religious History from Texas Christian University and Oxford University, respectively, and has years of experience as a teacher of Religious Education and Philosophy.

Yet the U.S. Navy just rejected Heap’s application. Why? The water-based branch of the armed services seems tongue-tied on the matter, but the reason appears crystal clear.

Heap is an atheist and a humanist.

What exactly does that mean? To be humanist is to emphasize the value of human beings and our capacity to do good during our lifetimes without the need for a higher power.
An atheist chaplain may sound strange to some, but in truth military chaplains advise on far more than faith and spiritual issues. On a practical level, if a service member needs bereavement leave to attend a funeral of a loved one at home, the chaplain is the point of contact. They provide confidential counseling to troops suffering from stress and other coping challenges — and are often far more accessible than the military’s other mental health services, without the attending stigma.

The fact is there are more atheists and other non-theists in our armed forces than any other non-Christian denomination, yet there are currently no chaplains exclusively representing non-theistic beliefs. Non-theists in the military outnumber Hindus, Muslims and Jews combined, all of whom have chaplains for their respective religions.

Nonreligious service members face the same questions about life and death, fear and loss as any other person in the military. These brave men and women should not have to face them alone while their religious counterparts receive support and guidance.

Moreover, military personnel looking to obtain a security clearance will often be asked whether they’ve seen a therapist — and the content of those counseling sessions may be shared with higher-ups. Counseling by a chaplain is completely confidential and doesn’t have the same potential career impact.

Humanist chaplains are a common feature at the most respected institutions, including top universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Columbia. The militaries of the Netherlands and Belgium employ humanist chaplains to ensure all their troops, regardless of belief or non-belief, receive those comforting services.

To defend its rejection of Heap, the Navy may point to rules on who may qualify as a chaplain, but those rules were designed to promote majority faiths and exclude humanists. Heap is uniquely qualified for the chaplaincy. As a religious scholar he has worked in the Middle East, West Africa and China, counseling and empowering people from all walks of life.

Heap’s rejection represents bald-faced, government-sanctioned discrimination. It communicates a distaste for America’s largest growing cohort: people who profess to have no religious affiliation. Fully one-third of Americans under the age of 30 tell pollsters they fit in this category.

You don’t have to agree with religious skeptics and non-believers to be accepting of them and respect their right to be who they are. All people who believe in religious freedom should be concerned that the U.S. Navy thinks it’s okay to consign nonreligious troops to second-class status.

From integrating African-American troops in 1948, to recent advances in opening combat roles to women soldiers and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, the military has had to adjust to social change.

What we have seen, without exception, is when the military rejects rigid thinking and baseless prejudice it becomes stronger, looks more like America, and is better able to defend the country. The case for welcoming humanist chaplains is no exception.

Blumner is executive director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the project director for Openly Secular.

22 comments on “Overturn the ruling against a humanist chaplain

  • I am In the military. It is a painful reality when you are low on brain juice and your only option to talk to is the Chaplain. He can attempt to sound secular, but any admission of your side is quickly dismissed and you are given a prescription that very much does not suit you and brings you lower. Suicide is very common.

    “God loves you” can only achieve results with so many people. Part of the issue is the bureaucracy, but I wont divert my point. Some times you just need straight talk and answers. What am I going through? Why do I feel this way? The closest thing I have to a bible is my User’s manual for the brain. I’m going overseas tomorrow so I am bound to be saturated in the religion of both friendly and hostile side. -Sigh- FSM help me.

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  • The Commander-in-Chief could just issue an order to have secular chaplains established. He (or she) just needs to know that there is a demonstrated need and desire for them.

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  • 3
    mikegtu2005 says:

    What does that mean, quite simply the first thing that occurs to me is that there is a connection between the illogical thinking of war and the illogical thinking of religion. One breeds the other perhaps??? and than relies on the other a a cure or a feel good . By the way you can run the one breed the other both ways.

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  • What is the duty of a chaplain, religious or atheist? To convince a soldier having a fit of conscience or fear to keep killing. This is hardly a cause RDF should champion.

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  • 5
    Miserablegit says:

    It is easy to see the link between religion and the military, religion needs the latter to act as a recruiting sergeant in these thankfully more godless times and the military needs religion because if you believe in god you will accept any shit your superior officer tells you. A humanist chaplain runs the risk of allowing grunts to question orders.

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  • 6
    neroman79 says:

    Roedy, sometimes it is necessary to kill people and break things. I am not sure what part of the world you are from. But if you are from Europe, East Asia or North America you should be grateful that allied service men and women were willing to kill people in World War II.

    That being said. I do wish the entire world could become pacifist. But until that time soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines need all the help they can get.

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  • I am married to a retired Navy captain. It is foolish to think sessions with the chaplain are confidential. Far from it. Commanding officers want to ensure underlings are following policies, regulations, & guidelines, no matter how misguided. If a military member reveals issues of substance abuse, violence, or any actions that do not confirm to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, chaplains are obligated to inform the commanding officer. This explains why so many enlisted personnel were kicked out for being gay….They told their chaplain.

    The chaplaincy also expresses the opinion, that someone who doesn’t hold religious values, simply has none. If you want to advance in the ranks, you are expected to attend mass/church services and prayer breakfasts.

    It’s sad & pathetic.

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  • For background, I’m a completely secular person. I see religion as organized and wide-spread delusion. I’m also a Navy veteran.

    These things said, I have to say I think the Navy is correct here. A Chaplain’s job is to attend to the so-called “spiritual” needs of soldiers and sailors. The article says, paraphrasing, “but Chaplains serve other purposes, too”. Maybe they do, but that’s not what they’re for. The Navy has psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors for the emotional health of their soldiers and sailors. It seems the article is trying to re-brand “chaplain” as someone who attends to moral and ethical “well-being” of their branches’ members, but that would be a complete redefining of the role.

    Strange that this article came out when it did because I, very recently, looked into this option myself as someone with degrees in philosophy and law and an interest in exploring officer positions outside of line officers and JAG. But, upon seeing the requirements, I thought, “that makes sense”, and it does.

    A soldier or sailor shouldn’t who doesn’t want a “spiritual” response to their secular problems, should avoid their chaplains just like a highschool cheerleader should avoid the varsity football coach when they’re looking for help with girl problems. My two cents.

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  • 9
    John Gohde says:

    This type of con was popular during the Vietnam War period. [Insulting personal remarks removed by moderators – please see Terms of Use.] Kudos to the military for weeding out fakes.

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  • 10
    Michael says:

    First, thank you for your service in the U.S. Navy.
    I understand your point but:
    1) Don’t chaplains have more contact with the troops & can do so with less of a stigma than a psychologist?
    2) As a citizen & taxpayer, I feel that military chaplains can only be constitutional (separation of church & state) if there is no religious test for this office/position.

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  • 11
    Michael says:

    1) Vietnam was 40 years ago. Times change. 2) The fact that "something is totally beyond" you doesn't prove anything except you don't understand it. 3) [Response to moderated comment removed by moderators]

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  • 12
    sminthian says:

    I’m in the military. I don’t understand why they have a chaplain at all. I never see our chaplain, he just sends us religious emails to our work email account every week. They get deleted whenever I see them.
    There’s always many churches and synagogues and temples and whatever you want around the base. If you want someone to talk to, go to one of them. I don’t even like going to a doctor that’s an officer, I don’t know why people trust a chaplain (someone to tell secrets to) that’s an officer.

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  • Secular/humanist chaplain? What a load of mumbo jumbo, faith healing under another guise. The RDF should not promote this gibberish. It’s trying to turn atheism into a religion – an accusation often hurled at Richard Dawkins (probably wrongly). The RDF be very clear and distance itself from this nonsense.
    If military personnel need treatment, they have an army of (!) professional psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors.

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  • 14
    Alexander says:

    War is most certainly not illogical. War is a political means of forcing an opponent to do my will; however, notes are exchanged for battalions. The only thing illogical about it is the way the west is conducting it now – ineffectively. Britain, my country, is failing miserably with all foreign policy, we’re making it up as we go a long.

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  • 15
    Alexander says:

    And you are in the military I presume. No? Oh ok then. Most people in the military know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and don’t mind it. Anyway if you understand politics you understand the necessity of having a military. War is necessary.

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  • 16
    Alexander says:

    In Her Majesty’s Armed Forces this is most certainly not the case. The majority of people serving in our military are Atheist. As a result your hypothesis is completely invalid. People in the armed forces are being paid to kill people, as long as their paid they’ll kill. If they can’t hack it they leave. Job done.

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  • Hang in there Jacob. I just got out after six years of being an atheist in the army. You’d be surprised how many free thinkers you can find. Don’t be afraid to speak up rather than be forced into some prayer. I avoided chaplains like the plague, because, behind their smiles they aren’t very supportive unless you believe in some kind of deity.
    If you need support that you can’t get from your comrades, use the chaplain as a resource to reach others who can help you. Dont give up.

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  • A part of the program The Atheist Experience” #870 deals with this topic. During the course of the podcast Jen Peebles mentions that military chaplains are most definitely not at liberty to discuss subject matter that has been revealed to them in confidence. She went on to say that any such disclosure was definitely wrong, ( I’m thinking illegal, though it’s possibly just unethical).

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  • 20
    Matthew says:

    As for your 1st question, you make a good point that chaplains are more readily available than counselors/psychologists, and I think that is certainly something the Navy and other branches could rectify, to make these secular options just as available as chaplains.

    For you second point, think about all the religious sailors on deployment. They, of course, have a right to continue their religions, and an aspect of many religions is having a pastor, priest, or cleric they can turn to for religious crises or direction. Chaplains fill this role as deployable pastors, priests, clerics, etc., to travel with these sailors. So, the very position exists for religious reasons. The word “Chaplain”, like “Chapel”, is born of religion meaning, meaning the keeper of the presence of god which was envisioned as a “cloak” worn by the Saints as a banner for god. That said, how can their be a government position with a religious requirement? Maybe that’s a good question, but that religious sailors believe they benefit from the presence of a religious leader certainly affects their well-being and morale, which is important to the military.

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  • This isn’t a matter of faith; it’s a matter of law.

    You can’t always get what you want, but you certainly can go to court to make the case for what you want.

    Talk is cheap. Can Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science or Openly Secular refer the matter to a pro bono attorney or otherwise contribute toward a civil rights legal challenge to existing laws designating who qualifies as a military chaplain?

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