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Should Military Chaplains Have To Believe In God?

There has been a recent push for humanist chaplains in the United States military. Around 13,000 active service members are atheist or agnostic. Here, U.S. Army soldiers bow their heads in prayer during Easter sunrise service at Camp Liberty in Iraq, in 2009.
Marko Drobnjakovic
There has been a recent push for humanist chaplains in the United States military. Around 13,000 active service members are atheist or agnostic. Here, U.S. Army soldiers bow their heads in prayer during Easter sunrise service at Camp Liberty in Iraq, in 2009.

The United States military chaplaincy program has a proud heritage that stretches all the way back to the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

"They are rabbis, ministers, imams and priests who serve our nation's heroes and their families as committed members of the U.S. Army," according to one video produced by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

But are they ready for an atheist chaplain?

Enter Jason Heap, a 38-year-old graduate of the University of Oxford, and of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Heap was born in Houston and raised in Philadelphia as a devout Christian; he was licensed as a Christian minister in Texas, and, ultimately, lost his faith.

"To thine own self be true. I left it," he says.

For the past 12 years, Heap has been living in the United Kingdom — mainly teaching in public schools — where he has become a prominent humanist. A humanist — often used interchangeably with nontheist — does not recognize a supernatural God; they believe in the human ability to lead an ethical life and aspire to good without relying on religious belief.

Heap is applying to become the first humanist chaplain with the U.S. Navy. These chaplains are also assigned to the pastoral care of Marines. But this leads to the inevitable question: What would you do, on the eve of battle, if a grunt asked you to pray with him?

"As a pastoral caregiver, I wouldn't lead a prayer with that particular person, but I would help them with it," Heap says. "Having come from the background of Christians, I would understand what sort of things to help the person speak about. I am very familiar with the Bible as a scholar. If they are a humanist or an atheist, even Wiccan or pagan, it would be on the sort of terms where I would be able to work more with them philosophically."

Harvard, Stanford and three other universities have humanist chaplains. So does the Dutch army. But the idea of a nonbelieving chaplain in the U.S. military has provoked a backlash.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill instructing the armed forces to only allow religious organizations that believe in a higher power to endorse chaplains. And so far, the Navy has not indicated whether it will accept the Humanist Society as the endorser of Jason Heap.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, believes the House amendment is a wash, and he expects that the military will continue to modernize.

"We have women in the military, we have blacks in the military, we have Hispanics," he says. "We have lesbian, gay and bisexual service members, and we have atheists and humanists. And just as they've had to accept those other kinds of diversity, they'd have to accept our kind of diversity as well: diversity of belief."

According to current Pentagon records, about 1 percent of active duty military in all four services checked boxes for "agnostic" and "atheist" as their religious status. That's more than 13,000 soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors. This is, incidentally, more than all the Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims combined — and they each have their own chaplains.

But some traditional chaplains, such as Ron Crews, will have none of it. Crews, a retired Army chaplain with 28 years in uniform, is director of the advocacy group Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

" 'For God and country.' That is the motto of the chaplain corps," he says, "and someone who comes from a humanist freethinker position could not ascribe to that motto. So it's by definition of who a chaplain is."

In recent years, other atheists have aspired to become military chaplains, but Heap's application has reportedly gotten farther than any others.

The office of the U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains has not indicated when it will make its decision.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.