American Culture

Should the US military be promoting Humanism and Atheism?

CATEGORY: Religion Humanism AtheismContrary to common wisdom, there are atheists in foxholes. Humanists, too. Granted, not a lot of them. But they exist. But do they need a chaplain?

NPR recently did a story about Jason Heap applying to be the Navy’s (and in fact the US military’s) first Humanist chaplain. Jason became an minister in Texas after graduating from Brite Divinity School at TCU. He later graduated from Oxford. And, somewhere along the way, he lost his Christian faith. Apparently when that happens, it does not result in the loss of one’s designation as a minister.

Heap’s application has gotten farther than anyone in the past who tried to follow this path. And some people are really unhappy about how far Heap has gone.

Take Colonel Ron Crews (Retired), who heads the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. On the Alliance’s Twitter homepage, they leave no doubt about where they stand, “Pursuing a nation where all chaplains, and those whom they serve, freely exercise their God-given and constitutionally protected religious liberties.” For the NPR story, Crews explained,

“‘For God and country.’ That is the motto of the chaplain corps, 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.”

Heap also faces opposition in Congress, where Representative John Fleming (R-LA) introduced an amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Act to “prevent funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency.” In other words, no denomination, no chaplaincy. Fleming explained,

“This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy. The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”

After the Fleming amendment passed the House as part of the appropriations act, Religion News Service added, “Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God.”

Unfortunately for Crews, Fleming, and RNS, they’re all wrong on their basic assumption that the unifying characteristic of current military chaplains is their belief in God. Three short examples.

According to 2012 statistics, there are between 12-14 Buddhist Chaplains. Many are endorsed by the “Buddhist Churches Of America,” a Japanese Buddhist organization originally invited to the US to support Japanese immigrants near San Francisco. Its origins are in Mahayana Buddhism though it became a separate sect in Japan called Jodo Shinsu (“Pure Land”). Although many westerners consider Buddhism a “religion,” it does not concern itself with the worship of a god and certainly Buddhas are not gods. It is best described as non-theist. In the words of Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, “The fundamental aim of Buddhist practice is not belief; it’s enlightenment.” However, in keeping with tradition in many parts of Asia, it is also not mutually exclusive. This means that practitioners may combine a variety of spiritual practices, some of which may involve various deities or spirits.

There are three Hindu Chaplains in the US military, all endorsed by the Chinmaya Mission West. It is almost impossible to generalize about “What is Hinduism?” as practices and beliefs vary widely from polytheism to non-theism. Chinmaya Mission was founded in 1953 by followers of Swami Chinmayananda, a devotee of the study of the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts). Yoga, meditation, and study are all part of Vedantic Hindu practice, with the goal of understanding and achieving higher consciousness. Among Swami Chinmayananda most famous teaching are “‘Renounce your ego’ is the Lord’s only request. ‘And I will make you God’ is the promise” and “If I rest, I rust.”

Finally, there are between 18 and 22 Unitarian-Universalist chaplains, all endorsed by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UU denomination is non-creedal but does promote “The Seven Principles,” broad ethical guidelines. To borrow from Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized religion. I am a UU.” UU ministers run the gamut from truly ecumenical, to those that lean towards one belief, including Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Humanist. None of the Seven Principles demand belief in a divine being. In fact, the state of Texas tried to revoke the tax exempt status of UUs because of their lack of devotion to a deity. It’s not unusual for services to have Humanist themes. One of the earliest services that I clearly remember was presided over by an avowed Atheist. Included in the music for the service were Humanist hymns from the UU hymnal.

So. Colonel Crews and Representative Fleming, it’s time to step away from this one. The US military has already set an example of allowing chaplains from non-theist denominations. Furthermore, the purpose of the Chaplain Corps is to meet the needs of those serving in the military, and there are more self-identified Atheists than Buddhists, Hindus, and UUs combined. Add to that the largest single category of religious declaration in the military, “No religious preference,” with over 22% of the military, about whose needs we know little.

Does the military need Humanist Chaplains? Yes, if it would meet the needs of those who have chosen to serve. This isn’t about the religious preferences of civilians.

23 replies »

  1. Requiring military chaplains to believe in god would also appear to violate Article VI of the constitution as a religious test for an office or public trust of the United States.

  2. The military already has atheist chaplains. Buddhists are non theistic and have been chaplains since 2004.

  3. How about this. Crews is right and chaplains have to believe in god. And I’ve read the letter to the Danbury Baptists. Chaplains and de jure unconstitutional.

    • I’ll disagree with your first statement because I have not seen the statute requiring belief in a deity. George Washington did issue a General Order in 1776:

      “The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-Three Dollars and one third dollars pr month – The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives – To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger -The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”

      The only qualification for the chaplain is “persons of good Characters and exemplary lives.” Not sure if this General Order is still in effect. It pre-dated Jefferson by 16 years (I’ll take TJ over GW on religious matters any day).

      I won’t argue with you about the Constitutionality of the government sponsored chaplains (in any branch). By definition, it’s a violation of the Establishment Clause (and choosing one over all others complicates it).

      Here’s a point I ran across:
      “Civilian clergy cannot do what chaplains do and cannot be forced into combat. This was tried in Vietnam and failed. Logistics and maneuver failed for civilians. They are not covered under the Geneva Conventions.” (

      • >with the pay of Thirty-Three Dollars and one third dollars pr month

        Half of 666. Hmm! I knew I liked that Washington dude, but couldn’t quite narrow down why 🙂

  4. Nice work, Cat. I love it when fact and sound argumentation belittle the buffoonery practiced in religion’s name.

  5. To reply to just the title: “Only to the extent that they may already be promoting religious belief” – can’t promote one without the other according to the good old constitution.

  6. Hi Cat, I agree we might as well have atheist chaplains along with the rest. Religion at it’s roots is just a belief system and atheists do believe in something, or lack of something. Room for one, room for all.

    As to the constitutionality of _any_ chaplains, I’d say they have squatter’s rights by now. I also wonder if folks who haven’t served understand many (most?) service people don’t attend religious services of any kind. Chaplains like corpsmen and medics serve mainly the sick, lame, and lazy.

    And no to your headline, the military shouldn’t be promoting any religious philosophy and to my knowledge as a rule they don’t. Since 70% of the military is under 30 years of age I feel fairly confident in saying most enlisted men/women are much more interested in getting drunk and layed than finding Jeebus.

    • Frank, given what I know about the under-30 crowd, I’m betting you are right about their church attendance and motivation.

      One thing I’m curious about (without having an answer) is that I wonder if some chaplains are the only member of their denomination serving. Kinda gives a whole new meaning to “The Army of One.”

  7. Hey Cat, it’s been 4 decades since I was a lean green fighting machine but the way I remember it chaplains started at battalion level (300-1500 humans). There you’d find a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. Move up through regiments, divisions, corps and more and more are attached.

    They live with the brass and where there’s one there are several. On a company level (80-250 humans) chances of having an attached chaplain are zip. They rotate around the organization as a pack to avoid any hint of unfairness…the military is grindingly fair.

    Throwing some humanists in is an excellent idea. If we simply must mudstomp and murder our neighbors, adding atheistic philosophical counsel might somewhat ease the psychological pain of our sons and daughters the aggressors.

    Our stupendous military/ex-military suicide rate suggests the traditional chaplains aren’t doing a very good job of it.

  8. Frank, you speak from more experience than I have had with military chaplains. My most extensive experience was fictional: Fr. Mulcahy on MASH.

    • I like your writing Cat, you’re fair even when flipping things over and poking at their dark soft underbelly. Your words flow nicely too, it’s easy to get into the rhythm of your thoughts.

      The Padre on MASH is the archetypal chaplain in my mind. Obtuse, impotent, irrelevant, and so conflicted in purpose versus training that most of the time he was a detriment rather than positive addition to the unit.

      When things got rough mentally for a patient or unit member, they called in Dr Sidney Freedman the humanist and he’d talk them back down. I don’t remember him ever invoking sky fairies to do it. Does life imitate art? As a reflection absolutely!

      • I though Mulcahy’s character did coped as much as possible in a situation that could bring out the worst in people. He seemed much more post-Vatican II that pre, though.

        You’re right about Sidney. My favorite (relevant) exchange:

        Dr. Sidney Freedman: Tell me, is it true God answers all prayers?
        Captain Chandler (who believed he was Jesus Christ): Yes. Sometimes the answer is ‘No.’

        That answer has been haunting me lately when I’ve been asked to pray for people.

        • When I was 8 and thought I knew everything I spoiled Christmas for my sister who was 5 by explaining how the Santa Claus coming over to the house was actually one of my mom’s co-workers at IBM in Dayton.

          I got my ass chewed but what hurt a lot more was seeing the disappointment in my sister’s eyes. It taught me a good lesson about leaving people’s fantasies alone. I know what I think I know but I won’t wreck it for other’s unless they’re trying to shove it down my throat.

          Life is tough and if prayers give placebo comfort then more power to them. One of my friends is going through last stage breast cancer and she’s asked for prayers more than once and I say absolutely. I’d rather be a white-liar than an ass any day.

  9. I hear you, Frank. I think I believed longer than my younger sister (in Santa, anyway, you know–the important stuff). I don’t think that I was ever completely convinced that An Omnipotent Omniscient Being really cared or had time for what I wanted. That led me to be a wee bit skeptical about his/her answering to anyone (I’ve always wanted to believe that we are NOT the most supreme beings in the universe, but I don’t have any better candidates). But I do my best to answer the call for prayers (and it goes out a lot in my neck of the woods these days), even if, on my part, the prayer is my own personal remembrance of the suffering and needs of another and my personal wish for healing and peace, rather than a request for divine intervention.

  10. at one point i filled out an army recruitment form. when asked religion, i said “none.” the guy wrote down s. baptist. i said, “none.”

    he said, “look, if you die then the chaplain will fill out the paperwork. if you’re an athiest then the officers have to do it and it’s a big pain in the ass. you’re dead, what do you care?”

    more seriously, i think the uber christian right has made a concerted and somewhat successful attempt to take over the military–remember the bible verses on guns? my acquaintances in the military elite used to be conservative, but sane. now the ones i know are foam at the mouth religious nutcases. humanist chaplains would probably get fragged.

    • Maybe I’m being cynical, but I fear our military more than I do aggression by any other country (or crazed religious fundamentalist organization) on the planet.

    • For that matter, humanist enlisted might get fragged. Or gays or lesbians. Or those whiny women who don’t like getting raped. That recruiter may have had a point, but getting an officer out of a death report is no excuse.