Humanists Press for Non-Theistic Chaplains in the Military

American Humanist Association

The American Humanist Association said that the American military is failing to represent non-theistic believers in the ranks despite excelling in reflecting American diversity otherwise. Humanism revolves around the value of human beings and critical thinking instead of focusing on divine beings and faith.

“The lack of belief in a god should not be a disqualifier to access to chaplaincy and support.... Until the Armed Forces Chaplains Board sees otherwise, they’re saying as loudly as they can that they are absolutely opposed to anyone who does not believe in a god,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers.

Presently, the military has no lay leaders or chaplains that are humanist, despite having received candidates for both. According to the mission of the chaplains’ board, it is the only body to handle professional standards, requirements, recruitments, training as well as assignments of military chaplains. Earlier this year, the Navy too, rejected an application for the first humanist chaplain in its ranks.

Reverend Stephen Boyd, minister for chaplains and a retired colonel, said he has served the military for 30 years and in that time, he has witnessed the end of the draft, the repeal of the don’t ask-don’t tell policy on gays as well as the introduction of women into combat. Yet, there are no humanist chaplains in the ranks to date.

“We’ve seen that the military is beginning to start to more accurately reflect our society. However, the military chaplaincy is not reflecting the diversity we’re seeing in military ranks,” he said.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, spokesperson for the Pentagon, clarified that the Defense Department does not prefer any one religion or endorse any one religious organization.

“The mission of the Chaplain Corps is to provide care and the opportunity for service members, their families and other authorized personnel to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion or to have no religious beliefs at all,” he reiterated.

According to the department’s records however, in 2012, approximately 97 percent of all military chaplains were Christians. Even though Christians from different denominations constitute nearly 69 percent of the military population, 23 percent say that they have no religious preference. Other
religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Agnosticism and Atheism, constitute less than 1 percent each of the general population.

Certified Humanist celebrant Major Ryan Jean said that he was proud to have served his country but it hurts him to know that the nation has not yet come to terms with accepting who he really is. According to him, the military needs to offer accommodation to humanists, allow them formal meeting spaces and provide them access to confidential counseling.

“I am living proof there’s an active population of humanists in the military service.... It’s a much larger concept than freedom of religion. It’s freedom of conscience. It’s about absolutely unfettered freedom to control your mind,” said Jean, who said that a chaplain had berated him for being an atheist while he was deployed in Kuwait.

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