Current Weather
The Spy FM

Should Military Chaplains Have To Believe In God?

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 31, 2013

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 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

12AM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center