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Atheist group urges Congress to allow humanist military chaplains

Jul. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Happy Human symbol
Happy Human symbol (Wikimedia Commons)
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More than one in five service members do not identify with a particular religion, according to Defense Department statistics. To better serve them, an organization is working to expand the Chaplain Corps to include clergy who don’t believe in a god.

The American Humanist Association held a briefing Tuesday on Capitol Hill attended by congressional staffers and others as part of an effort to convince lawmakers that the armed services should officially recognize humanism within the chaplaincy.

Their message: Secular chaplains can be just as qualified for and capable of ministering to troops who believe in a god as theistic chaplains who work with service members of different religious backgrounds on a regular basis.

“Humanist chaplains would be expected to have Bibles, to have prayer books, to have the ability to guide others in prayer, according to the beliefs of their tradition,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

Further, the panelists said, the current Chaplain Corps either lacks awareness or willingness to minister properly to humanist troops.

Humanism is “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity,” the AHA states.

The meeting came several months after the Navy rejected an AHA-sponsored chaplain applicant, and the House rejected an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would have required DoD to recognize humanism within the military Chaplain Corps.

At the time, members of Congress argued that a humanist chaplain might tell a dying soldier there was no afterlife, or would not be able to help casualty assistance officers in counseling families of service members killed in action.

On the contrary, Torpy said, both of those examples would be egregious failures on the part of a chaplain. Humanist chaplains would be expected to minister to individuals based on the individuals’ beliefs.

Rev. Stephen Boyd, a former Army National Guard and Reserve chaplain who now serves in chaplain support with the United Church of Christ, said the military’s Chaplain Corps as it operates now is inadequate.

“I believe that we have failed to train and to make resources available to the current corps for the ministry to the growing population as well as those who are marking ‘no religious preference,’ ” Boyd said.

Ultimately, endorsing organizations are chosen by the Defense Department, but in order to get an organization confirmed, a viable candidate must be accepted into one of the services.

Earlier this year, the Navy rejected an application from Jason Heap, the AHA-sponsored candidate. Navy officials said they could not disclose the details of Heap’s application for legal reasons.

But one Navy official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Military Times in June that there are questions about whether humanism qualifies as a “religion” as defined by the Chaplain Corps.

“Humanism is not a defined term across the country,” the source said. “There’s a group of Jewish humanists. The Humanist Society was once the Humanist Society of Friends. I don’t know that [Heap] represents a religious organization by any accepted definition.”

In addition, the official said that while the selection process is extremely discerning and competitive, a person’s religious designation would not affect their selection. Education, experience and enthusiasm for serving in the Navy carry much more weight, he said.

Torpy said Heap has hired a lawyer and is filing an equal opportunity complaint with the Navy to determine whether his religious beliefs doomed his potential Navy career.

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