I suspect it’s only a matter of time before there are atheist chaplains in the U.S. military, and a good thing too. The justification for chaplains in the first place is that serving in the military restricts your First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The government therefore has an obligation to make such free exercise possible, whatever your religion happens to be.
It could be argued, as suggested in James Dao’s piece in today’s New York Times, that atheism is not a religion but an absence of religion, and therefore not entitled to consideration. That seems mistaken. If a law were passed barring atheists from proselytizing, it would surely be declared unconstitutional on Free Exercise grounds. More to the point, atheists have spiritual and communal needs like everyone else.
Today, there are more self-professed atheists in the military than Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus. To the extent that they wish to constitute themselves as a community of believers–believers in no god–they deserve recognition. And so long as there is an accrediting organization for their chaplains, they should be hired. Naturally, an atheist chaplain would have to serve the needs of theistic personnel. Just as theist chaplains must serve the needs of atheist personnel.
Ironically, shrewd critics of church-state separationism might embrace an atheist chaplaincy. Why? Because they have long argued that Secular Humanism is itself a religion, whose principles (yo, Darwinism) the government must eschew as an establishment of religion. While this position has been firmly rejected by the courts, permitting, say, Fort Bragg’s atheist group, Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, to have its own chaplain could re-open the question. Separationists beware!