Navy rejects request for first humanist chaplain

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2001 version (current version), of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps seal.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2001 version (current version), of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps seal.

(RNS) After the Army recently permitted “humanist” as a religious preference, many hoped a humanist chaplain might follow.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, speaks on a panel about the freethought movement during the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Austin, Texas on Sept. 28, 2013. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, speaks on a panel about the freethought movement during the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 28, 2013. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

But the Navy last week rejected the application of Jason Heap for a commission, a Navy official familiar with the case confirmed. The details of the decision were not divulged due to privacy concerns.

Heap was not immediately available for comment, but groups that have pushed for his commission — and other accommodations for nontheistic members of the military — were disappointed.

“The Humanist Society and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers have provided years of outreach and a great chaplain candidate to the military,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. “We hope nonchaplain military leaders swiftly overturn this discriminatory decision.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, also called for a reversal of the decision.

“Prejudice is not an American value,” he said.

But the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty welcomed the decision.

“Chaplains, historically and by definition, are people of faith,” said retired reserve Chaplain Ron Crews, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. “You can’t have an ‘atheist chaplain’ any more than you can have a ‘tiny giant’ or a ‘poor millionaire.’”

Many humanists are atheists but some say that the term “atheist” is not sufficient to express their belief, or lack of it. They often emphasize their confidence in the human potential.

Ray Bradley listens during a planning meeting for the Central North Carolina Atheists and Humanists. Photo by John Nichols, courtesy of U.S. Army

Ray Bradley listens during a planning meeting for the Central North Carolina Atheists and Humanists. Photo by John Nichols, courtesy of U.S. Army

Army Maj. Ray Bradley, who was allowed in April to use “humanist” as his religious preference after a two-year wait, said the term best describes his life stance, which stresses scientific explanations and maximizing human happiness.

Most applicants did not receive recommendations when the Navy recently reviewed applications for chaplain commissions.

“Due to the highly competitive nature of the board, less than 50 percent of the applicants could be recommended for a commission in the United States Navy,” said Lt. Hayley C. Sims, a spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel.

Heap, who was endorsed by the Humanist Society and holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School and Oxford University, told Religion News Service last year that he had completed all the paperwork and passed the necessary physical tests.

“This is my chance to give back to my country,” he said at the time. “I want to use my skills on behalf of our people in the service.”

There are about 2,900 active-duty chaplains in the U.S. military, and most are Christian.

Humanist chaplains serve in the militaries of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Commander Erwin Kamp has served for 15 years in the Dutch armed forces, where he is one of 38 humanist chaplains in a force of 150. He said some of the humanist chaplains are atheists and others agnostic.

“No one believes in a higher power like God,” he said. “We believe in the power of human beings and their possibilities.”


  • David

    I entered basic training in the Navy in 1975. We were issued dog tags, and given a form to fill out to have them made-Name/Rank/SSN/Blood Type/Religion. Blood type and Religion were multiple choice. Atheist and Agnostic were not among the choices. There was a “no preference” box so I checked it. They made me a Lutheran. I had been raised catholic, but was a lifelong skeptic, becoming pretty sure of my stance by the age of seventeen.

    Another guy in my recruit company complained, and his life became a living hell. About midway through we woke to see this individual standing at attention with his nose to the wall. We were told not to speak to him. When we returned from breakfast he was gone and I never saw him again. He was one of the few friends I made there.

    I suspect it was something he said.

  • paul torchia

    I attended the same board interview as Mr. Heap and a good chance to get know him as the Navy assigned me as his roommate at the hotel they housed us in before the interview. There may be religious reasons for this decision but the reality is reasons for selection or non selection as a chaplain in the Navy are complex and even the candidates are not told why they were not selected. It comes down to what the Navy needs at that point in time. I suspect that if religious reasons played a role in the decision it was a small one. The process leading up to a chaplain selection interview is very rigorous and the interview itself is a very competitive event. I don’t know how many were selected this time around but I know that I was also not selected despite having three years of chaplaincy/pastoral experience in the civilian world, a good track record in work/ministry, 6 solid references, and 2 very good assessments from my first two rounds of interviews by current navy chaplains. But the fact is everyone that gets to the board is well qualified. Like any other officer program getting selected as a chaplain is very rigorous and competitive.

  • Ken

    I appreciate that the author seems to have tried to be sensetive to this matter.

    When the article started out with Humanist in quotes and uncapitalized though, that presented a bias that infected the entire rest of the article.

  • Michael Davis

    So you dont think there was a large religious input into the decision regarding Heap? Typical christian, able to convince himself of anything. Once you buy the Big Lie, all the little ones are much easier to swallow.

    Religion has no place in the structure of the military. Give everybody a bit of time off to do whatever (and NOT the typical “Go to chapel or GI party the barracks that I saw at Benning when I was an enlisted man), but there is no justification for paying for religious indoctrination. You christians HATE it when your privilege is taken away (willing to bet you’re already ticked that I haven’t capitalized the name of your religion), so I dont see the DoD doing the right thing any time in the near future, sadly.

  • Jon

    Yet another clear case of Christian Privilege.

    As Ken points out, even the author is not immune to Christian Privilege.

    And as to whether or not “what the Navy needs at the time” was the factor (instead of religious discrimination), we know the Navy has zero Humanist chaplains now, so they obviously needed any they could get. Along with the ongoing and undeniable hijacking of the US military by Christian missionaries, this latest case is just more of the same. A friend of mine just last year signed up, and after checking “Atheist”, when he got his dog tags they read “non-denominational Christian”. He tried to get them corrected, to no avail (and a lot pain).

    In America, we don’t have military. We have a Christian Missionary program, paid for by our tax dollars, which also has the ability to provide some military support. It’s beyond being an outrage, and it makes a mockery of our constitution.

  • gilhcan

    So much for freedom of religion, including freedom from religion, supposedly guaranteed by the first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

    As Commander-in-Chief, President Obama should go over the heads of these bigoted commanders and stand up for religious freedom. He compromised on the Bush/Cheney politics of faith-based groups in violating his 2008 campaign promises and that First Amendment himself. Now is the time to set things straight.

    There is presently a Catholic Hospital in Patterson, NJ, thanks to Governor Christie’s continuing, corpulent corruption, that is going to eventually profit in the hotel business by getting federal funds through crooked state channels to further enrich one of Christie’s wealthy donors by building that hotel on hospital grounds. See how it gets worse and worse and worse once the door is opened ever so slightl.

    As if Bush/Cheney, Obama, and Christie didn’t know all about these inevitable violations of our Constitution. As if church people are honest. We learned enough about the Catholic clergy in the ongoing, unresolved pedophile scandals–with some help from the non-prosecuting of Attorney General Eric Holderl.

    Only a single bishop has been prosecuted for the obstruction of justice of pedophilia. And we stand for that! Not a single thief from Wall St. has been prosecuted for 2008. Wonder why? Eric Holder was one of the most powerful attorneys for one of the biggest Wall St. law firms before Obama nominated him as our Attorney General.

    As if our Catholic Supreme Court will do anything to really defend the Constitution of our country. Consider their many supports of violations of the First Amendment already, as in the claims against Jesus prayers at government meetings in Greece, NY, recently. That’s expected, right in line with that court’s earlier declarations that money is speech and corporations are people.

    Need we wait to see what that life-tenured, Catholic majority court is going to say about Hobby Lobby not wanting to provide medical insurance as part of the income for its employees because contraception violates the private religious beliefs of its owners?

    Don’t wait for death and any religious hell. The Republican Party, many Democrats, this life-tenured Supreme Court, and their wealthy owners have already confined this country to a hell here on earth that matches that in which we consider backward countries exist. And they persist in calling it democracy. The U.S. has never been a democracy. Read your original Constitution! Read your U.S. history! Read your world history! Pay attention to the issues and corrupt candidates for election!

  • Jonathan J. Turner

    Two questions arise in me whenever I see atheists try on robes and collars:

    1) Can either the religious or the irreligious be convinced that atheism/humanism is a religion?

    2) If atheism/humanism is religious, does it inherently break down into two classes (i.e. leaders & followers, pulpit & pew, chaplain & grunt)? Or is everyone on their own like Quakers and Muslims?

    3) EXTRA CREDIT: What special privilege or authority can an atheist expect to accrue (among other atheists or non-atheists) from obtaining an advanced divinity degree?

  • Paul Torchia

    I thought of numerous responses. But since I do not foresee the ability to have respectful dialogue with someone who felt the need to respond to my comment with such derision and blanket statements I will only say this. I respect your point of view and your right to hold and I am sorry your so upset about whatever is frustrating you but I hope you have a better day!

  • Jeremy

    Yeah, as a veteran it’s hard to get worked up about this. I see chaplains as people who are there for servicemembers who need confirmation bias in their faith to get through what can be an admittedly long series of pretty awful days.

    As an atheist, I have never needed such a thing. Why add overhead for some sense of recognition? I agree; chaplains are a corps of faith-based people. Humanists should go in as doctors.

  • Regular Joe

    Nice catch. I didn’t notice that at first.

  • Frank

    Wow the very first smart atheist posting here. I was beginning to think they didn’t exist.

  • William Green

    He’s presenting an alternative possibility to the thought that this has to be religiously motivated.

    As a former USAF Officer, and a humanist, I can tell you: yes, you’re right, there is pressure to be a person of faith. To conform. But by and large, the institutions of the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, and the Corps have a lot on their collective plates to worry about. Bringing theism to bear on one candidate probably isn’t on the mission priority list.

    I think, in the end, I’ll give Mr. Torchia the benefit of the doubt. After all, he met the candidate in question, and he also went through the selection process.

    I’m all for nontheistic, humanist dialogue, but please keep on mind that there IS room for all perspectives, here.


  • David

    1. Atheism, as I identify myself with it, is NOT religion. This does not mean that I am opposed to the concept of a humanist chaplain. We are a minority. As I stated in the first response to this article, I was witness to persecution of non-believers. A humanist chaplain would serve as a much needed advocate.

    2. N/A-see above.

    3. None. Just as the religious should not get special privileges.

  • Atheist Max


    Not all of us think shrugging off our emotional needs is such a good idea!

    Of course Atheists should have a chaplain who will help them through emotional, psychological and existential agony.

    If you were truly in the service you would understand that the worst thing an Atheist can hear in a bad moment is “You need Jesus” !
    Screw that!

  • Atheist Max



  • Atheist Max


    Go smoke a goat for your God – maybe he’ll grant you 3 wishes (Exodus 29:18)

    A chaplain’s job is to help a soldier deal with existential problems and humanitarian problems in a war zone.

    It is DISGUSTING to think Atheists must even request such help from a Government the rights of which they are putting their lives on the line to defend AND WHICH INCLUDE THE RIGHT TO REJECT FULLY ANY RELIGION!!

    Your argument is dead on arrival.

  • Atheist Max


    Thanks for sharing that story.
    Damn the religious.

  • The Great God Pan

    From what I have read, military chaplains now basically function as de facto therapists for personnel who do not want to visit one of their base’s actual psychiatrists. Whereas discussions with chaplains are private, it is my understanding that discussions with the military’s doctors may not be, and that merely having a record of having visited a base psychiatrist can hinder chances for promotion..

    If this is accurate, it means that Christian, Jewish and Muslim military personnel can and do utilize chaplains as unlicensed therapists. While this does not necessarily strike me as an ideal situation, I would say that if it is the situation for Christians, Jews and Muslims then non-believers should also have access to it.

  • Sandra

    That’s just ridiculous. Why should I be damned for what some fundie idiots did decades ago? (And before you give me a lecture on the evils of Christianity or some such, save it – I’m not Christian.)

  • Reg

    Hypothetically, if I were a humanist chaplain, I would be hard-pressed not to advise everyone in uniform to get out of the war business asap. Perhaps this is what was behind the decision – humanists are by definition not militarists in the sense most of them would reject the use use of armed forces in any capacity other than defense of the homeland.

  • Atheist Max


    Religion is the problem.
    “Fundie idiots” as you say, had nothing to do with that story.
    Religious claims are immoral. Religion pollutes society.

    Religion is the cancer to civilization.

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  • Atheist Max


    Not exactly.

    Humanism allows the infliction of necessary harm.

    Christianity is the philosophy which in theory must forgive “not 7 times but 7 times 70′ as Jesus said. One must ‘turn the other cheek’.
    Ironically, this foolish and relentless forgiveness is part of what makes Christianity so immoral – it doesn’t face up to responsibility in the face of evil.

  • Dick Springer

    Exactly right. Atheists have emotional problems too. I did.
    Going to a military shrink definitely doesn’t look good on your record.

  • Dick Springer

    Look at comments on atheist websites. While it may not be true of the majority, atheists can be as mindlessly militaristic as anyone else.

  • R Whaley

    So, Atheist Max, are you against Islam too?

  • goldminer

    There can certainly be problems. But why are you willing to deny someone their rights TO religion but expect them to accept YOUR right to NO religion?

  • As a former president of the American Humanist Association and as a celebrant certified by The Humanist Society who has officiated at numerous weddings and funerals in several states, I think the Navy’s decision to turn down a trained, qualified Humanist chaplain is wrong. Organized Humanism found its voice in the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, signed by 17 Unitarian ministers and an equal number of philosophers and scholars, including John Dewey. A past AHA executive director, Unitarian minister Rev. Edwin Wilson, produced a pamphlet decades ago titled Humanism as The Fourth Faith, along with Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (in the American context). The term “faith” is broad and comprehensive enough in the political/legal sense to allow Humanist chaplains to serve in the military. The Navy should reverse its decision. — Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty (

  • Atheist Max

    @R Whaley,

    All religions are shades of the same untruth.
    They were created by primitive, fearful, tribalist primates
    and con artists….. and it shows:

“The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam.” (Surah 3:19) 
“Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (Surah 2:216)
“Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)


    “Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.” (Jeremiah 48:10
    “Seize all the non-believers and execute them before the LORD in broad daylight…” (Numbers 25:1-9) 

    “To those who would not have me as their king, bring them to me and EXECUTE THEM in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    “The Master shall cut him to pieces.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)
    “They are swine” – Jesus (Matthew 7:6)
    “If you have money buy a sword” – Jesus (Luke 22:36-37)

    In EACH CASE the message is clear: be fearful and obey.

  • Atheist Max

    @Dick Springer,

    Atheists can get angry about religion – I do it all the time.
    But that doesn’t mean we lack restraints.

    Atheism means “non-belief in a God” – that is all it means.

    Humanism is a positive philosophy.
    Most Atheists tend to be Humanists and this bears out in the statistics of Atheism.

    Atheists are generally very decent.
    There are virtually no Atheists in jail (Pew Research – look it up for yourself)

  • Atheist Max

    @Edd Doerr,

    Great comment. Thanks.
    But if Humanism is considered a ‘faith’ then NONE faith needs to be added also and we should have both Humanist and Atheist chaplains – or none at all.

  • Jeremy

    How do you damn someone if you don’t believe in the being that does the damning? And to where are they damned too?

  • Jeremy

    I think this entire topic is hilarious. I’ve been in the US Army for 16 years. I have spoken with chaplains for support on a number of cases. Never has a chaplain required that I pray or even discuss religion. The providing of support is more of a chaplains job than religion. But the real point is that 1 Humanist applied for a commission in the US Navy, less than 50% of all applicants were accessed into the military and people are crying discrimination. If the population of proclaimed Humanists in the US Navy is great enough to create a berth, then I guarantee that the US Navy will access a Humanist into their chaplaincy. About 15 years ago, specifically at Ft. Hood, TX. The US Army recognized Wicca as an established religion. Does anyone know how many Wiccan Chaplains are in the US Military………..[expletive deleted] none! Quit crying, have the respect of others that you have been shown and move out. The military has recognized your absence of religion as a religion. Appreciate what the [expletive deleted] you have been given and stop standing around with your hand out!

  • Jeremy

    Humanists should go in through OCS and pick a branch. They certainly aren’t MDs…..and there is no branch specifically for PhDs……..

  • Bob

    Max, I don’t know if you just searched for harsh words or what… but you clearly didn’t read the Bible front to back.

    Two of your excerpts are from a parable of Jesus that were not to be taken literally.

    The except of swine is from a section that is talking about not judging others. “Matthew 7:1-6 – We must judge ourselves, and judge of our own acts, but not make our word a law to everybody.” Swine is likely referring to those who don’t dwell in divine fulfillment, but earthly fulfillment (as pigs… which is a harsh metaphor in my opinion… but I mean, it’s accurate -in that sense-).

    I think, if you ever buy a Bible (or anybody offers to buy you one), you should get the Charles F. Stanley “Life Principles” Bible. It takes everything and shows us how to apply it to our lives.

    If you’re looking for specific chapters on Christian living though, I’d suggest Phillipians. It’s not a “corrective” letter as the other ones are.

    I also apologize for any Christians who respond in a quarrel-esque manner… They’re not living like they’re supposed to. If you have to raise your eye at something a “Christian” says or does (especially if it’s incredibly insensitive), chances are… they’re not doing what they’re supposed to.

    Unfortunately, believing Christ died for you doesn’t make you a good person. It only saves your soul in regard to afterlife. :/

  • Bob

    *according to what we believe, that is.

    I apologize if that came across as me presenting it as “dogmatic fact”, which it is not. I won’t know if I’m right or wrong until I die… so I certainly can’t force anybody to hold my beliefs. I’m just very sorry that the Christians you’ve met have presented their lives as poisonous examples… We’re really not all like that, and we’re not supposed to be :/

  • Atheist Max


    I use ‘religious’ words and claim them as my own because they are man made and because they express the proper sentiment.
    Not because the mean literally what they mean to the faithful.

    i.e.; I like the word ‘soulful’ but I do not believe in a ‘soul’.
    These are terms of art.

    And who is to say ‘damn’ cannot be used artfully? The entirety of religious language is man made – as is the entirety of the religious enterprise.

  • Atheist Max


    By all means bring on your debate regarding the ‘proper’ meanings of Jesus’ words – but I have read the Bible cover to cover.
    My reading of the Bible is precisely why I disposed of the ‘holy spirit’ and threw away this nonsense.

    The Bible does not come with a user’s manual. It claims to BE the user’s manual.

    Religious interpretation is a free-for-all. Anything goes.
    And that should scare you to death.

  • Atheist Max


    I think you are exhibit A of why we need Humanist chaplains.
    The Christian chaplains have taught you nothing.

  • Larry

    You just gave me a flashback to one of my favorite comedies, The Jerk.

    Stan Fox: Damn these glasses son.
    Navin R. Johnson: Yes, sir.
    [to the glasses]
    Navin R. Johnson: I damn thee.

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  • Scott C

    I’m a Christian chaplain in the reserve components. I want state what branch of service for privacy. It’s against military regulations for chaplains to proselytize. Proselytizing equals being stripped of your commission. So my job is not to proselytize, but rather, to protect preexisting religious needs in the military. Also, the military tries to recruit chaplains from specific faiths to meet preexisting religious needs. That’s why there are a lot of Baptist chaplains and very few LDS chaplains. It wouldn’t make sense for the military to recruit a lot of LDS chaplains because LDS is a low density religion in the military. You can’t simply make an abstract argument about the need for a humanist chaplain. The military needs concrete specifics. Every chaplain and DOD approved religious faith group who endorses chaplains must provide annual concrete specifics to justify there continued existence in the military. If humanists can show a quantifiable preexisting need amongst military personnel and can state specifically how they will meet these needs, the military will listen.

  • Antoinette

    Amen! End of discussion. As a Chaplain your religion or non-religion is not my focus. You as a person in need of support is.

  • Antoinette

    To add, As a Chaplain who is a Christian, your religion or non-religion is not my focus. You as a person in need of support is. Stop the whining and look deep.

  • Bill

    I joined the navy in 1961 at the age of 20. Although I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, I tried to obtain dogtags reading “atheist” as that was what my thoughts indicated. The upshot was that I was a pariah in boot camp and found that many avenues were suddenly closed. I am now approaching my 74th birthday and I still think of myself as an atheist. From my experience in the navy, I learned to keep my beliefs to myself. Being recently retired, I no longer have to keep my silence and it is a liberating experience. I just wonder how many other military people had to find out about the unreasoning prejudice some of the military brass are infected with. All worked out well, however as I’ve had a successful career as a tradesman. I don’t regret speaking my mind and really feel sorry for the military twits that thought that they had taught the “upstart” a lesson.

  • Bob

    I have served as a Navy Chaplain, so let me give the following input. I would welcome a Humanist and even an Atheist Chaplain. The problem with this story is that it doesn’t understand the process. It is not that the Navy rejected this guy on theological grounds. In order to serve as a chaplain, you would need a Master’s Degree in Theology. You also need a qualifed Enorsing Agency (which Denominations use to make sure you have the right qualifications). If the Humanists can get together an endorsing agent that will meet the requisite requirements, then more power to them. The same thing is true for the Wiccans and Pagans. The Navy is not discriminating against them as much as they suffer from the lack of a central agency that can help potential Chaplains.

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