Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

Humanists want a military chaplain to call their own

(RNS) If Jason Heap has his way, he’ll trade his Oxford tweeds for the crisp whites of a newly minted U.S. Navy chaplain.

Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first Humanist chaplain in the military.

“This is my chance to give back to my country,” said Heap, 38. “I want to use my skills on behalf of our people in the service. Hopefully, the Navy will see where I can be useful.”

But Heap’s goal is not assured. He fits the requirements— with master’s degrees from both Brite Divinity School and Oxford University. His paperwork is complete. He passed the physical tests and has been interviewed by a Navy chaplain. The only thing he does not have is an endorsement from a religious organization approved by the Navy.

And there’s the rub: Heap is a Humanist. He carries the endorsement of the Humanist Society, an organization of those who believe in the positive power of human potential, but not necessarily in God. The Humanist Society -- like all organizations that represent nonbelievers -- is not among the Department of Defense’s list of approximately 200 groups allowed to endorse chaplains.

“The military includes atheists, humanists and people with nontheistic perspectives and the military currently has no way to service them,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, a group supporting Heap.

Asked why there are no nonbelievers in the chaplaincy, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, responded by email: “The department does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.”

According to current government figures, the U.S. military has 1.4 million active duty servicemen and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. About 2,800 active duty chaplains serve them; the vast majority of them Christian.

There are an estimated 13,000 active duty servicemen and women that identify as atheists or agnostics -- more than the number of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus combined -- all of which have their own chaplains. Add to that a significant number -- more than 276,000 -- who say they have “no religious preference.”

The ranks of the nonreligious are likely to grow. Last year’s study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found one-third of Americans under 30 -- those most likely to enter the military -- have no religious affiliation.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Photo courtesy Jason Torpy

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

Heap and his supporters say the push for a military Humanist chaplain goes beyond the desire for recognition. They note that when soldiers seek mental health counseling it is noted in their record and reported up the chain of command. But consultations with chaplains are confidential, making them a safe place to discuss the problems soldiers routinely face -- loneliness, fear, anxiety and other personal issues.

Heap is not the only candidate for the first Humanist chaplain in the military. There are three more, two of whom are already serving as military chaplains with endorsements from Christian groups. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their endorsements, and therefore their jobs. That fear is real. An Army chaplain who sought to change his endorsement from Pentecostal to Wiccan -- another unapproved group -- in 2007 lost his position.

“Chaplain Mitch,” a military chaplain since the mid-2000s, would not give his full name. He is endorsed by a Christian organization, but he’s come to identify as a Humanist and would change endorsements, if permitted -- something he feels would have very little effect on how he fulfills his duties.

“My whole being as a chaplain is to serve the needs of the soldiers and to ensure that, religious or not, what they need is provided for,” he said. “But allowing Humanist chaplains would validate the life system and the ethics of thousands of soldiers who already identify as nonreligious and feel themselves patriotic individuals.”

Still, there is resistance to the idea of nonreligious military chaplains. In June, two U.S. congressmen proposed an amendment to a bill calling for the appointment of military chaplains from nontheistic organizations, including Humanist ones. An uproar ensued and the amendment was defeated.

Humanist chaplaincies outside the military are gaining acceptance. Several U.S. universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have full-time Humanist chaplains, and more hospitals are including them in their ranks. There are Humanist military chaplains in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Kurt Fredrickson, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary who oversees a military chaplain training program, wonders what Humanist chaplains can offer that existing chaplains cannot. But Fredrickson recognizes that the spiritual makeup of the country -- and its military -- is changing.

“In the end, chaplains are very important, and if Humanist chaplains meet a need for our military, this concept must be embraced," he said.

Meanwhile, Heap is awaiting word from chaplaincy and recruiting leadership reviewing his application. Spokesman Christensen at the Department of Defense said he could not comment on anyone’s application.

Torpy, of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, has long been an advocate for reform in the chaplaincy. In 2011 he met with each of the chiefs of chaplains offices, he said, and has also had ongoing conversations with other chaplains at different levels.

“There is a need and there is capability,” said Torpy. “And right now the chaplaincy is not doing their duty to these service members.”


  1. Since we Nones are now about 20 percent of the US population, according to some estimates, it’s appropriate that the military services have humanist chaplains. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a recognized sponsor of military chaplains, but not all UU ministers are humanists, so other groups such as the Humanist Society and the American Humanist Association should also be recognized by the DoD.

  2. Times are changing, and everyone needs to accept that. Non-Christians are rising in number, and we can either accept it or ignore reality to make ourselves feel better.

  3. I hope we have all noticed how the Lt Commander’s reply completely ignored and did not answer the question posed to him by the reporter.

  4. Most of my military career was in public affairs, so I can imagine what is happening. The LCDR, who probably works in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, is simply reading a canned answer produced with the hope the matter will go away in a few days. It won’t. Just like the issue of accepting gays in the military, this mater will hit them again and again until the DoD wakes up and allows humanist chaplains. I suspect they’re still worried about Tony Perkins and the rest of the Christian Taliban.

  5. The “State” is already secular by definition. The military chaplaincy is a legal way for the constitutional free exercise of religion for military members and their families. Military chaplaincies have become more diverse as the religious beliefs of society has become more diverse but have always been religious at their core. Hospital, institutional and military chaplaincies of other nations do not necessarily have the free exercise of religion at the core of their existence. This has less to do with the changing makeup of society than the religious definition of military chaplains.

  6. If humanists and atheists want the government to recognize humanism and atheism as religious belief systems for the purposes of appointing chaplains, which I as a believer and a veteran do NOT necessarily oppose, then humanists and atheists are going to have to stop denying that humanism and atheism are religious belief systems. You can’t have it both ways, guys. Not hating, just calling for honesty. An ethos is an ethos.

  7. But an ethos isn’t necessarily a religion. We’re not asking to be recognized as a religion, we’re just asking for equal treatment, and right now religious military personnel have counseling opportunities that non-religious personnel don’t have unless they also want to be proselytized to (they don’t).

  8. Thanks for your service Ben. I served too. I disagree with your point that aetheism is a belief system. Its more a non-belief system. (which, I see the argument coming, is in itself a belief system. ) In my personal experience though, I have talked to the chaplain on occasion and I am atheist. from a personal standpoint, if I am having a bad day. Their ability to counsel is generally the best. Another thought, a lot of times a chaplain of ones religious preference is not available. It’s generally understood that they are counselors- that happen to hold religious services now and again.

    to sum up. Would I like to see Atheist/Humanist chaplains? of course! Am I horribly worried that it will or will not happen? not really. Again, thanks for your service brother.

  9. Can’t they get the ACLU to file a complaint / suit to initiate the process. There not going to do anything without legal justice. Look how they have handled so far. Over 200 organizations for spiritual/religious sponsorship and a refusal to allow a humanist chaplain. It’s just discriminatory.

  10. What is a Humanist Chaplain going to do when he/she is asked to lead a Change of Command Prayer? When a dying soldier ask for prayer? Sorry I can’t pray for you because I don’t believe God exist. Chaplains function as religious leaders.

  11. As a non-believer, my first reaction to this was, “Isn’t it a bit silly to expect military non-believers and Humanist’s to expect or need a “chaplain”?” However after reading the article and the comments above, I realize how naive a position that is to take. In fact this issue goes to the very crux of Humanism. Humans need each other, and it is really only other humans that can aid a person in need.

    If you are waiting for god to come to your rescue, on the battlefield or anywhere else in life, you will have a very long wait and fruitless wait. On the other hand, if you are stressed because of the pressure that a life in the military entails, then a person who believes as you do, and also happens to be a trained professional in relating to the human “spirit” (for lack of a better term), this seems like a very valuable asset to have.

    So I’d say a Humanist ‘Chaplin’ make a tremendous amount of sense to me, all things considered!

  12. Having served I can say two things on this matter. One, with all my heart I can see the need for a “Humanist Chaplain”. Two, Chaplains of all faiths while in the service are prepared and held responsible to provide service for all faiths. That is to say that a Roman Catholic Chaplain is expected to be able to provide service to the living and the dying that is within what the living and the dying person’s expectations even if the service will be lets say be Latter Day Saint. Chaplains can also provide nondenominational services, and do.

  13. Unitarian-Universalists can become chaplains in the military & theism is not a requirement for UUs. Many UUs identify as humanists.

  14. Yeah, politically correct and all… but those who advocate atheist chaplains have missed one of the fundamental rules of war: there are no atheists in foxholes.

  15. I served 14 years in the military and never felt the need for a Chaplain…even when I was wounded in the Korean War. I did have a Christian Chaplain once ask me, “What are you, a Communist ?” This was a common mistake for many persons to make in those days…if you were not a Christian, then you must be a communist. It was just as wrong as the Religious belief that anyone who does not believe in “God” is going to hell !
    For the most part Military Chaplains provide a necessary service for believers of religions. It would be nice, though, if non-believer Chaplains were available for those unbelievers who do need to talk about their personal problems. I always felt that I could talk to a Christian (or other) Chaplain if I cared to do so. As a group, Military Chaplains do have a very good reputation with all Service Peoples. I am proud of their past service in the Military. There is still too much coercion from Religious Folks though….both in and out of service. Atheist and Humanist Chaplains….I vote for this !! We do not need to be “believers” in order to be loyal to our great nation…The USA !!

  16. The Lt Commander was answering the question as if you were informed on the subject. The basic sticking point is a question that was asked numerous times and not answered in this or any publication that I have read. “What purpose or distinctive would an Athiest or Humanist Chaplain serve that is not already served by the Chaplaincy?” And right now the only answer you have is validation of your own lifestyles. That is a very weak argument for my tax dollars.

  17. Milt I am sorry LDS is not able to do a Non-Denominational service. He is not a Non-Denominational and is not endorsed by that body of faith. All he can do is preach making use of as little of his denominational distinctives. This may pass for it but it is not a Non-Denominational service. He may even claim it as such but he has not been endorsed to do so. The denomination sends you into the army to represent them. If you are not sent by them you are just an imposter.

  18. The exact same challenge could have been levelled at adding Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains.What purpose do you need to give ANY unrecognized group a chaplaincy besides ‘there are troops that would be better served by such a chaplain’?

  19. Christianity doesn’t make theism a religious belief system. Relgious humanism doesn’t make secular humanism a religious belief system. But religious humanism certainly fits the bill closely enough for government work.

    An ethos is an ethos, but neither atheism nor theism are ethos. Words mean things, or at least they should.

  20. You were probably there when they added Buddhist and Muslim chaplains, wondering however would they perform their duties if asked to do this or that. How will a Hindu chaplain reassure a dying soldier that heaven is waiting for them if she thinks the soldier is going to be reincarnated?

    Because military policy absolutely does not cover what a chaplain’s duties to a troop of a different faith than theirs are…on Bizarro world.

  21. Yes, there are at least 10 UU chaplains in the military and I would be very surprised if they are all theists. I wouldn’t be surprised if not all of the few Buddhist chaplains are theists either.

    And a chaplain who loses belief in God while in the military should have another option than to stay silent about it or resign from the chaplaincy.

  22. It’s a humanist chaplain that’s being advocated for, not a merely atheist chaplain, any more than anyone is advocating for merely theist chaplains.

    The bit about foxholes is just a lie Christians tell ad nauseum to comfort themselves.

  23. An IRS designated “church” must endorse a chaplain’s application. Is the Humanist Society “church” the real endorser of Jason Heap, or is it the American Humanist Association (AHA), tax exempt but NOT a church? AHA is described as the parent organization of the Humanist Society. Since a parent organization typically controls its subsidiary (Humanist Society), will the chaplains board deem the endorsement as coming from the non-qualified AHA or the Humanist Society? Will it matter that the Humanist Society is an affiliate of AHA, and that its assets and those of AHA are shown in combined audited financial statements? Since the audited statements say that the Humanist Society pays a monthly fee to AHA for performing management functions for the Humanist Society, does the Humanist Society have any of its own employees? If not, can it in any substantive way endorse Mr. Heap? I suspect the Armed Forces Chaplains Board will want answers to these questions.

  24. I proudly served as a chaplain assistant in the Air Force for 25 years, and I feel some clarification is needed on this issue. Chaplains exist to provide military members with the means to follow their respective faiths, not promote any one religion or proselytize. Their primary mission though is to counsel those troops who need it, in a non-sectarian non-threatening manner. In fact, chaplains are the only military members who cannot be required to reveal what has been said in a counseling session, even by a court of law (full and inviolable confidentiality). To do so would violate their role as a chaplain, and would likely lead to the loss of their endorsement, which would mean they would no longer be a chaplain.
    Atheist chaplains is a contradiction in terms because chaplains provide counseling from a religious perspective. There are other counselor roles in the military that do not entail being a chaplain, but they do not have the full confidentiality that chaplains do. This full confidentiality is crucial to some situations where the military member needs help but would not be likely to talk to another type of counselor who could possibly be required to reveal what was said in the counseling session. From this perspective, a new position could be created for non-religious counselors such as atheists who would still have full confidentiality, but not be given the title “chaplain”. I agree that in principle the need exists for this type of counselor, but that is not the approach Mr. Heap is using. My guess is he just wanted to make a stink over the issue to draw media attention onto himself. If that was his goal, then congratulations Jason, you achieved that.

    David Lilly, MSgt, USAF (Ret.)

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