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Is the U.S. military anti-atheist? An interview with Jason Torpy

"There is a very powerful minority—about 19 percent—of military personnel representing evangelistic and anti-atheist constituencies in the military." Former U.S. Army Captain and President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers Jason Torpy speaks with RNS.

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.

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.

When it comes to discussions of nontheists in the military, the last few years can perhaps be summed up six words:

Two steps forward, one step back.

From a recent decision regarding a mandatory “so help me God” Air Force oath to the Army approving “Humanist” as a religious preference for the first time, there have been successes. And just last week, the Navy approved the first atheist lay leader. But there have also been setbacks, like several unsuccessful attempts to allow for Humanist chaplains.

Tomorrow (Nov. 6) Jason Torpy, former U.S. Army Captain and President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, will join Dr. Jason Heap, National Coordinator for the United Coalition of Reason and first Humanist chaplain applicant for the U.S. Navy, for a public discussion on these issues hosted by the Yale Humanist Community.

In advance of the event, I spoke with both Torpy and Heap about the challenges facing nontheists in the U.S. military and how things are changing. Read on for my conversation with Torpy, and check back tomorrow (update: click here) for my discussion with Heap.

Chris Stedman: What are your thoughts on how the discussions around atheists in the military are progressing?

Jason Torpy: It’s a fight. [tweetable]There is a very powerful minority—about 19 percent—of military personnel representing evangelistic and anti-atheist constituencies in the military.[/tweetable] They are supported by a whole constellation of highly-funded organizations working from Congress down to personal ministry to establish a Christian Nation, in the military and out of the military.

Fortunately, we have a secular Constitution, a constellation of ill-funded but sincere organizations working at all levels, and a lot of troops in real need of help. And the back-and-forth you are seeing is that struggle between atheists and Humanists in need, and the desire for Christian privilege and demonization of atheists.[tweetable]Things are getting better, but we’re starting from a military firmly controlled by Christian evangelists.[/tweetable]

CS: Why does the military need Humanist chaplains?

JT: The military values religious services for Christians. No one would deny that. That provides a strong foundation of personal values by which each individual service member can understand their military mission, live according to professional military values, and be resilient to the stresses of military life, separation, and combat. [tweetable]Humanists and other nontheists have different answers to the ultimate questions in life, different values and ways to ascribe meaning, and different communities to connect with.[/tweetable] So we need that same help, and having Humanist chaplains is a fundamental service.

CS: Some people suggest that atheists can just use psychiatrists instead of chaplains. How would you respond?

JT: [tweetable]Psychiatrists and social workers are available to everyone, and chaplains should be available to everyone, too.[/tweetable] Psychiatrists and chaplains have different education, skill sets, services, and job descriptions, so there’s just no reason to suggest one could replace the other.

CS: How could Humanist chaplains help non-Humanists?

JT: Jewish chaplains help Christians. Christians help Muslims. Muslims help Wiccans. [tweetable]Chaplaincy differs from traditional ministry in that the clergy member is trained and expected to serve those of different faiths.[/tweetable] This doesn’t mean forcing the chaplain’s belief on the other person—but rather to understand the person in need and provide the best support on their terms. [tweetable]Humanists can help Muslims and Wiccans just as well as any Catholic or Lutheran can.[/tweetable] To suggest otherwise simply speaks of ignorance or prejudice against nontheists.

CS: How do the challenges facing nontheist servicemembers relate to those of religious minorities?

JT: I think there are analogies, but consider this: Currently in the military, in my opinion, evangelical Christianity is considered the “right” answer. Services are always in abundance, well-funded, well-organized, and strongly promoted. Christianity in general is looked favorably upon and supported very well. Other monotheistic faiths enjoy similar support. Well behind are Wiccans, Hindus, and Buddhists. They have equal rights but are often provided for in a token manner. Nontheists, however, are outright rejected by the chaplaincy. And that is a big difference from being given minimal support. [tweetable]So it should be clear that there is a great gulf between the minimal support of minority beliefs and the rejections given to nontheists.[/tweetable]

CS: Is there anti-atheist bias in the U.S. military?

JT: The military is a reinforcing culture, which means that any cultural trait is strongly reinforced at the individual level. So if many people are a little bit Christian, then a lot of people will eventually become very Christian. That’s not necessarily bad, but: [tweetable]If the military wants to appreciate diversity and protect free exercise of religion, there must be deliberate effort to counteract some of the natural reinforcing mechanisms in cases where it is unhelpful, as in cases that create anti-atheist bias.[/tweetable]

CS: How might Humanist chaplains relate to the “nones” or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), whose beliefs often differ from those who identify as Humanists or atheists?

JT: [tweetable]All chaplains serve all troops—or, at least, they should.[/tweetable] And each individual should be treated as an individual, not given cookie-cutter support where it’s not appropriate. When a service member comes to a chaplain, the chaplain should ask about their beliefs. If they say “I don’t know” the chaplain might suggest a Lutheran service or Catholic service. That’s not proselytism—it’s that they really don’t know. But if someone says “I’m not religious” or “I’m atheist,” then the chaplain should point them at MAAF or the Humanist Society or the local Humanist community. If the person doesn’t like it, then the chaplain can work with them to find something better if something is available. Chaplains have a responsibility to ask a bit more and find the best way to help the person. Anyone with chaplain training can navigate from “SBNR” to a meaningful set of resources that can help the person.

CS: How can people help advocate for Humanist chaplains?

JT: Service members should have Humanist on their official records, or ask for it. If they’re atheist and not really Humanist, then they should ask for that. Then go to the chaplain and ask for support. If they are refused, contact Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) to build a community and challenge the discrimination. Civilians should support MAAF, contact their members of congress, and write their local papers to keep this issue in the public eye. [tweetable]It’s not just about having one Humanist chaplain, but about having recognition for Humanists and having chaplain support for Humanists.[/tweetable] Having a Humanist chaplain is just one piece of equality.