Humanist Chaplains: A Litmus Test for Equal Protection

Jason Torpy

Editors’ Note: Jason Torpy, president of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, was invited to reply to Tom Flynn’s editorial in this issue.

Humanist chaplains can afford the humanist movement a high-visibility stamp of approval from the government. When President Barack Obama mentioned “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address, nonbelievers spent months patting themselves on the back for the great political windfall. That one word in one speech had no real effect other than creating goodwill. The military, meanwhile, is often put forth as a bastion of right-wing Christianity, and the chaplaincy is 98 percent Christian. How much more meaningful would it be to have real policy change, showing that chaplaincy is not a special privilege reserved for Christians but is in fact a secular institution that happens to have special religious functions? We can achieve equal rights in the military while maintaining distance from religious concepts of groundless faith and antiscientific supernaturalism. Some may wish to hold absolutely to nonreligious principles, but a good plan now is better than a great plan never.

Protestant and Catholic chaplaincies were instituted by George Washington, then the head of the Revolutionary Army. Chaplains were there specifically to provide Christian worship services. Back then, there was no Constitution and no Bill of Rights. Abraham Lincoln opened the military to Jewish chaplains. The first Muslim chaplain was named in 1993. The first Buddhist chaplain was commissioned by the Navy in 2004. The first Hindu chaplain was accepted just this year. Religious diversity came very late, with the chaplaincy expanding beyond its Judeo-Christian bias only in the last twenty years of its more than two-hundred-year history. Wiccans have been seeking chaplain recognition for more than ten years without success.

What do all these “newcomers” have in common? Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains represent a smaller demographic than self-identified atheists and a far smaller demographic than the nonreligious. Yet only those religious groups enjoy explicit, official recognition and acceptance from the military. It’s time that secular humanists receive recognition as well.

The acceptance into the military of a humanist chaplain would be a clear and unequivocal statement that atheists, humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other nontheists are afforded equal protection, equal rights, and equal access to military services. It will eclipse smaller concessions such as chaplain support for nontheists, military academy policy changes, and protections for those of “no faith.” Political evangelicals will be placed firmly on notice that the military is not their ground for proselytism. It will be clear that humanists serving in the military have equal rights. But we must push for this reform.

Without reform, there will continue to be ever-present promotions of religious ideology and activities. Senior chaplain officers who promote Christianity at such major facilities as Fort Bragg and Fort Sill; Christian-themed concerts at Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Bragg, and Fort Eustis; unit-branded Bibles; and institutional promotion of “spiritual” fitness throughout the military are just a few recent examples. The most obvious and powerful representatives of religion are the chaplains. Subject to the requirements of their religious denominations, they wear the symbols of their religion, pray at public events, and advise the commanders on religious issues for the entire command. These promotions of religion are called “free exercise” even when the funds, facilities, and leaders come from government, not individuals. Even if these activities were limited only to providing for the free exercise of religion, every chaplain, chapel facility, and ceremonial prayer creates an even greater need for the military to show evenhanded support of theistic and nontheistic servicemembers. Humanist chaplaincy affords the opportunity to provide that balanced treatment.

Humanist chaplaincy is a groundbreaking shift in military policy and humanist visibility. Those who oppose its implementation are primarily concerned that humanist association with chaplaincy is essentially the same as calling humanism a supernatural, faith-based religion. As Tom Flynn points out in his editorial, we must ensure we are not branded as “believers seeking special privilege for our own creed.” The practical and legal definitions of “religion” in the context of military chaplaincy are different from the civilian or cultural contexts. It is also important to understand the nature of the modern chaplaincy. The general perception is that chaplains are clergy who conduct Sunday services and pray with service members. I will explain below that chaplains are not solely or even primarily religious in their daily duties. Neither are chaplains solely or even primarily psychiatrists in their secular duties.

Finally, chaplains provide primary support for identity, values, and community that may be theistic or nontheistic. The military has an opportunity to recognize the significant secular burden it has already placed on the chaplaincy and to recognize its responsibilities to soldiers who choose humanism not as an alternative religion but an equivalent alternative to religion.

Most important, humanist chaplains would be a major step toward affording nontheists in the military critical connections with their humanist identity, values, and community. The stresses of combat and noncombat military service are tough for everyone. The chaplaincy provides a personal connection that can sustain individuals and units. That support is just as necessary and just as valid from a nontheistic perspective. Humanist chaplains are a great way not only to provide direct support from humanists but to ensure that all chaplains, leaders, and the American public give greater respect to the nontheist community.

Humanism Will Not Identify as a Supernatural or Faith-based Religion

Chaplains are associated closely with religion, but that is the norm, not the requirement. The only specifically religious requirements the military puts forward are (1) a master’s of divinity or equivalent degree and (2) an endorsement from a “church.” The master’s of divinity or equivalent degree is a requirement of education, not of ideology. The qualification as a church is only in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS makes this determination based on several factors, but specifies that “the IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held.” This type of church exemption is already held by the Humanist Society, the American Ethical Union, and the Society for Humanist Judaism. No new precedent will be set in that respect. The military itself defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor or faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.” At its base, that characterization is not inconsistent with a strong commitment to humanism, and it requires no association with the cultural definition of religion as communion with a supernatural power, justified through faith rather than evidence and consisting of scriptural worship and sacred rituals. For all these reasons, there should be no concern that humanist chaplaincy in the military requires or even implies that humanism is a faith-based religious practice.

Chaplains Are Not Solely or Even Primarily Religious in Their Daily Duties

Today’s chaplains provide a wide variety of services to military personnel and commanders. These include suicide briefings, family counseling, and deployment counseling. Briefings and counseling sessions are often mandatory. Chaplains also sit on command staff to the lowest levels, advising the commander on morale in the command, questions of ethics, and religious accommodation within the unit. This advice to the command affects everyone in the unit, not just the religious. Chaplains are provided resources, funding, and facilities to support everyone. Flynn is simply wrong when he claims that “chaplaincy is inescapably faith-based.” He is accurate in his portrayal of chaplain services as related to coaching, mental health, command advice, as well as additional religious activities like worship services and what is being called “spiritual fitness.”

Flynn suggested that servicemembers should be “exempted from required interaction with chaplains.” This is impossible for the modern chaplaincy. With command advice, integration in command programs, mandatory briefings, policy development and the unfettered access chaplains have to troops, chaplains are unavoidable. This is one of the main reasons the efforts of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers to open up the chaplaincy lead more directly to success than attempts to avoid or do away with the chaplaincy.

It is relevant to question the qualifications of chaplains in providing these secular services. The military requires religious training, experience, and endorsement for chaplains. This does not necessarily qualify chaplains to provide counseling, mental health, unit morale, or ethics instruction. However, many chaplains bring years of counseling experience; all receive specialized training once they start their service. Any training deficiencies can be covered separately from the question of religious qualifications or background. It is important to separate a deficiency in training from undue religious bias.

Chaplains Are Not Solely or Even Primarily Psychiatrists in Their Secular Duties

As chaplains coach servicemembers, provide suicide and family counseling, and offer informal coaching on behalf of the chain of command, chaplains become the de facto first responders for mental-health issues. Chaplains, by virtue of their military training and in most cases their civilian background, are fully qualified to provide informal coaching and mentoring. Coaching credentials aside, it is fair to call into question chaplain qualifications to provide mental-health services. Chaplains and military leaders will agree, and chaplain training includes clear prohibitions against professional counseling or therapy. Individual noncompliance may arise, but the regulations and training provide clear warnings against chaplain treatment of mental health issues.

Flynn points out a fair criticism of the military as a whole: there should be confidential and easily accessible avenues to mental-health support. Soldiers receive referrals to chaplains from their leadership. Chaplains have a great responsibility to understand the difference between informal coaching and a deeper need for professional counseling or psychiatric help. Any issues in this area can be resolved whether or not humanist chaplains are approved. Recommendations for more accessible and confidential mental health professionals can be implemented separately from any religious/nonreligious reforms.

Chaplains Provide Primary Support for Identity, Values, and Community—Services that Benefit Humanists

The chaplaincy provides individuals a way to grow personally outside the realm of military training. While this may sound odd from a civilian perspective—where those who seek a relationship with clergy arrange it as part of their personal lives—it is absolutely necessary in the context of military service. Military personnel have a job that is literally a matter of life and death. The demands put on servicemembers are 24/7, not 9 to 5. Many personnel find opportunities for personal growth in their religion. The military, in practice, has not limited its support of religion to prayer, rituals, and sacred spaces. They recognize the value of religion lies not in beseeching divine powers but in affirming personal identity, growing one’s values, and connecting to a community of like-minded individuals.

The access, authority, funding, advertising, and facilities of the chaplaincy are geared to support these three avenues of identity, values, and community. Humanists won’t need a sacred space, icons, scriptures, or clergy to forge their connections. We do ask for spaces to meet with others, opportunities to discuss our values and community, and a central point of contact to help nonreligious servicemembers find like-minded others. It is in this sense that I often say that humanists will benefit from humanist chaplains to the same extent that Christians benefit from Christian chaplains. With this chaplain support, we will have the opportunity to create a cohesive, positive, and ethical community of nonbelievers within the military. A strong community of nonbelievers benefits everyone involved.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

Flynn has lamented the attacks Christian pundits have leveled against the idea of humanist or atheist chaplains. These attacks will continue, but we should have learned by now not to lose sleep over baseless attacks from the religious Right.

In the end, the military should say yes to humanist chaplains, and I hope that we as a community can be supportive. Objections seem primarily to be rooted in a misunderstanding of the chaplaincy, in a great concern to avoid association with religion, and in a desire to avoid or do away with the chaplaincy altogether. I have explained the chaplaincy, shown that it can be protected against religious associations, and addressed the unfeasibility of other options. It is my hope that we can move forward as a united front seeking this great leap forward in equal rights for nonreligious military personnel.

Further Reading, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

Further Reading, Internal Revenue Code

  • Internal Revenue Code Section 501c3—tax-exempt organizations.
  • Internal Revenue Code Section 170b1Ai—“a church or a convention or association of churches.”
  • IRS Publication 1828—Church & Religious Organizations (Glossary).

Further Reading, Military Regulations

  • DoD Instruction 1304.28 Requirements for Ecclesiastical Endorsement (Chaplains).
  • DoD Instruction 1350.2 Equal Opportunity.
  • Joint Publication 1-05 Religious Ministry Support.

Jason Torpy

Jason Torpy has been active in the nontheist community since entering the military in 1984. He left the service in 2005 at the rank of Captain. He is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which serves nontheistic veterans.

Editors’ Note: Jason Torpy, president of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, was invited to reply to Tom Flynn’s editorial in this issue. Humanist chaplains can afford the humanist movement a high-visibility stamp of approval from the government. When President Barack Obama mentioned “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address, nonbelievers spent months patting themselves on the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.