More than 13,000 service members identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to a Pentagon survey this year. That's more than the number of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the military combined, yet each of those religions has its own chaplains.
-David Zucchino (Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about a man who is asking to become the Navy's first humanist chaplain. Jason Heap would like to bring comfort and guidance to service members that don't believe in a god. 13,000 members identify as atheist/agnostic and another 276,000 have no religious preference. All of these people, when turning to the Chaplain Corps for moral guidance or a confidential ear to talk to, presently have to talk to a theist. I believe this is a problem.
Mr. Heap says that, "just as a Roman Catholic would prefer to speak with a priest, or a Jewish person with a rabbi ... nontheist people would prefer to have access to someone who understands their basic points of view." This is definitely the case. Non-theists are often poorly served when discussing deep issues such as morality with theists. Many theists, even the best educated of them, are incapable of perceiving a basis for morality that does not rest on a first-cause God (this is a particularly common issue with mono-theists). When a theist chaplain is confronted with a service member's shaken sense of self, I expect it can be difficult to address anything but the most superficial aspects of "spiritual" care. Deeper conversations may misfire since the chaplain and the service member hold radically different worldviews.
I served for six years as an active duty Marine. Full disclosure, I was a Christian at the time. I found the majority of chaplains to be thoughtful and friendly people who were capable of being kind and gracious to service members from all walks of life. There are very few chaplains serving a very large military, so a Catholic chaplain is likely to talk to a Muslim, Baptist, or Buddhist Marine, and the chaplains are trained and ready for such an event. This wouldn't change with the addition of Jason Heap. However, the ability for the Chaplain Corps, as a whole, to properly address the needs of service members grows as chaplains of different faiths share best practices with each other. A non-theist chaplain could only add to that skill set. I understand that the idea of non-spiritual spiritual care will sound odd to many people. However, the Chaplain Corps provides much more than weekend rituals. They perform an important universal service as counselors. In a military that still shuns professional psychiatric care due to stigma, chaplains provide a safe space that our over-stressed service members desperately need. Non-theist soldiers, sailors, and Marines deserve equal respect and care.
I certainly hope that the Navy decides to approve Mr. Heap's application, or that of another qualified non-theist. The military is often progressive on such issues, from a state-sanctioned point of view. Their recent changes concerning homosexual service members, for instance, have amounted to, "that's legal now? Ok. Here are your benefits." On the religious belief front, Thor's Hammer is now allowed on veteran's tombstones. I would hope that the military can honor the beliefs of living service men and women as fully as they honor the dead.
He wants to be the Navy's first humanist chaplain -The Los Angeles Times