Atheists in Foxholes


To be a chaplain in the U.S. military do you have to believe in God?

By Fred Folmer


In an episode of the 2008 PBS documentary series Carrier entitled “True Believers,” religion in the U.S. Navy becomes public at a rather amusing moment. Onboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, the nightly movie—in this case, a sex scene in the notoriously steamy 1992 crime drama Basic Instinct—is interrupted by the voice of one of the ship’s chaplains, who proceeds to offer a prayer that seems specifically Christian. “Lord,” he prays, “it is nights like tonight that we remember our families at home.”

There’s little doubt that there were plenty of sailors onboard the Nimitz who would have welcomed the message. The documentary, which depicts a tour of duty to the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War, offers images and scenes of multiple kinds of Christian practices—Catholic masses, Bible readings, contemporary-style evangelical worship, Pentecostal services with laying of hands and speaking in tongues, full-immersion baptisms—and only a smattering of “other” kinds of religious practice. Even for some sailors who don’t think of themselves as religious or Christian, the evening prayer messages are seen in a positive light—a way of acknowledging some form of higher good, or even just generating a therapeutic sense of well-being. “[The chaplain] has a real soothing voice,” one self-described nonreligious sailor says. “It just kind of calms you down.” At this military installation, the label “Christianity” both describes a range of specific religious practices, and—as is true in much of American society at large—provides a template for religion in general.

But there are voices of dissent to the public display of religion onboard. As one sailor puts it, “I don’t think they should do it [broadcast the evening prayer]. I don’t think it’s right for the people who are not religious.” Another states that while not an atheist herself, she has an atheist friend who “gets really mad” when the prayer comes on. A Jewish sailor sums up the situation quite succinctly. “Sometimes,” he says, “it seems that this boat is mainly Christian.” In the film, the ship’s Catholic chaplain says that the job of the chaplain is to “protect the first amendment rights” of sailors to freely exercise their religious beliefs, a notion repeatedly echoed on the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps’ website. But one does begin to wonder whether the rights of “nonreligious” sailors, or of those who practice a “minority” religion—marked as such by the seeming omnipresence of Christian practice—are really being protected in the same way. If a service member declares him- or herself to be “nonreligious,” or an “atheist,” can that person nonetheless have “religious” needs? And if so, wouldn’t that service member have the right to have those needs be met?

Documentary film evidence aside, indications of a de facto religious establishment in the U.S. military are probably out of public view and attention most of the time. Nevertheless, recent news events have brought to light the fraught relationship of the U.S. military to what counts as “religion,” and raised the issue of who is qualified to serve as a chaplain—in the dual, and perhaps conflicting, role of religious provider and guarantor of religious freedom for service people. Multiple news outlets reported in August that a man named Jason Heap has applied to become the Navy’s first humanist chaplain. As detailed by Stars and Stripes, Heap went through traditional channels of ministerial education, earning master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School and Oxford University; he has taught religious studies in England for several years; and he has conducted scholarly research of Baptist literature. He has passed a physical. In their respective articles about Heap, both Stars and Stripes and the Los Angeles Times state that Heap’s (anonymous) supporters argue that his application would already have been approved if he were representing a traditional Christian denomination.

But Department of Defense chaplains require an endorsing religious group, and Heap’s is the Humanist Society, an organization with Quaker origins that, according to its website, was incorporated in 1939 in part to “train and certify” people who could then “be accorded the same rights guaranteed by law to priests, ministers and rabbis of traditional theistic religions.” Further, the Humanist Society states quite clearly that it advances a “progressive philosophy of life” that is “without theism or supernatural beliefs.” Although one of the Society’s main charges is to endorse people to become wedding officiants, it is hard to find anything that would necessarily preclude their endorsement of a military chaplain.

Despite Heap’s credentials, the Navy hasn’t yet issued a decision on his application. But there are reasons to think that its decision-makers could say no. For one thing, the Humanist Society does not currently appear on the Defense Department’s online list of endorsers. Also, in August the Baltimore Sun reported that the U.S. Naval Academy had turned down the request of one of its graduates to hold a humanist wedding—with a humanist officiant—in the academy’s chapel, stating that the chapel contains “permanent Christian architectural features” that render the facility “inappropriate for non-Christian or non-religious wedding ceremonies.” The Sun quotes a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, who seems quite correct when he points out that the Naval Academy has restricted access to a public facility on specifically religious grounds. It’s hardly a leap to think that such a position might not pass constitutional muster, nor is it a stretch to assume that the Navy might apply similar logic to Heap’s situation, denying access to a publicly funded position on the grounds that the person practices the wrong religion.

It probably will not come as a big surprise that Congress has become involved in the chaplain issue. This past summer, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved an amendment sponsored by John Fleming (R-La.) that would block the military from appointing “atheist chaplains.” “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” Fleming wrote in a statement.

But the idea of an “atheist chaplain” is hardly nonsensical to everyone. It’s worth noting that humanist chaplancies do exist; for instance, Harvard University’s humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, has served there since 2005 . There is also evidence that atheists are increasingly seeking gatherings that provide the community and trappings of a “church.” Many nontheist Unitarians and Ethical Culturists have been doing this for quite a long time; in addition, as Salon recently reported, a group called the Sunday Assembly has been gathering congregants as a sort of “atheist megachurch.” Further, as the website Patheos reported, Fleming’s amendment was likely spurred by an amendment offered in June by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) to the Defense Authorization Act that would specifically have allowed humanist, atheist or “ethical culture” chaplains in the U.S. military. So in some ways, the debate may simply break down according to familiar partisan lines, evidenced further by the fact that in the Republican-controlled House, Andrews’ amendment went down to defeat, whereas Fleming’s was approved.

Still, it’s worth noting that Fleming may not realize that “atheism” among military chaplains probably already exists. In its story about Heap, the Los Angeles Times quotes an “interfaith coalition of religious leaders” who wrote in a statement supporting Heap that there are established, approved religious groups that would ordain an atheist. While the Humanist Society still hasn’t made the list of approved Department of Defense endorsers, the Unitarian Universalist Association is on that list, and it does not ask its members to affirm the existence of a supernatural god. Rather, it lists a set of guiding principles, such as proclaiming “the dignity and worth of every person,” that sound suspiciously, well, humanist. The UUA’s website hosts an entire page on atheism and agnosticism, which asserts that such positions comprise “part of the theological diversity within Unitarian Universalism.” Other listed endorsers include the Unity Church, which does list “God” among its articulated philosophies. But its actual online description of “God” might strike some Christians (perhaps Rep. Fleming?) as distinctly nontheistic, given that God here is asserted to be “the one power, all good, everywhere present, all wisdom.” The same page describes the Bible as “history and allegory.”

Similar positions are likely to be found within the stalwart liberal mainline Protestant churches, which of course appear on the endorsement list as well. Following twentieth-century theologies advanced by Paul Tillich or John Cobb (to name just two), ministers from these churches often understand “God” as “ground of all being,” historical process, symbolic image or “ultimate concern.” There are, of course, important practical differences that happen when registering a theological/ontological claim as having either a “divine” or “human” basis, and these differences should not be overlooked. Language really matters. My point is that many forms of religious—even Christian—practice may not understand “God” as an omnipotent creator being that stands outside of human history, and these ideas could well be already represented among the nation’s military chaplains. The issue of whether a chaplain “believes in God” is much more complicated than it first appears.

This becomes especially complex when considering traditions, such as Buddhism, that are hard to map onto Western-originated theological models. Other traditions, such as Islam, worship a god that, depending on one’s Christian or Muslim interlocutor, may or may not be understood to be the same god as the Christian one. It should probably go without saying that Buddhists and Muslims, as representatives of widely acknowledged “world religions,” are very much part of the Department of Defense’s list of endorsers. This further complicates Fleming’s underlying assertion that it is common-sensical that chaplains must “believe in God”: which God? Is any god acceptable, as long as it’s a god or supernatural being? I hardly think that Fleming would assent to this—if a prospective chaplain’s “god” were Satan, or even a flying spaghetti monster, it’s doubtful this person would get very far with his or her chaplaincy application. Since this is the case, it would seem that someone would have to decide which gods are acceptable—which are really worthy of the name—and which are not.

This is where it gets especially tricky, because the supposedly secular state, in the form of the Navy and the rest of the service branches, is actually doing theology, deciding which religions (and their gods, or lack thereof) make the grade and which are judged to be “other-than-religion” (cults, jokes, deceptions, fringe groups, secular pretenders, one-offs, vanity projects, etc.). How is it making these decisions? It is hard to know, but there are clues to be found. In its “About Chaplains” section, the website for the Air Force Chaplain Corps describes chaplains as “visible reminders of the Holy” who “provide for the free exercise of religion”—at least, one assumes, for those who affirm and recognize the existence of something called “the Holy.” And so those religions whose beliefs can be mapped onto the concept of “the Holy” would, one presumes, be more likely to make the cut.

What, you might ask, is “the Holy”? Well, it’s hard to say precisely, but here’s one thought: “the Holy” is another name for God—almost certainly modeled after the Christian God—and employed because saying “God” would be seen as religiously particular, and therefore run the risk of being unconstitutional. It is an attempt to secularize and universalize a concept that remains theological and specific. This effort goes back at least as far as 1917, when Christian theologian Rudolf Otto tried to establish a basis for religion as an irreducible concept. He argued that religions could be united together using the common thread of the “idea of the Holy,” a sensory experience of a transhistorical, transcultural presence that, upon closer inspection, looked suspiciously like the Christian God that Otto himself worshiped.

A Navy Chaplain Corps website promoting “spiritual fitness” further demonstrates this point. One of the primary expressions of “spirituality,” the site states, is “religious expression,” or “activities that connect one to the Divine, God and the supernatural.” The site gives examples of such activities, including Christians connecting to the Holy Spirit, Muslims following the Sunnah, and Buddhists pursuing the Noble Path. Differences among these respective cultures and traditions are collapsed in favor of a universal model; “the Divine,” God, the supernatural and the Noble Path are presented as really aspects of the same thing, the same sort of ineffable “divine.” This is an inescapably theological kind of idea, a version of religious tolerance that rests upon an integrative, “interfaith” model but that nonetheless advances specific metaphysical claims. Moreover, in order to be “spiritually healthy,” the Navy chaplaincy site warns, you do have to practice your faith. “Your spiritual fitness is typically less healthy if you neglect to practice your faiths, beliefs, and other activities that support your spirituality” (emphasis in original). If you do not practice your faith—that is, do not pursue the divine, supernatural, etc., you are by definition marked as “spiritually unhealthy.” Those who are atheists or nontheists have no divine to pursue, so by this logic, they would have to be found unacceptable to the Chaplain Corps.

Another argument against atheist chaplains has to do with statistics: that the number of atheists, nontheists, humanists, etc., is too small to warrant a chaplaincy. In his statement about his House amendment regarding chaplains, Rep. Fleming stated as much: “Opponents of my amendment,” he wrote, “make vastly exaggerated claims about the demographics of the military. In reality, less than one percent of service members self-identify as atheists, and all chaplains stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Forces, regardless of whether he or she shares the chaplain’s faith.” Fleming’s latter point is certainly debatable, at least according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group headed by “Mikey” Weinstein. The MRFF says that it receives a “constant stream of emails” from service members alleging inappropriate religious conduct by military chaplains. In 2011 Weinstein’s organization gave out “Bad Chaplain” awards for such behavior, one of which went to an Army chaplain for a recruiting brigade, who, it says, sent out an email missive to all East Coast recruiters arguing that “[t]he further away we move from Christianity in our ethic and practice the greater the problems will get within the infrastructure of our military.”

But if we assume that at least Fleming’s numbers are technically correct, the actual number of atheists still depends on how you count them. The aforementioned Patheos piece, written by Hermant Mehta, takes issue with Fleming’s numbers, arguing that even though atheists may only be counted at one percent, more than twenty percent have no expressed religious preference. (For attribution of these numbers, Mehta links to an organization called the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.) It’s also notable that according to Mehta’s article, even though Christians only make up seventy percent of the military, “they make up ninety-five percent of the chaplaincy,” a point that helps contextualize why the Military Religious Freedom Foundation is so keen on pointing out chaplains’ possible abuses of their position.

And so if twenty percent of the military consists of nontheists, it would only stand to reason that there ought to be a more proportionate representation of these persons within the military chaplaincy. But it’s also true that whatever the number of nontheists may be, if the real issue is confidential counsel and “spiritual care”—and if, as Fleming argues, all chaplains regardless of their faith “stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Services”—numbers shouldn’t really matter. What really should matter is having someone who can listen and respond to whatever concerns the Armed Force member has, whether the issue at hand is taken to be “religious” or not. The specific religious practice of the chaplain ought to be unimportant, a point that Rep. Fleming makes very cogently. However, as is plain both from the PBS documentary and from the official websites of the Navy and Air Force Chaplain Corps, in the chaplaincies’ current configuration, specific practice does matter, legality or constitutionality aside. Chaplains are providing religious instruction and leadership that is very specific to their own tradition, and there is very much an underlying theology—however ecumenical or “interfaith” that theology may be—to the reasons given for the chaplains’ existence. Particularly since they may be excluded from this “interfaith” theology, and even discursively marked as “spiritually unhealthy,” nontheists have a strong basis for requesting representation and care of their own. Chaplains may not see a conflict between their dual roles as guarantors of First Amendment rights and religious providers, but when nontheists are involved, the two things may be mutually exclusive.

Raising this issue leads inexorably to the question of whether there should be chaplains at all in the military. Why can’t this confidential support be provided by various kinds of counselors whose religious affiliation is beside the point? Why should an important and powerful appendage of the state—which, in the U.S., is not permitted to establish a religion—be allowed such a strong influence over the religious lives of its service members? Shouldn’t the government get out of the religion business? Such questions are particularly salient when considering the broader issue of what it may mean to have a military with a clear Christian bias, supported by a chaplaincy that, however “interfaith” in official theology, is overwhelmingly Christian in numbers. It is noteworthy, for instance, that Rep. Fleming’s congressional website links to materials produced by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, that use the trope of “religious liberty” to argue for a much more robust and public presence for “religious” (read: Christian) presence in the military. But (re)defining the military in this way would have a lot of implications that a pluralistic U.S. citizenry deserves to understand. If the Armed Forces, from top to bottom, were understood as “Christian” organizations, it would undoubtedly follow that their missions—the wars they fight—would likewise be understood by friends and foes alike as actions undertaken in God’s service. Wars would become holy wars, and the very definition of the nation would almost certainly change accordingly, threatening Constitutional assurances that religion is a matter of conscience not subject to governmental edict. One way to temper this possibility could be to eliminate the military chaplaincy altogether.

Considered pragmatically, though, such a thing would probably be difficult to carry out. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the chaplains’ history in the U.S. military, which is as old as the Armed Forces themselves. In a 2009 article in the journal Review of Faith & International Affairs, military affairs scholar Pauletta Otis writes that the Army and Navy chaplaincies date back to 1775, the Army chaplaincy having been established by an order written by none other than George Washington. Chaplains, she writes, “have served in every war the United States has fought,” and in World War II, 100 chaplains were killed—a casualty rate “greater than any other branch except infantry and Army Air Corps.” Otis’ article—an overview of the Armed Forces chaplaincy as well as an argument for its existence—further claims that because chaplains’ services aid “emotional/psychological strength,” they also improve “overall fighting strength.” According to this view, the chaplaincies are a necessity, not merely because of their tradition of service and sacrifice that is deeply interwoven with the military’s own history, but also because they bolster military organizations’ ability to execute a mission. If this viewpoint is widely held, it is probably true that chaplains in the services, however problematic, are here to stay.

Furthermore, it does seem as though the services ought to provide some way of accessing support (whether understood as “religious” or otherwise) for service members who are deployed for long periods of time and/or in harm’s way. That being the case, if citizens—many of whom, after all, are nontheists—are to continue to pay for this service, the Navy and the other armed services have a duty to be as religiously flexible as they can be, and to respond to the needs of as many service people as possible, regardless of that person’s theological outlook. Is the Navy irredeemably tethered to a particular theology, and therefore a secular organization in name only, or is the organization’s version of diversity more pliable than it might appear? Its response to Jason Heap’s chaplaincy application will go far in helping determine the answer.


Fred Folmer, a graduate of New York University’s M.A. program in religious studies, is a librarian at Connecticut College.

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