There are ongoing efforts to create humanist chaplains in the United States military. This post looks at Jason Heap’s ongoing lawsuit against the United States Navy and the Department of Defense. I also consider how this will be a challenge for the atheist movement, and why as a Christian I support humanist chaplains. If you are secular in the United States military I believe you should have all the support you need to get your job done.
“A chaplain’s biggest gift is to be present and just listen.”
“I admire the military. I guess in a world of villains and heroes, they’re my heroes. Their dedication, their commitment, their discipline, their code of ethics.”
Justin Griffith the Military Director of American Atheists re-enlists in the United States Army
There has been a growing effort in the atheist movement for humanist chaplains. In the university setting a number of schools in the past couple of years have installed humanist chaplains. For example the University of Southern California appointed its first humanist chaplain in 2014. Other universities that have humanist chaplains include Harvard, Yale, American, New York and Rutgers just to name a few. In a blogathon that was a fundraiser for Harvard’s humanist community Chris Stedman wrote a compelling article that explains what a humanist chaplain is and why he wanted to become one. Today there is a Humanist Chaplaincy Network and a program that helps build Humanist Chaplaincies at universities. Meanwhile there has also been a push to have humanist chaplains in the United States military which is the subject of today’s post. After all as Hemant Mehta from the Friendly Atheist wrote last year, there are 12,360 active duty military personnel who are Southern Baptist and 12,764 military personnel who are atheist. The Southern Baptist Convention has 437 chaplains to serve and help those 12,360 troops. Today there are 0 humanist chaplains to help atheist troops.
Jason Heap and his Efforts at Becoming the First Humanist Chaplain
In the war for Independence from Great Britain the Continental Congress approved chaplains to support George Washington’s Army. It has been a long military tradition and which continues down to today. Chaplains play an important role in so many ways, and its often beyond the function of performing religious services. Chaplains deploy into combat zones, they also offer counseling, advice, stress management, and interact with a unit’s management. They can also help with transitions into differing theaters. To read more about what chaplains can do this article on militaryonesource does a nice job summing it up. For fun I would also recommend this article that was published in the Wall Street Journal a few years back called “A Chaplain and a Atheist go to War.” Its about a Chaplain on the front lines in Afghanistan, and his assistant who is an atheist who de-converted from Christianity. The article examines their relationship and the issues that exist.
Jason Heap is attempting to become the first humanist chaplain in the United States military. He was a former Youth Minister and has a BA in Philosophy and Theology from Howard Payne University. He also obtained a Master of Divinity in Counseling and Religion from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He picked up a MSt in History and Religion from the University of Oxford, Post-Graduate Certification with Qualified teacher Status from Sheffield Hallam University. Plus to add to that impressive resume is a Doctor of Education from Walden University. Jason is also the Executive Director for the United Coalition of Reason which is based here in Washington, D.C.
Jason applied to the Chaplaincy of the United States Navy and declared his affiliation to be humanist. While many atheists are humanist its my understanding that humanists see a greater potential in the possibility of the human race. If I am wrong in any of this I very much invite correction. His application to the chaplaincy was denied in late May 2014 with no reason given. Its my understanding that Michelle Boorstein from the Washington Post followed up with the Navy in an effort to get a statement and was unable to do so. In a statement for the Washington Post Jason responded to his being denied by saying, “I am exceptionally disappointed and aggrieved by the Navy’s initial rejection of my application. I will continue to seek acceptance. I hope military leaders will open their hearts to humanists.” In response to Jason’s rejection millionaire atheist Todd Stiefel wrote Rear Adm Mark Tidd of the Navy’s chaplain’s office. “As you know well, military chaplains advise on the far more than faith and spiritual issues; they handle moral and ethical dilemmas, and enhance morale and unit cohesion.” Stiefel continued, “if a service member needs bereavement leave to attend a funeral of a loved one at home, the chaplain is the point of contact.”
On November 5, 2014 Jason Heap sued the United States Navy and the Department of Defense for not recognizing the Humanist Society which has certified him, as an endorser of chaplain candidates. The Humanist Society is part of the lawsuit, which is also about the Navy discriminating against humanists as well. In the law suit that was filed it stated the following. “Dr. Heap’s qualifications and experience far exceed the standards articulated by the Navy for accepting applicants. The Navy denied his application because of his humanist beliefs.” The lawsuit against the Navy claimed that by denying humanist chaplains the Navy was “impairing the religious exercise of humanists in the Navy.” The suit also charges that the Navy is being inconsistent in requiring accommodation of religious practices of sailors while denying humanist chaplains, because “the Navy does not consider Humanism to be a religion.” If you want to read more about the lawsuit that was filed there is also this Huffington Post article about the situation.
In June of 2015 the legal case was argued in a courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia before District Judge James Chacheris. The Navy sought to have the District Judge dismiss Jason Heap’s case. The Navy in the presentation claims that it turned away Jason because of his limited experience being a religious leader. It also stated that he would not be capable of handling spiritual care for the role of sailors on board a ship. Kieran Gostin, an attorney representing the Navy said the following. “It’s a very serious job that requires a lot of experience providing religious ministry. It’s not that [Jason Heap] cannot practice Humanism in his private life, it’s that he is not being hired by the Navy to do it in an official capacity as a chaplain.” If you would like to read more about the way the case was argued I would suggest reading this World magazine article here as well as this Military Times article.
The suit is still active to my understanding. The first pretrial conference took place on November 19, 2015, and that determines what can go forward, and what can be used as evidence. There have also been past efforts in Congress to get humanist chaplains approved by the Defense Department. Not long ago Jason gave this interview.
A Challenge for the Atheist Movement
I want to be extremely careful as I say this next point. Those of you who have read me know that I am exceedingly different in what I have written. For example in this recent post I explored the issue of Christians discriminating against atheists. In yet another post I have offered constructive criticism about what the atheist movement needs to do better. I have also tackled another post which was deeply critical of Christian claims that if a person leaves the Christian faith they were never a Christian from the beginning. Then there is this post where I describe why the Christian church should honestly listen to atheists and consider what they are saying. Plus there is also this article where I explained what I appreciate from atheists and do a personal reflection on what the late Christopher Hitchens has meant to me. I write all this in the means to be respectful, and to encourage dialog, as that is sorely lacking today in many ways. People often recoil into their tribe, build walls and seldom if at all interact. Of all the posts I have written I enjoy the secular and atheist posts the most. I enjoy them because I get to think outside the box and I deeply enjoy many of the people I get to interact.
At this blog you will find someone who I believe is deeply respectful, accommodating, and open to hearing others out. Here at The Wondering Eagle I strive and want to give many atheists and former Christians a platform to allow them to share and engage. To be honest there are many Christians who won’t do that because they are insecure and shallow. So I write all this to say that many of you who read this in the secular or atheist camp have an ally and a friend in many ways in this Christian. That said with what I am going to dive in if we disagree I want to be able to continue to dialog and discuss.
Here is the biggest problem that the atheist or secular community is going to face in regards to humanist chaplains. I know many are going to disagree with what I am going to say. The reality that exists is that in pursuing humanist chaplains, atheism is going to have to admit that it is a faith system, or a form of faith. In the course of time I would like to write a longer, detailed post about this topic. But one thing I will say…is just as Christians have their doctrine, evangelists, structure and evangelism…the fact remains that many atheist are similarly structured. Many atheists have their own doctrine, evangelists, structure and evangelism. I am not going to push this issue too hard with many in the atheist or secular camp because I don’t want to build any roadblocks. If you disagree with me I encourage you to be open about it. But some of this is referred to in this Huffington Post article. The effort to have humanist chaplains shows that atheism can be a faith movement in many ways. I am not trying to knock or be disrespectful. Now having touched on that front let me explain why I believe we need humanist chaplains in the United States military.
Why this Christian Supports Humanist Chaplains in the United States Military
We have a very real and growing situation in the U.S. military that honestly needs to be addressed. We are a nation growing more secular and more people are identifying with the “nones” or nothing. According to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) the rate of demographics is pretty telling in how our society is changing. This is a result of a study that MAAF did that was released in 2012. Here is the issue at hand…we have a growing population, which is reflecting in the military that is atheist, or nothing and there is really no one to represent them. Honestly there is no serious ability to have support for those atheist or non believing troops at all. Many military chaplains are going to struggle to understand, relate, and engage secular troops because their background is going to work against them. MAAF is supporting Jason Heap’s challenge to the military and has a resource page which can be read here.
Here is why I support Jason Heap to be the first Humanist Navy Chaplain. If you are going to serve in the military then I believe you should have all the emotional support that you need to get your job done. The current status reveals the disadvantage that exists for current secular troops. In addition it also puts secular troops in a difficult spot as it prevents them from being able to bond and be part of a team. If humanists aren’t acknowledged how can you be respected? Currently by even denying that humanism is a religion that is sending a message to those secular troops that is incredibly discouraging. By making humanist chaplains available to offer support it would validate and reflect the growing changes in our society, which in the course of time will reflect in the military. If our secular troops are going to deploy to places like Afghanistan or Iraq, or serve in the skies above Iraq and Syria or elsewhere the very least we as a nation can do is to offer them the support that they desire and so strongly need.
To those Christians who read me who think I have lost my mind in supporting humanist chaplains let me address you now. At this blog I have written about atheist discrimination and I believe this is a form of discrimination against humanists and atheists. I would also suggest that any Christian opposition to this matter reveals the insecure nature of many Christians. When people are afraid they react in fear, and what people don’t understand they react in ways that are less than honorable. Its my goal here at this blog to educate and inform on these issues. I believe firmly in Jesus, read the Bible regularly, and participate in church. However, I am also realistic in the sense that I believe we should love and care for those who are not in the same page as us. For Christians to be silent on discrimination of atheist and humanists is appalling and uncalled for. As Christians we should be known for our love and grace, and yet the sad reality is that is not what we are known for. We need to tear down the walls and discuss and listen to each other. If people aren’t going to believe in God…can’t we love, befriend, care, grieve with and share life with those who do not think like us? Why do so many members of my tribe feel like they have to build walls, attack and respond with venom? Why can’t we respond in love and at the same time clean up the messes in Christianity as well ? I write all this to challenge my tribe and to get them thinking differently. I support humanist chaplains because those of us as Christians should be able to engage and cohabit in this society together. Can’t we appeal and live together as part of the same human species? I support humanist chaplains because I also support the emotional, and psychological well being of our military and secular troops. By allowing and creating humanist chaplains we are giving them the support that they need. To my tribe I again appeal…if those who are atheists and humanists who walk a different path can’t we still love them regardless?
I want to close out this post with a few words to Jason Heap which I hope he will find encouraging. Jason I commend you for your effort and I hope you are successful in the end. Our times our changing as is our demographics and I think its time to have humanist chaplains in the military. I want our troops to have the best access and support to whatever they need to accomplish the job they are sent in for. I also want to say this…for those who insult, attack or demean you from my camp to that I say I am sorry. Please forgive them. Many people in my tribe wage the culture wars out of insecurity and being afraid. It is my intent to challenge my tribe and hold them to account. I wish you well, and I hope I will get to write about you becoming a chaplain for the Navy. Your resume is impressive. It is the military’s loss that you are not serving our brave men and women.
I am going to leave you with a classic from Toby Keith. Again I love you guys humanist, atheist or Christian.