CAIRO – Seeking to gain official acceptance of non-believers in the US military, two groups are campaigning to appoint atheist chaplains to counsel active duty troops.
“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews," Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told The New York Times.
“It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”
Torpy, a former Army captain, argues that atheist chaplains, like religious chaplains, would help counsel active duty troops and help them follow their faiths.
Torpy's group is not alone in pushing for the appointment of atheist chaplains.
The Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH) is also campaigning to install atheist chaplains at North Carolina-based Fort Bragg, home to the XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division, US Army Special Operations Command, and 1st Sustainment Command.
A new MASH chapter at Fort Campbell, Ky., is also planning to do the same as are atheists at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Such lay leaders can lead “services” in lieu of chaplains and have access to meeting rooms, including chapels, according to the NY Times.
There are more than 3,000 religious chaplains in the US military who minister to the spiritual needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths.
The vast majority of religious chaplains in the military are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims and one is a Buddhist.
Part of the chaplains' duties is to provide counsel and support to army members regardless of their faiths.
The Defense Department says 9,400 of the 1.4 million people on active duty in the military have identified themselves as atheists or agnostics.
Supporters argue that Christian beliefs pervade military culture, creating subtle pressures on non-Christians to convert.
"I support the idea that religious soldiers need support from religious chaplains,” Justin Griffith, a communication sergeant, said.
"But there has to be a line between supporting religious soldiers and promoting religion,” added Griffith, who is an atheist.
But the appointment of atheist chaplains is being met with unease at the US military.
“You’re not a faith group," First Lt. Samantha Nicoll, an active atheist at Fort Bragg, recalled a chaplain friend’s saying about the idea.
"You’re a lack-of-faith group.
“But I said, ‘What else is there for us?’ ”
According to the NY Times, atheist leaders acknowledge the seeming contradiction of nonbelievers seeking to become chaplains or receive recognition from the chaplain corps.
But they argue that they believe the imprimatur of the chaplaincy will embolden atheists who worry about being ostracized for their worldviews.