By Robyn Blumner
Jason Heap wants to be a chaplain and by all measures he is more than qualified. He holds masters’ degrees in Divinity and Religious History from Texas Christian University and Oxford University, respectively, and has years of experience as a teacher of Religious Education and Philosophy.
Yet the U.S. Navy just rejected Heap’s application. Why? The water-based branch of the armed services seems tongue-tied on the matter, but the reason appears crystal clear.
Heap is an atheist and a humanist.
What exactly does that mean? To be humanist is to emphasize the value of human beings and our capacity to do good during our lifetimes without the need for a higher power.
An atheist chaplain may sound strange to some, but in truth military chaplains advise on far more than faith and spiritual issues. On a practical level, if a service member needs bereavement leave to attend a funeral of a loved one at home, the chaplain is the point of contact. They provide confidential counseling to troops suffering from stress and other coping challenges — and are often far more accessible than the military’s other mental health services, without the attending stigma.
The fact is there are more atheists and other non-theists in our armed forces than any other non-Christian denomination, yet there are currently no chaplains exclusively representing non-theistic beliefs. Non-theists in the military outnumber Hindus, Muslims and Jews combined, all of whom have chaplains for their respective religions.
Nonreligious service members face the same questions about life and death, fear and loss as any other person in the military. These brave men and women should not have to face them alone while their religious counterparts receive support and guidance.
Moreover, military personnel looking to obtain a security clearance will often be asked whether they’ve seen a therapist — and the content of those counseling sessions may be shared with higher-ups. Counseling by a chaplain is completely confidential and doesn’t have the same potential career impact.
Humanist chaplains are a common feature at the most respected institutions, including top universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Columbia. The militaries of the Netherlands and Belgium employ humanist chaplains to ensure all their troops, regardless of belief or non-belief, receive those comforting services.
To defend its rejection of Heap, the Navy may point to rules on who may qualify as a chaplain, but those rules were designed to promote majority faiths and exclude humanists. Heap is uniquely qualified for the chaplaincy. As a religious scholar he has worked in the Middle East, West Africa and China, counseling and empowering people from all walks of life.
Heap’s rejection represents bald-faced, government-sanctioned discrimination. It communicates a distaste for America’s largest growing cohort: people who profess to have no religious affiliation. Fully one-third of Americans under the age of 30 tell pollsters they fit in this category.
You don’t have to agree with religious skeptics and non-believers to be accepting of them and respect their right to be who they are. All people who believe in religious freedom should be concerned that the U.S. Navy thinks it’s okay to consign nonreligious troops to second-class status.
From integrating African-American troops in 1948, to recent advances in opening combat roles to women soldiers and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, the military has had to adjust to social change.
What we have seen, without exception, is when the military rejects rigid thinking and baseless prejudice it becomes stronger, looks more like America, and is better able to defend the country. The case for welcoming humanist chaplains is no exception.
Blumner is executive director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the project director for Openly Secular.