WASHINGTON, June 12 (RIA Novosti) – References to God and country have long been a part of the US military, dating back to the days of the founding fathers. There’s even a popular old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. But maybe there are.
Atheists – or “humanists,” as they are sometimes called – say in fact there are plenty of nonbelievers in the military and argue they deserve the same system of support as those with theist religious affiliation. They are pushing for an idea that sounds like an oxymoron, something that seems impossible by definition: the right to have atheist chaplains serving in the US military.
“I have three humanist chaplains who are applying for chaplain positions in the military, and I shouldn’t have to tell them that because of their beliefs they can’t serve in the way they want to,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit organization that says it is working to build a community of nonbelievers in the US military.
Torpy and others point to the tangible signs of support – like a place to congregate, regular meetings, and the distribution of informational materials – which they say should be afforded to nonbelievers just like they are to Catholics, Baptists and services members from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.
“People agree with Mormon, Jewish and Muslim chaplains, and there are more humanists in the military than Muslims, so nobody can say this doesn’t affect enough people,” Torpy told RIA Novosti, adding that there are so many nonbelievers in the military that with no way to assimilate, “it’s like being all alone in a crowd.”
Torpy refused to identify the three potential chaplains “at this time,” but said they are moving forward with their chaplain applications despite a vote last week by the US House Armed Services Committee which dismissed the idea.
In that vote, members soundly rejected an amendment by Rep. Robert Andrews to add atheists and humanists to the corps of US military chaplains, a measure Andrews, an Episcopalian, said wasn’t meant to be “provocative,” but was designed for service members who wanted nonreligious guidance counseling.
The vote was 43-18 and followed a blunt discussion about the whole concept of nonbelievers serving as chaplains, an idea some said would make a “mockery” of the chaplain role, which offers prayer, spiritual counseling and religious instruction to service members and their families.
"I can't imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family's home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, 'You know, that's it, your son's just worms… worm food,'" said Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas.
"The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they're at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, 'If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future,'" said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.
Such arguments underscore the lack of understanding that surrounds the issue of atheists chaplains, said several supporters.
“Chaplains for nontheistic military service members are absolutely crucial for so many men and women who are serving our country,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies on behalf of those who don’t have a religious belief.
“Religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic service members and unfortunately, seeking psychiatric help can stigmatize a service member for the rest of their career,” she added in a statement.
Figures supplied by MAAF indicate 68 percent of US military service members identified themselves as Christian in 2012, and also 30 percent say they are atheist, have no religious preference, or don’t know. A small percentage of others were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish.