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April 26, 2011
Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military
By JAMES DAO
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.
But an atheist?
Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.
Joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military. Such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases. It would help ensure that chaplains, religious or atheist, would distribute their literature, advertise their events and advocate for them with commanders.
But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?
Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.
“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Mr. Torpy said in an interview. “It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”
Mr. Torpy has asked to meet the chiefs of chaplains for each of the armed forces, which have their own corps, to discuss his proposal. The chiefs have yet to comment.
At the same time, an atheist group at Fort Bragg called Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH, has asked the Army to appoint an atheist lay leader at the base. A new MASH chapter at Fort Campbell, Ky., is 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.
Chaplains at Fort Bragg near here have seemed open to the idea, if somewhat perplexed by it.
“You’re not a faith group; you’re a lack-of-faith group,” First Lt. Samantha Nicoll, an active atheist at Fort Bragg, recalled a chaplain friend’s saying about the idea. “But I said, ‘What else is there for us?’ ”
Atheist leaders acknowledge the seeming contradiction of nonbelievers seeking to become chaplains or receive recognition from the chaplain corps. But they say they believe the imprimatur of the chaplaincy will embolden atheists who worry about being ostracized for their worldviews.
Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military.
But atheist leaders say those numbers are an undercount because, they believe, there are many nonbelievers among the 285,000 service members who claim no religious preference on military surveys. Many chaplains dispute that interpretation, and say that most people in that group are religious, just not strongly so.
Those same statistics show that Christians represent about one million, or 70 percent, of all active-duty troops. They are even more dominant among the chaplain corps: about 90 percent of the 3,045 active duty chaplains are Christians, most of them Protestants.
Military atheist leaders say that although proselytizing by chaplains is forbidden, Christian beliefs pervade military culture, creating subtle pressures on non-Christians to convert.
As an example, they cite the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, created to help soldiers handle stress and prevent suicide. The program requires soldiers to complete surveys assessing emotional, social, family and spiritual well-being. Based on their answers, some soldiers are asked to take “resiliency” training.
Atheists say the survey and training are rife with religious code words that suggest a deity or afterlife. The Army counters that the program is intended to determine whether a soldier has “a strong set of beliefs, principles or values” that can sustain him through adversity — and not to gauge religiosity.
Atheist and secular humanist groups in the military are hardly new. But at some bases, they have become better organized and more vocal in recent years.
Last fall, atheists at Fort Bragg objected to an event by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association called Rock the Fort. The base command, at the urging of its chaplains, provided some money and manpower for the event as well as a choice location on the post’s parade grounds.
A communication sergeant, Justin Griffith, argued that the event was an Army-sponsored platform for the Graham organization to recruit converts. The post commander, Col. Stephen J. Sicinski, denied that, saying soldiers were not pressured to attend. In a recent interview, the colonel said Rock the Fort was intended to boost morale as well as “bolster the faith.”
In response, Sergeant Griffith has recruited a star lineup of atheist musicians and speakers, including the writer Richard Dawkins, to headline a secular event, possibly for the fall. He calls it Rock Beyond Belief and has asked Colonel Sicinski to provide resources similar to what he gave Rock the Fort.
Colonel Sicinski has refused, saying the event will not draw enough people to justify using the parade grounds and that money from religious tithes, which helped finance Rock the Fort, cannot be spent on it. Sergeant Griffith has appealed.
A high school dropout raised near Dallas, Sergeant Griffith, 28, was a passionate Christian and creationist until his teens. Now his dog tags list his religious preference as atheist, and he is pushing to create MASH chapters on as many bases as possible.
He is also giving thought to becoming a chaplain himself, though it would take years: He would have to earn a graduate degree in theology and then be commissioned an officer. He would also need the endorsement of “a qualified religious organization,” a role Mr. Torpy’s organization is seeking to play.
Sergeant Griffith said he believed there were already atheist chaplains in the military — just not open ones.
“I support the idea that religious soldiers need support from religious chaplains,” he said. “But there has to be a line between supporting religious soldiers and promoting religion.”