If You Serve Your Country, Do You Have to Serve God?

Recent debates about the role of humanists in the military have sparked strong emotions.
Jason Heap didn't get the job.

Last summer, he set off a small flurry of media coverage when he submitted his application to join the U.S. Navy's chaplaincy. He has an Oxford degree in ecclesiastical history and more than a decade of experience in teaching and pastoral work. He's physically fit, 38 years old—by all accounts, a pretty normal candidate for this kind of position.

Except for one thing: Heap doesn't believe in God. If his application had been accepted, he would have become the U.S. military's first humanist chaplain.

He's just one guy, and hiring is complicated. "It's a very competitive process," said Christianne M. Witten, the Navy spokesperson who confirmed the rejection. She mentioned that there were other candidates in his cohort of applicants who didn't get jobs either.

But in many ways, Heap's rejection is symbolic of how the culture of the military is changing—or not changing. Last month, the army announced that it would allow soldiers to formally designate themselves as "humanists." Among other things, this could help servicemen and women find others who share their beliefs and values more easily; perhaps most importantly, it could affect funeral arrangements for those who die in service. Several years before that, the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ushered in a different kind of cultural change: Servicemen and women can now be openly gay, but that also means there might be more open discomfort when they seek out counsel from a chaplain trained in certain faith traditions, particularly evangelical Christian denominations. For this reason and many others, people like Jason Torpy, the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, have pushed for the services to hire atheist or humanist chaplains. "It would be nice if they had training and resources to meet people on their own belief," he said. 

But the idea of a military chaplain who doesn't believe in God still seems to spark a lot of emotion. As the military changes to accommodate more and more diversity, will "for God and country" remain the standard for service members?


In some ways, having a job in the military is like having a job anywhere else: There are cubicles, bosses, and paperwork; there's excitement for vacation days and having a great sandwich at lunch. But when you work for the armed services, you can also be stationed across the country or the world from your family. You might be part of base life, or you might get deployed to a war zone. You might die on the job.

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

The stakes are higher. That's why chaplains are so important: They're there to listen and offer advice to servicemen, servicewomen, and families who face pretty intense everyday challenges. "Military life adds stressors that aren’t dissimilar from civilian life, but are sometimes augmented, both for soldiers and their families," said Ray Bradley, an Army major who started out his career as a reservist at age 19. "A lot of those deal with deployments, separations, and financial hardship." He spent more than two years pushing for soldiers to be able to formally designate themselves as humanists. "It helps to have a figurehead like a chaplain as a focal point to develop your own humanism," he said.

Chaplains in all branches of the military are trained to serve people of many different faith backgrounds, said Ron Crews, a veteran and executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. "You serve everyone who walks through your door with grace and dignity, no matter what lifestyle they may be representing," he said. If someone is uncomfortable talking to a chaplain of a certain faith, they can request an accommodation—the chaplaincy will coordinate a connection with another spiritual adviser, often from a different unit or a local religious community. 

Across the services, more than 100 different faith groups are represented in the chaplaincy, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Of course, these are small minorities; out of the 2,856 chaplains who were employed by the military as of April, only 40 hailed from any of these faiths. At least 93 percent of chaplains represent Christianity; at least 50 percent are from evangelical denominations. Witten, the naval spokesperson, noted that the religious breakdown among chaplains doesn't represent the overall breakdown in the military because "the navy is not openly allowed to ask about faith group or sexual orientation." They do target certain seminaries for recruitment, though, and organizations like the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty help funnel candidates to the service.

It's hard to know just how many people of alternative faiths are in the military; since the "humanist" designation is fairly new, there isn't any data about how many there are across the services. Before, humanists only had the option of designating themselves as atheists or saying that they had no religious preference, which didn't offer much nuance about what people actually believe. There are a handful of chaplains who represent alternative designations: four Unitarian Universalists, four from "unclassified religions," and seven who have "no religious preferences." 

"When you say you’re a humanist, it’s your life system, belief system; it’s what drives you."

Bradley thinks specificity is important, though; not all non-theistic religions belief systems are created equal. "When you say you’re a humanist, it’s your life system, belief system; it’s what drives you," he said. "Being a humanist means as much to an individual as being a Christian or a Muslim." 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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