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.