Why Can’t This Army Captain Be a Humanist Lay Leader?

Capt. Ryan Jean isn’t trying to become a Humanist “chaplain” in the Army. He’s trying to become a “humanist lay leader — on a par with the lay Christians, Jews and Muslims who help military chaplains minister to the troops.” It almost seems like a stepping stone to the chaplaincy, a title would would carry more weight, come with a salary, and allow him to take on more responsibilities.

What spurred him to pursue this position?

Capt. Ryan Jean wanted to perform well on the Army’s psychological evaluation for soldiers. But he also wanted to answer the questions honestly. So when he was asked whether he believed his life had a lasting purpose, Jean, an atheist, saw no choice but to say no.

Those and other responses, Jean says, won him a trip to see the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.

“He basically told me that if I don’t get right with God, then I’m worthless,” said Jean, now an intelligence officer at Fort Meade. “That if I don’t believe in Jesus, why am I in uniform, because this is God’s army, and that I should resign my commission in order to stop disgracing the military.”

The disgraceful one in that story isn’t Jean…

And yet, the Army won’t even let him be a Humanist lay leader.

“The group that they want to be a lay leader for would have to be considered a recognized religious organization,” [Fort Meade] spokeswoman Mary Doyle said.

Guess what? Atheists aren’t recognized.

At least it’s not stopping some people from meeting off-base:

It was the search for such community that led Katherine Moore to form Atheists of Meade. The wife of an Army sergeant on the base, she had noted the success of organizations such as the Military Council of Catholic Women and the Protestant Women of the Chapel.

“I’ve heard they’re wonderful, wonderful groups that get together for the fellowship,” she said. “Well, I miss having that. I deserve that, too.”

Tech. Sgt. Larry Moore, Katherine’s husband, has served nearly 16 years in the military but says he has never experienced or witnessed discrimination against nonbelievers. Still, he supports Jean’s effort.

“Atheism doesn’t have a voice,” Moore said. “Having a lay person for atheists is important so that we have somebody to go to resolve any issues that may arise.”

***Edit***: The Atheists of Meade, incidentally, is part of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers network. MAAF has an open letter to chaplains here — no responses have come in just yet.

This is what the military atheists have to do. Keep meeting, off-site if necessary. Keep the pressure on military officials to recognize them as an official group. Whenever possible, go public as a non-theist. And get the media to pay attention.

The more positive press for them, the more negative press for the military, the faster the day will come when atheists get the recognition (and perks that come with it) that they deserve.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ian

    Could he not apply through the Humanist Society, which I believe is recognized as a religion?

  • Johannsone

    We’re neighbors! They would be welcome to meet at my place or the community room in my neighborhood! As a former military dependent, I can relate!

  • deityfree

    This is very irritating. Makes me wantto join again just for this purpose.

  • http://siveambrai.myopenid.com/ Siveambrai

    There are no atheists in the military! Or at least we will refuse to recognize any ACTUAL atheists in the military so that we can keep claiming that.

  • Ryan Jean

    I continue to be surprised at the press this is getting. Thank you for your time and consideration.

    For the record, I am a member of both the American Humanist Association and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. The Humanist Society is an adjunct of the AHA that certifies Humanist Celebrants. As such, HS is the endorsing agent for Chaplains and Lay Leaders, with MAAF being the organization that puts forward the candidates, although none have been accepted by the Military yet. This is a long way of saying that my lay leader packet is directly intertwined with all three of these organizations.

    Also, while the bad Chaplain I encountered in Kuwait and mentioned in the article gets the press, I should point out that the Fort Meade Garrison Chaplain has actually been very understanding and is willing to support the effort, but cannot proceed with anything until the packet gets approved above his level.

    • 59 Norris

      Capt. Jean, best of luck to you in your efforts, and thanks for your service.

    • Kassie

      Captain Jean,

      I am a Christian and I would like to know what you find hardest to believe about Christianity? What is Christianity is the most unappealing to you? If you became a Humanist lay leader, what would you primarily teach?

  • T-Rex

    I hope that chaplain that said that to ryan was reprimanded for his actions/words, although i wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t. If they don’t recognize atheists maybe  only “gawds” children should be sent to the front lines.

  • Forrest Cahoon

     I’m not sure I understand why an atheist would not believe his life had a lasting purpose.

    Sure, if the context implied that “lasting” meant eternal and/or “purpose” meant seeing yourself as part of some divine plan, that would need to be rejected. But, just to give an example from one part of my life, I try to impart to my children what I regard as correct values (including the one which is especially dear to us atheists, the ability to think clearly). That’s neither eternal nor god’s plan for me, but it seems to qualify as a “lasting purpose” by my thinking.

    • Anonymous

      That’s semantics. Can one’s life have a meaning? Sure. You can find meaning in whatever you want. Can it have an impact on other people? Sure. But “purpose” kind of implies an intent by some intelligence.

      It’s a matter of interpretation, certainly. If the test were truly neutral, that would be a valid interpretation. But the context of the question and especially the materials provided to remedy the perceived deficiencies is really about some divine or supernatural entity.

      That’s the problem with the whole test. Even the word “spiritual fitness” doesn’t have to be religious. It’s more about mental toughness and people’s mental ability to cope with hard and traumatic situations. That’s of course a valid goal. On the surface it’s pluralistic by admitting that people have many means to cope and sources of strength. It also mentions other religions. But most of the supplementary material is very Christian and the questions are certainly slanted in that direction.

    • Annie

      I have said that if I were to die tomorrow, it would not have much of an affect on the world as a whole.  I do not want to die tomorrow, as I am enjoying a wonderful life and there is still so much more to do and see, but if I did, the world wouldn’t really miss out.  My husband and daughter would miss me, my family and friends, yes, but all in all, it wouldn’t change the course of the world.  Some think this sounds morbid, I simply think it is realistic.  I am not going to find a cure for cancer or an alternative energy solution.  Even if I live another 50 years, I will not figure out a way to feed the hungry on our planet. To me, that’s what I think of as “lasting purpose”.  If I were to answer that question honestly, I would give the same answer.

  • Estevan

    Our military needs to catch up to the 21st century.

  • Gerry

    I think this is one of the most corrosive effects of an all-volunteer army, the way christians appear to have taken over and institutionalized their belief system within the ranks. Whenever I hear another story of christian practices being the default behaviour in military units it makes me cringe.
    It shouldn’t be this way, and if we had the draft back (all the time, not just in wartime) the military would more fairly reflect the people they are protecting.

  • randall.morrison90

    Atheists who sign up with the Army are just hired killers for the American War Machine.

    I have no sympathy for them.  Their victims won’t give a damn there killers are atheists or humanists or whatever.

    • dauntless

      “People who sign up with the Army are  just hired killers for the American War Machine.”

      FTFY.

    • 59 norris

      Fail.

      H8Rs gonna H8.

  • Anonymous

    I am a civilian lay leader for an AFB Earth Based Religions group and I often wondered if an atheist would be able to do the same thing.  Guess we are finding out, I wish it wasn’t so difficult though!  We will almost certainly be going to Ft Meade as our next duty station.

  • http://twitter.com/jay_m_johnson Jay Johnson

    I fully support my fellow atheists in pursuing equality and recognition. That said, I think what often goes unsaid in these discussions is the rotting elephant in the room: It’s much easier to get young men (and increasingly women) to put mission and country before their own safety (and before that of those they are slaughtering) when they believe it’s god’s work. I’m convinced that this mentality is what allowed many in military leadership to survive and justify their own actions when they were on the battlefield, and having anyone pierce the wool they’ve pulled over their own eyes is unsettling and an affront to their entire existence. This is why we atheists, humanists and the like will always be marginalized in the military. 


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