Where Are the Atheist Chaplains in the Military?

Yesterday, NPR covered the “Why are there no chaplains for atheists in the military?” story:

Military chaplains, most of whom are Protestant Christians, are assigned many secular advising duties, including marriage, family and suicide counseling, Torpy tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. They touch so many parts of service members’ lives, he says, they can help improve what he sees as an environment of exclusion.

“That lack of connection to atheist and humanist communities, the lack of recognition or support for atheists and humanists — that implication can be solved primarily through the chaplains’ corps,” he says.

While some might wonder what role atheists could fill in the chaplaincy, Torpy says they would be able to do the same job as any other chaplain who assists someone with different beliefs.

“There are individuals that, they don’t have those traditional religious perspectives, and some of those individuals want to serve as officers in the military,” he says. “That’s how they want to serve the nation, to do chaplain work, and they can do that in a way that Christians can’t do it.”

Are atheists actually left out in the military? Yes, that really happens:

Torpy: Going on a military mission, for example. You know, we were getting ready to roll out and everybody come in. So as the commander of this convoy, everybody come in, we’re going to do a prayer first together. We’re not going to talk about communications. We’re not going to talk about (unintelligible). We’re not going to talk about first aid. We’re not going to talk about maintenance. So I had to opt myself out of that situation, to out myself, because this commander took it upon himself to have a personal religious activity in the midst of a military mission.

This shouldn’t be a complicated decision. When you have chaplains for Buddhist, Muslims, and Jewish populations — all groups which are outnumbered by atheists — there’s no reason to not have a chaplain/counselor/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it-because-it-amounts-to-the-same-damn-idea for non-religious soldiers, too.

(Thanks to Mike for the link!)

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.

  • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

    Exactly. It’s not about taking anything away from everyone else, nor is it about atheism “becoming a religion”. It’s about something pretty damned important to the military at large serving a significant chunk of their members better.

    This is neither hard nor complicated, yet people manage it to make it both.

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    So I had to opt myself out of that situation…

    Wait!  Where’s the proselytization?  Where’s the coercion and persecution?  What about the bad performance reports for his conduct?

    Members of his unit chose to participate in an act, and he chose not to.  Both were able to exercise their freedoms.

    there’s no reason to not have a…counselor…for non-religious soldiers, too

    Your statement is a baseless insinuation.

    Prove the military does not provide non-religious counseling.

    If you cannot, please cease your gratuitous bashing of the US military over accusations you are unwilling to defend.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      Once again, here’s Maj. Dowty, trying to ensure that he and he alone is seen as the only legitimate voice of religion in the military, or more correctly, that any kind of equal treatment for non-christians is shouted down.

      Again, Maj. Dowty assumes that there is complete ignorance of how things work in the military on this site, and again, I’m part of the group showing him to be wrong. 

      We’ll make this simple:

      Prove, not assert, insinuate, but prove, with relevant links to *current* DoD regs that there is secular counseling with every.single.feature as is possessed by the chaplaincy, *including* the EXACT same levels of privileged communication that the chaplaincy has. 

      Your insistence is not enough. Again, links to publicly available DoD regs from actual DoD sources that can be independently verified. “Because JD Sez” will not actually function in this. Until you do this, your assertion that there is “no difference” between the chaplaincy and other secular counseling is hot air and bullshit. Links must point to actual DoD-run/managed web sites. 

      (note: I’ve asked the Major to do this before, he’s never come through. Then again, I guess he’s not used to being in anything but a position of power over those who don’t have superior grade to his own.)

      If you cannot, or will not do that, then cease YOUR baseless accusations of lying against everyone who doesn’t agree with your as yet unproven assertions that atheists have zero need of a chaplaincy representative. 

      Seriously, shouldn’t  you be doing something useful like, I dunno, TRAINING, or fucking with your crew chiefs instead of trolling the internet for people to try and shout down?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rob.mclauchlan Robert McLauchlan

    Their chart there really makes us look like an extreme minority, so you really have to check out the report on their site to see the real data.  They bring up a very good point when they say how it is probable that a lot of the No Religious Preference group are likely Atheist or Agnostic.  I had that on my tags for years (and, like they mention happens, I was told at basic when I asked for “Atheist” that I had to get “No Rel Pref”). 

    I keep saying we’re a much bigger chuck of the military than others like to admit.  I’m in an Army Guard unit in Texas.  It’s a pretty religious state.  In fact we’re barely 30 minuted away from Lakewood Church (Joel Osteen’s Mega-Church in Houston).  Out of the 80 or so soldiers, I can think of about 10 of us who self identify as Atheist.

    If we can get some Humanist Chaplains in the service, that would be great.  I’m definitely not comfortable talking to most of the ones I’ve met so far.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      Cue Maj. Dowty telling you you’re wrong, and you have everything that the chaplains provide in a few minutes. I honestly hope you aren’t enlisted, since then, you can’t really respond to him.

      • http://www.facebook.com/rob.mclauchlan Robert McLauchlan

        I’ve actually never heard of this Maj. Dowty guy before this.  I just looked him up and he looks like an ass.  I’ll have to look through his site at a later date.  I, thankfully, have never had to deal with his type personally, but, even as a Major, there are plenty of people who outrank him.  I don’t know his story, or what his connections might be, but if he really is saying the things that it looks like he is saying, then there is someone above him that can be contacted to correct and discipline him.  I have had to deal with harassment (not religion affiliated) from someone who far outranked me in the past, and there are channels to go through for that kind of thing.  It sounds like this guy has been harassing people for quite awhile, and I really can’t understand how its gone on for so long, based on my experience.

        • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

          Because he’s an AFA grad fighter pilot. In the Air Force, that gives you some major status. Also, in the USAF, he’s part of the proportionately small number of airmen that actually go into harms way. Unlike the Army, the majority of the USAF is not designed to go into combat.

          • http://www.facebook.com/rob.mclauchlan Robert McLauchlan

            So I took a pretty good look through Maj. Dowty’s blog.  Quite frankly, I found it to be pretty well balanced overall. Being an evangelical Christian, he obviously has many view points that I disagree with, but it seems to me that the majority of his posts are relatively balanced and fair.  The times when he seems to be at his most extreme are in the articles relating to the MRFF (of which there are quite a few).  Quite frankly, I found myself agreeing with him on some of his points.  Personally, I see the MRFF (and for that matter American Atheists) as being extreme too.  They are a small number of Atheists who generally make the rest of us look like a**holes.  There may be times when lawsuits are the way to go, but most of the stuff those two organizations do comes across as frivolous.  And when people claim they are “attacking religious freedom,” I have to agree quite often.  I’ve seen Maj. Dowty accussed of “name bashing” against a number of enlisted people who can’t respond in kind because of his rank.  There are a couple of enlisted people who were the focus of a number of his posts, but they are all people who have associated themselves with the MRFF, causing controversies where, really, none existed.  When you make waves like that, you have to expect and accept some negative attention.  Even in those cases, I didn’t feel like the Major was writing anything slanderous about these people.  He was presenting his opinion, and an opposing view of the issues at hand, often times backed up to links to other sites and articles as support.  But hey, this is all just my opinion at the moment.  If you have a specific instance when this guy was out of line, I may have missed it.  Please provide a link so I can see.

            • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

              Well, first, he insists that counselors/psychiatrists in the military are exactly as good as/provide exactly the same counseling services/have the same kinds of privileged communication as Chaplains, yet he has yet to provide any proof, and without it, he’s wrong.

              Chaplains have a few features that secular counseling can’t offer, in particularly with regard to privileged communication, yet the Major insists that difference either doesn’t exist, or “doesn’t matter”, or that “Athiests can just use existing chaplains like everyone else”. Of course, when pressed about ‘So you’d be fine with only muslim chaplains, since there’s no difference’, he has a slightly different answer. 

              But then, what’s good enough for atheists is clearly not good enough for the good major.

              He also has a habit of going after enlisted atheist bloggers, knowing full good and well that they cannot respond back in kind due to rank/grade differences. Which makes him a coward.

            • Joe

              Just an FYI, the vast majority (97%) of MRFF’s clients identify as Christian. They are just seen as “not Christian enough” and are uncomfortable with proselytization and religious favoritism/coercion.

              I’ll freely admit that Mikey Weinstein (the head of MRFF) is a bit of an ass, and the MRFF occasionally picks stupid battles. But there are no other organizations that do what MRFF does. The vast majority of their cases never make the press. And cases like Army Specialist Zach Klawonn are exactly why the US needs MRFF.

  • Dan W

    That was a good article, and I think Jason Torpy explained his reasoning for atheist chaplains well in that interview. Of course, it was on NPR, which is a fairly trustworthy news source when covering stories involving atheists. Unlike some others *cough* Fox News *cough*

  • Ndonnan

    I think the problem stems from the term “chaplin”,which really is a unique christian term. If they used the term”social worker,or councelor”,it would take away the religious conintation. A chaplin has a definate spiritual aspect..if they were called a mufti,or rabbi,same thing. The term,”athiest chaplin is clearly going to offend people,a name change would solve the issue.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      However, you’re talking about the military, an organization with a lot of inertia. If you want the name change first, you’ll be lucky to see anything happen within a decade. Get the atheist chaplain first, then worry about the name. One is metadata, the other is the actual goal.

  • Anonymous

    I hope there are never any.  I hope someday there won’t be any chaplains at all.

    • http://www.bynkii.com/ John C. Welch

      you do understand why that particular position is important, outside of religious issues, right?

  • Nazani14

    I believe the number of atheists and agnostics is higher than these charts show.  When you get your dog tags made the sergeant running the press will not tell you that “atheist” is a designation you can select, so lots of troops end up with “no religious preference” instead.  I know from personal observation that if you say “no religion,” you’ll get “no pref.”   Others are simply afraid to come out as atheist.

  • Gus Snarp

    The most interesting feature of the charts to me is only tangentially related to this particular post, namely that 66% of chaplains are “Evangelical”, defined as “seeming to prioritize proselytism”, while only 18.% of the general population hold those views. So basically, the vast majority of chaplains are doing it to proselytize to people who don’t share their sect, not to serve people who already hold those beliefs. And either those evangelicals are so driven to hold those roles that they’re crowding out other faiths entirely on their own, or they’re being helped to do it by the brass.

    • Joe

      “And either those evangelicals are so driven to hold those roles that
      they’re crowding out other faiths entirely on their own, or they’re
      being helped to do it by the brass.”

      It’s a bit of both, but it’s more that Evangelicals are seeking the roles at higher rates than other Christians. Schools like Liberty U recruit students to be military chaplains, and promote the chaplaincy as a higher calling. If I recall correctly, the large evangelical shift happened during the Vietnam era when many other religions didn’t send chaplains as they didn’t support the war effort.


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