Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers, is among those who have pushed recently to create a “chaplain” position for atheists and secular humanists. While this is an inherent contradiction, supporters argue atheists in the military need individuals to “pro-actively reach out to them and facilitate meetings.” Torpy claims chaplains do not provide enough “positive outreach and support” in the way “they do for all of those beliefs that aren’t their own.” Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, stated, “Chaplains for nontheistic military service members are absolutely crucial for so many men and women who are serving our country. Religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic service members and unfortunately, seeking psychiatric help can stigmatize a service member for the rest of their career.”
Last month, lawmakers rejected a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would have created the position. Yesterday, lawmakers approved a Republican-sponsored amendment to a defense budget bill that requires military chaplains to be affiliated with a particular faith. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), stated, “When it comes to the idea of an atheist chaplain, which is an oxymoron – it’s self-contradictory – what you’re really doing is now saying that we’re going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains. It’s just total nonsense, the idea of having a chaplain who is an atheist.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who also serves as an Air Force chaplain, said he has often dealt with atheists who were simply asking for help with their problems. He remarked, “What I have found is so many times people in our world today just need someone to listen.” Collins disagreed with the idea of creating a new atheist-specific position, noting other counseling services are available. He added, “They need to come at it differently instead of just saying we want an atheist chaplain. I think there’s plenty of opportunities for them to talk.”
The military has all types of counselors available for its members, including psychologists and psychiatrists. Nonetheless, Torpy and his cohorts want a specific non-faith chaplain role established. The MAAFT head noted that the Humanist Society is recognized as a religious organization by the Internal Revenue Agency, “Basically, the standard is to be recognized as a church by the Internal Revenue Service.” The Pentagon could still determine to permit atheistic/humanistic chaplains, but members of Congress just voted 253-173 to prohibit the post.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) to allow atheistic chaplains was defeated. The pair declared erroneously that it was unfair for non-religious service members to only be appointed mental health professionals, while religious service members benefitted from a chaplain representing their faith. Chaplains, regardless of religious affiliation, serve all members of the military. Just as atheistic members sought help from Rep. Collins in his role as an Air Force chaplain, current military members may seek counseling from chaplains. Nothing whatsoever prohibits them from receiving help.