Jason Heap Wants to be the Navy’s First Humanist Chaplain
Jason Heap wants to be a Navy chaplain. But he doesn’t believe in God.
Belief in a higher power, the 38-year-old humanist argues, has nothing to do with that work.
“I am aware there are many who would be reticent or militant against that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”
Heap submitted his application to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board earlier this month, in an effort to become the first humanist chaplain in military history.
He holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Oxford University, and has almost finished a doctorate too. He has been teaching religious studies to teenagers in Britain for the last five years and has been conducting scholarly research on 17th century Baptist literature for longer than that.
He passed his physical and is eager to become a sailor.
Supporters argue he would be a shoo-in to serve as a chaplain if he were a practicing Christian.
I think I’m missing something here in that last sentence. Are only Christians now allowed to be chaplains? The military sure has changed in the three since I left the service.
But Heap’s application comes at a time when lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing to bar atheists from joining the chaplain corps, arguing that only “religious” officials should be able to fill those roles.
Last week, House lawmakers approved an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill designed to block the Pentagon from accepting chaplains who don’t believe in a god.
“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sponsor of the amendment. “It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization.”
Christian lobbyists have called recent efforts by atheists to gain recognition in the military little more than a political stunt.
In coming weeks, the chaplains board will have to decide whether Heap is an unwelcome distraction or a qualified candidate representing an underserved belief system.
His endorsing agency is the Humanist Society, a 74-year-old organization that “prepares Humanist celebrants to lead ceremonial observances across the nation and worldwide, providing millions a meaningful alternative to traditional religious weddings, memorial services, and other life cycle events.”
The difference between atheists and humanists is more about focus than beliefs.
The American Humanist Association calls their philosophy one that “affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity … without theism and other supernatural beliefs.”
Atheism is less a philosophy than a belief that there is no god. Most humanists hold the belief that god does not exist, but build off that idea to search for provable, applicable answers to life’s problems.
Any confusion between the two terms is largely moot for the chaplains board, said Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
Heap, he argued, is a qualified candidate from an unrepresented segment of the military population with a bonafide endorsing agent. His application shouldn’t be viewed any differently than that of a Buddhist, Hindu or Christian.
“We want to participate. We want to be part of the team,” he said. “There are more atheists than any other single non-Christian group in the military. We deserve to be represented too.”
About 11,000 active duty military personnel identify themselves as atheist (military officials don’t include the term “humanist” on their forms), only about 0.8 percent of the force. About 277,000 have no religious preference.
More than 1 million servicemembers are Christian. Fewer than 40 of the military’s nearly 2,900 chaplains are affiliated with non-Christian religions.
The military doesn’t currently recognize humanism in its internal surveys.
Conservative Christian groups have been working to rally support behind the ban on atheist chaplains, arguing that religious liberties are already under attack in the military.
Last week, leaders from the Family Research Council decried an Air Force decision to take down a chaplain’s blog post titled “No atheists in foxholes” after complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose stated goal is to limit religious intimidation in the armed forces.
FRC officials insist it’s part of a larger pattern to marginalize and intimidate Christian chaplains, along with military limits on proselytizing, speaking out against homosexuality and participating in command functions with religious-specific language.
Yes, because speaking out against homosexuality is a great way to build unit cohesion and morale in units with openly gay service members. I doubt that the FRC would understand that open bigotry and hatred can destroy a unit of it’s effectiveness. Seems that they have a fetish for a pure Christian army.
Heap said he is optimistic that military officials will be more welcoming to the idea of a humanist chaplain than politicians have been.
“There is nothing on my application that does not harmonize with the guidelines set up by the military other than an endorsement from the humanists,” he said. “I have everything and more that they would require.
“I’m hoping they will follow their own rules.”