Navy Refuses to Approve First Atheist Chaplain

Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Jason Heap (photo courtesy of Jason Heap)

The U.S. military has undergone some dramatic cultural changes in recent years, including the lifting of the ban on gays openly serving in uniform. But at least one branch of the armed services isn’t quite ready for another transformation: the installation of an openly humanist chaplain.


Last year 38-year-old Jason Heap, applied to become the U.S. Navy’s first humanist chaplain. According to the American Humanist Association, humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms a person’s ability and responsibility to lead an ethical life of personal fulfillment that aspires to the greater good of humanity.


Heap’s credentials include a degree in ecclesiastical history from Oxford, as well as years of teaching and spiritual guidance work. The Navy, however, turned him down.


When asked about the decision, a naval spokesperson, Christianne M. Witten, told The Atlantic that hiring new chaplains is “a very competitive process.”


The Atlantic’s Emma Green noted that “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.”


The chaplain corps in the U.S. military is currently dominated by Christians, particularly evangelicals. More than 90% of chaplains represent Christianity, and half of those are from evangelical denominations, according to Green.


Other faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, are represented. But out of the military’s 2,856 chaplains, only 40 are identified as non-Christians.


However, there are humanist chaplains serving now. There are at least two chaplains who have been sponsored by Christian denominations who are humanist, according to Religion News Service. They would like to be identified as such, but fear being dismissed if they are. In 2007, a chaplain asked that his designation be changed from Pentecostal to Wicca. He was fired.  

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

If You Serve Your Country, Do You Have to Serve God? (by Emma Green, The Atlantic)

Humanists Want a Military Chaplain to Call Their Own (by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service)

Atheists in Foxholes Demand Recognition (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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