An Atheist Protects a Chaplain in the Navy September 11, 2010

An Atheist Protects a Chaplain in the Navy

***Update***: I posted this earlier with incorrect information. Now that I’ve had a chance to fix it, I’m reposting it with the old comments still intact. Sorry for any confusion!

Last week, the Wall Street Journal had a really excellent article profiling Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, the atheist whose job it is to protect Bible-believing Navy Chaplain Terry Moran.

“He trusts God to keep him safe,” says RP2 Chute. “And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”

[Chute] rose to the rank of RP2, the equivalent of an Army sergeant, and worked with three other chaplains before he was paired with Lt. Moran late last year.

Soon after they were assigned to work together, they had the inevitable discussion about RP2 Chute’s beliefs.

At first the chaplain got the sense RP2 Chute was agnostic. “I can work with that,” Lt. Moran recalls thinking.

But a few days later RP2 Chute dropped the A bomb: He was an atheist.

They work together but it doesn’t mean they have to agree:

Lt. Moran told Bible stories about angels, but met with silence when he asked the Marines to relate their favorite angel stories. “Even now, where we are, I believe there are angels present,” he said.

RP2 Chute looked on, his impassiveness masking his disdain for talk of angels. “It’s frustrating to listen to him tell people things I know not to be true, but I know it’s not my place to get involved when people come to him for help,” he said later.

There are times, however, when RP2 Chute feels he has to intervene and looses his own ample arsenal of biblical references, dredged up from his Baptist boyhood and doubting teenage years.

I’m glad the article portrays Chute in a positive light — then again, why wouldn’t it? He’s providing an important service.

As I read the article, I was disappointed that the issue of chaplain demographics never came up.

When the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers did their own research last year, the demographics for military chaplains didn’t show much diversity…

Considering all the atheists who serve in foxholes, there’s really no one to cater to them specifically.

Maybe we can eventually see the percentage of military chaplains come close to resembling the percentage of non-theists in the military overall.

(Thanks to everyone for the link!)

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  • TSC

    Hemant, you say that “I think I’m probably more impressed by the simple fact that there’s an atheist in Navy chaplaincy at all.” Is he really in the chaplaincy, though? From what I understand, he is there to provide security for the chaplain, since chaplains cannot carry arms, even in a combat zone:

    “‘We’re here for security,’ says RP2 Chute. ‘We’re not junior chaplains.'”

    So it’s not like he’s an atheist chaplain, like some militaries have. Or am I misunderstanding you?

  • Jason Baur

    RP2 Chute isn’t a chaplain though, he’s the chaplain’s bodyguard. The one who actually carries a gun. Hence the really awesome quote you bolded in the first excerpt.

  • Sackbut

    Chute is not a chaplain. He’s an assistant to the chaplain, not an assistant chaplain. As mentioned in the article, “The 460 Army, Navy and Air Force chaplains deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are prohibited from carrying weapons, counting on their assistants and the troops around them for protection.” Also: “The military says it’s common for assistants to be of different faiths from the chaplains they support, or of no faith at all.”

  • frank

    Why would anyone want to see a nontheist military chaplain? The very notion is utterly incoherent and potentially harmful to the movement. Our goal should be to completely abolish military chaplaincy, not to participate in it.

  • TSC

    @ frank:

    Presumably for the same reason that atheists ask Richard Wade for advice.

  • False Prophet

    Wait a second, is that MAAF study suggesting that up to a quarter of the US military may be atheist/agnostic? And that evangelicals are only 18.5% of the military when they’re 30+% of the population?

  • frank


    Richard Wade is a trained psychologist, not a member of the clergy. Psychologists already exist in the military, and perform their professional duties serving all members of the military regardless of their personal faith. If there is some connection between him and clergy that would legitimate the notion of atheist clergy in the military, I am unable to see what it might be.

  • As already mentioned Chute is the Navy’s version of a Chaplain’s assistant. When I was enrolled in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary I was in the application process to become a US Army Chaplain Candidate and was elected president of the seminary’s Chaplains Club. Since I was facing a lot of doubts I looked into what would be required to keep in the Chaplaincy if I left the SDA church. Chaplains are required to be endorsed by a DoD recognized religious institution and to hold a Master of Divinity or equivalent degree recognized by a national organization that accredits seminaries. The closest thing you will find is a Unitarian chaplain. I put my application on hold until I worked through my doubts and dropped out of the church and seminary.

    For their to be a true atheist chaplain would require a group such as American Atheists to gain DoD recognition as an endorsing religious body and start a seminary. I would have to say that I have to agree with Frank and say that we should get the chaplain corp disbanded.

  • He’s not a chaplain, he’s more like an assistant to the chaplain. An RP on a ship will perform maintenance for the chapel and associated divisional spaces (including a library on my ship, for example).

    I’d imagine that’s different when working with the Marines, but like most sailors, he will be switched to various assignments.

    While RP’s usually also act as lay leaders to the chaplain, they aren’t actually preaching or doing mandatory evening prayers (gag) like the chaplains are.

    Still, it’s encouraging! Would have loved to see the look on LT Moran’s face when he heard the “A bomb”…

  • I got the same result when I put the link to my blog. LOL!

  • While assistants to chaplains aren’t assistant chaplains, as “Sackbut” said, it isn’t unusual for service members to go to these assistants for advice and such if the service members feel that the assistant can be trusted. When I was in Korea, it was rare for people to contact the chaplain unless the problem was major. Instead, the assistant to the chaplain was the one sought out for advice. Whether RP2 Chute is considered trustworthy by his fellow sailors I can not tell from this post, but it is possible that he is more than a bodyguard for the chaplain he protects.

    Thank you, Hemant, for showing the demographics of the military alongside the demographics of the chaplaincy. This is a big problem that I’m not sure how to fix. For starters, we need to get a lot more humanist chaplains into the military.

  • Lindsay

    As a few people said earlier, Chute is not a chaplain. The Navy rate, RP, is religious program specialist. What I find really interesting about the article is that an atheist would choose that particular specialty.

  • JoeBuddha

    Sorry, but I can’t get past the name…

  • Jeri

    I am in the Air Force, and I really wish there were an Atheist Chaplain, or at least a Humanist one.
    When we deploy they make us listen to briefings from the chaplains both before going and before returning home. It’s along the lines of counseling and for our ‘spiritual’ health.
    Being deployed is very stressful and it would be nice to have a counselor type person who will just listen and help you talk through your issues without trying to convert you as their religion (at least the evangelical ones) dictate. They are not supposed to ‘convert’ you, but they repeatedly bring up god as a ‘solution’ when you are vulnerable and homesick.
    It’s seen as a good thing if you go talk to the chaplain’s office about your issues, but if you go to the mental health office, it’s got a bad stigma and they worry if you are fit for duty. They don’t have non-medical, secularized therapy to fill that niche that Chaplains do. I know that many people who are minority faiths, like Wiccan would feel much more comfortable confiding in a secular councilor than a christian one.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this deficit of the military to meet the psychological needs of a significant portion of their people.

  • Hi all — thanks for the correction. I’ve updated the post to reflect the piece more accurately. I obviously misread it the first time around.

  • Erp

    There might be atheistic Unitarian Universalist chaplains; however, UU military chaplains atheistic or otherwise are also pretty rare. One of them does call himself a spiritual humanist.

    See their requirements

  • April

    These statistics must be faulty. They suggest that there are around the same amount of atheists in the military as there are “other Christians.” This cannot be correct. As an atheist military family, we never feel so marginalized in our lack of beliefs as we do when we are around other military families.

  • AxeGrrl

    “He trusts God to keep him safe,” says RP2 Chute. “And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”

    Hasn’t the chaplain ever seen the 1953 version of “War of the Worlds”?

    Scene: priest walking towards one of the alien ships, reciting Psalm 23….


  • Maliknant

    If he trusts god to keep him safe, maybe someone should show him the graph illustrating the hundreds of chaplains killed in action.

  • Iggy


    Actually, the first chaplain KIA since Vietnam happened this month. Was in a Humvee that got hit going from FOB to FOB in Afghanistan.

    That being said, I’ve been trying to become a Humanist Chaplain in the Air Force (currently active duty) for a couple years now.. getting the DoD to accept it for entry into their corps is still the tricky part. Currently working on the equivalents of the degrees needed, still.. long process. Sadly, the closest an Atheist can come to doing what a chaplain does is getting any number of psychology degrees and work in public health, assuming they get a commission.

  • Randy

    I wonder if he was an athiest before becoming an RP or it happened later. Seems a strange choice for an athiest.

    I still recall going out on liberty in the Phillipines and the chaplin on the quarterdeck handing out condoms saying “have fun, be careful…”

  • Steve

    Read the article. It says it all there. And it’s pretty interesting overall.

    He was raised very religiously and read the Bible a lot. It’s just that study that awakened and strengthened his skepticism.

    The reason he went for this career field is that he is Canadian and felt that a most of the really interesting jobs were closed to him as an immigrant.

  • Mitch

    It is really impossible to tell what “No Preference” really means. I’ve met quite religious people who list their religion as “No Preference” – some of whom are quite conventional in their religious self-understanding. Sometimes, what they really mean is is “no denominational preference” – which is typical of some fundamentalists who eschew denominationalism. I encourage service members to be specific as possible. I can’t tell if “No preference” means “Stay away from me with that religious stuff” or “I’ll take whatever you’re giving – I like it all” or “I don’t really want to think about it right now.” Less than 1% of the Army self-declares as Atheist – more than declare themselves as Jews, Muslims or Orthodox – but still a small number. It’s possible that some of the “No preference” service members self-identify as atheists or agnostics, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that they all do.

  • JJ

    Actually, there has been a growing atheist/humanist chaplaincy movement. Since chaplains today, by and large, are NOT ordained clergy anymore but are rather well educated autonomous individuals who have the credentials to be a chaplain, but are not attached to any particular church, we will, hopefully see more atheists/humanists moving into these positions. Many universities have humanist chaplains. I am an atheist chaplain working in a Roman Catholic school system.

  • Randy

    Thats what you get for skimming! Thanks

  • raisedbybadgers

    These statistics must be faulty. […] As an atheist military family, we never feel so marginalized in our lack of beliefs as we do when we are around other military families.

    It’s easy to conflate “No religious preference” with “atheist”, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing. In the service, most of the other NoRelPrefs I met were apatheists, agnostics, or de facto deists (I self-identified as agnostic). Two or three were actually, in some sense, believers, but didn’t think it was any of the Navy’s business what they believed.

    I suspect the percentage of Evangelicals in the US military rose significantly as both those demographics became overwhelmingly Republican blocs.

  • JD

    When the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers did their own research…, the demographics for military chaplains didn’t show much diversity…
    As someone else noted, the demographics the MAAF cited were misrepresented, because they included “no religious preference” with atheist/agnostic. Those who actually declared atheistic/agnostic were 0.5%, not 23.4%, as shown here.

    To put it in perspective, Nidal Malik Hasan declared “no religious preference” in his records.

    Think he was a nontheist?

  • Chris

    Many of us, myself included, officially declare “no pref” to avoid the dreaded label of atheist. Your boss, your chain of command, all get access to your personal data, to include religious preference. I use “no pref” to avoid discrimination.

    It is an unfortunate truth in today’s military.

    And yes, there needs to be a non-spiritual counseling option that provides servicemembers with the same level of confidentiality that chaplains do.

  • Elliott

    I myself am an RP I reciently have come out as an athiest. Some accept it better than others. I think it makes me a better RP, I really don’t care what you believe. I support your right to do so.

  • When listing my personal religious preference, I have never seen an “atheist/agnostic” selection. The closest is “none.” So while certainly not all the “no religious preference” are atheists, there are probably more of them than .5%

  • Rick

    Just a couple of things to point out: first, @raisedbybadgers and @Chris, there are reasons for giving preferences, it has to do with prayer fellowship, table fellowship, and unionism. Some folks still believe in those concepts. ( I am a confessional Lutheran, btw)
    Second, the charts are woefully inadequate, as they portray many cults and non-Christian religions as Christian. I realize that from where atheists stand, either we are or aren’t, it would just be nice if someone who put all that time and effort into compiling data could properly expound or explain the data they compiled.
    My .02 cents worth.

    Blessings, ladies and gentlemen.

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