There are currently no Humanist chaplains in the military (despite there being plenty of atheists in foxholes). The lack of someone in that position also means that non-religious soldiers who want someone to talk to during stressful times have to meet with someone who doesn’t share their worldview — or, if they meet with a military psychiatrist, risk their personal information coming back to haunt them in the future, in a way that a confidential conversation with a chaplain would not.
For that reason (and so many others), groups like the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers have been trying to get the military to approve a non-theistic chaplain… to no avail. Most recently, this past summer, Jason Heap‘s candidacy was rejected by the Navy.
If chaplaincy isn’t an option, though, there is an alternative. It’s called a “lay leader,” someone who helps chaplains as they work with troops. Consider it a stepping stone to the chaplaincy, minus the official title, salary, and additional responsibilities. A few years ago, Capt. (now Major) Ryan Jean tried to become a Humanist lay leader, but the Army said no.
Over and over, every attempt to get non-religious chaplains or lay leaders has been rejected or blocked (even by Congress).
I’m thrilled to learn that the Navy has finally said yes to an atheist lay leader:
In a great leap forward for diversity of belief, commanders on the USS Makin Island have approved an Atheist Lay Leader. Chief Petty Officer Martin Healey completed lay leader training, got assistance and an endorsement by way of Paul Loebe of American Atheists, and was approved.
This is a big freaking deal. If the appointment goes well, it could hopefully lead to more non-theistic lay leaders in other branches of the military — and maybe even a chaplain in the not-too-distant future.
Major Jean, speaking only from his personal experience and not on behalf of any government agency, had this to say: “Recognition of CTTC Healey as a lay leader, whether under the banner of atheism or humanism, represents a positive step forward for the Navy. It remains to be seen whether that respect and inclusiveness will be honored by the other services… Every service has values that they hold dear; it’s well past time they started living up to them when it comes to the equal and unbiased treatment of non-religious service members.”
Jason Torpy, President of MAAF, hopes this is just the first of many more steps forward:
It’s time to set aside semantic barriers and recognize that many military personnel are good without a god and that they’ll be better with equal accommodation. That means chaplain services, lay leaders, and Humanist chaplains, not just the right to sit in a corner alone while others pray.
Healey has already met with a handful of atheists on the ship to discuss their values and background. Next week, they plan to watch an episode of Cosmos together.
(Image via Shutterstock)