About 1,000 basic trainees at the Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas gather Sundays to discuss an unlikely topic: atheism.
The weekly sessions, in which trainees discuss everything from morality and ethics to grief and stress, were started by Taylor Grin, then 26, according to the Houston Chronicle.
With no chaplain-facilitated service for trainees like him, he wanted to start one — and became a key player in a national culture war playing out within the U.S. military.
With a commander’s blessing, Grin and seven others met in a lobby Sundays, picking up new members from recruits headed to nearby restrooms. The weekly meetings now attract 1,000 trainees or more, a major share of the roughly 3,800 who attend religious services each week.
What’s most surprising is the San Antonio chaplains, one of whom helped start the Humanist service in 2013, haven’t actively opposed the meetings. This is huge considering the military is often considered hostile toward atheists and their causes.
Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force officer who helped start the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, described the situation as “a battlefield.”
“The state of religious freedom in the military is critical,” Weinstein said. “The current landscape is a disaster — it’s a battlefield.”
Given the rise of the “Nones,” those who don’t identify with any organized religion, it’s almost a given that the military will be experiencing the same changing demographics and feelings toward religion that the country is seeing writ large. While conservative religious voices get louder and continue to have power, there is a growing number of people looking for other options.
In fact, as of 2015, atheists outnumber Southern Baptists in the U.S. military, according to Christianity Today.
According the latest Department of Defense statistics on religion, there were 12,360 Southern Baptists among the US military’s 1.3 million members on active duty as of December 2014. There were also 12,764 atheists — an advantage of 404 over Southern Baptists.
These are all good signs and, since atheists tend to be younger than the overall population, we can expect the military to look much different in 10 to 15 years than it does now. By then perhaps more military bases will open up services for Humanists, so that non-believers will have a place to feel welcome and learn about things that matter to secular Americans.
And who knows: Maybe it won’t be long before we have an official Humanist chaplain, too.