In applying for the chaplain position, 38-year-old Jason Heap points out that he earned master’s degrees from both Oxford University and Brite Divinity School, with substantial experience in human resources. He also successfully completed the necessary paperwork and all the required physical tests.
However, in order to be accepted as a Navy chaplain, all applicants must receive endorsements from religious organizations approved by the military. According to the Department of Defense website, this list of “ecclesiastical endorsing agents” includes representatives from over 200 different denominations and organizations. Although the majority of agents would be considered Christian, several other religions are included, such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Unitarianism.
Heap claims that because he is endorsed by the Humanist Society, he should be offered the chaplain position. However, the Navy does not recognize the Humanist Society as an endorsing agent.
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity,” the American Humanist Association’s website states.
Additionally, some argue that atheist chaplains would not offer uplifting, beneficial messages to U.S. troops. For instance, a paper endorsed by the American Humanist Association—entitled Why Was I Born?—provides the following assessment of life’s purpose:
“Apparently the purpose of human life ties to the survival of the species, and not the individual. However, even this will become irrelevant when all earthly life becomes space dust. An ultimate purpose, or meaning, for our own existence remains unanswered. The truth is there may not be one.”
Representative John Fleming of Louisiana told Fox News that he thinks the notion of having secular military chaplains is absurd.
“When it comes to the idea of an atheist chaplain, which is an oxymoron—it’s self-contradictory—what you’re really doing is now saying that we’re going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains,” he remarked. “It’s just total nonsense, the idea of having a chaplain who is an atheist … A chaplain is a minister of the faith—someone who believes in a deity of a spiritual life who is assigned to a secular organization.”
However, humanists assert that well over 10,000 active servicemen identify as atheist or agnostic, and therefore, there should be like-minded chaplains available. Along those lines, Heap says that a position as chaplain would be a chance for him “to give back to my country.”
“I want to use my skills on behalf of our people in the service,” he stated, according to Religion News Service. “Hopefully, the Navy will see where I can be useful.”
Reaction to Heap’s pursuit has been mixed. Some state that Heap is qualified, but is being unfairly withheld from the position. One commenter said the entire government system discriminates against atheists.
“I don’t think reason will be employed in this process at all,” they wrote. “From Congress, the DOD and the military brass there will be rationalizations, equivocations, euphemisms, red herrings, delays, excuses, delays, excuses, delays and excuses. There will be all manner of weapons-grade [expletive] to try to hide the bigotry, to dress up the bigotry, to distract from the bigotry, to postpone addressing the bigotry and to preserve any tiny trace of the bigotry any way possible.”
However, another commenter said Heap’s humanism would simply not be appropriate for the chaplain field.
“I am sure Mr. Heap is very intelligent,” he wrote. “However, there are other career fields in the services to provide the type of services that he’s seeking to provide. A military chaplain is someone who is supposed to be able to provide spiritual counseling, not simply objectivity.”