WASHINGTON -- Jason Heap wants to be a Navy chaplain. But he doesn’t believe in God.
Belief in a higher power, the 38-year-old humanist argues, has nothing to do with that work.
“I am aware there are many who would be reticent or militant against that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”
Heap submitted his application to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board earlier this month, in an effort to become the first humanist chaplain in military history.
He holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Oxford University, and has almost finished a doctorate too. He has been teaching religious studies to teenagers in Britain for the last five years and has been conducting scholarly research on 17th century Baptist literature for longer than that.
He passed his physical and is eager to become a sailor.
Supporters argue he would be a shoo-in to serve as a chaplain if he were a practicing Christian.
But Heap’s application comes at a time when lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing to bar atheists from joining the chaplain corps, arguing that only “religious” officials should be able to fill those roles.
Last week, House lawmakers approved an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill designed to block the Pentagon from accepting chaplains who don’t believe in a god.
“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sponsor of the amendment. “It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization.”
Christian lobbyists have called recent efforts by atheists to gain recognition in the military little more than a political stunt.
Heap said the timing of his application is coincidental and somewhat unfortunate.
“I’m not doing this just to make a point,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to serve and give back to my country.”
In coming weeks, the chaplains board will have to decide whether Heap is an unwelcome distraction or a qualified candidate representing an underserved belief system.
His endorsing agency is the Humanist Society, a 74-year-old organization that “prepares Humanist celebrants to lead ceremonial observances across the nation and worldwide, providing millions a meaningful alternative to traditional religious weddings, memorial services, and other life cycle events.”
The difference between atheists and humanists is more about focus than beliefs.
The American Humanist Association calls their philosophy one that “affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity … without theism and other supernatural beliefs.”
Atheism is less a philosophy than a belief that there is no god. Most humanists hold the belief that god does not exist, but build off that idea to search for provable, applicable answers to life’s problems.
Any confusion between the two terms is largely moot for the chaplains board, said Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
Heap, he argued, is a qualified candidate from an unrepresented segment of the military population with a bonafide endorsing agent. His application shouldn’t be viewed any differently than that of a Buddhist, Hindu or Christian.
“We want to participate. We want to be part of the team,” he said. “There are more atheists than any other single non-Christian group in the military. We deserve to be represented too.”
About 11,000 active duty military personnel identify themselves as atheist (military officials don’t include the term “humanist” on their forms), only about 0.8 percent of the force. About 277,000 have no religious preference.
More than 1 million servicemembers are Christian. Fewer than 40 of the military’s nearly 2,900 chaplains are affiliated with non-Christian religions.
The military doesn’t currently recognize humanism in its internal surveys..
Regardless of their religion, military chaplains are expected to minister to a wide variety of faiths and backgrounds, acting as a counselor and morale official for a variety of non-religious functions.
Pentagon rules state that chaplains “may not forcibly attempt to convert others of any faith or no faith to their own beliefs,” and that the Defense Department “seeks a reasonable religious accommodation for all servicemembers.”
Each of the services lays out expectations for chaplains to help troops practice their faith, regardless whether they share those beliefs.
But Torpy said that isn’t happening, at least not for non-believers.
Military chaplains have been willing to help troops of other faiths find resources to help with their personal struggles, but have been unwilling in the past to share websites and literature from atheist and humanist groups in the same way.
“It seems like if you don’t believe in a god, they won’t help you,” he said.
Heap said he has heard those complaints from numerous members of the military, which has spurred his desire to serve even more.
“As a chaplain, I would have no mediation between troops and a higher power,” he said. “I’m not a shaman or a priest. I’m a counsel. I’m someone who is looking for new ways of thinking.”
Heap grew up in Texas and has lived overseas since 2000, traveling the world on a U.S. passport.
He grew up in “Lutheran and Baptist circles” before moving into humanism. The draw of religious studies and interaction as a career, he said, comes in part from his personal searches.
“Religion is existential. It’s where people begin to think about, ‘Is there more to life than just me?’” he said. “It’s one of the most special utterings of human aspiration, desire, fear. It’s people trying to come to grips with the natural order of life.”
Heap talks about European cathedrals as museums and pictures from the Hubble telescope as almost spiritual inspiration. He’s set to marry his British girlfriend in mid-August, not in a church, or course.
He expects some conservative servicemembers to be skeptical of his beliefs but hopes the majority won’t be fearful or angry. His goal is simply to help minister to troops, but without talk of a god.
“It takes education, and I don’t expect an immediate transformation,” he said.
Conservative Christian groups have been working to rally support behind the ban on atheist chaplains, arguing that religious liberties are already under attack in the military.
Last week, leaders from the Family Research Council decried an Air Force decision to take down a chaplain’s blog post titled “No atheists in foxholes” after complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose stated goal is to limit religious intimidation in the armed forces.
FRC officials insist it’s part of a larger pattern to marginalize and intimidate Christian chaplains, along with military limits on proselytizing, speaking out against homosexuality and participating in command functions with religious-specific language.
“Like it or not, a chaplain’s duties, by definition, are to offer prayer, spiritual guidance and religious instruction,” FRC president Tony Perkins said in a statement.
Since none of the services specify a belief in god in their chaplain duties, much of the fight is over semantics. Army chaplains are required to “act as staff officer for all matters in which religion impacts on command programs, personnel, policies and procedures.”
Navy chaplains are instructed to “nurture the spiritual well-being of those around you.” Air Force chaplains’ job description includes for “providing spiritual care and the opportunity for airmen ... to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”
Groups like FRC argue that atheism and humanism aren’t a religion, because they don’t believe in any higher power.
Supporters of those groups call that an overly strict interpretation of the word “religion,” and note that the Internal Revenue Service recognizes humanist and atheist groups the same as churches and synagogues when it comes to taxes.
They also accuse the Christian groups of attempted intimidation, by pushing to normalize hate speech against gays and non-believers.
It’s unclear if Fleming’s amendment, which passed the House by a 253-173 vote, will survive a Senate conference, or if it can actually stop atheists from becoming chaplains.
The language bars the Department of Defense from appointing chaplains without an endorsing agency, but several groups (including The Humanist Society, who is backing Heap) have said they would fulfill that role if the Armed Forces Chaplains Board will approve them.
Torpy said he has been frustrated so far by the silence coming from the chaplains board on the issue and Heap’s application. The Defense Department would not comment on his application, and Torpy said his efforts to discuss the issue with officials has been met with only curt replies.
He said MAAF knows of several practicing Christian chaplains who would be willing to shift into a humanist role if Heap’s application is approved. But, without a recognized endorsing agent, they risk dismissal from their posts if they publicly renounce their faiths.
Heap said he is optimistic that military officials will be more welcoming to the idea of a humanist chaplain than politicians have been.
“There is nothing on my application that does not harmonize with the guidelines set up by the military other than an endorsement from the humanists,” he said. “I have everything and more that they would require.
“I’m hoping they will follow their own rules.”