Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population.
More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference—a proportion of whom may also be non-theist. Since 1993, the chaplaincy has welcomed Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist chaplains, but Christians still comprise more than 90 percent of the current chaplain corps. For humanists, atheists, and their allies, the absence of any representative leaders within the chaplaincy remains a significant problem as it leaves them without any official support.
The military chaplaincy is as old as the nation itself, but its recognition of and commitment to ecumenism and pluralism developed slowly over the twentieth century. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, only mainline Protestants and Catholics served as military clergy. Six months—and a successful lobbying effort—later, Congress formally opened the chaplaincy to Christian Scientists, the Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, and the Salvation Army. Military demobilization after the war ended may have thwarted this tentative step toward a more religiously inclusive military, for only a small percentage of chaplains remained in the peacetime armed forces. The 1920 National Defense Act granted the chaplaincy organizational autonomy and permanent leadership in the form of a Chief of Chaplains. Buoyed by positive feedback about interfaith cooperation in the midst of war, the chaplaincy embarked on an expansive effort to define and refine its work in times of peace.
In 1926, the Army convened an array of military, civilian, religious, and lay leaders for a “Pan-Denominational Conference” on the moral welfare of soldiers. The invitation list was extensive, spanning numerous denominations, crossing the color-line, and bridging political differences. But one group was explicitly not invited: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA).
Feeling spurned, the AAAA lodged a complaint with the secretary of war, who saw little merit in their plea. Without a commitment to the paired mission of God and country, atheists seemed to fall outside the chaplaincy and the conference’s ecumenical rubric. Then again, the AAAA’s concurrent effort to sue the military for breaching the First Amendment’s establishment clause by paying chaplains presumably didn’t help their cause.
During the interwar years, atheists couldn’t shake this antagonistic relationship. By the late 1930s, critics lambasted atheists as a threat to American ideals and to the country’s preparedness for war. Opponents lumped together atheists and pacifists (a rather odd pairing, given the deep religious roots of many pacifist groups in the 1930s). They perceived atheists as agitators rather than interlocutors. Irreligion and unbelief imperiled the nation, as the imagined atheist-pacifist threat menaced religious patriots and loyal soldiers alike.
During World War II, as chaplains surveyed the religious preferences of their units, some acknowledged the presence of atheists among enlisted men and officers—not as dangers, but as an unremarkable, if tiny, presence. Moreover, when the military desperately needed more chaplains to serve its rapidly swelling ranks, the Humanist Society of Friends (the predecessor group to today’s Humanist Society) offered their services. A nontheistic division of Quakers who had split off from their theistic, pacifist counterparts, these humanists strove to meet their patriotic obligations as non-combatant chaplains. The Army chaplaincy again resisted, declining to take up the humanist offer.
But this time the refusal was different. Unlike the 1920s rebuff, lack of belief did not propel the War Department’s response. Instead, insufficient numbers did. Army policy dictated that chaplains were allocated to groups with a minimum of 100,000 adherents according to the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies. The Humanist Society of Friends—like a number of fundamentalist Christian churches who also volunteered their ministers—failed to reach the necessary threshold.
Demographics have long played an important but inconsistent role in determining how to apportion chaplains. For almost 50 years, from World War II until 1988, the military used a quota system intended to reflect the religious composition of American society. On the one hand, this policy enabled some minority religious groups, like Jews, Christian Scientists, and Mormons, to establish a foothold in military chaplaincy. On the other hand, numbers could be dismissed. When Japanese-Americans petitioned for Buddhist chaplains during World War II, the Army conducted a half-hearted search that concluded when Christian chaplains assured military leaders they could do the job. The Buddhist experience is telling because it highlights how the absence of even a single religious representative eliminates an internal voice of expertise about the actual, rather than perceived, needs of a faith.
The Cold War continued the specter of atheism as dangerous and atheists as potentially disloyal. But the 1950s also offered non-theist American soldiers a glimmer of hope. For the first time, men could use their dog tags to announce they were not Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Initially, non-theists, like their religiously excluded counterparts—such as the Eastern Orthodox or Buddhists—acquired the abbreviation of “X” for “Other” or “Y” for “no statement” to signify they stood apart from the nation’s dominant tri-faith religious configuration. By the early 1960s, all Americans could write out their religious preference—in 18 letters or less. Atheist or humanist would fit, although regulations did not highlight these options.
In 1969, a landmark court case heightened awareness of non-theists and the military—but through resistance to military service, rather than through participation in it. In Welsh v. U.S., a plurality of the Supreme Court ruled that conscientious objection to war need not be rooted in religious belief. Rather, moral and ethical convictions, so long as they were not “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical” views could earn conscripts exemption from the reach of the draft.
Although the Welsh decision enabled non-theists to stay out of the armed forces, it did little to aid those who wore the uniform. Michael Dean Hagen, an atheist Naval corpsman, acutely felt the exclusion of services for men like him and launched a concerted effort to bring atheist leaders into military space. Being lumped together with “various indecisive Christians, apathetic individuals and agnostics” in the “no religious preference” category bothered him because, he stated, “I do have a preference. I don’t believe in God.”
In 1979, the petty officer proposed the creation of an Armed Forces Atheist Council. Backed by several other Naval personnel and civilian supporters, Hagen asserted that the group would “provide unparalleled opportunity for non-theist oriented military personnel to find and create more meaning in their lives.” To do so, it would serve as a clearinghouse for material “recommended by various national atheist groups” as well as organizations such as the American Humanist Association. It would also unite non-theists in fellowship and provide non-spiritual pastoral counseling to those in need. Its mission would be educational as well, providing information to those personnel who self-identify as “other” or “no religious preference” because they were unaware of the full array of options and ease the way for those “frightened by the traditional social stigma.”
Hagen and the chaplaincy regarded one another with wariness. The non-believers wanted an atheist alternative to the religious chaplaincy because, like some current non-theist personnel, they found it difficult to relate to “Judeo-Christian indoctrinated clergy.” The military acceded to the view of “a basic incompatibility between the military chaplaincy and the envisioned Armed Forces Atheistic Council” because the former emphasized a belief in God and the latter disbelief. Dismissing atheism as mere “philosophy,” the Department of Defense denied the application to create an atheist council.
Still, Hagen had some support from within the service. Unitarian Universalist Navy Chaplain Jim M. Bank cautioned that the Hagen’s efforts highlighted the failure of the military chaplaincy to do its job. The military’s “commitment to religious pluralism” worked only when “all chaplains help all people” and “aid them in achieving religious wholeness as they—not we—see it.” Prospective Muslim or Buddhist chaplains, he remarked, could not be commissioned if they didn’t aid Christians or Jews. Why, then, would humanist or atheist chaplains be any different? Just as religious chaplains needed to find ways to reach non-religious personnel, he insisted, so too would non-theist chaplains need to serve religious personnel.
Civilian Unitarian Universalist clergy, whose congregations and pastoral leadership often included atheists, agnostics, and humanists, also advocated for the appointment of a Humanist chaplain. In Sacramento, the Rev. Theodore A. Webb explained that definitions of religion vary widely, and the decision to exclude atheists and humanists as non-religious was just “a statement of opinion.” He warned that legal trouble lay ahead.
While Webb did not articulate the legal problem, the Welsh plurality opinion had, in fact, implicitly disclosed the crux of the problem non-theists posed to the chaplaincy—and the issue that continues to bedevil the military today. The five votes that earned Elliot Welsh conscientious objector status in 1969 arose from two very different lines of reasoning. On the one hand, four justices led by Hugo Black saw non-religious belief as functionally equivalent to religious belief, and thus warranted the same accommodations. On the other hand, Justice Harlan argued that religious and non-religious belief were distinct but nevertheless required equal and non-preferential treatment. Meanwhile, the 3-justice dissent saw Welsh as non-religious and thus standing outside First Amendment protection.
These positions—that non-belief and belief are equal and deserve comparable treatment, that they are unequal but merit comparable treatment, or that they are unequal and don’t need comparable treatment—reflect the arguments made in current debates about whether the military ought to employ humanist chaplains and/or make space for atheist events.
Jason Torpy, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, serves as president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. In an interview with The New York Times, Torpy argued, “Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.” In contrast, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who introduced legislation to forbid the Department of Defense from appointing humanist chaplains, asserted in a statement, “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron.” Despite the chasm between their views, Fleming and Torpy agree on one thing: that all chaplains must serve all personnel. For Fleming, this means there is no need for a non-theist chaplain because what he deems a “true chaplain” will provide adequate coverage for atheists, while for Torpy, the commitment to serve all means that a humanist chaplain is just as capable of organizing a Catholic service as any other non-Catholic chaplain is.
When a reporter from Religion News Service recently asked the Department of Defense why there are no non-theist chaplains, a DOD spokesman said the department “does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” This position ducks answering the question posed by the Navy Times in 1979—“who supports the atheists in the military”—by failing to address exactly how the military understands atheism. Is atheism, per the Welsh rubric, functionally equivalent to religion? Is it distinct but sufficiently like religion? Or, is atheism not at all like religion?
If there seems to be a stalemate about how to respond to the prospect of humanist and atheist chaplains, it’s because there is. But it’s clear that the experience of atheists and humanists in the military follows historic patterns of resistance and accommodation experienced by other minority and marginalized groups. And, unlike in previous eras, there is a significant and growing population of non-theists in the armed forces. Whether the chaplaincy extends its mottos of “unity without uniformity” and “cooperation without compromise” to include non-believers remains to be seen.
Ronit Y. Stahl is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.