“We are trying to work up to what Sacred Well has,” says Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. He is referring to the Sacred Well Congregation, a Wiccan church headquartered in Missouri.
Although the Sacred Well has not yet succeeded in having the military accept a member of its clergy into the chaplaincy, it is a recognized denomination in the military. This means that chaplains have to provide Wiccan lay leaders with logistical help, such as finding them a space for meetings or assistance in accessing study materials. Chaplains routinely do this for Christian, Jewish and other religious lay leaders in the military.
Humanists have no such standing in the military, where many balk at classifying non-theistic belief systems under the rubric of religion. This comes out most clearly in discussions surrounding calls for humanist chaplains. Indeed, a humanist who holds a divinity degree and an endorsement from the Humanist Society has submitted an application to the Navy to become a chaplain. This triggered fierce reactions — “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” Rep. John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, told reporters in June.
Not surprisingly, the humanist chaplain application “has lingered for three months,” says Torpy whose expression indicates he doesn’t expect a resolution any time soon. This may explain why he has set his sights on achieving what the Wiccans have: the ability for humanist troops to become lay leaders. In this role, they would be trained to assist the growing number of troops who profess no religious affiliation yet struggle with the same life issues as other servicemen and women. Indeed, humanist, atheists and agnostics a growing demographic of so-called NONES, Americans who do not identify with any religion and who, today, account for 30% of Americans under thirty.
As evidence of increasing support for the recognition of humanists and atheists, Torpy points to a petition signed by a diverse range of individuals and organizations, including some Christian churches. In calling for ” chaplaincy for all troops,” the petitioner ask “our national leaders to assure that military chaplains can adequately address the needs of the men and women in the Armed Services by providing support to humanists and other nontheists and by accepting otherwise qualified chaplain candidates who represent nontheistic beliefs.”
But there is also staunch opposition, witness the amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill that, if passed by the Senate, would bar the military from appointing a chaplain who does not have the endorsement of a religious organization.
As much as Torpy and believes that non-theists “need a humanist chaplain who can help them live the well-examined life,” his short-term goal is to gain recognition for lay leaders. “Five thousand chaplains are not supporting atheists,” he says. He wants that to change. First, though, the military would have to recognize lay leaders representing a non-religious worldview.
We caught up with him at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Austin where he sat on a panel that, over breakfast, illustrated to a room full of journalists the diversity within the ranks of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other non-theists.