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Is a military chaplain obligated to believe in God?

A Royal Marines bugler plays the last post alongside Naval Chaplain Andrew McFadden.
A Royal Marines bugler plays the last post alongside Naval Chaplain Andrew McFadden.

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Jason Heap grew up as a devout Christian and was once a licensed Christian minister before he lost his faith.  Still hungry for religion and spirituality, though, he decided to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Oxford in ecclesiastical history. Heap then stayed in the UK, working as a school teacher and principal, and turned his personal beliefs to the teachings of humanism, a set of philosophies that encourages people to live ethical lives without supernatural influences.

Now the 38-year-old Heap wants to make an impact back at home -- he wants to serve in the military and be the navy’s first ever humanist chaplain.  But the military has never sanctioned a humanist chaplain, and is currently holding his application for additional review.  Heap doesn’t believe in God, which has provoked a backlash from critics and caused the US House of Representatives to push for an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that requires organizations that sponsor chaplains to believe in a higher power.

Congressman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said that atheists “don’t believe anything” and that he could only imagine an atheist chaplain going to a dead soldier’s family and saying, “your son's just worms, I mean, worm food.” But Pentagon records indicate that about 1 percent of active duty members consider themselves “agnostic” or “atheist”, which represents more than Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists combined, though each of those religions have representative chaplains. 

And further, does the military have the right to restrict religious affiliations in any form, or might that violate the separation of church and state?


Herman Keizer, Retired US Army chaplain and Co-founder of the Soul Repair Center at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University

Ron Crews, Retired US Army chaplain and Executive Director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty