Interfaith leaders support humanist chaplaincy

freedom means freedom for all

True freedom means freedom for all

Jason Heap, a Humanist Celebrant with Masters degrees from Brite Divinity school and Oxford Theology, has applied to be a humanist chaplain. Some Christians have decided to treat his application as a threat, denouncing the idea as an ‘oxymoron’ and ‘contradiction in terms’. Other Christians and chaplaincy professionals have decided to speak for themselves. A broad coalition of seminarians, denominational leaders, chaplain professionals, and actual humanist chaplains has signed onto a letter in support of humanist chaplaincy and chaplain support of humanists. With strong interfaith support, humanist chaplaincy can no longer be simply dismissed.

The Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a member organization of chaplains and chaplain professionals with roots in the LGBT Rights movement, has led the coalition along with the Co-Directors of the Soul Recovery Center at Brite Divinity School. Joining is the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers and Jason Heap’s endorsing agency, The Humanist Society. As of its initial posting, the letter was signed by leaders including the Dr Newell Williams, President of Brite Divinity School, Rev Dr Rebecca Parker, President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Lt Col Erwin Kamp, the Dutch-equivalent to the National Director for chaplains of the Dutch veterans administration who is himself an experienced military humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, and Rev Sarah Lammert, Endorser for UU military chaplains, on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Such broad-based and growing support of professionals and experts should make it easy for the Department of Defense and the Navy to open their doors to diversity of belief that includes humanists and other nontheists.

The language is strongly worded calling for true freedom of religion and belief, a chaplaincy truly devoted to the needs of its service members, and explicit inclusion of humanists and other nontheists. The letter can be viewed and signed on the Forum site.

The nation’s capacity to embrace fully and resolutely the concept of religious liberty, and the constitutional right of every American to freely exercise their beliefs, is being tested… the military chaplaincy walks a thin and fragile line between church and state, securing the free exercise of religion for all of America’s service members while avoiding undue entanglement of church and state.  Military chaplains exist for the sake of their service members, not the other way around. The growing visibility and demands of Humanist troops for the appointment of chaplains who can nurture and support them further strains the sensibilities of many conservative chaplains. We the undersigned strongly support the recruitment and retention of highly qualified, clinically trained chaplains who are representative of and committed to a chaplaincy reflecting a broad and inclusive range of interfaith, multicultural and diverse life experiences. This inclusive outreach extends to chaplains representing the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities of faith, and to those of minority beliefs, including Humanists and other nontheists. They, too, are valued members of our country’s military and must be embraced fully.

The new interfaith statement supports many prior articles and resolutions in support from the Society for Humanistic JudaismInternational Humanist & Ethical UnionFriendly AtheistHUUmanistsInstitute for Science & Human ValuesHumanist Chaplains in the Dutch military (since 1964), and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, among others. And the MAAF position paper on humanist chaplaincy and military chaplaincy diversity.

While some Christians oppose humanist chaplaincy, it is clear that a broad diversity of chaplaincy professionals, seminarians, and denominational leaders, including many Christians, are entirely in support of humanist chaplaincy.


Below are a few responses to frequently-asked questions about humanist chaplaincy

There have been several points of concern about recent activity in Congress. Representatives Polis, Andrews, and Adam Smith have courageously spoken out in support of humanist chaplains on the floor of the House. Republican opposition stifled their attempts. In addition, Rep Fleming proposed a bill marketed as stopping humanist chaplaincy, or as he likes to say “atheist chaplains”. Many have been duped by the marketing, but the amendment text actually only requires use of the current Department of Defense Instruction that governs military chaplain accessions, DoDI 1304.28. The Instruction (E3.1.3.1) requires an endorsing agency simply to be recognized as a “church” by the Internal Revenue Service (section 170b1Ai). This section, while called “church” is not restricted to Christian churches, but includes mosques and temples as well as humanist communities. Jason Heap’s endorsing agency is The Humanist Society which is recognized under the “church” section of the IRS code by virtue of its organization around humanist values and in support of a humanist laity. Jason Heap himself has worked in ministry as a Christian and as a Humanist well beyond the two years required by the regulation and similarly has the endorsement and educational standards required.

Don’t be fooled – The Humanist Society is fully qualified under current military regulations to endorse military chaplains. Jason Heap is fully qualified under current military regulations to endorse chaplains. No congressional action to date has changed or affected those qualifications.

The Department of Defense is reviewing the application of the Society to be an endorser and the Navy is reviewing the application of Jason Heap for chaplaincy. Regulations require these applications be submitted in tandem for 1st-time endorsers like the Society. (Arguments that the Society should have been approved previously are nonsensical because a 1st-time endorser requires a candidate in progress before submitting its application.) The individual and endorser applications were submitted and received in full at the DoD and Navy level at the beginning of July (aside from some technical adjustments done in July by the Navy). So the regulations are in favor of humanist chaplains and all of the paperwork is submitted and received in full. Please don’t be fooled.

There is also a concern about humanist vs atheist chaplains. The media and anti-atheists like to identify humanist chaplains as atheist chaplains. Humanist chaplains are talking about humanist chaplains. It is true that humanists are atheists, but it is not we who are making a big deal about atheism. The Humanist Society is endorsing humanist chaplains to discuss humanist values and beliefs not simply to represent ‘no god’. Certainly it is also the case that Christians are capable of saying something weightier than ‘god exists’. We also have more to say than ‘god doesn’t exist’. Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists would endorse an atheist as well, yet no one is giving them special scrutiny to ensure their chaplains believe in a god. Soon, we will all wonder why humanists were treated so critically.

Some say that humanists don’t need their own chaplains. To that I will say again that there should not be such critical scrutiny on the humanist request. While explicitly setting aside the large “No Religious Preference” demographic, we find more atheists and humanists than any non-Christian denomination. No one is saying Hindus are a minority so they don’t need their own chaplains. No one is calling for the elimination of chaplains for Christian Science (0.1% of the general population) or Judaism (0.33%). Psychologists are often presented as an option as well, but no one suggests that Catholic or Muslim needs can be met exclusively by psychologists. The statement is just as nonsensical when applied to humanists and other nontheists.