Lawmakers in D.C. are set to start talking about the possibility of adding secular chaplains to the military.
The U.S. Military can add the chaplains to their branches on their own, but Congress is trying to decide whether they should either require or prohibit the branches from doing so.
Supporters of adding the chaplains point to the large number of military members with no religious affiliations. Out of the 1.4 million active service members in the military, nearly 290,000 of them identify as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. For some perspective, the number of military members identifying as Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu is less than 13,000 combined, yet all of these religions have sponsored chaplains in the military.
What’s more, chaplains provide a counseling outlet for members of the military seeking help that do not want their discussions reported to their superiors. Visits with military psychologists and psychiatrists are noted in a service member’s records, while visits with chaplains are confidential.
“The military includes atheists, humanists and people with nontheistic perspectives and the military currently has no way to service them,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
“In the end, chaplains are very important, and if Humanist chaplains meet a need for our military, this concept must be embraced,” adds Kurt Frederickson, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary.
But on the other side of the argument are those that say the concept of a non-religious chaplain is inherently inconsistent. Among them is Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), one of several GOP lawmakers hoping to add an amendment to a defense budget bill that would require all chaplains to be affiliated with a particular faith.
"When it comes to the idea of an atheist chaplain, which is an oxymoron -- it's self-contradictory -- what you're really doing is now saying that we're going to replace true chaplains with non-chaplain chaplains,” Fleming said. "It's just total nonsense, the idea of having a chaplain who is an atheist.”
The proposed amendment would be added to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. In June, members of the House Armed Services Committee held a similar vote that would have allowed non-religious chaplains in the military. The measure was rejected via a 43-18 vote.