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He wants to be the Navy's first humanist chaplain

The Navy hasn't yet responded to Jason Heap's application to be a 'nontheist' humanist chaplain, but Congress is considering a measure to ban atheist chaplains in the military.

August 17, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • A U.S. Navy chaplain in Kuwait leads Marines in prayer before they head off to battle in Iraq in March 2003. Jason Heap says he wants to serve those sailors who don't believe in God.
A U.S. Navy chaplain in Kuwait leads Marines in prayer before they head off… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Jason Heap grew up in Texas among Baptists and Lutherans. He earned a master's from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.

Now, at age 38, Heap wants to be a U.S. Navy chaplain. But Heap is a humanist who doesn't believe in God, and the U.S. military has never sanctioned a humanist chaplain. Nor has the Navy acted on Heap's application, filed last month, to become its first approved humanist chaplain.

Heap says he's not trying to make a point or bring attention to himself. He says he wants only to serve his country — and those sailors who don't believe in God and hold what he calls "nontheist" beliefs.

"As both a humanist and a scholar of religion, I have a deep knowledge and understanding of world religions," Heap said. "My purpose and focus as a chaplain will be for holistic well-being of anyone who is in need of pastoral care."

Heap's supporters say his application would have been quickly approved if he had been Baptist or Catholic. He has passed his physical. He's a religious scholar, and holds a master's from Oxford University in ecclesiastical history. He has taught at a Methodist church in Texas.

As required of chaplain applicants, Heap also has provided an "endorsing agency" — in his case, the Humanist Society, a 74-year-old organization founded by a group of Quakers.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to say whether the society is an approved endorsing agency, calling Heap's application "pre-decisional." Humanism does not appear on a Pentagon list of the 81 religions represented by the military's 2,884 chaplains, though "unknown" and "no religious preference" are listed.

"The chaplaincy risks much if they declare themselves available only to those who profess a god belief," said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers, which supports Heap's application.

"That noble mission should not shrink to 'god only' when a humanist comes calling," Torpy added.

Heap's application comes at a time when Republicans in Congress are trying to limit military chaplains to those who believe in a god.

Last month, the House of Representatives approved a measure by Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), designed to prevent the Pentagon from accepting atheist chaplains. "The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical — it's an oxymoron," Fleming said. "It's absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role."

Conservative Christian groups have backed the amendment, arguing that humanism and atheism are not religions because they don't believe in a god. The amendment, part of a Defense Department appropriations bill, has moved to the Senate for a vote.

More than 13,000 service members identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to a Pentagon survey this year. That's more than the number of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the military combined, yet each of those religions has its own chaplains. The Pentagon survey did not include a category for humanists.

At least 276,000 service members said they had no religious preference — the largest single group after "Christian, no denominational preference" at 338,000, and just ahead of Roman Catholics at 263,000.

More than 500 service members said they were Unitarian-Universalists, whose membership includes those who describe themselves as humanists. There are four Unitarian-Universalist chaplains who could be sought out by a service member who holds humanist beliefs. (There are 973 Wiccans too, but no Wiccan chaplains.)

"Buddhists and Unitarian-Universalists would endorse an atheist, yet no one is giving them special scrutiny to ensure their chaplains believe in a god," an interfaith coalition of religious leaders wrote in a statement supporting Heap's application.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, says the military does not endorse any specific religion or religious organization, but that it "supports by policy the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions or to have no religious beliefs."

He says the mission of chaplains is "to provide care and the opportunity for service members ... to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion." Asked how long the Armed Forces Chaplains Board normally takes to approve an application, Christensen said waiting times varied from case to case.

Heap says his religious education and teaching experience qualify him to carry out a chaplain's mission for all service members, including nontheists.

"Thousands of our men and women in the services have their own life stories and issues they wish to speak to a chaplain about, but are unable to ... because they do not have access to a nontheist chaplain," Heap wrote in an open letter to the American Humanist Assn.

He added: "Just as a Roman Catholic would prefer to speak with a priest, or a Jewish person with a rabbi ... nontheist people would prefer to have access to someone who understands their basic points of view."

The Humanist Society describes humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." Rachael Berman, a spokeswoman for the society, said the military had not responded to the group's endorsement of Heap.

Heap, who lives in Great Britain and filed his application in Philadelphia, says he will return to the U.S. if his application is approved.

"Such a move isn't for the faint-hearted," he wrote. "But if this is what is necessary to begin what I consider a commitment of 20-plus years to service in the Navy, then I'm happy to do so."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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