Non-Theists Argue Titles, Chaplain Amendment

In a revealing outcry, many “non-religious” persons have criticized the vote by the US House to prevent non-religious personnel from becoming chaplains.

In that vein, atheist Jason Torpy has tried to promote the premise that the Defense Appropriations amendment proposed by US Rep John Fleming (R-La) didn’t actually do anything, demonstrating the “ignorance” of the Congressman.

“The [amendment] only requires adherence to the applicable instruction, which in no way restricts chaplains to only those who believe in some higher power,” he said. “Their amendment does nothing…It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists, and military regulations.”

Actually, Torpy’s statement demonstrates his ignorance.  The clear language of the amendment indicates it wasn’t written to restrict chaplains to “those who believe in a higher power.”  Torpy simply erected a straw man.  What it was intended to do was prevent non-religious personnel from entering the religious field of the chaplaincy — and that it clearly does.  The amendment simply requires the DoD to continue to abide by guidance — Department of Defense Instruction 1304.28 — that says

To be considered for appointment to serve as a chaplain, a [religious ministry professional] shall receive an endorsement from a qualified religious organization…


The RMP [must have] 2 years of religious leadership experience…

The same regulation defines an RMP as

An individual endorsed to represent a religious organization and to conduct its religious observances or ceremonies

and it defines a “religious organization” as

An entity that is organized and functions primarily to perform religious ministries to a non-military lay constituency and that has met the religious purposes test of section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code…

While the American Humanist Association is clearly not a religious organization (the AHA calls it a “life philosophy“), this particular paragraph is the one upon which Torpy is relying:  Tax code recognition can justify status as a “religious” organization.  But for the uninitiated, the quote above is known as a “compound sentence,” in this case two parts joined by “and” — a conjunction that requires both statements to be true.

The latter half does, indeed, say a tax recognition can be used to determine an organization’s status as “religious.”  But the first half of the sentence says the group must function “primarily to perform religious ministries.”  There are no conceivable circumstances under which a non-religious “group,” such as the atheism Torpy represents, can be said to perform a religious ministry.

Of course, Torpy has never let the facts get in the way of his agenda before — as when he misrepresented religious demographics in a brief to the White House a few years ago.  At the time, he claimed that troops with “no religious preference” should be lumped in with atheists and agnostics, which increased the number of “atheists in the military” from 0.5% to 23.4%.  While these numbers continue to be repeated, even just weeks ago, it seems some members of Congress have been doing their own research, with Rep Fleming saying

Opponents of my amendment make vastly exaggerated claims about the religious demographics of the military.”

Fleming said less than one percent of service members identify themselves as atheists, “and all chaplains stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Forces, regardless of whether he or she shares the chaplain’s faith.”

As an aside, it has been fascinating to watch the in-fighting among non-theists about whether a humanist is an atheist, or an atheist a humanist, or whether either is a religion.  For example, Fleming’s bill has been most often characterized as blocking “atheist chaplains,” leading some opponents to say it does nothing to stop humanist chaplains (including Jason Heap, previously mentioned).  (Those same critics go on to criticize Fox News for not understanding the difference between an atheist and a humanist.)  But then there’s an article from a “humanist chaplain” at Harvard who explicitly says he is an atheist chaplain.

As was said long ago in this years-long conversation about atheist chaplains, if they can’t agree among themselves about their own belief “system,” how can they possibly expect the US government to act?



  • “As was said long ago in this years-long conversation about atheist chaplains, if they can’t agree among themselves about their own belief “system,” how can they possibly expect the US government to act?”

    That’s probably because it’s not a belief system. It’s technically just the lack of belief in a particular god. That someone is an atheist about Zeus, Wotan, or Yahweh tells you just as much about their position on Humanism, as it does on recycling, or Star Wars.

    Anyway, this is just another reason why time any money should not be wasted on a Chaplain Corps to begin with. If individual groups of people within the military want to organize together during their free time to cast magic spells, play dungeons and dragons, worship Gaia, beg forgiveness from long dead Jewish carpenters from the Middle East, or have deep and meaningful conversations with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then let them organize and do so. We don’t need to waste tax payer money on certifying these people and we certainly shouldn’t waste even more money providing them with a salary for such “services.”

    • Priscilla Parker

      Eric, unfortunately an overwhelming percentage of the American taxpayers are religious and don’t agree with you. There are two parts to the first amendment and one of them ensured the free exercise of religion, it’s called the free exercise clause. Implementing a Chaplain Corp guarantees that those who serve this country to protect that right are also provided with the means to practice it both while serving over seas and at home. The Chaplaincy was implemented by George Washington and is one of the eldest organizations in the U.S. military, get over it.

      So what if atheists are humanists, so are most Chaplains if you define it by helping others. The point made was that atheists can’t even agree or define what they mean by ‘humanist’ and haven’t even attempted to try and distinguish how the humanism of a secularist/atheist differs from that of religious humanists. This whole thing is just becoming retarded. If you or anyone else wants to walk around wearing strainers on your head, fine but pipe down with the condescension of people with other beliefs already, it’s boring!

  • There was no condescension of people with other beliefs on my part, nor was there any recommendation to infringe on the free practice of religion by any person. It just shouldn’t be publicly funded, unless we’re willing to fund all beliefs, regardless how silly Christians and non-Christians find those beliefs. Since funding all beliefs is an unreasonable expectation, we should just stop funding the whole project, and individual service members can get certified on their own and provide private services independently (as they have always been able to do, and often have to, because there’s only one Chaplain per unit, anyway). It’s a completely reasonable (and more consistent) proposal.

    The fact that many taxpayers are religious is irrelevant. It’s a direct violation of the establishment clause, and revoking the Chaplain program in no way inhibits the free exercise clause.

    • Priscilla Parker

      How does the Chaplaincy violate the establishment clause?

    • @Eric,
      In the highest court decision on this subject (Second Circuit court of appeals), the court found not only that the chaplaincy did not run counter to the US Constitution, but that to fail to provide a chaplaincy might actually violate the Constitution:

      Indeed, if the Army prevented soldiers from worshipping in their own communities by removing them to areas where religious leaders of their persuasion and facilities were not available it could be accused of violating the Establishment Clause unless it provided them with a chaplaincy since its conduct would amount to inhibiting religion…

      It is readily apparent that [the Free Exercise] Clause, like the Establishment Clause, obligates Congress, upon creating an Army, to make religion available to soldiers who have been moved by the Army to areas of the world where religion of their own denominations is not available to them.

      Otherwise the effect of compulsory military service could be to violate their rights under both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

      Unless the Army provided a chaplaincy it would deprive the soldier of his right under the Establishment Clause not to have religion inhibited and of his right under the Free Exercise Clause to practice his freely chosen religion.

      See Katcoff v Marsh and other court cases here.

  • Priscilla:

    By laws respecting the establishment of religion(s), by appointing officers to execute religious services. It may be tenable if it pandered to all religious views, but it currently doesn’t, and the growing burden of doing so is an unnecessary when servicemembers have always had the ability to attend civilian religious services or qualify their fellow members to do so.


    That’s an interesting decision, considering majority of servicemembers are deployed “to areas where religious leaders of their persuasion and facilities [are] not available.” Even when a Chaplain is available, the Chaplain is only capable of having one faith, and it will likely not apply to all members of the unit (this is most distinctly noted with Catholicism and the wide variety of Protestant or even LDS parishioners). Besides, my proposition isn’t to prohibit servicemembers so inclined from being certified and leading small groups (as they already have to do when their unit’s Chaplain is of a different faith). Just avoid the inevitable (and justified) claims of discrimination by relying more on individual lay leaders (or other religious equivalents) rather than wasting time and money on a Chaplain program and its consequent lawsuits. Above all, this is certainly NOT an attack on the free exercise of religion, just a shifting of the burden to where it rightfully belongs.

  • Priscilla Parker

    And what law would that be Eric? No service member is forced to participate in religious services. Again, officers are appointed to provide religious services to ensure service members have the means to exercise their belief.

    I agree that not all faiths are equally represented in theater and it is a challenge to be able to make Chaplains of all faiths available. I think it would be more practical to restructure the Chaplaincy to instead of a Chaplain being assigned to units, they remain in their own Corp like Cavalry or Infantry, etc. but the issue with that is they also act in the capacity of religious advisors to Command in order to assist and maintain Command climate.

    I get your point about the Chaplaincy but I disagree, as do most who’ve really looked into this issue. It doesn’t violate the establishmwnt clause in the least because while Christianity may be over represented within the Chaplaincy, there is nothing preventing the military or recognized endorsing agencies of other faiths from recruiting and endorsing Chaplains of other faiths. Christian agencies seem to have more of a focus on serving the military and recruit more applicant’s is all.

  • Priscilla Parker

    And I would also agree that a cap be implemented on how many Chaplains from each faith or agency there are. And I agree that there isn’t really a need for Chaplains in CONUS as you pointed out service members and their families can obtain religious services off post but I wouldn’t extend that into scraping the Corp all together or making the argument that it violates the establishment clause.