There <i>are</i> atheists in foxholes

It seems like a contradiction in terms: Atheists in the U.S. military want to participate in the armed services’ chaplaincy program — a program designed to meet the religious needs of service members. But the request isn’t as incongruous as it appears.

A recent story in The Times described the effort of Army Capt. Ryan Jean, an intelligence officer at Ft. Meade in Maryland who describes himself as an atheist, to gain recognition as a lay leader assisting a chaplain in ministering to the troops. So far the military has resisted. A spokeswoman for Ft. Meade said that atheists seeking lay-leader status faced “a high mountain to climb” because their group would have to be considered “a recognized religious organization,” something she implied was impossible.

The proportion of atheists in the military is minuscule, with fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members identifying themselves as either atheists or agnostics. Size, however, shouldn’t be the test of whether a faith is accepted by the chaplaincy program, which recognizes a wide variety of religious traditions.

But is atheism a faith? The Army doesn’t think so, but in fact, it can be. One definition of atheism, presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 in Murray vs. Curlett, held that an atheist is someone who believes that “only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.” Certainly, if that’s the case, an atheist chaplain could fortify a service member in that belief just as a Christian or Jewish chaplain could confirm a believer in his or her faith.


An atheist chaplain would run up against a pervasive religious — mostly Christian — culture in the armed forces. It isn’t just pledges to God and country. Jean said a chaplain told him that “if I don’t get right with God, then I’m worthless; that if I don’t believe in Jesus, why am I in uniform, because this is God’s army.”

Although the military has taken steps to curb proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians for whom faith in Jesus is inseparable from patriotism, such sentiments still exist. Other explanations for the resistance to atheist chaplains include bureaucratic sluggishness and the superficially plausible belief that an atheist chaplain is an oxymoron. But recognition of atheism as a religion is perfectly logical, and there is a precedent. Under Pentagon regulations, deceased atheist service members may have an atheist symbol affixed to their headstones, just as Christians can have a cross and Jews a Star of David. The chaplaincy program should reflect the same inclusiveness.