A Texas-raised religious scholar reportedly wants to become the first humanist chaplain in military history.
Jason Heap, 38, doesn’t believe in God, but he submitted his application to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board earlier this month in a bid to become a Navy chaplain. He has passed a physical and supporters say his application would be easily accepted if he were a practicing Christian, but Heap’s candidacy comes as House lawmakers are pushing to bar atheists from joining the chaplain corps, arguing that only “religious” officials should hold those roles, Stars and Stripes reports.
“I am aware there are many who would be reticent or militant against that,” Heap told the newspaper. “But at the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”
Heap, who holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Oxford University, has recently taught religious studies in Britain. He said the timing of his application is coincidental and unfortunate.
“I’m not doing this just to make a point,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to serve and give back to my country.”
House lawmakers last week approved an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill designed to block the Pentagon from accepting chaplains who don’t believe in God.
“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sponsor of the amendment. “It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization.”
Christian lobbyists, meanwhile, have characterized recent efforts by atheists to gain recognition in the military as little more than a political stunt.
The Armed Forces Chaplains Board will now decide in coming weeks whether to accept Heap, who considers himself a qualified candidate whose application should not be viewed any differently than that of a Buddhist or Hindu.
“We want to participate. We want to be part of the team,” he said. “There are more atheists than any other single non-Christian group in the military. We deserve to be represented, too.”
In an open letter to the American Humanist Association, Heap outlined why he wants to become a military chaplain and detailed his extensive religious education. If his application is approved, Heap said he will return to the United States to begin a "new life" in his native country.
"I have made this application because I want to serve my country — to give back something to the people who have given me so much over my life — and to serve others who share similar values and perspectives," Heap wrote. "My application has not been the easiest, as I have had to coordinate people from five countries to serve as references."