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Oh yes, there are atheists in foxholes

US military chaplaincy supports over 100 faith groups – but no humanists. It's time nontheists who serve were better served

A British Army chaplain leads a remembrance day service in Kabul, Afghanistan, 11 November 2009; Capt Torpy's organisation, MAAF, is campaigning for nontheist military personnel to enjoy the support of chaplaincy services.
Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

At a May 2011 prayer breakfast, reported by TRCB News:

"[Keynote speaker and Naval Station Great Lakes Commander Robert Sullivan] shared an army saying which said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This moment made the audience chuckle."

This kind of unquestioned, joking derision by a senior official shows just how difficult it is to be atheist in the US military. This is not surprising considering the priority given to religious activities and the widespread misunderstanding of nontheistic perspectives.

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), which I presently serve as president, represents atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheists within the military. MAAF is based in the US, but includes members in Canada, Australia, and even Israel and Egypt. The UK Armed Forces Humanist Association similarly represents UK service members. The US Military Leadership Diversity Commission recently consolidated four studies of religious demographics showing that there are more secular humanists than Jews, Muslims and even many Protestant denominations. Yet, we find no humanist chaplains, and little, if any, outreach or training on the humanist perspective; rather, we find discriminatory comments from senior officers.

In the US military, the chaplaincy is afforded great responsibility, access to service members, funding and senior positions within the chain of command. During America's revolutionary war, chaplains were established to provide Protestant Christian worship services for the troops. Fast forward to today, one finds chaplains representing over 100 different faith groups and performing a wide range of counselling and staff duties well outside the realm of religious worship services. Similar non-chaplain services are available for counselling, mental health and recreation, but they are not as accessible, not integrated within the command, not confidential and simply not equivalent. With the expanded counselling, training and advisory roles of the modern chaplaincy, chaplains must represent all service members.

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