Retired Army captain and Iraqi war veteran Jason Torpy says the chaplains employed by the U.S. military can't relate to people like him. He's an atheist.
He's also the president of a group that's trying to get the armed forces to become more inclusive by hiring atheist chaplains. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers wants the military to provide for the estimated 40,000 atheists, agnostics and humanists who serve in U.S. forces.
Military chaplains, most of whom are Protestant Christians, are assigned many secular advising duties, including marriage, family and suicide counseling, Torpy tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. They touch so many parts of service members' lives, he says, they can help improve what he sees as an environment of exclusion.
"That lack of connection to atheist and humanist communities, the lack of recognition or support for atheists and humanists — that implication can be solved primarily through the chaplains' corps," he says.
Torpy says he has felt excluded in the military because of his beliefs. Once, before his unit deployed on a mission, the commander gathered everyone together for a Christian prayer.
"So I had to opt myself out of that situation, to out myself because this commander took it upon himself to have a personal religious activity in the midst of a military mission," he says.
While some might wonder what role atheists could fill in the chaplaincy, Torpy says they would be able to do the same job as any other chaplain who assists someone with different beliefs.
"There are individuals that, they don't have those traditional religious perspectives, and some of those individuals want to serve as officers in the military," he says. "That's how they want to serve the nation, to do chaplain work, and they can do that in a way that Christians can't do it."
So far, he says, he's gotten a tepid response from the Chaplain Corps generals. They haven't shown any interest in seriously pursuing his proposal, but they haven't made a flat-out refusal.
"If they do that," he says, "they're saying that we are going to exclude and take no time to understand a certain subset of the population."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Military chaplains fulfill a lot of roles. Yes, they conduct religious services for members of the military, working at home or in war zones. But they also serve as counselors, helping troops deal with the complicated questions surrounding war. The large majority of military chaplains are Protestant Christians, and they're supposed to support all troops no matter their religious affiliation. But our next guest says military chaplains aren't addressing the introspective needs of military atheists.
Jason Torpy is the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. He's been working on getting the military to bring in some atheist chaplains. Jason Torpy, welcome to the show.
JASON TORPY: Hey. Thanks a lot. I'm glad to be here.
MARTIN: So you have since left the military. You were deployed to Iraq in 2003. Did you ever have any personal interactions with a military chaplain? Did you seek guidance or advice?
TORPY: Oh, of course. All the time. You know, my organization really supports what the chaplains do, why they're there. And especially in the last 10 to 20 years, they've acquired a lot of secular responsibilities - essentially counseling, retreats, family counseling, marriage counseling, deployment counseling, suicide counseling. And a lot of those responsibilities, you know, right or wrong, has been put on the chaplains.
And to the extent those chaplains can attend to a faith-based solution to that for those who share that chaplain's faith, that's fine. But for any given chaplain, that's likely to be a small portion of the population, even for Christian chaplains. So I point the finger at them not because they're always the problem but because they are the solution.
MARTIN: Can you give some examples of circumstances where, as an atheist, as a humanist, you felt left out?
TORPY: Going on a military mission, for example. You know, we were getting ready to roll out and everybody come in. So as the commander of this convoy, everybody come in, we're going to do a prayer first together. We're not going to talk about communications. We're not going to talk about (unintelligible). We're not going to talk about first aid. We're not going to talk about maintenance. So I had to opt myself out of that situation, to out myself, because this commander took it upon himself to have a personal religious activity in the midst of a military mission.
MARTIN: You didn't participate.
MARTIN: How did you walk away from that?
TORPY: Well, as a captain, there's a lot fewer people that can tell me what to do. Now the person that was in command was a major, so I was still, you know, stepping outside. He was extremely unhappy about it. He said, oh, you know, why are you creating trouble? I said, you know, why are you creating trouble? Why are you excluding me from this activity? This is a military mission and I support your right to pray, but right this second, we have a military mission. And for you to use your power to pull everyone in to do a Christian prayer is wrong.
MARTIN: So why atheist chaplains? This may be the obvious question, but why not just push for more secular counselors? Why is it important to have an atheist in the chaplaincy, which you think of as a religious group?
TORPY: There are individuals that they don't have those traditional religious perspectives, and some of those individuals want to serve as officers in the military. That's how they want to serve the nation, to do chaplain work. And they can do that in a way that Christians can't do it. So if you replace humanist chaplains for Jewish or Muslim or Hindu chaplains, the objection is just as invalid. You say these people believe differently than I do. How could they help everyone? (Unintelligible).
MARTIN: But that's how it is now. There are chaplains who are Christian or Buddhist or Jewish and they're expected to minister to everyone.
TORPY: Well, minister is not the right term. They're expected to support everyone. And that leap to ensure that they have the training to understand us and to ensure that chaplains are required to stock our materials and provide facilities and support to provide for our community just as they do everyone else, that is the leap that the chaplains have not been able to make yet.
MARTIN: What do they say? What's the push back?
TORPY: Well, it's actually they say, well, we're not saying no because we want to support everybody, but we're also not saying yes either. One note also - it's important to understand this in historical context. Chaplains in 1775 were established by George Washington to give Protestant prayers to troops. Fast forward, 200 years essentially. And in 1992, the first non-Christian, non-Jewish chaplain was a Muslim chaplain. More recently, Buddhist chaplains and Hindu chaplains have been added.
The chaplaincy is extending their diversity, but it's only in the last 20 years. And this last thing, again, once you add monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and once they extend to nontheists, the chaplaincy will have embraced all of the service members in the breadth of life stances and deeply held personal philosophies. And I really hope they can do that.
MARTIN: That's Jason Torpy. He's president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. He's been speaking with me from our studios in Washington. Jason, thanks so much.
TORPY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.