Military archbishop questions need for atheist chaplaincy

U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio
U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio


Several atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist organizations are pushing to establish their own U.S. military “chaplaincy” for soldiers. The head of the United States Military Archdiocese thinks the effort may be more about opposing religion than meeting non-believers' needs.

“The idea of a 'chaplaincy' for atheists seems contradictory,” U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio told CNA. Under present conditions, he said, “it would seem that they could meet and sponsor activities just as many other groups do on installations. Or is the issue here the desire to set up a structure in direct opposition to the chaplaincy?”

Former Army captain Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told the New York Times that “humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews.” Torpy is seeking to meet with the chief of chaplains for each branch of the armed forces, to discuss the atheist chaplaincy proposal.

Another group, Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, wants the army to appoint atheist leaders to hold meetings in the facilities used by religious groups. One officer, who objected to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's September 2010 “Rock the Fort” event at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is trying to organize his own “Rock Beyond Belief” event headlined by Richard Dawkins.

Leaders of the push for an atheist chaplaincy say that non-believers sometimes feel marginalized by the presence of religion in the armed forces. Archbishop Broglio, however, believes that the supposed taboo against atheism in the military may be more imagined than real.

“In my three years as the Archbishop for the Military Services I have failed to perceive any stigma attached to non-believers,” he stated.

“I remember well on a visit to an installation just before the celebration of Mass, a soldier approached me and said that he was not a believer and would not be staying for the service, but wanted to thank me for coming to visit,” the archbishop recalled. He said the man “could have simply left as did many others,” who were either leaving to attend a different religious service or take advantage of free time.

But the soldier felt no discomfort in voluntarily expressing his atheism to the archbishop. “The fact that he spoke to me and expressed his position certainly indicates that there was no fear in doing so.”

“Given the prohibition of proselytism in the military, it would seem unnecessary to establish a structure to promote non-belief,” he said. “If non-belief is the 'glue' that binds the proposed group together, it would seem that some other area of military life would be a better host than the chaplaincy.”

Archbishop Broglio suggested that some of the more vocal atheists may be pushing for their own chaplaincy because they oppose the role of traditional religious chaplains. He acknowledged their right to meet, but questioned “whether the chapel center is the best place or if something more neutral might be found.”

If atheists in the military ultimately do receive the same acknowledgment, resources, and privileges given to believers, the archbishop wonders what exactly they would do with them – given that atheism, in its most general form, has no settled doctrines to promote, or particular practices to encourage. 

“Would they meet to discuss their non-belief?” he wondered. “Would their activities all be oriented to sustaining or promoting the denial of the existence of God? Would there be space for varying degrees of non-belief?”