Lawmakers voted against an amendment Wednesday that would allow atheist chaplains to serve in the U.S. military, arguing that the appointment of an atheist to chaplaincy contradicts the purpose of a chaplain – to offer prayer and spiritual guidance to servicemen and women.
The House Armed Services Committee voted Wednesday 43-18 to shoot down amendment 1960, offered by New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews to accompany the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
The text of the amendment directs the Secretary of Defense to appoint "humanists, ethical culturalists, and atheists" to the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces.
The amendment was reportedly heavily contested by the Republican members of the GOP-majority House Armed Services Committee, who argued it was pointless to have an atheist chaplain because in the broadest sense, an atheist rejects belief in the existence of deities.
"You can't use the word chaplain with atheists because they don't believe anything," Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said at Wednesday's committee meeting regarding the amendment.
"I can't imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family's home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, 'You know, that's it – your son's just worms, I mean, worm food,'" Conaway said, adding that he "disagreed vehemently" with the amendment.
Additionally, Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana argued that allowing atheists to serve in the chaplaincy would make a mockery of the group.
"This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy," Rep.Fleming said at the meeting, as reported by The Huffington Post.
"The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they're at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, 'If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future,'" he added.
Conservative news source Breitbart argues that the term "atheist military chaplains" is an oxymoron, as by definition the duties of a chaplain are to offer "prayer, spiritual counseling, and religious instruction," while by definition an atheist believes "there is no divine being to hear prayer, has no spirituality, and no religious beliefs."
New Jersey Rep. Andrews argued that he proposed the amendment not to be controversial, but rather to simply offer atheists in the military the same private counseling offered to religious military members.
Atheists reportedly have the opportunity to visit psychiatrists or other medical professionals to discuss their values, but their conversations are not confidential as the conversations between a chaplain and a believer are under military law.
According to the Navy Times, other concerns raised in regards to the amendment included the requirement of a religious sponsor for a chaplain, and additionally those opposing the amendment argued that there are already counseling services provided to servicemen through various military groups.
This is not the first time atheists have pushed to be represented in the military's chaplaincy program.
A New York Times article from 2011 points to several atheist groups, including the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the group Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, that are seeking to have atheists either serve as chaplains or lay leaders on military bases.
Jason Torpy, formerly an army captain and currently the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told the NYT that atheists are not without values.
"Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values," Torpy said.
Paul Vicalvi, former executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals Chaplain Commission, told The Christian Post in 2011, shortly after the NYT article was published, that he doesn't see the logic behind having atheist military chaplains.
"Traditionally, chaplains are seen as a person of a higher power faith. It would redefine the chaplaincy if a non-faith person becomes a chaplain,"Vicalvi told CP.
U.S. Army rules currently indicate that a military chaplain must have a graduate degree in theology or religious studies as well as have an "ecclesiastical endorsement from your faith group," according to the official U.S. Army website.