Godless Chaplains


LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: It was only fitting that the first parachutist out of the plane at this festival for atheists and non-believers at Fort Bragg is herself an atheist—Sergeant Rachel Medley.

SERGEANT RACHEL MEDLEY: I am an atheist and I’m a good person—have, you know, a great life and have great friends, and my service to my country is based on my personal morals which are help other people, be kinds to others, treat others as you would like to be treated.

SEVERSON: She would like to be treated with more respect, as would many of the troops attending this first ever event expressly for soldiers who don’t believe in God. Sergeant Justin Griffith was one of the organizers.

SERGEANT JUSTIN GRIFFITH: This is us coming out of the closet, you know, shattering that stained glass ceiling. We want to remove the stigma about atheists and whatever they think the word “atheist” means.

SEVERSON: As unlikely as it may seem, one token of respect they would like is an atheist chaplain. That’s a tall order considering that conservative evangelical clergy dominate the ranks of the chaplaincy. Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAE, dispute any need for an atheist chaplain. Galen Carey is an NAE vice president.

Galen Carey, vice president, National Association of EvangelicalsGALEN CAREY: Well, evangelicals very strongly supported the men and women in uniform, and they want to see that their spiritual needs are met. I don’t think you would find many who could understand, frankly, the point of a chaplain for atheists.

SEVERSON: There are over 3000 chaplains all together. Ninety percent are Christian, even though only about 7 out of 10 soldiers claim to be Christian. There are also a handful of Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu chaplains. Jason Torpy, an Iraq veteran, wants to know why the much larger group of atheists or humanists, estimated to be about 40,000 soldiers, don’t have their own chaplain.

JASON TORPY: They have trainings for the Jewish perspective and Eastern Orthodox perspective and the Christian Science perspective even though, you know, our group—even just the atheists, not even the general nontheists, you know—even though we dwarf their numbers.

SEVERSON: Torpy is a graduate of West Point. He was a captain in the 1st Armored Division and is now the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers.

TORPY: If I’m atheist or humanist, where’s that support for us? The same reason that a Christian will benefit from that and a Muslim will benefit from that and be a better soldier if they’re affirmed, and they can grow on their values, and they can plug into their community. we will benefit from that as well, but we can’t right now because the chaplains either are ignorant of or hostile to nontheistic beliefs.

Colonel Stephen Sicinski, Fort Bragg base commanderSEVERSON: Our request for an interview with the Department of Defense was declined. Instead, we were given a statement reiterating the Pentagon’s longstanding position. It reads in part, “Anyone wanting to become a chaplain must have an endorsement from a qualified religious organization.” For the Department of Defense it is a sensitive issue, with pressure building from atheist groups around the country accusing the military of promoting Christianity. But Colonel Stephen Sicinski, the Fort Bragg base commander, would deny that.

COLONEL STEPHEN SICINSKI: I don’t see there being any inequality today. I’m not tracking as to where you might think that there is inequality of treatment. We don’t treat soldiers that are atheists as atheists. We treat them as soldiers.

SEVERSON: In 2010, Colonel Sicinski, at the urging of base chaplains, approved and supported a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event called Rock the Fort to boost morale and, in the colonel’s words, “bolster the faith.”

GRIFFITH: We were “treated” to a just massive festival, and they were actually very successful. They converted hundreds of soldiers onstage.

SEVERSON: And when Sergeant Griffith asked for a similar event for atheists and humanists, Colonel Sicinski declined at first. Months later he changed his mind, and that set the stage for this event called Rock Beyond Belief. The keynote speaker was the British biologist and famous atheist author Richard Dawkins.

Atheist writer Richard Dawkins speaking at Rock Beyond BeliefRICHARD DAWKINS: I’m delighted that a barrier has been broken through, that there never again can be a religious rally on a military base without the authorities knowing that it will be followed by something like this.

SICINSKI: This is just a manifestation, the latest manifestation of our attempt to ensure that a segment of our population gets the type of equal consideration that other types or segments of the population would.

SEVERSON: Prior to this event the military announced that there would be no base chaplains available for interviews. One chaplain wrote an open letter on Fort Bragg’s Facebook page saying the secular festival would promote and glorify violence against people who possess a faith in God. There was no violence at the Rock Beyond Belief event. Sergeant Griffith, who was a passionate Christian in his teens and now wears dog tags that say he is an atheist, claims that he’s had death threats.

GRIFFITH: I get death threats on a regular basis claiming that I‘m going to burn down the chapel, and that’s not the case at all. In fact, we want to use the churches. We want to be a part of the community.

SEVERSON: Among atheists, one of the most objectionable tests they are required to pass involves their spiritual fitness. It’s a new test given annually. Sergeant Griffith failed.

Sgt. Justin Griffith, military director, American AtheistsGRIFFITH: It went on and on telling me that I need to improve my spiritual fitness. But if I need help, I call this 1-800 number. So I called that 1-800 number, and I was basically just going to yell at whoever it was, and to my surprise this was a suicide hotline. I was told that I was suicidal because I was not religious.

SEVERSON: Atheists contend it’s difficult to advance in the army if a soldier isn’t deemed spiritually fit.

GRIFFITH: I take this test again and again and again, because every three months since I failed a section, the spiritual portion, that means I’m red and I have to take it again in three months. It’s offensive in the highest. It’s illegal. it’s unconstitutional, it’s a waste of money, and it’s another tool to keep us down, to tell us atheists that we’re freaks or somehow unfit.

CAREY: It’s in the military’s interest as well as the individual service member’s interest that their spiritual needs are met, but I don’t think that anyone is being discriminated against in the military because of absence of having a spiritual affiliation.

SEVERSON: Jason Torpy says the discrimination is often subtle, but it’s ever-present and, he says, it’s misplaced because, he argues, atheists are making a greater sacrifice.

Jason Torpy, Military Association of Atheists and Free ThinkersTORPY: Not only am I here serving my country, expanding the value, you know, liberty, protecting and defending Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. This is even more valuable because I’m giving the one life, you know, and when I die I don’t go to heaven.

DAWKINS: I must say if I were in a fox hole in the heat of battle I’d much rather be with an atheist solder than with a soldier who believed that some kind of supernatural being was watching over him. I’d want a soldier who knew that it was his own wit and bravery keeping us safe.

SEVERSON: Galen Carey with the National Association of Evangelicals says if atheists and humanists need someone to talk to, to receive counsel from, there may be another way.

CAREY; Well, there are times when psychologists, psychiatrists, other counselors are needed. That’s not exactly the role of a chaplain, so if we need to have more psychiatrists, then sure, we should bring them in. But that doesn’t mean we need to have chaplains.

SEVERSON: Atheists argue that going to a psychiatrist, for whatever reason, is often interpreted as a negative on a soldier’s record.

TORPY: Chaplains have unfettered access to troops and they have clergy confidentiality. If you go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist within the military it goes on your official record, which can jeopardize your job.

MEDLEY: It’s just like anything else. Anything that’s different or newer than other ideas is always met with a little bit of trepidation by people. That’s human nature. In the sixties we were having the same conversation about people with different colored skin, so it’s not a new conversation. It’s just a new subject.

SEVERSON: It’s a conversation that will likely go on for some time, but for those who share the goals of people here, there are signs of incremental progress in their campaign for equality with religious denominations. This festival is one sign.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Washington.

  • Frederick Green

    A very well balanced story. Fox News could learn much from PBS. The discrimination against atheists in the military has grown worse since I left the Air Force 10 years ago. This is no doubt due to the excessive influence of the evangelical chaplains and other officers. I am very proud of the courageous soldiers like Justin Griffith and Rachel Medley for their willingness to come “out of the closet” and face what will certainly be unrelenting harassment. We face a long, difficult road ahead but just like previous civil rights movements, we will overcome.

  • Ryan

    I enjoyed this. It was very fair and even-tempered. It showed both sides, but in a way that wasn’t just the “he-said/she-said” false centrism that is so common in reporting today. Overall, I think this is a win for atheists and humanists, even if only by showing us as the decent, upstanding individuals we so often are rather than the vile caricature we are so often portrayed as being.

    P.S. – As of my writing this, the text above still mentions *Sergeant* Rachel Medley and *Sergeant* Justin Griffith as holding the rank of “Sargent,” which does not exist. Also, the video (at around the 3:20 mark) names Colonel Stephen Sicinski with a sub-heading wrongly affiliating him with the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, rather that the appropriate title as the Commander, US Army Garrison Fort Bragg.

  • fritz

    you spelled “sergeant” wrong every single time

  • Austin


  • David

    Hey PBS!- How about you spell Sergeant correctly?

  • Channah

    Here we go again——-Christians (evangelical partic) who think they are the way-the only way-and we are stuck having to put up with them.

    They do anything to get to people and push their religion on them. I think it is disgusting and I want no part of them. As Kahlil Gibran said, ”There are many doors to G-d”. And, there are. One of these doors is not to a G-d at all, but, to the love and caring of all people and life. A person does not need to believe in a Christian Jesus being G-d. He was just a man—a teacher, a Rabbi. He was not made ”holy” till the Nicene Council, over 300 years after he died.

    An Atheist chaplin is an answer to a worldwide praise of the world and all the creatures there in. There should be many of them.

  • DJSeifert

    Recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who pondered what he called “religionless Christianity” from the Nazi prison in which he died. He died in an extreme situation of having seen the church, orthodoxy and religion language be completely co-opted by evil. Retired from the Army chaplain corp, I began to see clearly how America has lost its way justifying war and killing (societal reaction to anxiety in the empire–pax americana) in the name of patriotism and 9/11. I have learned and reflected on much from listening to atheist and less conventional religious language. One of the deep problems with conservative religion is the misnomer that faith is akin to certitude when actually it is the opposite. Doubt is more closely akin to the idea and existence of faith.

  • godlessveteran

    Would it hurt too much to learn how to spell “SERGEANT” correctly?

    That aside, the Bragg hierarchy threw numerous obstacles in the way of the festival, which belies their phony claim of “equal consideration”. It was only constant pressure and the growing realization that the base would lose any discrimination suit that cleared the way.

    The atheist festival was even prohibited from holding a food drive for homeless veterans, but presently, the Salvation Army is doing exactly that on Bragg. How does that show “equal consideration”? No the military has a long way to go toward ending blatant discrimination against atheists.

  • exsquid75

    nice article. Please use spell check sargent is wrong multiple times. Just makes you look less than professional

  • jessica

    Please correct the spelling of Sergeant. “Sargent” is not the correct spelling of that rank.

  • Debi Brewer

    Having done a 2+ year chaplaincy residency at a Veterans Administration hospital, I can attest to the fact that, in general, the church does more harm than good to a soldier’s spirituality. The things we ask of our warriors put them on a lifelong course of shame and striving for the peace denied to them by their religion. There is immense room for chaplains to do critical work and ‘God’ never has to come up in the conversation.

  • robert rusch

    bout time
    this is why i view R&E a very informative show

  • william jack

    I wonder if some of the more liberal religions might be willing to endorse an atheist chaplain. The UUs perhaps?

  • Cheyla

    Nice coverage of a very important event – I hope Richard Dawkins statement will be true: “I’m delighted that a barrier has been broken through, that there never again can be a religious rally on a military base without the authorities knowing that it will be followed by something like this.” I also hope the Military Chaplaincy will consider supporting atheist soldiers. . .because the ranks are growing!

  • Phil Robinson

    I am a long-time viewer of PBS and an atheist. Our non-theist soldiers deserve the same rights as other soldiers and should not be subject to spiritual fitness tests, which, are inherently unconstitutional. True freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. Atheists, freethinkers, and, skeptics should be able to use the facilities provided for religious people to hold meetings.
    That religious figures are welcomed to bases and proselytize troops obtaining converts to their religion while atheists are graded spiritually unfit, given the number of a suicide hotline, and, told they could see a psychologist or psychiatrist for counseling is an affront to their dignity, and, might inhibit their rightfully-earned progress.
    That such soldiers receive death threats from religious people is not surprising. The religious of our country have been putting others “in their place” so long they consider intimidation of unbelievers their right, just as they have with women, people with different sexual orientation, and, people of color in the past. The military must treat all members equally.

  • Steph Bazzle

    I intended to attend RBB with my husband and children. Circumstances conspired against us, and it didn’t happen. Thanks for reporting on it. We’re still keeping our fingers crossed (figuratively speaking, of course, since I’m actually not superstitious) for more improvements in equality in the military, but it looks like things are ehaded in the right direction. Many thanks to Justin Griffith for his efforts in this.

  • Paul

    Thank you for covering this issue. It really is a shame that people who serve our country are so viciously discriminated against because they don’t believe in any deity. It’s illegal, immoral, and frankly a detriment to the soldiers who can’t trust the men and women serving beside them. Those of us in the non-believer community would love to see more of this.

  • L Paluga

    I traveled to NC from Florida specifically to attend this event. I openly identify as an atheist; it is time for anonymity on the part of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc. to be over. According to a recent American Religious Identification Survey, 81.6% of respondents affirmed a belief in God or a ‘higher power,” meaning 18.4% of us identify as nonbelievers. This number represents a significant sector of American society, and a reluctance to openly identify as a nonbeliever should no longer be necessary, despite the stigma, discrimination, and vilification we sometimes experience. Religious skepticism is alive and well, and we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to be open and honest about the fact that nonbelievers can and do embrace positive values and ethics without the need for superstition and mysticism.

  • ShantiClaire Savarese

    “The world is my country, all mankind is my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”- Thomas Paine
    I believe this quote sums it up. As a proud Humanist and American, I find it disgusting that Atheists are demeaned so, when they serve all. Having a “spiritual fitness test” imposed upon all service people crosses the separation of church and state. No longer will citizens stand silent as you cross this line. As a member of the Humanist, Atheist and free-thinkers community, please be aware that we are watching and mobilizing…we are “coming out” from our silence and becoming politically outspoken. And as fellow humans, please take the wise words of Thomas Paine to heart!

  • Pavulous


  • Frederic

    As an atheist I appreciate your coverage of Rock Beyond Belief, a secular event organized in response to the excessive influence of religion (particularly Christianity) in the U.S. military. As a U.S. government entity, the U.S. Armed Forces should remain neutral with regards to religion. Thank you very much for your coverage.

  • Julie Milliken

    What about Unitarian chaplains? Are there any?

  • Shahid Raki

    If an atheist doesn’t believe in Allah/God/Jehovah/Oladumare/Krishna or any of the named beings that people of the known religions, why would they need a chaplain? My understanding when I was in and now out of the Army is that chaplains was for those individuals who followed a particular religious calling. Is Atheism supposedly a religious following? If it is, of what?

  • Robin

    Thank you for your coverage of this very important issue. Christians say they are under attack, but if they would just give respect to those with opposing views, there would be no attacks on anyone

  • Dr. Emanuel Klein

    At Humanist functions, that I attend, I am beginning to see non white faces in the crowd. I am confident that this will accelerate as more people of color begin to see themselves as free thinkers, as for example,without the classic black church as a monkey on their backs.
    The article above comments on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event called Rock the Fort & claims that many accepted religion as a result.
    I find myself wondering how soldiers of color are responding to Rock Beyond Belief at Fort Bragg?

  • Humanist

    I’m very happy about this section. It takes a lot of courage to come out as a free thinker/atheist. After all there is no evidence that God exists. Very good reporting and thank you very much.

  • Marc

    Good story. Keep fighting the good fight guys!

  • Robert Voss

    Thank you for presenting this story. I thought your presentation to be balanced and thorough. I hope you will continue to tell me about atheist news in the future. In particular, I hope you will do a followup on this story to let me know if the military ends up appointing atheist chaplains.

  • rwahrens

    You should have noted the fact, explicitly, that atheists on post are not allowed, as a group, to use chaplaincy facilities for meetings or other functions, which is one reason for attempting to get a chaplain approved!

    There is more to this discrimination than meets the eye.

  • Annie Thomas

    As an atheist, I seek out articles and programs about secular Americans, and am usually left feeling misrepresented and even discouraged by the lack of fair, unbiased reporting. Your show, however, was informative, enjoyable, and represented atheists exactly as they should be: a diverse group of individuals who are very similar to other Americans with the exception of our lack of faith in the supernatural. I have been a life-long viewer of PBS, so I wasn’t surprised by the thoughtful reporting, but wanted to take a moment to thank you nonetheless.

  • Doug

    Lucky, please do not refer to atheists as those who “don’t believe in god”. Your statement establishes that there is a god, and that we atheists just choose not to believe in him. This hints that atheists are blind and ignorant to a higher being.

  • William Dusenberry

    When I was taking basis training (during Vietnam) we were not allowed to have “Atheist” imprinted on our “dog tags.” The claoses option available to us (the non-superstitous) was “no preference.”

    It was “Catholic;” “Protestant;” “Jewish; “or “no preference” — period,

    I asked to be excused from the “Chaplaion’s Hour” durng Basic Training; and the first time, walked out by myself — and slept next to a tree, while the rest of my unit listened to the chaplain in hot bleacher seats.

    The next time I asked to be excused — half of the class joined me.

    The Chaplain’s Hour was subsequently cancelled for the rest of this basic training cycle.

    The fact that “atheist” is now an option, on one’s dog tags, suggests remarkable improvement.

    But “Onward Christian Soldiers” still appears to be the norm.

  • Joe

    Great story, thanks. I spent six years in the Marines in the 70′s and would never ever have let anyone know I was an atheist because the risk of repercussion from religious officers was so high. Freedom *of* religion really does include freedom *from* religion.

  • Retired LTC

    The idea that the military needs Chaplains who don’t believe in God is as logical as thinking they need doctors who don’t believe in illness or Generals who don’t believe in leadership.

  • Non sequitur

    Arguing for Atheist chaplains is a non sequitur. The logic used for justification is reactionary, and not thought through. Perhaps atheists need to have someone “Chaplain-like” that can do some of the same type-things as Chaplains? Yes, the Army already employs many counselors who are capable of listening to an atheist “confession.” The Army also has many MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) professionals that attend to the many, um, morale, welfare, and recreation needs of soldiers. The idea of atheist chaplains is rather disingenuous and baffling. Can freethinkers think up a better way to address the non-faith needs of atheists? Apparently not. I appreciate the article because it spurred me to, well, think. How any reader can think this article is “balanced” is beyond belief. The article is simply pro-atheist, and there is no harm in portraying an issue mainly from one perspective…that is journalism at its finest. Thank God for a free press. Rebuttal in 3…2…

  • Rob

    Service members should have fair access to resources without discrimination on account of religion or the lack thereof.

    Why not an atheist chaplain? Or a Humanist one? What matters most is the function, not the name. To hear someone condescendingly tell atheists that they should go see a psychiatrist or call a suicide hotline rather than having reasonable access to the same level of support that theistic and/or religious soldiers enjoy is not only wrong–it’s a disrespectful slap in the face.

    Consider how there are no Wiccan chaplains, yet Wiccans in the armed forces still have access to chaplaincy resources. That’s what matters here–equal access and equal treatment in place of the current religious discrimination we see that targets and demeans atheists.

  • Cindy King

    What a breath of fresh air! The pervasive persecution of service personal whom are Humanist, Freethinkers, Atheist and possibly Hindus, or Buddhist not being spiritual is misconception of what spiritually is.

  • anthony joseph lucchese

    Comment on Godless Chaplains (segment of Religion and Ethics show 4-20-2012)

    The majority of the American founding fathers were believers in God, as the majority of our American military!!

    When the President takes his oath , he takes it on a Bible!!!

    Most of the religions in America are for FAITH, HOPE, LOVE AND CHARITY.

    The small minority of US soldiers that are aethiests are lacking FAITH and this is one thing that they need to survive on a battle field!!

    Wake up American aethiest soldiers and start believing in FAITH and your whole life will change for the better.

  • David Hogan

    An observation on the uncited Thomas Paine quotation provided by ShantiClaire Saverese.

    In his book “The Age Of Reason” in the first chapter titled the “Author’s Declaration of Faith”, Paine actually writes: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
    I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

    A citation on ShantiClaire Saverese’s quotation attributed to Paine would.be very helpful.

  • Geraint Thomas

    @anthony. Oh bless were you aware that several of those founding fathers who had belief were deists, and that jeffreson described christianity as “the most evil institution ever created”?
    Personnally I’ve found that a lack of faith actually greatly improved my life, living without an unnecessary burden and finding joy in what’s here and now.
    And are you suggesting that faith is somehow superior to training and decent equipment in a battlefield situation? Because as I recall several cult leaders in areas in africa tended to brush crosses on their followers and tell them it’d make them bulletproof. It didn’t.

  • mike falsia

    While I agree that even Atheists have the right to assemble and use the same facilities that are available to any official religious body the fact is that Atheists stand for nothing other than being openly hostile to any religious faith. The false attempt to protray themselves as some kind of persecuted minority who are only seeking to have equal access in the expression of their “faith” is deceitful and utterly misleading. Atheists are using the cover of being a minority whose civil rights are being violated by religious bigotry. In this case within the military services of America. The fact is if atheists had their way they would see to it that severe restrictions would be imposed on not just any religion but Christianiy in particular. The fact that this atheist military campaign invited its own brand of circuit preacher and evangelist Dick Dawkins to be its speaker shows just how much animus exists among this phoney movement. Dawkins is the most petty and bigoted atheist there is! All atheists can do is belittle and discredit God , the Bible and other forms of belief they dislike. The attempt here is to make religion look as if it appeals to those of low or little intelligence. The atheist creed is quite simple pretend that their “faith” is science based and worthy of acceptation. While religious faith is pure nonsense? You need not offer any well reasoned and persuasive arguments just simpley assert this as an incontrovertible fact and be sure too malign, misrepresent and use as much perjorative and disdainful language you can to get your point across. Listen to Dawkins words and you will see and hear not only foolish and easily refuted arguments but the kind of vitriol that characterizes all devotees of this sort of temperment. Atheist should have the right to put on anti religious tantrums in the excercise of free speech. As they must bear with Christ so we must bear with the philosophy of anti-Theism. I can take it if they can! But please spare me the victimology!

  • Ellen McCown

    Making a cause of one’s world view is troubling and borders on victimization.

    I trained, and now work part-time as a chaplain. My faith orientation is buddhist and I am an atheist. I don’t know how other buddhist describe them selves and don’t consider it my concern. It was provocative while in training to my peers – when we came to the task of describing our “theology” – since the word and concept is not relevant to my worldview.

    There is a difference between Religious and Spiritual needs. When I work as a chaplain, my intention is to meet the spiritual needs of those I serve; many are relieved to be accepted and served when they are individuals who have no self reference to religion – they are facing difficult life and death circumstances – it is at these times that our spirits are challenged – at these times – the aim of a chaplain in my view is to witness and support one to naming their own living truth, in their own way – it is their view of truth – even if the naming is with out words. There is a presence – connection that is shared beyond words – call human connection….

    I have hope and faith that, in time, there will be acceptance for atheist and humanist chaplains in the military.