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Here's a question about religion facing the Pentagon: Does a military chaplain have to believe in God? An atheist is seeking to become the first so-called humanist chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. He has impressive credentials, but, as NPR's John Burnett reports, he faces strong institutional resistance.

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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The U.S. military chaplaincy program has a proud heritage that stretches all the way back to the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They are rabbis, ministers, imams and priests who serve our nation's heroes and their families...

BURNETT: But are they ready for an atheist chaplain? Now comes Jason Heap, a 38-year-old graduate of the University of Oxford and of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Born in Houston and raised in Philadelphia as a devout Christian, he was licensed as a Christian minister in Texas and ultimately lost his faith.

JASON HEAP: To thine own self be true, I left it.

BURNETT: For the past 12 years, Heap has been living in the U.K., mainly teaching in public schools, where he has become a prominent humanist. A humanist, often used interchangeably with non-theist, does not recognize a supernatural god. They believe in the human ability to lead an ethical life and aspire to good without relying on religious belief.

Jason Heap is currently applying to become the first humanist chaplain with the U.S. Navy. Navy chaplains are also assigned to the pastoral care of Marines. Which leads to the inevitable question: What would you do on the eve of battle if a grunt asked you to pray with him?

HEAP: As a pastoral caregiver, I wouldn't lead a prayer with that particular person, but I would help them with it. Having come from the background of Christians, I would understand what sort of things to help the person speak about. I am very familiar with the Bible as a scholar. If they are a humanist or an atheist, even Wiccan or pagan, it would be on the sort of terms where I would be able to work more with them philosophically.

BURNETT: Harvard, Stanford and three other universities have humanist chaplains, so does the Dutch army. But the idea of a non-believing chaplain in the U.S. military has provoked a backlash. Last week, the U.S. House approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill instructing the armed forces to only allow religious organizations that believe in a higher power to endorse chaplains. And so far, the Navy has not indicated whether it will accept the Humanist Society as the endorser of Jason Heap.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, believes the House amendment is a wash, and he expects the military will continue to modernize.

JASON TORPY: We have women in the military. We have blacks in the military. We have Hispanics. We have lesbian, gay and bisexual service members, and we have atheists and humanists. And just as they've had to accept those other kinds of diversity, they have to accept our kind of diversity as well - diversity of belief.

BURNETT: According to current Pentagon records, about one percent of active duty military in all four services checked boxes for agnostic and atheist as their religious status. That's just over 13,000 soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors, which incidentally is more than all the Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims combined, and they each have their own chaplains.

Some traditional chaplains will have none of it. Ron Crews is a retired Army chaplain with 28 years in uniform and director of an advocacy group called Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

RON CREWS: For God and country, that is the motto of the Chaplain Corps. And someone who comes from a humanist freethinker position could not ascribe to that motto. So it's by definition of who a chaplain is.

BURNETT: In recent years, other atheists have aspired to become military chaplains, but Jason Heap's application has reportedly gone farther than anyone else's. The office of the U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains has not indicated when it will make its decision. John Burnett, NPR News.

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