Given the controversy surrounding the ongoing denial of Major Ryan Jean’s bid to become an atheist chaplain, the news that the U.S. Navy approved Chief Petty Officer Martin Healy as an atheist lay leader may have surprised both believes and nonbelievers. This in fact this should probably be unsurprising in the wake of a recent federal court ruling that reclassified secular humanism as a recognized religion for establishment clause purposes.
The appointment of atheist lay leaders in the military is not just good news for atheism as a movement, but in fact is also good news for both religious and nonreligious soldiers alike. Obviously atheists, agnostics and skeptic soldiers deserve the same senses of belonging and community that are enjoyed by their fellow religious soldiers. There is no doubt that the types of fellowship that result from sharing beliefs and philosophies in a formal space are a net benefit to the emotional and mental well being of those soldiers who participate in those activities. All of us, whether believers or not, should be grateful that the young people who fight on our behalf will have more access to this kind of support.
For the secular movement as a whole this presents the soldiers among us with an opportunity to share their “yes I am” with those who may not understand secular humanism very well. There is a certain power that comes with official recognition and endorsement. Persuasion researcher Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about the power that consensus holds in decision making; his argument is that once an activity or product is endorsed by others, individuals are more likely to choose that activity or product. Official Navy recognition of an atheist lay leader means more soldiers are likely to feel comfortable sharing not only their disbelief, but also what it is in which they do believe because that recognition acts as an endorsement of those behaviors.
Athesit meetings aboard ship are already beginning to happen, and this along with recognized leadership further emboldens the movement by giving it structure that can be observed by nonbelievers and believers alike. This means that atheist soldiers and the good they do is less likely to go unobserved or unrecognized because awareness of their presence on ship will be heightened. It’s widely thought that racial integration of the armed forces was a great boon to racial equality in civilian life; when whites saw blacks exhibiting honor and bravery or were the recipient of their support in battle and vice versa, it surely challenged preconceived notions of racial inequality. Here we have another opportunity like this. Once the atheists in foxholes can also be seen exhibiting their honor and courage, it will be harder for their religious brothers and sisters in arms to continue to think them evil or morally inferior, and those good religious folks who come to understand secular people as morally equivalent will bring those opinions with them when they return from serving our country.