The president of American Atheists David Silverman says the U.S. military needs atheist chaplains.
Silverman acknowledges the claim may sound contradictory, but he insists atheist troops need chaplains they can turn to for counseling and moral support.
Silverman was raised Jewish but said he decided God did not exist at a young age.
Atheist groups have been pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the ranks of the chaplaincy. They hope to give voice to what they say is a large, and largely underground, population of non-believers in the military.
Atheists hope to be recognized officially by the military, which would mean they could raise money and meet on military bases, distribute literature, and advertise their events.
But many chaplains remain skeptical of atheists and humanist groups. They question whether these groups can qualify as a faith groups, a requirement for a chaplain candidate.
Chaplains also wonder if an atheists could provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for any chaplain.
In an interview with The New York Times in April, Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths.
But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.
"Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews," Torpy said. "It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values."
Currently, there are more than 3,000 chaplains in the U.S. military. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jewish or Muslim, one is a Buddhist and another a Hindu. A Wiccan may also join their ranks soon.