“Lights Out” For Nonbelievers on Naval Vessels and Ashore



The United States Navy and the life of seafarers, in general, is one of mystique, often tipping the rift into the spiritual. But all too often, the religious customs and traditions of the past weave their way into day-to-day Naval operations, much to the detriment of atheist Sailors aboard ships and installations.

Any Sailor who has served aboard a ship, squadron or submarine is familiar with the practice of evening prayer. It is an essential part of the routine while deployed.  Every evening, while underway, a chaplain or chaplains will calmly take to the 1MC (shipboard Public Announcement system) and say a few words of hope and inspiration to the Sailors who lay within. In the dark of the ship’s spaces, accented by a few red lights so as to not let white light escape outside, the chaplain blesses the ship, the crew and the mission. It is so ingrained into the routine that it is even marked in the “Plan of the Day,” a detailed outline of what the ship and crew must accomplish that day. Navy Basic Training is no different, often assigning young recruits to lead the division in prayer. Even during the Navy’s famed “Change of Command” ceremonies, when the former Commanding Officer will be formally relieved by the new, there is time set aside for a benediction while Sailors in formation are given the drill order to pray, bowing their heads at the position of attention.

But what of the Sailors who do not believe, the “Atheists on the Deckplates?” Where is their representation? Who will support their right to nonbelief as strongly as the support the believers are given? The answer is “no one”, and this lack of support from senior leadership, trickles to the lower levels. This writer has borne witness to several confrontations, both verbal and physical, regarding one’s belief or lack thereof from senior officer down to the newest junior Sailor aboard. Could it be the fact that as of 2007 there are just under 856 Navy chaplains serving on active duty? Are those 856 truly providing the ethical support of sailors, highlighted among the “priorities” of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps? Or even the “free exercise of religion” under the “mission” of this same corps?

With the mandatory, programmed evening prayers and benedictions having become a mainstay of many Naval ceremonies, this writer finds it difficult, if not impossible, to find evidence to the contrary. With all of the social pressures of faith brought on by the Chaplain Corps and the Navy as a whole, it’s safe to say that the core values they are said to embody have “run aground.”

Patrick Owens
National Atheist Party

The foregoing should in no way be construed as to suggest that the National Atheist Party does not support the chaplaincy or United States Navy. We simply seek recognition of all faiths – including none at all.


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