Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.

Whatever their number, nonbelievers describe themselves as a minority that is often isolated and sometimes closeted. Torpy, of the military atheists group, said he hears from service members looking for "affirmation" and "connection to a community of like-minded individuals."

It was the search for such community that led Katherine Moore to form Atheists of Meade. The wife of an Air Force sergeant on the base, she had noted the success of organizations such as the Military Council of Catholic Women and the Protestant Women of the Chapel.

"I've heard they're wonderful, wonderful groups that get together for the fellowship," she said. "Well, I miss having that. I deserve that, too."

Attendance at meetings held every other week at a restaurant in Laurel has ranged from a few to a dozen. Jean, 28, is among the most vocal participants.

The Las Vegas native was raised by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother who took the family first to a mainline Protestant congregation and later to a Pentecostal church. But even as a young child, he says, he found himself questioning the claims of the Bible.

"I just could not bring myself to believe in something without, at least in my opinion, good evidence," he said. "It would be cool if there is, but I just don't see the evidence for it."

By the time Jean was commissioned in 2003, he was "functionally an atheist."

Still, it would be another five years before he would begin identifying himself openly as a nonbeliever — a detail, he says, that has sometimes led to friction.

There was the run-in with the chaplain in Kuwait. And the soldier who said he chafed at Jean's command because he felt it amounted to "following in Satan's footsteps."

Jean speaks of the reserve unit in California where members were given the choice of attending Bible study or performing preventive vehicle maintenance checks. He says he once stopped a sergeant who was attempting to force his squad to attend a chapel service. He also has sat quietly as a superior officer opened a meeting with a Christian prayer.

In practical terms, Jean says, lay leader status would make it easier for atheists at Fort Meade to get access to facilities and services on the base. But he says recognition would carry a larger message.

"It shows that we're not going to be silent and go away," he said. "It shows that we are a community with real needs. It shows that the chaplaincy by its very nature is not meeting those needs — and, I would argue, is inherently incapable of properly meeting those needs without some sort of liaison."

Tech. Sgt. Larry Moore, Katherine's husband, has served nearly 16 years in the military but says he has never experienced or witnessed discrimination against nonbelievers. Still, he supports Jean's effort.

"Atheism doesn't have a voice," Moore said. "Having a lay person for atheists is important so that we have somebody to go to resolve any issues that may arise.

"Also, it's extremely important for people who are more or less closet atheists, that the word gets out that there are others that they can reach out to."

Cook, of the Naval War College, says the chaplains should support the nonbelievers.

"It's the job of every chaplain, regardless of his or her denominational beliefs, to do everything in their power to facilitate the free exercise of other groups," he said. "The best of the chaplains know this."

In arguing for atheist chaplains, Torpy has stressed what he called the "positive values" of humanism: "Community, making meaning in life, scientific naturalism."

"We're not just coming in saying we want someone to wander around talking about how much God doesn't exist," he said. "We talk about humanist values, humanist community, how we understand the world."

But could a nonbelieving chaplain minister to the spiritual needs of the faithful?

"The test for an atheist chaplain," said Tuttle, the law and religion professor, "is whether they would, as all chaplains are required, robustly support the free exercise of religion by all service members."

He added: "I have no doubt that atheist chaplains would be able to do that."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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