The step would have to be approved by senior members of the chaplain corps, The New York Times reported Tuesday. Most of the more than 3,000 military chaplains are Christian priests or ministers and there are also a few Jewish and Muslim chaplains.
The Defense Department says 9,400 of the 1.4 million people on active duty in the military have identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. That makes them a larger group than Buddhists, Hindus, Jews or Muslims.
One issue is that chaplains' duties include providing counsel and support to members of all faiths. James Torpy, a former Army captain and current president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, does not believe that is a problem.
"Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews," Torpy told the Times. "It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values."
Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, a group formed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, has requested the appointment of an atheist lay leader there -- in effect a chaplain.