ACCORDING to a much-quoted military maxim there are no atheists in a foxhole when the shelling begins.
But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now edging towards official recognition for the needs of non-believers serving in the armed forces by considering the appointment of Humanist chaplains.
Military sources have revealed they are "sympathetic" to the idea of establishing a organisation to represent the interests of non-religious servicemen and women.
Non-believers in the forces, including a senior Scottish officer, hope the move will pave the way for the establishment of Humanist chaplains, who would offer support and consolation to those with no spiritual beliefs.
Currently the forces have 280 uniformed Christian chaplains as well as a number of civilian equivalents who cater for the needs of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist recruits.
An MoD spokesman said: "We do not discriminate on the basis of religion or belief. We respect people's religions and beliefs, unless they conflict with the Armed Forces' Core Values and Standards, and if there was a formal approach to establish a Humanist organisation we would look on such a request sympathetically."
Lt Colonel Henry Cummins of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a founder member and Army representative for the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association, is hopeful of establishing gradual but significant changes in the forces' attitude towards non-believers.
Cummins, who was second-in-command of the regiment during a sixth-month deployment in Iraq in 2006, said: "The recent recruitment of Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu civilian chaplains is a step in the right direction, but continues to ignore the spiritual and pastoral needs of those of no religion.
"The MoD's policies of equality and diversity, and for the provision of spiritual support for all members of the armed forces are not currently reflected in its actions; neither does its provision reflect the current nature of British society."
The 42-year-old officer abandoned his Anglican faith after witnessing the consequences of horrific sectarian bloodshed in Kosovo.
Cummins hopes the first official Humanist chaplain to the armed forces will be appointed in the near future.
The Dutch armed forces have had Humanist "counsellors" for several years.