Soldiers Fellowship with Like-Minded Atheist Peers

When criticizing para-church organizations that ministered to servicemembers, MRFF creator Michael Weinstein used to cite the number of US military bases around the globe, as if the number somehow made the existence of the organizations more insidious.  But as someone very recently said, the presence of groups of religious adherents at military bases arises from a far more basic human need: fellowship.

“If there’s one thing church groups get right is fellowship [sic],” Johnson said. “Everyone wants to be around people who are like them.”

The person quoted is supporting the existence of such groups, but she isn’t at all religious.  She is Kathleen Johnson, founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and currently Vice President and Military Director of American Atheists.  She is reportedly a former Army first sergeant, retired after 21 years of service.  (Her organizational profile pictures continue to show her in a military uniform.)

According to an article in the Killeen Daily Herald, Johnson created a chapter of the atheist organization at Fort Hood in 2007.  One attendee of the group explained why he liked the gathering:

I thought it’d be cool to meet like-minded people…To be able to express that I’m an atheist, especially in the military, is great.

Again, insidious accusations notwithstanding, the purpose of people on military bases grouping together is simply to fellowship with others who share their values, and to do so in an environment that may sometimes seem hostile to their viewpoint.

It would appear that both religious and non-religious adherents desire to fellowship within their groups for similar reasons, despite the sometimes vitriolic criticisms leveled only at local groups of Christians at military bases.

Men and women in the military of any ideology, including Christians, are free to fellowship with others of their faith, including meeting together, as these atheists did, at the off base home of a retired servicemember who “ministers” to the needs of the Soldiers at the local base.  Groups like the Navigators, Officers’ Christian Fellowship, Cadence, and others (see links) provide networks of support at a variety of military bases around the world.  As Johnson expressed, these groups can help support their fellow faith adherents in whatever struggles they may face.  You can rest assured that virtually anywhere you go (with the occasional exception of FOBs in Afghanistan), you will have local support for your faith.

Aside:  The author of the article, Rebecca LaFlure, appears to repeat an inaccurate number that she was likely provided by the MAAF.  She says:

Soldiers who attended this month’s event represent the more than 23 percent of active-duty military personnel who identify themselves as non religious, according to 2009 data from the Defense Man Power [sic] Data Center.

The Defense Manpower Data Center 2009 report actually contained 2008 data saying some American servicemembers identified themselves with “no religious preference.”  That is not the same thing as “atheist,” which those “who attended this month’s event represent.”  In fact, the DMDC report specifically said that less than 1% self-identified as atheists.  “No religious preference” is also not the same thing as “non-religious.”  Thus, the cited 23% number appears to be misunderstood or inaccurately reported.  (The MRFF has also misused the percentage of “no religious preference” in the past, likewise lumping it in with atheists to inflate a number to support their position.)

It is worth noting that many people select “no religious preference” for their own reasons.  For example, it is common knowledge by now that Maj Nidal Malik Hasan had “no religious preference” in his records, despite his obvious faith.  Despite LaFlure’s statement, it is highly unlikely that the members of Johnson’s group “represented” people like Hasan.

Ms. LaFlure did not respond to a request for comment regarding the source of her data, or her interpretation of it.