Atheists Stretch for Something to be Offended By

During the Christmas season it is not unusual to hear the controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” is being intentionally censored or avoided.  Regardless of your political or religious persuasion, there are some ridiculous examples of scornful “Merry Christmas” retorts to what may be sincere well wishes expressed in the “wrong” words of “Happy Holidays.”  Some have rightly said that some Merry Christmas-ers are just looking for something to get twisted over.

Likewise, atheists now have their own manufactured cause célèbre.

The Global Assessment Tool (GAT) Soldier Fitness Tracker (SFT) is part of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness initiative.  It is designed to help Soldiers self-assess their Emotional, Social, Family, and Spiritual resiliency.  Atheists have taken umbrage at the “Spiritual” section, claiming the Army is judging fitness to serve.

Atheist organizations are now stepping all over each other in their calls for the Army to pull the survey and its supporting training materials.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation stole much of the thunder, though the Christian Post did an adequate job of debunking their claims in a fairly short article.

The assessment has a section titled “Spiritual Fitness” that questions soldiers on their personal support systems, motivation, and methods of dealing with stress, among other things…

Contrary to FFRF’s claims, the program does attempt to acknowledge and cater to the beliefs of secular soldiers. According to the training manual, spirituality and the human spirit is defined, for the program purposes, as “the essential core of the person.”…

Army chaplains trained last month to participate in the CSF’s spiritual fitness initiative say it is about protecting soldiers’ mental health in the event of a traumatic experience, not conversion.

That hasn’t stemmed the atheists’ righteous indignation, however.

In fact, Kathleen Johnson (1SG, US Army, Retired) works for American Atheists and is also a US Army government civilian.  After learning of this “offensive” survey — which she was not required to take as a civilian — she said she used her official access to voluntarily take and publish aspects of the publicly inaccessible material.

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which Johnson founded and is now run by Jason Torpy, has posted large portions of the material associated with the survey.  It, too, shows the bias and presumptive scorn the atheists have about the military and religion.

For example, according to the data posted on its site, the MAAF takes issue with a discussion on ‘water washing’ in the Army’s training material:

The Rituals section devotes two paragraphs on how washing with water, like in a shower, can be a useful cleansing ritual. This emphasis, the second largest section after flag folding, speaks directly to Christian baptism.

Note the hypersensitivity to Christianity despite the fact Christianity isn’t even the topic — in fact, the opposite could be true.  Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Shintoism, to name a few religions, actually use water in a “cleansing ritual.”  Christians are actually divided, with Catholics and some liturgical denominations viewing water as a “cleansing ritual,” while the rest of Christianity does not.  Still, Torpy’s MAAF is so myopically focused on its offense at Christianity that it categorically assigns to all of Christianity a belief it doesn’t even universally hold — while other religions are ignored.

The MAAF also conveniently misses the fact that cleansing as a religious ritual was long preceded by cleansing as, well, a means of cleansing.  Apparently atheists are happy to claim Christmas is actually appropriated from paganism, but they’ll pass on pointing out that water was used for cleaning long before religions used it ritually.

Not to be left out, there are grumblings Michael Weinstein’s MRFF may also be weighing in.  It’s been almost exactly a year since Weinstein’s last lawsuit against the military was tossed out before even making it to trial.  Perhaps another futile public relations prop cleverly disguised as a viable judicial case is in the making.  Look for a press release on a Tuesday to Thursday, a slow news day, with buzzwords about handing Islamic extremists ‘propaganda’ and Christians ‘crusaders’ trying to take over the world.

The Truth of the Matter

The “scandal” over the Army’s SFT would be a tempest in a teapot — if it was a tempest at all. Instead, its an imagined (or contrived) offense.  It is no different than someone accusing the Wal-Mart greeter of being anti-Christian because they said “Happy Holidays.”

The purpose of the survey is to assess meaning, connection, and purpose — period.  Meaning, connection, and purpose are directly linked to the Army’s desire to support “resiliency” and mental health — which are directly linked to its fight against the increasing tide of suicide.  Even apart from religion, the positives of someone feeling their life has meaning, a connection with others, and purpose are obvious on their face.

The US Army daily sends thousands of 18 to 20-somethings out in teams of varying sizes, armed with lethal equipment and authorized to use it.  Those same men will eventually return to the United States and try to find “normal” again.  If statistics are correct, an abnormally high percentage of them will take their own lives.  The Army is fighting an uphill battle in stemming suicides, and helping Soldiers understand the value of their own lives — their meaning, purpose, and connection — is a reasonable, noble, and secular effort to that end.

The decision by atheists to manufacture offense over this assessment is opportunistic and selfish, and it detracts from the Army’s purpose:  It is one tool in a kit designed to do what it can to save the lives of American Soldiers who have sacrificed so much already.


  • Quick correction: instead of “[…] atheists” you mean (if you want to be accurate) “all people who respect the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
    Edited by Admin

  • Jerry,

    You mean to say atheists are the only people who are Constitutional?

  • I’m bothered by this article’s heavy sarcasm and criticism of atheists. By the way- the pendng lawsuit over the Spiritual Fitness portion of this survey was brought together by over 200 military professionals who were offended by it’s inclusion, and (you can check these facts, don’t take my word for it) while some of the complainants are atheists, the majority identify as Christians. It’s a bad policy that violates the First Amendment and needs to be removed, not because an atheist crid foul, but because it’s unconstitutional.

  • the pendng lawsuit…was brought together by over 200 military professionals

    Interesting. How is it you have insight into a lawsuit that is not yet public?

    you can check these facts, don’t take my word for it

    At present, there are no public facts to verify — only your repetition of Michael Weinstein’s words.

    [It] violates the First Amendment and needs to be removed, not because an atheist crid foul, but because it’s unconstitutional.

    The Constitution does not say the military cannot ask its troops if they feel they have connection with their fellow troops, meaning in their life, or a purpose to their life. Such a statement is ludicrous on its face.

  • Since when is there a constitutional right to not be offended? I am a non-believer who is frequently disturbed by real violations of the establishment clause, but this is NOT one of those cases.

    […] having taken the test myself I have to agree. The only thing about the Fitness survey that a skeptical person should be wary of is applicability of the results. Which is why the survey is part of a research project to determine its applicability!

    Fellow Atheists: Do not lose your credibility so easily by failing to check the claims of fellow Atheists. Including me.
    Edited by Admin

  • I’ve kinda concluded that almost everyone talking about this “survey” are either misinformed, have not taken it, and certainly talking over and around the real issue. I’m not in the Army nor taken the survey, however, I have read a lot of the available info and concluded the “offensive” part is the “spiritual fitness” section of the survey thats got everyone buggered up.

    I’m sure we can all agree that religion and politics are never good subjects to talk about at work; someone will get offended one way or another. These are unwritten rules, but certainly followed more often than not. I certainly don’t mind if 2 Christians are sharing a prayer at lunch or 2 neo-cons debating Sarah Palin’s bid for President (Ha…never will happen).

    I’ve read the info about this survey on the Army website and agree that “spiritual fitness” (as (for one) defined by a connection with something bigger than oneself) is really none of anyones business. I kinda liken the question to “are you gay” because that just isn’t something we ask people…and I don’t mean because there is a DADT policy (albeit on its way out). I’d also do not want to answer questions about having connection with my fellow troops, meaning in my life, or a purpose to my life…its just no anyone’s business unless “I” choose to tell someone personally.

    If the Army is serious about the rules, i.e. not mandatory and your 1st Sgt cannot ask you the results and you cannot be forced to go to a preacher, then the head Army man should send a message loud and clear to all personnel what the rules are and ensure compliance. I’d also suggest an answer of N/A on the multiple choice survey be an option to a question if the soldier feels the question or answers do not apply to him or her.

    I realize that [they] say the spiritual fitness section has no implied religious connotation, but it was apparently taken that why because of the nature of the questions being asked, and deciding that the essential core of a person can be determined by a survey.
    I’ll bet most soldiers would not take the survey if they knew it was voluntary, no one really wants to be psycho analyzed.
    Edited by Admin

  • Pingback: God and Country » Fundamentalist Agnostic Wrote Army’s “Spiritual Fitness Test”

  • watchtower,

    I agree with you on the availability of ‘n/a’ answers, and ensuring the policies around the test are clear and properly enforced. I strongly disagree with the idea that there are some things that should not be asked because they are not socially acceptable to ask. The Army has a valid interest in producing this assessment – increasing combat effectiveness through decreasing suicides and increasing the moral stability of the troops.

    We learned in Vietnam that the Army was excellent at teaching a man to kill, but we didn’t know how to help that same person cope with the emotional and moral fallout (ref “On Killing” by Col Grossman). The same situation is true here. To deny the fact that people are spiritual (in addition to physical, emotional and mental) is to be ignorant.

  • Well Dealer…if they can ask, then the troops can answer any way they want to, may even have to lie to avoid the microscope (so to speak). I am not spiritual and I have many friends, co-workers and a few acquaintances that are not spiritual. I have no “connection” to anything that is not real or unseen, including something bigger than me (what is that anyway…the good of the Army?). This doesn’t mean we [I] don’t care, we just strongly believe that our personal feeling about “meaning, connection, and purpose” are our own. If some “agnostic” psycho babbler believes he has some insight to all things spiritual, I hope I never meet him!

    This is purely the Army’s way of “Plausible Deniability”, plain and simple. They will now show that based on this ridiculous survey Corporal Johnny is not spiritually connected, that’s why he off’d himself…this my good man is ignorant!

    You (I don’t mean you personally) don’t send 18-24 years old kids to kill, kill, kill and expect them to come back “whole” and operate on all thrusters and maybe get back in the church pews with the wife and kids, although many will do just fine. Me thinks the Armchair “thinkers” have a big “stinker” on their hands and looks like the troops are fighting mad and fighting back…Hooorah!

  • watchtower,

    It’s not meant as a legal questionnaire, it’s meant as a way to identify people who may have difficulty coping with situations that seem outside of their control and/or understanding. The question is probably deliberately vague on what is ‘bigger than me,’ to accommodate all belief systems.

    On a related note, how do you explain situations that are outside of your understanding? I use faith in a God that both loves us (plural) and me (singular), to the point that He allows free will. No I can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, but I live in faith that He knows why and there is a good reason.

    You say you are not connected to anything bigger than yourself and your purpose in life is for yourself. The logical extension of that thought is that you consider yourself the absolute authority on what is good or bad for you, and what you should and should not do. How do you submit to other authorities under than mindset?

    For the record, the military in general doesn’t train our soldiers to ‘kill, kill, kill.’ We have specific ROE that legally lay out moral concepts on who should be killed and who should be protected. Also, if the troops are fighting back, and the suicide rates are increasing, who are they fighting? More specifically, what would you recommend as a way to reserve this tragic trend?

  • Dealer — I read the Army’s description and intention of the survey and I disagree that it can identify people who may have difficulty coping. If a soldier doesn’t answer the way the Army wants they get to take (maybe suggested, I’m not sure on this) a long computerized training module to teach them about different forms of spirituality, including prayer, meditation and attending church. Is the Army saying the atheist is unfit to serve because they are “not spiritually fit” as defined by the answers the Army expected? I’ve read that some soldiers felt even worse after taking this survey.

    Situations outside of my understanding are learning opportunities; not all things are worth understanding. Its possible it could take a while to understand a more complicated issue, but I have really no desire to “assume” there is something higher then me in control of things unknown. Things happen, my sister died at 17 because she was in a car accident and not wearing a seat-belt, horrible yes, but if she was wearing a seat-belt she would not have been thrown out the window and smack a tree. Bad things happen to good people.

    Yes, I am in control of all that is good and bad for me. I do not “submit” to authorities like a little puppy, someone must be the leader. If that leader is incompetent they can be replaced.

    I understand your point about the ROE and who should be killed…however the youngsters are being shot at and shooting back. No a good way to live, but something needed doing. They are fighting back at the “authorities” who think they can help troops cope with a survey that has already been determined by the troops as partially offensive, because they did not answer the way the “authorities” wanted them too. So, they are fighting back by publically telling everyone the problem because uncle sam doesn’t seem to get it.

    Reversing this tragic suicide trend will take more time and lots of love and care.

  • watchtower,

    Thank you for your honest response – and I’m sorry to hear about your sister. I didn’t know the survey has a teaching element to it – that is different than what I’ve heard about the ACC version. Teaching shouldn’t be a part of a survey and certainly shouldn’t be done over a computer. I think we can agree the teaching part is not working.

  • @JerryF

    While i beleive the term “militant atheists” would be the most apropriate i think he means “people with a totalitarian agenda (disguised as a noble cause) trying to prevent people from beleiving in whatever they want to beleive”

    But i understand WHINEstein point of view, if i was a racist Talmudist nazi i would be worried too.

  • Atheist Infantry Colonel

    After being forced to do “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” I was Googling around and came up with your blog. The thing that offends me about “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” is that it’s a complete waste of time and money, since there is no such thing as a spirit. How would you feel if you were forced as part of your job as a fighter pilot to undergo several hours of “training” about vampires or zombies, and then forced to ensure all of your airmen did the same thing? And as part of the training you were told you were unfit because you didn’t carry garlic and a wooden stake with you everywhere you went?

  • Atheist Infantry Colonel

    PS: Suicidal people needs scientists not chaplains. We don’t use faith healers to treat gunshot wounds, we use science.

  • Atheist Infantry Colonel

    PPS: Sorry for the subject verb agreement typo.

  • atheist infantry colonel,

    sir, I disagree with your assessment that suicidal people need scientists not chaplains. I imagine that the most effective counseling is from someone of similar belief background to the person getting the counseling. Personal experience has supported this: I’ve had religious counseling that was way more effective after 1 hour than a secular psychiatrist’s work after 5 hours. I’ve also seen atheist troops that have the exact opposite effect.

    Btw, comparing depression to gunshot wounds is an invalid comparison. Still, many hospitals have chapels, so religion and medicine aren’t as separate as you imply.

    I do agree with your complaint about the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, as noted in previous posts.

  • Atheist Infantry Colonel

    Well here is my basic belief. Religion has not given us cell phones, the internet, space flight, smart bombs, or heart surgery; science has. So the scientific method has a pretty good track record. Historically, it has been pretty good at figuring out how the universe works, saving lives, and inventing things. So, when faced with a problem like high suicide rates in the Army, I’d like to apply the scientific method. I haven’t seen any science behind this assumption that chaplains can use mysticism to treat suicidal depression. We (the Army) just said “You chaplains aren’t doing anything; handle this”.

  • @Atheist Infantry Colonel

    I haven’t seen any science behind this assumption that chaplains can use mysticism to treat suicidal depression…

    Though your comment is slightly off topic, the American Psychological Association — a self-described “scientific” and decidedly “non-religious” organization — has published “empirical findings” of religiosity as a “protective factor” against suicide.

    Your strong opinion is somewhat dismissive of those for whom religion is an important part of their lives, which is an exercise of their freedom both the Constitution and the US military protect.

  • Atheist Infantry Colonel

    Hmm, I wonder if they included the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate in their study.

    FYI, I understand the importance of religion to my Soldiers and would not voice these opinions to them.

    Here are some interesting preliminary findings finding from the Army’s ongoing studies.