Military Atheists Seek Status as Lay, Faith Group Leaders

Atheists in the US Army continue to criticize the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and its Global Assessment Tool.  One portion of it is intended to help Soldiers assess their spiritual fitness — to which some atheists have objected, both in letter and principle.  Much like their opposition to anything “bigger” or “higher” than themselves, the atheists’ objection to the principle of spiritual fitness has caused them to see offense even in non-“religious” questions, like whether or not their lives have purpose.

Capt. Ryan Jean wanted to perform well on the Army’s psychological evaluation for soldiers. But he also wanted to answer the questions honestly. So when he was asked whether he believed his life had a lasting purpose, Jean, an atheist, saw no choice but to say no.

Apparently military atheists claim no lasting purpose in their lives.  Honestly.

Unfortunately, the article conflates two separate questions with which Soldiers were asked to express their relative agreement:  “My life has lasting meaning” and “I have a purpose in my life.”  The reporter either chose to blur the distinction or didn’t recognize one, which might indicate the similarity most average people see in those statements.  It is likely Capt Jean answered much like Justin Griffith, an Army Sergeant who previously said he intended to join Michael Weinstein in filing a lawsuit over the GAT.  He fully agreed with the “purpose” statement, but was one step from the max disagreement on the “lasting meaning” statement.

Jean said he received an unwelcome response from a chaplain as a result of his survey:

“He basically told me that if I don’t get right with God, then I’m worthless,” said Jean, now an intelligence officer at Fort Meade. “That if I don’t believe in Jesus, why am I in uniform, because this is God’s army, and that I should resign my commission in order to stop disgracing the military.”

On the surface, the response by the chaplain was wholly unacceptable.  At the same time, the story recounts only Jean’s recollection.  Given his offense at a benign question about his life’s meaning, it is possible his perception of what the chaplain meant to convey was similarly colored.  It would be interesting to hear how the chaplain felt the conversation went, though that information won’t likely be publicized.

The article focuses on Jean’s efforts to become an atheist “lay leader.”  Lay leaders are military members who help minister to those of like faith when chaplains either need assistance or are unavailable.  For example, it is not uncommon for a non-chaplain Jewish military member to be a designated Jewish lay leader for an installation, since most military institutions do not have Jewish chaplains.  Thus, in seeking recognition within the chaplaincy program, atheists are essentially asking to be recognized as a religious group:

A spokeswoman for Fort Meade said atheists seeking the lay-leader status face “a high mountain to climb.”

“The group that they want to be a lay leader for would have to be considered a recognized religious organization,” spokeswoman Mary Doyle said.

For his part, Griffith has emphatically taken the opposite position, that atheists are not trying to have their beliefs recognized as a religion.  The disagreement notwithstanding, it is unclear what atheists intend to achieve (at least in a positive sense) by gaining a status “on par” with those assisting in the practice of religious faith.  There has been a generic call for “acceptance and support:”

Jean is one of as many as a dozen atheists throughout the U.S. military in the process of applying for the status, which they and their supporters see as necessary to secure for nonbelievers the acceptance and support that they say Christians in uniform take for granted.

…except for all their complaints, no military atheist has ever explained how the military prevents them from exercising their non-belief in God, or how the military institutionally denies them such “acceptance and support.”  They are already free to organize like Toastmasters, the chess club, and every other secular group that might meet on military facilities.  To demand to be placed next to groups that do believe in God is a contradiction even some atheists are unable to reconcile.

In fact, some (atheists and theists) like to say that calling atheism a religion is like calling “bald” a hair color.

To build on the analogy, atheists demanding a military position normally reserved for religious exercise is like a bald man demanding the government provide him a personal hair stylist.

Do atheists experience discrimination in the US military?  On an individual level, almost certainly — just as their fellow Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and those of every other unique belief system (religious or not) sometimes do.  There is no evidence, however, of any institutional discrimination of any of those groups (though some Christians might question what seems to be the recent targeting of Christian beliefs).

Atheists cannot even agree among themselves whether they are a belief system recognizable within the religious criteria of the military chaplaincy.  It is understandable, therefore, that the military would have some issues simply adding them to the ranks of “lay leaders” of religious faith groups.

Though some seem to imply otherwise, military atheists are free to believe as they choose.  They are free to express those beliefs.  They are free to seek counsel from chaplains or non-religious counselors, and chaplains are obligated to provide them spiritual support just as with every other service member.  Atheists are already “recognized” and supported within the US military — and the military does an admirable job of balancing the religious freedom of all of its troops with the needs of the military mission.

Should the military create the position of “atheist lay leader” or even the previously demanded “atheist chaplain“?  Ultimately, the military can do whatever it wants, but there is no evidence to date that granting “religious” positions to areligious individuals would increase mission effectiveness or otherwise have a positive impact on the military.  In fact, an environment in which atheists could be in “religious” positions could ultimately dilute the chaplaincy and its support mechanisms within the military, to the detriment of the religious liberty of those servicemembers who do desire such support.

Unfortunately, that may be what some atheists have in mind to begin with.