Atheist Complains of Military Pre-Mission Prayers

Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers was recently interviewed by NPR on the topic of atheist chaplains.  At one point he said he felt “excluded…because of his beliefs” while he was in the Army.  His unit was preparing for a convoy:

Going on a military mission, for example, we were getting ready to roll out…So as the commander of this convoy (said), ‘Everybody come in and we’re going to do a prayer first together.’ We’re not going to talk about communications, we’re not going to talk about route planning, we’re not going to talk about first aid, we’re not going to talk about maintenance.
So I had to opt myself out of that situation, to ‘out’ myself because this commander took it upon himself to have a personal religious activity in the midst of a military mission.

CNS News caught that, and later asked Torpy to clarify.  Torpy ultimately admitted the unit had prepared for the mission, despite his implication the commander opted to pray rather than plan.  (This isn’t the first time Torpy has told an embellished story.)  But CNS finally drilled down to the real question, and asked Torpy if he took issue with “the fact there was prayer at all.”  His verbose response:

“[The commander] was imposing his power — kind of forcing me into a Christian prayer. And that is not part of his mandate…”
“I was being excluded from the team; put in a bad position that made it more difficult to be a part of that military team–he was putting that religious wedge, which was bad for the team in general. So he was sort of dishonoring his military command which was putting a wedge in the team, and for the purpose of that mission, he was distracting from the main point at a critical time,” Torpy told

Though he couldn’t bring himself to actually say the words, in short, Torpy does object to the principle of pre-mission prayers, because they make him feel bad.

It is fair to say the pre-mission prayer is ubiquitous in the US military.  Check out the photo galleries of Prayer in Uniform at  There are dozens of pictures of groups of US servicemembers gathered together for a prayer prior to a mission.  General Mark Welsh, commander of USAFE, recently gave a speech at USAFA in which he recounted his chaplain blessing him and his fellow F-16 fighter pilots before every mission in Operation Desert Storm.

Does the objection of one override the liberties of others?  Retired US Air Force General Steven Lorenz doesn’t think so.  When a chaplain declined troops’ request for a pre-mission prayer, based on his belief their commander didn’t want one, Lorenz said their commander “lost an opportunity to stand up for the Constitution and our freedoms.”  Lorenz said:

What bothers me is that the leader appears to have ignored the spiritual needs of his troops…This leader lost a golden opportunity to show his troops that he cared so much about the mission and the people under his command that he respected their spiritual needs as they went into battle…

He also lost an opportunity to stand up for the Constitution and our freedoms that the military fights so hard to protect.

Torpy, by contrast, objects to the prayers altogether, and would likely have the US military “ignore the spiritual needs of [its] troops” rather than make some of them feel uncomfortable because someone is praying.

While Torpy claims such prayers “distract” from the mission, General Lorenz seems to think there may be times they are critical to the mission — or at least to the troops who are executing the mission.

As for the topic of atheist chaplains, it has been brought up several times before.  One unique issue military atheists have yet to overcome is their inconsistency with the construct of the chaplaincy itself.  The chaplaincy is a military model of a civilian institution; it is not unique to the military.  Chaplains are simply military versions of civilian faith leaders — that’s one reason why they have to be endorsed by a religious sending body.  One reason these faith representatives are in the military is to provide support to faith adherents when they cannot access their normal civilian resources.  This is a basic means of protecting religious liberty.

Notably, there is no equivalent in American society to an “atheist chaplain.”  Thus, to have atheist chaplains, the military would have to create a construct that does not exist even in civilian society.  If an atheist has no access to an atheist “religious leader” outside of the military, where is the obligation to create access inside the military?  As has already been noted, non-religious resources that exist outside of the military already exist within the military construct.  They go by various job descriptions, including behavioral health and mental health, but all are some form of “counselor” whose expertise and assistance is wholly unrelated to religion.

Torpy was previously vicariously offended by a cross he read about on the internet.  In his NPR interview, Torpy further validated the perception he cannot abide the slightest display of connection between the military and religion, even when such connections protect the religious freedom of his fellow troops. 

In other words, Torpy would prefer his personal feelings override US troops’ rights.

If critics of religious freedom can successfully create an environment of hypersensitivity to religion in the military, many such displays of free exercise may indeed be restricted by well-meaning leaders who want to avoid the scandal Torpy implies exists.

The result, of course, would be an unnecessary restriction of religious liberty.

Some would say Torpy and his allies are well on their way to creating just that kind of environment, and religious liberty may very well suffer for it.

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