Military Atheists Want a Voice

BALTIMORE — 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.

Those and other responses, Jean says, won him a trip to see the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.

“He basically told me that if I don’t get right with God, then I’m worthless,” said Jean, now an intelligence officer at Ft. Meade, Md. “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.”

Jean says experiences such as that confrontation three years ago, when he was serving at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, have spurred him to seek Army recognition as a humanist lay leader — on par with the lay Christians, Jews and Muslims who help military chaplains minister to the troops.

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 acceptance and support for nonbelievers.

Some in the loosely knit but apparently growing movement of military atheists see the recognition of lay leaders as a step toward the appointment of nonbelieving chaplains, who would be charged — like the priests, ministers, rabbis and imams now in uniform — with responding to the spiritual needs of all soldiers.

Reactions to their efforts so far, they say, have ranged from perplexity to hostility. Military authorities have yet to approve an atheist lay leader.

“What I’ve heard is, ‘Well, you guys aren’t like us. You guys don’t believe like we do,’ ” said Jason Torpy, the former Army captain who heads the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

An Army spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Ft. Meade spokeswoman Mary Doyle 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.”

A willingness to speak out

The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion. Atheists do not believe in a god. Humanists typically are nonbelievers who find meaning in ideas about community, science and human potential. There is much overlap between the two groups.

Nonetheless, the drive for lay leaders reflects the growing level of coordination among atheists in uniform and their increasing willingness to speak out in a military that has labored in recent years to develop a more inclusive environment.

Religion — specifically Christianity — is embedded in military culture. The Chaplain Corps traces its origins to the Continental Army. Until the 1970s, the service academies required cadets to attend chapel services. Nightly prayers still are broadcast throughout Navy ships at sea.

“The military historically has been a politically conservative culture,” said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. “And in the United States, politically conservative culture also tends as a statistical matter to be more religious. So it’s not a surprise that this kind of thing is going to be going on. It’s a question of making sure that the command’s message of equal opportunity is communicated and followed.”

As recently as last month, the top general in the Air Force issued a memo warning officers against “the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs.”

“Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion … and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote. “They must refrain from appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion.”

An isolated minority

Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.

Whatever their number, nonbelievers describe themselves as a minority that is often isolated and sometimes closeted.

By the time Jean was commissioned in 2003, he was “functionally an atheist.”

Still, it was another five years before he began identifying himself openly as a nonbeliever — a detail, he says, that has sometimes led to friction.

There was the run-in with the chaplain in Kuwait. And the soldier who said he chafed at Jean’s command because he felt it amounted to “following in Satan’s footsteps.”

Jean speaks of the reserve unit in California where members were given the choice of attending Bible study or performing preventive vehicle maintenance checks. He says he once stopped a sergeant who was attempting to force his squad to attend a chapel service. He also has sat quietly as a superior officer opened a meeting with a Christian prayer.