Atheists at Fort Meade seek official recognition

Movement to establish lay leaders; some see nonbelieving chaplains

November 05, 2011|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

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 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."

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 a 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 for nonbelievers the acceptance and support that they say Christians in uniform take for granted.

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. "What I haven't heard is, 'Yes. We accept.'"

An Army spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. 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.

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 for its diverse membership.

Allegations of religious bias at several installations — most notably at the Air Force Academy, where concerns about attempts by fundamentalist Christian staff members and cadets to win converts have flared periodically — have led to tougher restrictions against proselytizing.

Some have expressed fear that having the wrong faith, or none at all, could affect their careers. Martin L. Cook, a professor of military ethics at the Naval War College, called it the "imponderable question."

"As for careers being held back … only a really stupid person would do that in such a way that you could see that," said Cook, who has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Army War College. "So if it happens — and, honestly, I suspect it does — it would happen either in the privacy of the mind of the person doing the performance review or perhaps in a small, private discussion among senior officers who make those decisions."

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."

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