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Ending Discrimination Against the Nonreligious in the Military

by Joe Beck


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 19, Number 2.


Preferential treatment of religious military personnel permeates our armed forces from the academies and bases to the front lines. West Point and Annapolis have numerous chapels for religious services, but neither has space set aside for nonreligious cadets who desire a place in which to reflect or seek solace.

While refusing to fund services for the nonreligious in the armed services, our government paid a Lutheran minister and a Catholic priest to provide spiritual comfort to Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg. It has hired Islamic chaplains to comfort captured Al Qaeda terrorists whose avowed goal is to kill Americans and destroy our way of life. While Allah may be pleased, patriotic humanist, atheist, and agnostic military personnel may find such practices discriminatory.

Members of the armed services in the Netherlands have access to humanist counselors and traditional chaplains. America does not yet offer this choice to its soldiers, but it will. When? That depends upon how active you and I will be in demanding equality for nonreligious military personnel.

Taxpayer-funded rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams are devoutly helping our military personnel to be all that they can be in today's Army while the nonreligious are treated as second-class citizens.

The United States military chaplaincy traces its origins to the French and Indian War. In a letter dated September 1756, Colonel George Washington noted that, "the want of a chaplain does, I humbly conceive, reflect dishonor upon the regiment." I am waiting for President Bush to come to the same conclusion regarding today's lack of services for nonreligious members of the military.

Our first chaplains were of the Christian faith, and Christians dominate our military today. Rabbis began to serve as chaplains during the Civil War, with the rivalry between Orthodox and liberal chaplains reflective of the serious, often violent divisions that have developed between competing sects in the world's monotheistic religions. Fortunately, rabbinical discord over the installation of the military's first female rabbi as a chaplain in 1977 was resolved more peacefully than many other internal religious arguments.

After some debate, the Marines accepted their first Islamic chaplain in 1997. Wiccas gained recognition in 1999. This trend towards religious inclusiveness did not sit very well with former Republican Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, who drafted an amendment that would have denied funds to any military base that recognized Wicca as a religion. The Senate's most senior member, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), submitted a statement decrying Wicca, and requested that it not be recognized by the military. A coalition of thirteen conservative Christian organizations went even further and organized a boycott against enlistment into the Army. Ironically, one of the boycotting organizations was the Christian Network, which lists as one of their goals "to educate the public to protect the religious beliefs of a free people."

President Bush, when running for office, stated, "I do not think that witchcraft is a religion, and I hope the military would rethink its decision to recognize Wicca as a religion." He also indicated that he had no problem with the Ten Commandments being placed in schools and public buildings. He may feel differently about listing them alongside "The Affirmations of Humanism" found on the inside cover of Free Inquiry magazine.

The nationwide problem of attracting men to the Catholic priesthood has also affected the armed services. An Army study concluded that the Army has only one-third of the priests needed to meet the needs of Catholic soldiers. As a result, these soldiers did not have access to Catholic sacraments of confession and Communion as often as they would have liked. The Army believes that the shortage of priests will be resolved largely by soldiers completing their tour of duty then joining the priesthood and re-entering the Army as chaplains. In order to encourage this, the Army held a "Religious Vocation Day" at one of its bases. (We are still waiting for a "Respecting the Rights of the Nonreligious Day.") The Vatican could solve this problem by ordaining female and married priests.

An even more disturbing example of official military support for religion occurred as recently as May 2003 when the superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy, Brigadier General John Weida, distributed this e-mail to all his troops:

Warriors: Men and Women of faith will gather all over our great nation on the 1st of May to go to the Lord in prayer. I humbly ask that you remember the men and women of the Air Force Academy in your prayers. Ask the Lord to give us the wisdom to discover the right, the courage to choose it, and the strength to make it endure. The Lord is in control. He has a plan for each and every one of us. If we serve him during our lives, we will find the peace that surpasses all understanding.

These comments constitute an abuse of power; they are inflammatory and irresponsible. George W. Bush, who recently told Americans, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to Humanity," has the ultimate responsibility to admonish this general. (Excluding the nonreligious might be a Bush family value, since the first President Bush once told a reporter that he didn't think an atheist could be a patriotic American.)

Fundamentalist Christian chaplains have helped to fill the need for more military clerics by enlisting in droves in order to serve God. Of course, starting out as a First Lieutenant with the right to be saluted by subordinates, a snazzy uniform, and a government pension may also have been motivators. In any event, evangelicals are now over-represented as chaplains, and, according to articles in Army newsletters, they feel discriminated against when it comes to being considered for head chaplain positions at various military installations. Head chaplains are usually more educated and members of mainstream denominations. Evangelical Christians are attempting to rectify this perceived inequality via litigation. Perhaps it's time for us to emulate them in this regard.

Like most people, the majority of chaplains are basically decent individuals, and many soldiers report being comforted by them. That's not because chaplains are intrinsically nice; it's their job to comfort soldiers. The other part of their job is to inform their commanders as to the morale and concerns of the troops. Unfortunately, some chaplains abuse their privileged status. Every branch of the military has its horror stories of cleric abuse. Consider the case of the priest Barry Ryan, who, while a chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior. Church officials indicated that they were aware of an incident regarding Father Ryan years earlier in the Mobile archdiocese. This should come as no surprise, since the Catholic Church has admitted a past practice of assigning sexually abusive priests as chaplains in hospitals, hospices, and prisons where they would not come in contact with minors.
During basic training, many secular humanist, atheist, and agnostic soldiers report being given a choice to attend religious services or be restricted to barracks while they are in progress. During World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, soldiers were not allowed to list "Atheist" on their military identification tags. Secular humanist and agnostic soldiers are still not allowed to identify themselves as such on their tags. Even in Arlington Cemetery, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier reads, "Here lie those whose names are known only to God." While this inscription may bring comfort to the religious majority, it is simply another example of preferential consideration given to the beliefs of the religious while God-free soldiers are ignored even in death.

Devout Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Mormons may agree on the existence of God, but still disagree over whom God has selected as his most recent earthly prophet. All these groups have a history of killing one another in the name of God, but they appear united in blocking equality for nonreligious military. Mormon leader President Hinckley went so far as to advise a group of veterans that what's needed today is a "war on atheism." Shouldn't we be fighting terrorists who wish to destroy America's democracy instead of waging a war against our nation's nonreligious soldiers?

Even after returning home from military service, god-free veterans find that they have to affirm a belief in a God if they wish to be accepted into the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and that they and their sons are refused admission to the Boy Scouts because they don't find sufficient evidence for a belief in a supernatural being. I wonder how nonreligious veterans feel when they see the Boy Scouts and VFW members participate in Memorial Day celebrations that contain prayers but no mention of the contributions of America's nonreligious veterans. I invite humanist veterans and their families to join in protesting the inclusion of these discriminatory organizations in Memorial Day parades.

Members of today's Chaplain Corps allege that they serve everyone on a nondenominational basis and claim that they don't proselytize. Apparently we are expected to believe that the Army chaplain in Iraq who hoarded five hundred gallons of water with which to baptize soldiers, while Iraqi children were going thirsty and soldiers lacked water for bathing, is the only chaplain who uses his position to convert the nonreligious. How the Army disciplines this chaplain will clarify its policy on proselytizing by military chaplains. I predict that he will receive a mild, meaningless reprimand.

I can understand the chaplains' desire to save souls. If they sincerely believe that the nonreligious are headed for eternal damnation, they may feel an obligation to convert nonreligious soldiers. I ask them to honestly acknowledge their desire to proselytize and to stop their deception about this issue. As one Christian told me, "Stressful times are a wonderful opportunity to help people find God." Military personnel are encouraged to visit the chaplain if they are experiencing personal or familial stresses. In preparation for battle, chaplains often lead public prayers asking for God's blessing. No one seems to care how this affects the nonreligious facing battle. At Annapolis, cadets are led in a mandatory mealtime grace, while the Air Force and Coast Guard offer a moment of silence before meals.

In Veterans' hospitals, religiously oriented Alcoholics Anonymous programs are promoted while nonreligious self-help programs like Secular Organizations for Sobriety are rarely mentioned. When I left messages for military chaplains regarding the need to establish equal services for the nonreligious they did not return my calls. If I do eventually reach them, they suggest that nonreligious military can visit military mental health departments for counseling and support if they don't wish to use chaplaincy services. The duplicity underlying their suggestion is that they realize that seeking mental health services reflects negatively on one's military record and can result in the loss of security clearance, while speaking with the chaplain will not, according to Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, founder of a military support group for atheists.

To remedy the lack of equal services for the nonreligious, I have requested President Bush, as commander-in-chief of the United States military, to establish a corps of secular humanist/atheist/agnostic counselors at the same rank as chaplains to provide counseling for the nonreligious members of the military and others seeking their support. At the end of this article I will ask for your support in gathering signatures for this letter. At a time when our government is attempting to motivate the Iraqi people to institute a democracy, not a theocracy, the United States military should be an example of equality and not a perpetrator of religious discrimination against its own troops.

I invite America's priests, rabbis, bishops, ministers, imams, and chaplains to actively promote equality for nonreligious members of the military. After speaking with Americans from New York to California, I can assure you that most are supportive of equality for nonreligious military but that, unfortunately, most chaplains are not. Americans don't want special services for the nonreligious, but they do support equality, nothing more and nothing less.

Today's history books document the silence of mainstream religious leaders during Hitler's' persecution of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, dissenters, and atheists. Today's silence by clerics and others on this topic reminds me of the adage that evil will persist as long as good people remain silent and do nothing to rectify it. Today's religious leaders don't want today's religious discrimination against the nonreligious to come to the fore. They avoid debates on this topic, and they hope the demand for equality by the nonreligious will simply go away. Those who wish to perpetuate the status quo are counting upon us, the nonreligious minority of 25 million Americans, to remain silent.

In order to compensate for President Bush's failure to provide equal support for nonreligious military, the Council for Secular Humanism will, to the extent possible, continue to offer free counseling services and inspirational literature to members of the military and their families.

I request permission from the military to allow me to visit with the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea for the purpose of informing them that humanists, atheists, and agnostics on the mainland offer them and their families support. You can help by circulating the following letter and forwarding signed letters to me at the Council for Secular Humanism, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, N.Y. 14226, by September 15, 2003, or by e-mailing it to me at jbeck@centerforinquiry.net. Any other support that you can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Dear President Bush,

Patriotic, nonreligious Americans represent about 14 percent of the American population and proudly serve in all branches of the military, yet they receive no recognition or support. Religious soldiers have their faiths represented by paid Military Chaplains, and our military provides faith-based support to captured Al Qaeda terrorists. I am requesting that you rectify the current preferential treatment given to religious members of the Armed Services by establishing a corps of secular humanist counselors, at the same rank as chaplains, to provide support to nonreligious soldiers, veterans, family members, and their religious comrades if they desire these services.

Respectfully submitted by,

Name _________________________
Address________________________
Telephone _____________________
E-mail _________________________
Signature _______________________


Joe Beck, C.S.W., is director of Humanist Counseling and Celebrations of the Council for Secular Humanism.


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