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Atheism and Freethought in the U.S. Military

by Rick Clark


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 2.


God and Mom and apple pie are images widely associated with the U.S. armed forces. Few rationalists would expect the military to harbor an enclave of atheists and freethinkers. But those who think "You won't find any atheists in a foxhole" had better check the facts before they open their mouths.

Sergeant First Class Kathleen Johnson works for the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID). In February 1998, she founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF). Since then, MAAF has become an active Internet community. Running the rapidly developing organization entirely from her home, with no funding from membership dues and consequently no Internal Revenue Service entanglements, Johnson now lists more than 110 names on the MAAF roster. The group holds lively e-mail discussions on a daily basis, as well as monthly Internet chat sessions. "The Internet," Johnson says, "is what makes this group possible."

MAAF is not active solely online. The group is affiliated with a few key organizations, such as American Atheists. Of course, not all potential MAAF members are likely to be comfortable with American Atheists' tactics and positions.

"I wanted the group to be as inclusive as possible, so I decided to make it open to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and other types of nonbelievers," Johnson says.

With this in mind, she solicited other sponsors. The group is now affiliated with the Campus Freethought Alliance—it counts among its number several cadets and midshipmen in ROTC and the service academies—and, hence, the Council for Secular Humanism. MAAF is also part of the secular Web online community run by Internet Infidels. As luck would have it, the president of Internet Infidels, Jeffrey Jay Lowder, was active-duty Air Force at the time of the club's inception and was one of the first to join. The organization now includes active-duty military members from all service branches, as well as veterans, National Guard members, reservists, family members, cadets and midshipmen, Department of Defense civilians, and one Canadian naval reservist.

What led Kathleen Johnson to start MAAF? After years of walking the fence as an agnostic, she became an atheist in 1994 after reading the Bible for the first time. "I was pretty horrified and appalled at both the content and the contradictions I observed during my reading," says Johnson. Wary of possible vandalism and reprisals at their Utah duty station, Johnson and her husband (also a soldier and an atheist) kept their thoughts to themselves. Her next duty station was in Korea. While there, she found the American Atheists home page on the World Wide Web. Chatting and e-mailing with other nonbelievers all over the world was so easy via the Internet that Johnson soon began to search for an online group of military nonbelievers. None existed. After it was apparent that nobody else had the time, the means, or the gumption to establish an organization for military nonbelievers, Johnson decided to start one.

A general assumption permeates the military community whereby most members assume each other to be Christians. Indeed, the majority of MAAF members say they were acquainted with very few, if any, like-minded people in the military before they joined the group. Most also maintain that they have not encountered serious discrimination because of their ideology, other than the obvious distaste of some religionists. In general, military "tolerance" of religious beliefs tends toward a mild strain of hypocrisy—extending to all beliefs except unbelief.

No one knows better than a member of the military that the smug claim about atheists and foxholes is, of course, a false one. Consider the account written by 80-year-old Korean War veteran dudley c gould (lower case letters inspired by e.e. cummings) in his book You Tremble Body. In his experience, freethinkers such as himself spent a great deal of time in foxholes. But who was conspicuously absent from those foxholes? Chaplains.


Rick Clark is an Air Force officer and MAAF member living in Colorado Springs.


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