Fighting for Country, Not for God

Atheists in the military struggle against censure and isolation 

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Dustin Chalker

A young man walks into a chaplain's office. Ever since joining the military, he's been feeling a growing sense of alienation. He's known for years that he doesn't believe in God, but he'd like to meet others like himself -- people who are interested in discussing ethics and defining the purpose of their own lives. What will the chaplain do when this non-believer walks in the door? Quote verses from the Bible? Hand him a book by Christopher Hitchens? Or simply send him away?

Seventeen years ago, Jason Torpy was that young man. Today, he's the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and he'll be speaking this week at a West Point conference on religious diversity. His own experience at West Point was often frustrating and lonely. When his superiors learned that he was an atheist, they responded with indifference or hostility, thwarting his attempts to build community among the non-believers. 

Since that time, Torpy has watched U.S. soldiers head into battle bearing special armed forces Bibles, or even rifles stenciled with New Testament references. Torpy argues that this evangelical spirit tarnishes America's good name abroad, and it makes life as a military non-believer more isolating than ever. He spoke to TheAtlantic.com about his hopes for broader-minded, more compassionate military chaplains -- people of faith who will offer services to the faithless, or at the very least, listen respectfully without proselytizing or closing the door.


What motivates atheists to join the military? 

Most people, especially young kids, join the military for very practical reasons: college money and a job. They also know they'll get respect. When you walk around as a soldier, people don't ask, "What do you do?" They say, "Thank you." That's very personally fulfilling. The military gives you an opportunity to be a stronger person, a more capable person, and in most cases, a more ethical person. Ethics and character become a really a big focus when you have a gun in your hand.

The problem is that it's hard for non-theists to find each other. Some of these kids might know they don't believe in any religion, but they may have been so busy fighting all the religion around them that they haven't plugged into the positive values that can help them become better people. They need to connect with a community, to meet other atheists who can help them think through their own belief systems and be good people all by themselves.

What services could military chaplains provide to atheists? Should they be handing out books by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins?

I don't expect chaplains to give out humanist advice. I don't expect them to sit down with atheists and say, "This is the way science works" or tell them about rational ethics. I don't expect them to step outside their comfort zones -- they're not trained to talk about these things from a humanist point of view. But at the very least, I expect them to treat non-theists with respect, to not get offended or angry at these people or start trying to convert them. Not every chaplain reacts that way, but it's common: "You don't believe in anything, so we're not going to help you." 

Every military chaplain has to agree to provide mentorship and support to every service member. That's part of the job description, even though 98 percent of them are Christians. They should be able to give general instruction in an open way and point the person in the right direction. At the very least, chaplains should be able to say, "I have someone you can talk to," even if it's a civilian or someone off post. They should know about national organizations and local groups that can help troops get to where they need to be.

Were you already an atheist when you enlisted?

I've really always been an atheist. I was raised as a Catholic, but it never stuck, and since I was 10 or 12, I've been studying other philosophies and beliefs. In some ways, my belief system was much better developed and more bullet proof at 18 than it is now at 35. Teenagers know everything. Certainty decreases over time. 

But when I joined, I was really no different than any other 18-year-old. I wasn't religious, but I was unconnected. I could have benefited from a chaplain saying, "You know, we help out atheists, too." At West Point, I pointed out that there was a Protestant rep and a Catholic rep. I asked if I could have a sign on my door saying I was a freethinker rep. It didn't help me when they said no. 

It didn't help me when I went to airborne school and was told, "There are no atheists at the ends of static lines." The static line is what pulls your parachute out at the end of a military jump -- so that was a way of saying that an atheist couldn't possibly handle airborne school. That didn't help me. 

That brings to mind the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. When you faced danger with the Army in Iraq, what were the thoughts that ran through your mind?

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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