Fighting for Country, Not for God

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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?

I should say, first off, that I was not a running firefight Army ranger. But I was in Baghdad when a mortar attack started to come down, exploding all around us. I was with two others, who also happened to be atheists. They were my friends and we were all together when the attack happened. We sought cover beside a building as the mortars exploded. There was a bunker 50 feet away through the open, so we busied ourselves deciding whether it was safer to stay in partial cover beside the building or run across in the open to get to better cover in a bunker. We decided to stay. And it was all right.

So there are atheists in foxholes. Sometimes we get hit, and sometimes we don't. In either case, we're worrying about how to complete the mission. That's what every soldier should be talking about. They say you should never be in a foxhole with someone braver than you. And anyway, as I understand it, religion is supposed to be about love, not just fear. A scared atheist is not a Christian -- just like an angry Christian is not an atheist, just a religious person who is angry at God.

In 2004, The Atlantic published a story called "Five Days in Fallujah" by Robert D. Kaplan. There's a scene where a chaplain blesses a Marine unit and compares its mission to Jesus's return to Jerusalem. Have you seen much of that during your years of service?

I could go on and on about that. Politicized Christianity is something that is abhorrent to many military personnel, many Christians as well as Jews and Buddhists. It's very dangerous. 

When Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense, leading up to the Iraq War, he used to send World Intelligence Updates with Bible verses on them. On the front page of one of the briefings, he had the quote, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here I am, Lord, send me. / Isaiah 6:8." Now, if you keep on reading Isaiah, it says this:

Then I said, "For how long, Lord?" 
   And he answered: 
   "Until the cities lie ruined 
   and without inhabitant, 
until the houses are left deserted 
   and the fields ruined and ravaged, 
until the Lord has sent everyone far away 
   and the land is utterly forsaken." 

Think about that. The Secretary of Defense of the United States of America was sending us off to Iraq with that message. Right there, you can see the cause and effect of the holy war mentality of the U.S. military.

There are military-issued Bibles with logos printed on them -- there's a First Armored Division logo Bible, a Special Forces logo Bible, a Green Beret logo Bible. These are the most elite forces in our military. Now imagine that you're a villager in Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban comes up and says, "You should help us fight off the American invaders." You say, "Hey, they might not be so bad. Maybe they're coming to help us." All the Taliban member has to do is show you one of those Bibles and say, "See? They're Christians fighting a holy war. And we're Muslims." 

You're making enemies. You're making it worse. For people who want to kill all the Muslims -- and I'd like to think that's a minority -- what's the big deal? But for those of us who care about maintaining what used to be a sterling reputation for the United States military, these things cannot happen.

So yes, it's a real problem. But that's not really where I'm putting my energy. I'm not trying to root out politicized Christianity. My goal here is to reform the chaplaincy. They haven't taken the time to really understand that there are non-theists serving the nation.

I'd imagine that a lot of service men and women come to chaplains with questions about mortality. What sort of solace would an atheist seek after watching a comrade die in battle? 

Atheists find solace the same way every soldier does. We think about why we're there -- it's normally because of an important commitment to serve and the defend nation. Most people won't give religious reasons for risking their lives. They'll say, "My buddy needed me. He needed cover fire. That's why I went out there." It doesn't matter what your beliefs are. That's what it's about. 

I've never understood why people are sad when Christians die. They might be sad for themselves, but not for the person who died. If you're a Christian and you put your life on the line for a holy war, what's the big deal? You've got an infinite afterlife to live. As atheists and humanists, we know we only have the one life. So when we put that life on the line for the nation, that' s a huge sacrifice. It's up to us to use that life and get something out of it. That's the best consolation -- to live the best we can for the time that we have.

 

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor of Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel, where she remains a contributing editor.

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