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November 6, 2011

Atheists in military seek recognition, acceptance

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."


Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)


As a self-identified atheist (on days when I don't waffle into the "agnostic" camp), I am sympathetic with Cpt Jean and his quest. I am particularly angered by the reaction his mere atheism has provoked among his peers.

However ... I have a few questions:

1. I'm a little unclear on the concept of "humanistic lay leader." Who would he "assist," as there is no humanistic clergy? "Lay" is a term that is essentially meaningless in a non-religious larger context, somewhat akin to postitting an arid section of the sea floor.

2. I assume Cpt Jean would make himself available to provide counseling devoid of allusions to religious mythology or dogma. How is this different from (secular) psychological counseling?

My last point is not as much a quibble with Cpt Jean as much as it is an example of how similar cosmological views can lead honest men in slightly different directions. Cpt Jean first "came out" as an atheist when he revealed his belief that his life had no "lasting purpose." As an athiest, I see my purpose in life as being guided by those signs one sees at roadside picnic spots. My purpose in life is to leave it a better place than I found it. Simple as that ... but an outlook that would have allowed me to answer "yes" in response to the Army's question. Provided they didn't delve deeper.

I guess the Army needs their soldiers to believe that it is ok to die other wise they may not make good soldiers. Fearing death and all.

So they want you to believe in fairy tales about living on past death in a heaven.

As silly as believing in a Santa or Easter Bunny.

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.

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