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."