From getting camouflage-bound Bibles at pre-deployment briefings to the seemingly obligatory prayer before every ceremony or conference; from “go see the chaplain” orders for a stressed out soldier, to proselytizing commanding officers – you would be forgiven for assuming that everyone in the military is a Christian or at least a believer in a theist religion. That assumption is another one of the stereotypes that many civilians have of the military – and it is also one that isn’t a hundred percent true.
There have been grudging allowances made for pagans: the chapel/outdoor circle at the AirForce Academy, for example, recently opened after a prior circle was desecrated in 2010. To have this happen at the place that has been criticized for years for their acknowledged fundamentalist Christian proselytizing was surprising. Unfortunately, the Academy continued its infamous “Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare” class, using religious imagery from the Bible as justification for nuclear war. (This class has been suspended due to unfavorable media coverage.)
A senior Air Force Space and Missile officer who reviewed the materials, said the teachings are “an outrage of the highest order. No way in hell should this have been presented as a mandatory briefing to ALL in the basic missiles class,” the officer, who requested anonymity so he could speak candidly, said in an email. “It presumes ALL missile officers are religious and specifically in need of CHRISTIAN justification for their service.”
In 2007, a long running fight to allow military gravestones to bear a Wiccan symbol resulted in a court settlement which permitted the pentacle to join symbols from numerous other religions, some of which have less numerical representation in the military than Wicca does.
Another milestone was reached this week. At the West Point 12th Annual Diversity Leadership Conference, Jason Torpy, the President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a national non-profit building community for non-theistic veterans, appeared, talking about reforms that are needed to provide support to atheists and humanists in the military.
The overwhelming majority of chaplains, according to a story in Mother Jones, are conservative evangelical Christian. Many of the tasks given to chaplains are actually counseling, including pre-deployment, deployment, marriage, “resiliency”, and even financial! Anyone who wants to get advice on these subjects, no matter what their beliefs, has to “go tell the chaplain.” A pagan military spouse, not that long ago, “witnessed a Catholic Navy chaplain telling his boss he couldn’t deal with me because his religion apparently prohibits him even talking to me.”
Now that atheists, humanists, Pagans – all the non “traditional” belief systems — are being acknowledged by the military, perhaps the truth of the values of these service members can be acknowledged, without them having to hide their beliefs. The America public did not realize for a while, but Pat Tillman was not a “perfect Christian warrior.” He was an atheist and, as Jason Torby has said “we plan to name one of our new donor societies after Pat Tillman, based on his example, showing secular values, secular commitment, secular patriotism, and his own status as a great scholar-warrior.”
With mandatory Christian music concerts and evangelical chaplains who assert their faith on the job, there is a visible lack of understanding of how non-Christian members of the community feel. What worries Torpy and others in the community is the lack of knowledge of what an atheist is, what a humanist is and what a Pagan is.
Photo from Leo Reynolds via flickr