A Washington Post news article (Jan. 5, 2011) by Jason Leopold reports the use of an
“An experimental, Army mental-health, fitness initiative” which requires that army enlistees “believe in God or a ‘higher power’ in order to be deemed ‘spiritually fit’ to serve in the Army.”
For those familiar with military policy and practice with regard to religious faith, this does not come as too great a surprise. Largely the military branches of US military (Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force) reflect the general society with respect to religious orientation. Within reasonable parameters, this is not objectionable, unless there is violation of the rights of personnel whose religious faith or lack of faith falls outside the mainstream, which means mostly those military persons who are not of the Christian faith.
Generally it is assumed by those in charge that most of the people in the military believe in God or at least in some form of “higher power.” For the most part, the rights of those who don’t are not obviously violated, although it does occasionally happen. We often hear the old falsehood that there are no atheists in the fox hole, meaning that when the bullets fly and one’s life is imperiled, everyone believes in a God or “higher power.” But any reading of the personal experiences of combat veterans and listening to their accounts of battle experiences show that this is a gross falsehood.
More recently, we heard about the situation at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a clique of fundamentalist Christians either run the show or greatly influence happenings at that institution charged with training our highest officers in the USAF. Non-Christian cadets, even Christian cadets who don’t subscribe to the cult of Christian fundamentalist in charge, have complained of being subjected to overt discrimination and intimidation. Of course, officials at the academy have downplayed the problem and made only cosmetic changes to placate the critics.
But now we have the army with its strange notion of ‘spiritual fitness’ — which obviously discriminates against persons who might be very fit spiritually and morally, but achieve this without resorting to belief in any supernatural being. Yes, there are such people. Obviously, those who developed and approved the Army’s “fitness initiative” either ignored or don’t know about the great religious traditions which do not base spirituality on belief in a God (e.g., Hinayana Buddhism, Toaism, Confucianism, Unitarian Universalism, etc.). Nor do these ‘experts’ seem to be aware of the large range of philosophical ethical schools of thought and practice which are completely devoid of belief in a god or higher power.
The article relates the case of one atheistic soldier, a Sgt. Justin Griffith, who “took the test last month and scored well on the emotional, family and social components. But when he completed the spiritual portion of the exam he had to respond to statements such as,
“I am a spiritual person, my life has lasting meaning, I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.”
He was found to be spiritually unfit because he responded by choosing the box that indicated this did not characterize his view at all. He was advised that “”spiritual fitness” is an area “of possible difficulty for you” and given the following evaluation:
“You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life,” Griffith’s test said. The test results elaborated further: “At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values. There are things to do to provide more meaning and purpose in your life. Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.”
What happens, then, is that soldiers like Justin Griffith and other nonbelievers are “are guaranteed to score poorly and will be forced to participate in exercises that use religious imagery to “train” soldiers up to a satisfactory level of spirituality.” All of this imposed on these people because of a very faulty and inadequate philosophy which lays down narrow, religious-based notions of “meaning and purpose in life” as the criteria for spiritual fitness.
At any rate, a number of humanist and secular groups protested the army policy, among them the American Humanist Association, which urged members and friends to sign a petition to Army officials protesting this violation of the rights of army personnel not given to the old form of ‘spirituality.’ Among those signing was Robert Richert, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, who attached the following letter to the Secretary of the Army:
Dear Mr. Secretary,
I served in the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S Army in Vietnam in 1969-70. I earned an Army Commendation Medal with a V-Device during my tour. I have never been religious nor ever believed in God. Although I was chided at times for my atheism, my lack of belief was never a major issue for the army or myself during my days of service. I did my job and that was it.
Through the American Humanist Association, it has come to my attention that the United States Army has been engaging in discriminatory, and I believe unconstitutional practices with the utilization of their Global Assessment Tool within the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. The tool, which is meant to measure various levels of each soldier’s daily functionality, unfairly targets humanists, atheists and other non-theists as dysfunctional in regard to their assessment scores. I KNOW THIS IS A FALSE ASSUMPTION, and frankly, so should the military!
It is my understanding that soldiers are assessed in the areas of emotional, social, family, and spiritual strength. Non-believers naturally score low in the “spirituality” portion of the exam, and are subsequently offered training, which is presented to them as mandatory, to improve their scores in this area. In my opinion, not only is this a misguided policy, it is a blatant attempt at proselytization; which should have no place within our military.
Recent polls consistently show that our young people are increasingly less religious than in the past, and as I’m sure you are well aware, our military is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. The military should respect the religious and non-religious views of its members.
Please rescind this unnecessary and unjust policy.
Robert A. Richert, proud veteran