Atheists in the U.S. military seek same recognition as Christians

Capt. Ryan Jean, right, is a member of Atheists of Meade, a group at Fort Meade that meets to talk about ways to become more accepted in military culture. Other members include Alacea Thompson, second from left, with son Blake, 3, left; and Katherine Moore with son Jayden, 4. Both women have husbands in the military.
Capt. Ryan Jean, right, is a member of Atheists of Meade, a group at Fort Meade that meets to talk about ways to become more accepted in military culture. Other members include Alacea Thompson, second from left, with son Blake, 3, left; and Katherine Moore with son Jayden, 4. Both women have husbands in the military. MCT

BALTIMORE — 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, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. "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 non-believers the acceptance and support 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 non-believing 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, 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."

"The group that they want to be a lay leader for would have to be considered a recognized religious organization," spokeswoman Mary Doyle said.

The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion. (Atheists do not believe in a god. Humanists typically are non-believers who find meaning in ideas about community, science and human potential. There is much overlap between the two groups.)

Nonetheless, the drive for lay leaders reflects the growing level of coordination among atheists in uniform and their increasing willingness to speak out in a military that has labored in recent years to develop a more inclusive environment for its diverse membership.

Religion — specifically Christianity — is embedded in military culture. The Chaplain Corps traces its origins to the Continental Army. Until the 1970s, the service academies required cadets to attend chapel services. Nightly prayers still are broadcast throughout Navy ships at sea.

"The military historically has been a politically conservative culture," said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. "And in the United States, politically conservative culture also tends as a statistical matter to be more religious. So it's not a surprise that this kind of thing is going to be going on. It's a question of making sure that the command's message of equal opportunity is communicated and followed."

As recently as last month, the top general in the Air Force issued a memo warning officers against "the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs."

"Leaders at all levels must balance constitutional protections for an individual's free exercise of religion ... and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote. "They must refrain from appearing to officially endorse religion generally or any particular religion."

Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.

Whatever their number, non-believers describe themselves as a minority that is often isolated and sometimes closeted. Torpy, of the military atheists group, said he hears from service members looking for "affirmation" and "connection to a community of like-minded individuals."

It was the search for such community that led Katherine Moore to form Atheists of Meade. The wife of an Army sergeant on the base, she had noted the success of organizations such as the Military Council of Catholic Women and the Protestant Women of the Chapel.

"I've heard they're wonderful, wonderful groups that get together for the fellowship," she said. "Well, I miss having that. I deserve that, too."

Attendance at meetings, held every other week at a restaurant in Laurel, Md., has ranged from a few to a dozen. Jean, 28, is among the most vocal participants.

The Las Vegas native was raised by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother who took the family first to a mainline Protestant congregation and later to a Pentecostal church. But even as a young child, he says, he found himself questioning the claims of the Bible.

"I just could not bring myself to believe in something without, at least in my opinion, good evidence," he said. "It would be cool if there is, but I just don't see the evidence for it."

By the time Jean was commissioned in 2003, he was "functionally an atheist."

Still, it would be another five years before he would begin identifying himself openly as a non-believer — a detail, he says, that has sometimes led to friction.

There was the run-in with the chaplain in Kuwait. And the soldier who said he chafed at Jean's command because he thought it amounted to "following in Satan's footsteps."

Jean speaks of the reserve unit in California where members were given the choice of attending Bible study or performing preventive vehicle maintenance checks. He says he once stopped a sergeant who was trying to force his squad to attend a chapel service. He also has sat quietly as a superior officer opened a meeting with a Christian prayer.

In practical terms, Jean says, lay leader status would make it easier for atheists at Fort Meade to get access to facilities and services on the base. But he says recognition would carry a larger message.

"It shows that we're not going to be silent and go away," he said. "It shows that we are a community with real needs. It shows that the chaplaincy by its very nature is not meeting those needs — and, I would argue, is inherently incapable of properly meeting those needs without some sort of liaison."