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America's Atheist Warriors

Like Pat Tillman before them, up to 40,000 US soldiers don't believe in God. Meet the man who would bring secular wisdom to their ranks.

| Tue Oct. 18, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
MAAF President Jason Torpy

On Wednesday, when the Army holds its 12th-annual Diversity Leadership Conference at West Point, gays and lesbians will be well represented for the first time. But so will another disparaged military minority: self-identified atheists and freethinkers in uniform, as many as 40,000 of them. In an unorthodox move, the academy has invited Jason Torpy, an Iraq vet and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, to plead the case for—among other things—adding atheist chaplains to the armed forces.

Huh? Isn't "atheist chaplain" a contradiction in terms? Not at all, Torpy says. In an interview with Mother Jones, he explained how the military's chaplain corps in fact performs mostly secular counseling and community services for the troops—while still eschewing gays, lesbians, atheists, and religious skeptics, denying them the same means to mental well-being that most Christians, Jews, and Muslims can find in the ranks. The big problem, Torpy points out, is that the services' chaplains aren't representative of their flocks: Conservative evangelical clergy dominate the ranks, in numbers way out of proportion to those among servicemembers (see the chart below.)

With Don't Ask, Don't Tell behind us, does mainstream acceptance for atheists—"self-guided weapons," as some might call them—represent the next big cultural battle in the military? Torpy spoke about his mission, from a gay-atheist alliance to what can be learned from the famously nonbelieving war hero Pat Tillman.

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Mother Jones: So, have you ever been in a foxhole?

Jason Torpy: Yes, I have. [Laughs.] There are not a lot of foxholes in Iraq these days, but they are there.

MJ: What does the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) do?

JT: We provide outreach and support to atheists in the military. We help to affirm individuals in their personal identity. We grow our personal values, character, and integrity, and we connect them with a community of like-minded individuals. These are things that [military] chaplains do for everybody, you know, except us. So we're filling in the blanks. And helping the chaplains do it better.

MJ: How many military atheists are there?

JT: There are more self-identified atheists than Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and open Muslims. So that's only about 10,000 by some estimates, maybe 30 or 40,000 by other estimates. It sounds insignificant, but it's actually more than everybody but the Christians.

MJ: A lot of Mother Jones readers could be forgiven for wondering why a government department has its own clergy corps in the first place, much less why atheists are interested in working with those clerics. But you go further: You advocate the inclusion of atheist chaplains in the military.

JT: My view is that chaplains haven't embraced their new role in the modern chaplaincy to provide for every servicemember. The biggest shortfall here is actual training in the chaplains' school on the nontheist perspective—atheism and humanism—from us, not from chaplains who don't understand us.

We've got a considered opinion that chaplains are appropriate, given the modern chaplaincy. The military has heaped upon the chaplains responsibilities for ethical advisement, for well-rounding the person, to provide support to a military that is less than 70 percent Christian and less than 50 percent Protestant, to provide support to a unit and still be relevant. Chaplains are given responsibility for deployment counseling, for family counseling, financial counseling, and now this new resiliency training. They're given these responsibilities, but they haven't gotten away from their history as a purely clergy organization that does church on Sundays.

Religious breakdown of US servicemembers, versus the faiths of their chaplains. Click on the graphic for a larger version: militaryatheists.orgReligious breakdown of US servicemembers, versus the faiths of their chaplains.
Click on the graphic for a larger version.

MJ: How much flack are atheists subjected to by their believing counterparts in the military—superiors, chaplains, roommates?

JT: It's really all over the board. The biggest issue we have is the lack of support from the chaplains. A lot of our members all around the world are going in [to base religious centers] and saying: "Hey, you know, we'd like a place to meet. We'd like you to help us connect with others like us. We'd like to have some information." You know, just like they do for everyone else. You know, you've got Christian concerts, you've got Christian Bibles, you've got lists of services if you're Jewish, if you're Hindu, if you're Muslim. The chaplain's a one-stop shop. They'll affirm your identity, help you grow in your personal values, connect you with a community of like-minded individuals. That's what the chaplains do. But they're not doing it for us.

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