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The deity by any other name: Army resilience program gets a thumbs down from atheists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The best thing about writing a story as a journalist is that you get to interact with astute readers who are never reticient about telling you what you missed in your reporting. My story, “The Neuroscience of True Grit,” the cover in the current issue, talks about what we know, and what we’re still trying to find out, about psychological resilience: the thing that  allows you to slog through when S**T happens.

Even though there’s a lot that we still don’t know, the U.S. Army has launched a gargantuan program to teach resilience to soldiers and their families, an effort that encompasses more than one million people. There is a software training module in one segment of the program to teach “spiritual” fitness. The Army is smart and they emphasize that the program is oriented toward the “human” side of spirituality. Translation: we are not violating separation of church and state. Secular, secular, secularissimo.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. The atheists don’t really buy the official interpretation as handed down by the Army. “Spiritual,” to them, can’t be construed as anything but the sotto voce mouthing of the letters “G-O-D.” I got several e-mails about my uncritical mention of the spiritual fitness module, one of which contained a press release from The Freedom From Religion Foundation , the nation’s largest atheist organization (actually, they call themselves ‘nontheists’ because they also have agnostic members) that stated:

 “The Army’s Comprehesnive Soldier Fitness Program includes a mandatory “spiritual fitness” evaluation as one category of the Global Assessment Test. In the spiritual fitness category, soldiers are evaluated by how they rank statements on a spectrum from “not like me at all” to “very much like me.” The spiritual statements include:

‘I am a spiritual person.’
‘My life has lasting meaning.’
‘I believe there is a purpose for my life.’”

In response, the release mentions that Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor penned a letter to John McHugh, Secretary of the Army, requesting that the Army stop the “spiritual fitness” assessment.

The release continues:

“In their letter, Barker and Gaylor called [[any]] negative assessment for nonspiritual soldiers “deeply offensive and inappropriate.” ‘By definition, nontheists do not believe in deities, spirits, or the supernatural. The Army may not send the morale-deflating message to nonbelievers that they are lesser soldiers, much less imply they are somehow incomplete, purposeless or empty. As nontheists, we reject the idea that there is a purpose for life; we believe individuals make their own purpose in life.’

“Those who receive low ‘spiritual fitness’ ratings are referred to a training program in which they are told, absurdly, that ‘Prayer is for all individuals.’ They are encouraged to use ‘spiritual support as your armor or battle gear” and seek out chaplain guidance, and to consider ’church’ and ‘higher power.’ 

“We are shocked that the training module resurrects a bogus Christian revisionist explanation for ceremonial flag folding, one which has been explicitly repudiated by the Department of Veteran Affairs,” noted Barker.

“FFRF cited Supreme Court case law mandating government neutrality and protecting freedom of conscience. The spiritual fitness evaluation, FFRF noted, is also in violation of Army equal opportunity provisions.

“Service members have the constitutional right to decide whether to observe religious practices and what beliefs or non-beliefs to profess, accept or reject about life, meaning, spirits, etc. Neither CSF nor the Army may dictate what is orthodox in matters of conscience,” the letter concluded.”

So, bottom line: for an atheist, all of this G-O-D talk definitely does not help achieve psychological equilibrium.

Anyway, good to hear from our readers, and keep those letters coming.
















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  1. 1. Archimedes 7:02 pm 03/9/2011

    Military training is often inimical to the combat environment as it elevates authoritarian concepts, denigrates the intellect, dismisses concepts of honor and self respect, and infuses American socio-political-cultural norms(inclusive of attempting to indoctrinate trainees into American religious norms) into training.
    The military trainee who adapts to the aforementioned, often does NOT adapt to the combat environment in which the aforementioned are counterproductive to both survival and success in combat.
    Rather, self control as a requisite to self respect which is a requisite for courage is an appropriate measure of "True Grit" and/or resilience in the combat scenario.
    Thus, in my opinion, attempts to demand that military trainees accept certain religious norms, as the article correctly implies, are counter productive to producing that self control, self respect, and, as a result, that "True Grit" and courage that is requisite for survival and success in combat.
    When I was in the US Army during the Vietnam War no such religious indoctrination was undertaken. Rather, religious tolerance and acceptance along with other republican concepts were understood to be the norm. This was especially the case in the field in combat in Vietnam. I was deeply religious at that time. I am now a Deist who believes in a Supreme Being, a Satan, and a Life after Death. However, I do not believe in any particular religious dogma.

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  2. 2. scientific earthling 10:04 pm 03/9/2011

    How can the military get its people to go out and die, if it can not promise them some reward. Yes a reward in heaven, as promised by the Taliban.

    Believe what you must, but don’t try to impose these beliefs on us scientific minded individuals.

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  3. 3. jbairddo 7:20 am 03/10/2011

    These non atheist folks must S**t their pants when the pledge is said. I really have issue with an all powerful thing/person being responsible for the billions of stars/energy/etc and the big bang, but the army has been lousy at programs designed to help the psyche of individuals. Religulousness and spiritualism are not inclusive. Whatever someone wants to believe to stand up to a bunch of morons who think 72 virgins are waiting for them in death is cool. Truly spiritual individuals are OK with what anyone wants to believe to get them to the end, those that aren’t are religious bigots. As long as no one is being forced to believe in a diety (and it doesn’t appear to be that way), who gives a damn? Why do the non atheists take such a dim view of a program that is designed to help soldiers deal with the horror and trauma of war?

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  4. 4. gmartfin 3:13 pm 03/10/2011

    Do your readers also tell you when you can’t spell?

    Army’s Comprehesnive (comprehensive) Soldier Fitness Program

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  5. 5. EyesWideOpen 4:51 pm 03/10/2011

    I observed that to some atheists, the world spiritual translates to moral. And the problem with morality to these folks is that it limits your choices simply because actions straying outside of this paradigm violate the rights of others. "I should be free to do anything I wish" is one of many major objections there.

    Other atheists may argue that if a soldier is spiritual, they are moral, and if they are moral, they may let the children of those yellow-bellied (racist epitaph deleted) continue living! That is why some atheists (not all to their credit) may object to the concept of including spiritual training in a soldier’s regimine, when that objecting atheist’s tax dollars are paying that soldier’s salary and combat readiness.

    As an agnostic, I like the idea of spirituality and morality in the military… I know, these words are traditionally oxymorons to war! However, look what happened in Vietnam when some (thankfully a minority) rogue soldiers started executing civilians. This spiritual training may have helped (but then again).

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  6. 6. blindboy 6:37 pm 03/10/2011

    Religious people are generaly unethical in their approach to atheism. They are so convinced that they are right on what they consider the most important of all issues, that they consistently lie, cheat and distort the facts to push their particular version of religion.

    I think it was William S. Burroughs who said "Never do business with a religious son of a bitch, they’ll rip you off every time".

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  7. 7. bewertow 9:08 pm 03/10/2011

    The US is such a backwards place. Why do they still try to indoctrinate the population with these crazy ideas about sky wizards and imaginary friends?

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  8. 8. Postman1 9:49 pm 03/10/2011

    Just an observation, but why are posters on this site so afraid of Christians? I don’t understand this blind fear, it doesn’t make sense. Nowhere in these Opinions do I see sources for these statements, many from the same people who are often demanding sources for other posters’ Opinions on articles. Just saying: wild rants convince no one.

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  9. 9. oldfartfox 9:55 pm 03/10/2011

    Having spent twenty-odd years in the army, some of it in highly unpleasant locales, I find some degree of truth in the axiom that there are no atheists in foxholes. That said, I don’t find that feelings of awe and wonder at the intricacies of the universe and a sense of connectedness with it interfere with my rational agnosticism.

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  10. 10. travaler 10:10 pm 03/10/2011

    actually when i say the pledge i just say "one nation indivisable with liberty and justice for all."

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  11. 11. travaler 10:14 pm 03/10/2011

    that axim is only valid in foxholes where you have nothing to do but think and worry till the attack is over, but when a ied blows up and im in my turret im too busy to worry about god because im doing my job staying alert.

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  12. 12. pseudoscikilla 2:25 am 03/11/2011

    Postman1: What comments give you the impression that posters on this site are "afraid of Christians"?

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  13. 13. Laertes 9:24 am 03/11/2011

    The spiritual evaluation aspect of the army’s program may have some value, and urging soldiers to consider their spiritual beliefs may also help soldiers confront the difficulties that may befall them in warfare. However, no one should be required to undergo spiritual "training". I am a devout christian, but the gospel of Christ is written on the hearts of men and not in an army training manual.

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  14. 14. EyesWideOpen 3:10 pm 03/11/2011

    “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true.”
    –Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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