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



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.
















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

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