Small Victories for a Military Atheist

Occasionally, I get emails that are both thrilling and depressing all at once. This certainly qualifies.

It comes from Cadet Captain “Bob,” who is part of an Army JROTC program at his high school.

He recently took part in an extra-curricular quiz bowl activity (similar to Jeopardy!) that resulted in his team making it to the national finals. The week-long competition just ended and his team placed very well.

During the week, though, “Bob” noticed a problem. His story is below and I urge you to read the whole thing:

Although these past five days have been a life-changing experience, one thing bothered me. It wasn’t some major event, but rather a three-minute grace (longer than even my devout Christian teammate expected) before two meals.

I have been to functions where the speakers are quite accepting and when they say grace, there are no references to God but rather to “our great American farmers, the great servicemen who make it possible for us to live this way, etc.” and do not alienate people of different faiths. I was kind of hoping that these graces would be the same way. They weren’t… I remember quite clearly she said “our heavenly father” and other names that made it impossible for her thanks to be directed at anybody except for Jesus and the Christian God. It made me uncomfortable that she didn’t tone it down to even “spirit,” for I understand that from a military point of view, atheists are essentially sinners that won’t be found in foxholes and are rarely recognized unless it’s for alienation or demotion. For her to ignore the cadets of other faiths was more appalling to me than her lack of recognition for the faithless.

During graces, all cadets (around 400 of us) were required to stand, bow heads, and clasp hands. I stood, out of great respect for the colonel, but did not do anything else. One of my team members was also an atheist, which I did not realize until that moment. We had a kind of bonding moment right then in that moment of non-prayer and discreetly scanned the room for more atheists.

There were at least two more cadets on a different team not participating in grace (We discovered later that one was atheist, and although the other was Christian, she did not pray because she thought having grace in that way was rude to people of different faiths).

At my home JROTC program and in my school in general, there is a bit more freedom to make stronger and more frequent references to God. In the past few years, I and my fellow cadets have been able to fight for our cause. Here is a list of a few of my experiences with this:

  1. During my school’s Military Ball, there had been a 20-year tradition of giving grace to the Christian God. During my freshman year, I sat there uncomfortably and said nothing. I did this sophomore year as well. But last year, junior year, I became a cadet officer. I had the power to change this, so another atheist and I in our company talked to our Senior Army Instructor and made it quite clear that there were at least four atheists in our battalion and five people that were not Christian. From last year onward, our Military Ball will no longer have graces — we will have a moment of silence instead.
  2. We won the (small) right to, when saying the pledge, stay silent during the phrase “under God.” Previously, we would have been ordered to do push-ups if we did not fully participate in the pledge.
  3. Sometimes we have tests in which we must repeat the JROTC cadet creed, which ends with “May God give me the strength to live by this creed.” For our school tests only, we no longer have to say these phrases.
  4. My non-JROTC friends and I managed to get your blog and numerous other atheist sites unblocked for being “Tasteless.” I was honestly surprised Friendly Atheist wasn’t blocked under “Cult Religions.”
  5. One of my former cadets was a devout Mormon. Upon meeting me during rifle team practices, she said, “Wow, I didn’t know that atheists were nice!” Awkward, but I’m glad she knows we aren’t evil creatures from Hell.

During many of our speeches, great men such as Major General Bartell and Lieutenant General Van Antwerp told us that leadership consists of doing the right thing and not waiting for somebody else to speak up before you do. I’ve always tried my best to live by that creed. I am an American freethinker. I am an Army JROTC cadet. I will be an atheist in a foxhole. I have won only small fights within the community, but these will accumulate into a bigger statement and pave the way for future cadets to take action.

As long as I stand tall, I will always fight for the rights and recognition of atheists in our country.

How amazing is it to know we have people like him representing us?

Obviously, I’m not using his real name or mentioning his state of residence. Why not?

“Bob” mentioned:

I have nearly been fired twice from hard-won leadership positions because higher-ups gained knowledge of my atheism and already am in a state of jeopardy because one of my instructors discovered that I’m also bisexual.

*sigh*

  • Becky

    Very nice, but tragic. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    I have nearly been fired twice from hard-won leadership positions because higher-ups gained knowledge of my atheism and already am in a state of jeopardy because one of my instructors discovered that I’m also bisexual.

    Which makes me wonder, does DADT apply to bisexuals in the military? Probably, but it would be quite typical for them to be ignored in its wording.

  • Sebeka

    Good for “Bob”. I also am impressed by the Christian cadet who refused to participate in group prayer out of respect for people of other faiths. It shows character to stand up for another group’s rights.

    I’ve encountered a number of religious people who are uncomfortable praying out loud, holding hands to pray, or even mentioning God outside of religious activities, and who are irked when others assume their religious affiliation (even correctly) without asking. The separation of church and state also protects people’s right to practice their religion PRIVATELY if that is their wish. “Bob’s” efforts benefit more than just the atheists in his JROTC battalion.

  • http://sisyphusfragment.wordpress.com Sisyphus Fragment

    Which makes me wonder, does DADT apply to bisexuals in the military? Probably, but it would be quite typical for them to be ignored in its wording.

    Unfortunately, it does apply. Military members can be kicked out for any act of sodomy, including a heterosexual blowjob.

  • AcornHunter

    It’s sad that bigotry effectively closes the military to those who wish to serve, and even worse that those with leadership potential are stifled because of such irrelevant reasons.

    My sympathies go to Bob, and I encourage him to do what he feels is right.

  • Gabriel

    WTF has happened to my military? I know this is just JROTC but damn. Being in the military was one of the few times that i felt absolutly free to be an atheist. People were curious and we would talk but nothing like this crap.

  • SarahH

    Thanks, Bob, and thanks to others like you, including theists who fight for the same cause – religious freedom and equality practiced fairly.

    Every inch of progress is incredibly important when it comes to these situations, and it sounds like you’ve been a staunch, persuasive advocate for equal treatment.

    I think it probably makes an enormous difference if you have two atheists arguing for fair treatment in these situations instead of just one. You don’t need ten or twenty, necessarily. Just enough to remind people that you’re not alone – there are more. Two makes a huge statement that’s hard to achieve alone.

  • n.f.

    This may not be the right place for this but can you please comment on this :

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2009/07/church_love_it_dont_leave_it.html

    I would love to know what you think of the use of the word “intolerance” in this context and various parts of this article. Thanks.

  • Rayven Alandria

    My husband is in the Navy. Oh, the stories I could tell. There are good commands that do not push religion onto members and bad commands that,(IMO),violate the constitution by shoving Christian dogma down our throats. I’m glad this young *Bob* and the others who refused to bow have the backbone to take a stand. Things will not change in the military until more of us stand up and voice our opinions.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    My non-JROTC friends and I managed to get your blog and numerous other atheist sites unblocked for being “Tasteless.”

    That’s ridiculous! Babies are very tasty.

  • “Bob”

    Thank you, Mr. Mehta, for sharing; it means a lot to me and my fellow atheist cadets (I’ve never seen them quite so giddy). :]

    I like my fake name too!

    I think it probably makes an enormous difference if you have two atheists arguing for fair treatment in these situations instead of just one. You don’t need ten or twenty, necessarily. Just enough to remind people that you’re not alone – there are more. Two makes a huge statement that’s hard to achieve alone.

    This is very true. Originally, I was unaware that one of my cadets was trying to get the prayer at Military Ball nixed, but once I helped him out, there was nearly no problem in changing the situation. None of our instructors took him seriously until I joined him – they believed him to be a minority of one, I suppose, and making a trivial complaint.

  • Spurs Fan

    I would like to add my voice to the chorus of folks here who salute you “Bob”. You are the epitome of American courage and at such a young age, no less. Bravo!

  • mike

    Go “Bob”! Keep up the good work.

  • Goliath

    Thank you for serving in the US Armed services, Bob.

    If I may make a suggestion? Just concentrate on the Atheist aspect of things. This will make things hard enough. Try to tamp down anything to do with your private activities. Let the CiC take care of(I hope) the DADT.

  • http://www.zychowski.ca Thomas Zychowski

    I find it surprising that in a country where there is not even an official religion the state took it upon itself to impose one in the military ranks. I guess when you die for nothing it gives you hope that you will live in heaven afterwords and creates unit cohesion.

    I have to give the cadet a salute for bravery, although being bisexual will probably prevent him from perusing his/her goals with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy.

  • David D.G.

    Thanks be to “Bob”! ;^D

    Seriously, thank you for your courage in confronting the “Powers That Be” to effect changes in treatment toward atheists and people of minority faiths. Though some of the changes may be only minor victories now, they are the kind on which greater victories will later be built. Your activism in the military takes guts, and I hope that your superiors appreciate that, even if they don’t share your religious views.

    Thank you also, “Bob,” for your attitude of service! You sound like the sort of person I most want to have defending my country from its enemies (both foreign and, sadly, domestic).

    ~David D.G.

  • Emily

    Bravo to that young cadet!

  • Wells

    I was reading this really closely and this Bob sounds like somebody I’m actually friends with, since he/she told me the same story about the grace. So this is kind of weird and kind of cool. I think I’ll say thanks to him/her in real life, since we are in the same battalion. There HAVE been lots of changes since he/she came. I’m pretty happy about that because my parents are both really Christian so I’ve never really been able to do anything without getting in trouble.

  • Sad Vet

    I think that it is really sad that with post like these, the whole military gets a bad rep.

    It is easy to buy into a few news reports and project that onto the whole of the military. How about we use some of that critical thinking.

    One branch of the military will be very distinctive from the next, and sometimes seem very forign. Same applies for different commands within the same branch(ask any East coast sailor that ends up on the West coast). Within the command there is even different ways things work from unit to unit. Now, just because one small unit, or a few induviduals, does something, should not taint the whole of the military.

    I get tired of hearing how the military is trying to force Christianity. Its like hearing about all Atheists hating god, simply untrue.

    BTW, the DADT issue should not be confused with the military, it is the lawmakers doing, it just happens to apply to the military.


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