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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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?
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.