Ask Richard: My Brother-in-Law is Deconverting While Fighting in Iraq

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

My name is Aaron and I’ve been an atheist for almost 1 and a half years. I’m almost 25 and was raised my entire life in a fundamentalist Christian church. I married my wife around the same time I knew I was becoming an atheist but kept it to myself. My wife is Christian (though extremely liberally) and she actually took my disbelief well, we have a great relationship. I recently just came out the closet, so to speak, a few months ago to friends and family and it has been hard because my entire family is fundamentalist and so is my wife’s family, in fact I come from a long line of pastors and my grandfather was disappointed that I did not follow in his or my uncle’s steps into missionary school.

Not too long ago my wife’s brother, Lloyd sent me an email.

Lloyd is serving in the armed forces in Iraq, and opportunities to communicate with family are infrequent. The email was a very moving appeal for help. For his privacy, I am paraphrasing it here:

Lloyd said that they need to talk because he’s very confused right now about his own faith, and that no one seems to understand him. He knows that Aaron is an atheist and he does not judge Aaron for that. During his two deployments in Iraq, he has seen horrible things that no one should ever see.

He was raised as a fundamentalist Christian all his life, but when he started to express his doubts and then disbelief in God, people judged him and even said that he was possessed. Many prayed for long periods, hoping he would change his views. He’s confused about perhaps being an agnostic, going between not believing and just not knowing. He needs someone who he knows will not judge him and will help him to go through this, whether it’s to believe again or to stop believing.

Aaron’s letter continues:

I didn’t know how to respond, I was stunned, to say the least. I replied:

“Man, It’s great to hear from you first of all.

I can understand the position that you are in. You can be sure that don’t judge you, I go through many of the same things you mentioned so I can relate. You probably know that I was also raised in the same denomination as you my whole life until I began to doubt these teachings about 4-5 years ago. I don’t know exactly how I can help you, but I can try to point you in the right direction. I suggest that you read more about atheism/agnosticism, etc. I think its important to read from both sides. When I was deconverting I read Christian books like ‘A Case for Christ’, ‘A Case for God’, and I read books by atheists like ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘God is Not Great’, and I am happy about the decision I made.

A lot of people have misconceptions about agnosticism, atheism or skepticism, but don’t be discouraged to question just because of it. People will judge because they are misinformed, and unfortunately they don’t understand.”

It’s been a long while since I have yet to hear from him again. How should I follow up? He is currently serving in Iraq and can only communicate by e-mail. Did I respond correctly?

Thank you for your help,
Aaron

Just a few hours later I received a second email from Aaron:

So when I first sent you an email I stated that my brother-in-law had not contacted me in a long time and asked for your help, 2 hours later he sends me another e-mail.

Lloyd said that he feels like he’s in a bind. Many of his friends are calling him an atheist in a taunting manner. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with that position, and he’s getting fed up. They say he’s only going through a “phase,” and that he’s deliberately making this up to try to get attention. He said that his doubts and confusion are real and legitimate. If he had proof, he could believe again, but he has reached a place where he cannot turn back.

He apologized for having harshly judged Aaron in his mind when he first learned that Aaron is an atheist, and acknowledged the irony of his present position. He again asked for Aaron’s help, saying that he doesn’t know what to do next.

Dear Aaron,

Your response to Lloyd’s first email was Robin-Hood-splits-the-arrow-in-the-bullseye perfect. I am impressed and grateful for your willingness to be even-handed with him, and to support him rather than any particular beliefs with which he may be struggling. That’s what he needs, what we all need; someone who simply accepts him as he is right now, without an agenda of their own to press upon him.

As you probably know from your own experience, becoming free of religious belief is a gradual and often painful process. For your brother-in-law to be going through it while in a place of danger and horror makes it all the more difficult. In that environment he’ll get the extremes of all the various reactions from others, and he’s already described some of them.

From his Christian “friends” he’s receiving condemnation and disparaging attempts to discredit his motives. From you, he’s receiving love and acceptance without condition. It’s ironic that an atheist is being more Jesus-like for him than those good Christians.

He needs the anchor of at least one human who simply relates to him as a human, without any requirement to agree on beliefs. Just encourage him to be true to himself, whatever that turns out to be, and you’ll be giving him the best gift you can offer.

But he can only email you occasionally, so he also needs someone over there. It is not good for him to feel distracted, rejected and demoralized while in a war zone. If he doesn’t know about it already, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers may be of some help to find like-minded people over there. It’s hard, but there are many more than anyone realizes. The trick is to find them discreetly.

If the taunting that he mentioned is from fellow service personnel, suggest that he document the incidents. As a soldier, he understands the principle of being prepared for a battle that you hope you won’t need to fight. There have been some very shameful cases of religious harassment in the military which might have been prevented or minimized if the evidence had been properly recorded. Also, that puts him in the role of actively taking care of himself rather than passively receiving abuse.

Whenever he contacts you, continue to listen without judgment to both his atheist and his religious thoughts, and reassure him that the inner turmoil and the social torment will gradually quiet down. You don’t have to continuously come up with wise and helpful things to say. When you don’t know how to answer something, just tell him the truth and say that. Most of what he must weigh, decide, and go through you can do very little about, but knowing that you simply care about him will be very important to him and will help to sustain him as he finds his path.

Also, here is a link to a whole category of archived posts here on Friendly Atheist about military atheists. Some of the articles will have stories very similar to his experience as well as helpful suggestions and resources in the articles and comments.

I’m impressed by Lloyd’s humility and maturity to apologize to you for his past judgments while he’s in the midst of his upheaval. Hopefully he will return home safely after his deployment is over, and the two of you can enjoy a more direct friendship.

Aaron, you’re a good man and a good friend to your brother-in-law. Would that we all had at least one friend or family member such as you.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • JulietEcho

    I agree that sending him links to the stories of other atheists in the military might help bolster his confidence. It’s a rough situation to be in, and definitely one where you’re trapped and helpless to a degree.

    If he’s comfortable with the idea, I also think it’s good advice to document cases of bullying and abuse as a way to actively respond to the situation, rather than passively being victimized.

    Aaron is a good brother, and Lloyd is at least fortunate to have one confidante who’s there to help and not to judge.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Richard’s advice is, as usual, spot on.

    I wish some highly placed military man (like someone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of one of the armed forces) would have the courage to publically come out as an atheist. That would send a loud message to the rank and file that it’s OK.

  • Ron in Houston

    Atheist taunts? Interesting concept. Is there an atheist equivalent for the “n” word?

  • Mary

    One other source Lloyd might want to check out, if he has access to the internet is the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

    http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/

  • Jolly Sapper

    As an atheist and a combat veteran from Iraq I hope that all goes well between Lloyd and Aaron.

    So far all of the suggestions I’ve read are spot on. Not knowing the particulars of Lloyd’s unit, it would be difficult to figure out who in his company would be the best place to go for person-to-person help. Some chaplains are alright but its a crap shoot to try to go to them, many will probably view this type of issue as a mental instability problem and report Lloyd to his company commander and first sergeant. Both them would need to be skeptics or at least liberal in their religious beliefs to keep from making Lloyd’s life more unpleasant than it already is.

    I might suggest that Lloyd start a journal both to help document cases of harassment and to organize his probably conflicting thoughts regarding his skepticism and his experiences in a war. It would make trying to shoot out emails to Aaron go a bit faster if Lloyd’s got a rough draft of ideas/questions to run by Aaron. I know the time allowed in a commo tent probably is pretty limited so speed is necessary.

    I know it may be difficult to keep up with a journal, people may be assholes and/or the operation tempo may be too high to keep constantly journalizing, but the amount of stress both physical and emotional make it really hard to remember things. A journal may be a helpful memory device while allowing time to process an experience and look back on the initial impressions.

    There are a few veteran atheists that post on the happyatheistforums.com. If more brains are needed I could drop a link into a thread as HAF and see if anybody there has anything useful to add.

  • http://www.meetup.com/Hearts-of-the-south/ Steve Schlicht

    Aaron,

    Hopefully you’ve referred Lloyd to this Hemant’s site and he will find support among the good folks here.

    Further, our family and local group of non-religious community service volunteers in Mississippi have a long history of sending care packages to atheists in foxholes.

    Please check with him to see if it’s okay and we’ll be more than happy to send supplies, reading material and any special requests from the states he may need.

    Our website is linked to this post.

    http://www.meetup.com/Hearts-of-the-south/photos/116546/

    We have many heartfelt handwritten letters from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who were having their own experiences regarding their non-belief in deities and subsequent treatment by others.

    Please let him know that he is irreplaceable and we hope he stays safe and returns home very soon.

    Steve and Terresa Schlicht
    Biloxi MS

  • Damond

    I was in the same situation when I deployed to Iraq, I had my doubts before I deployed but that made me completely walk away from the little faith that I had left! Being an atheist in the military can be pretty hard at times, especially when you are deployed! I had rough times during my deployment and people would tell me to pray about it! I even received a care package in the mail from my grandmothers church! It was pretty useless because it contained rosary beads, holy water, some kind of book with scriptures, and a coin with the saint of travel! I have had many encounters with my peers about my disbelief while I was deployed and when I came back home. It can be pretty stressful because they only care about the majority and the majority follow religion! I even filed a complaint against the brigade chaplain with no success because they thought I was going too far! It can be a very difficult situation but the one thing that he can so is just do his time and make sure he make it home safely! Let him know that he can always email me at deontrai.damond@us.army.mil.

  • JulietEcho

    Atheist taunts? Interesting concept. Is there an atheist equivalent for the “n” word?

    Not an equivalent, by any means, but fundamentalists have been known to refer specifically to atheists as “fools” based on the verse Psalm 14:1 (The fool has said in his heart, there is no God) and the popular saying by Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” which doesn’t directly imply that non-Christians are fools, but is taken that way by many.

    If a fundamentalist calls you a fool though, you can always cite the end of Matthew 5:22, which says: “whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

  • Ron in Houston

    Juliet

    Atheist taunts? Again, it’s this concept of being overly ego identified with being an atheist.

    Can you be taunted for not believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy?

    You can only be “taunted” once you’ve personalized your atheism. You’ve taken it as part of your identity and get upset when someone mocks it.

  • Sackbut

    Epithets often come from normal words that have been used as taunts.

  • Richard Wade

    Ron in Houston,

    I don’t think the taunting is anything like a first grader saying “Nya, nya, nyaaa, you are an a-theee-isssst.”

    I imagine it’s more like:

    “Who’s gonna take point on patrol?” “Let the goddam atheist do it.”

    “I don’t know which is worse. A Muslim fanatic in front of me or an atheist covering my back.”

    “Don’t know how to assemble that yet? Well, wadda you expect from an atheist?”

    “Hey man, I heard your buddy got killed.” “Yeah? what the hell do you care? According to atheists, everybody’s just meat, right?”

    Multiply that 100 times a day from people you must depend on for your life, and you will see that any word can be turned into a spit-in-your-face taunt. It just has to be incessantly attributed to everything bad, and then smeared onto you.

    The pain this can cause has nothing to do with “overly identifying one’s ego with being an atheist.” It’s vicious verbal abuse, and it can wear down and demoralize the most well adjusted and patient of people.

    Substitute the word “Texan” in such remarks as those above, and imagine non-stop taunting of you, delivered with earnest and sincere hatred and loathing from everyone around you who all irreversibly believe that Texans are the lowest form of life. You probably don’t overly identify your ego with being a Texan, but after weeks of it, could you just shrug that off?

  • Ron in Houston

    Richard

    I’m not going to disagree that there are vast differences in the ugliness or abusiveness of taunts. However, ultimately they depend upon a sense of self identification.

    I’m certainly not going to disagree that in the life or death situation of the military that such distinctions are meaningless.

    And yes, the annoying factor of repeated taunting can try someone’s patience.

    Having said all of that, no one really can upset you other than you. The cognitive belief that people shouldn’t do those things is the ultimate source of our “annoyance” or “upset.”

  • Carlie

    Good grief, Ron in Houston. You take this angle every time this kind of topic comes up. Some people get bothered by particular types of unpleasant social interactions, and they get bothered by them in a way that you don’t. As you might say, get over it.

    If you don’t think it’s important, then don’t bother to read the posts or comments, but there’s really no point to coming in and telling people that they have no right to have their own reactions unless you’re just trying to show off your lack of empathy.

  • rjk

    When I first arrived in Iraq I felt my faith in God was stronger than ever. I had read through the bible in the months before deployment, and read through it all again during my first few months in Iraq. I had a notebook full of biblical quotes that justified our presence, along with the use of deadly force against our enemies.

    We had a slow first 2 months there. Although we took daily mortars and rockets on our FOB, we never encountered anything out on our patrols for that time, and we never had what I would consider to be a “close call”. Then about 3 months in my vehicle hit its first large IED while driving near a crowded marketplace. Immediately upon feeling the blast I ducked into my hatch. I checked on my crew to ensure they were all alright. I sent up a Situation Report. We were escorting a fuel truck at the time, so we couldn’t stop to check civilian casualties. We just kept on driving our busted vehicle to our destination. At no point did I think to myself “God help me” or “God protect us”. My only thoughts were “What can I do to protect the convoy that I’m escorting. ”

    About 30 minutes later as we were well into the middle of nowhere and safe from any harm, what just happened finally hit me. Initially I had felt like I was a bad Christian for not putting my trust in God to do what was right. Then, as my deployment went on and the “close calls” became more and more regular, I put less and less of my trust in God and more into my crew.

    Roughly 8 months in I realized that if I was in the land that was once the garden of eden, then God truly is dead. What pushed me over the edge was when we visited a small Christian Kurdish community in Northeastern Iraq. I immediately noticed that a couple of the children were missing limbs. After speaking to the townspeople I found out its fairly common for kids to set off land mines left behind from the Iraq-Iran war. One man spoke of his brother that was accused of attempting to kill Saddam Hussein. Rather than take him into custody, the police took his daughter. They proceeded to daily deliver a new tape recording of his daughter being raped by 8-10 members of the Iraqi police. After a month, they mailed the man his daughter’s head. Shortly thereafter he killed himself. These were the people that were tested more than any American Christian will ever be tested, yet if there is a God, he punishes them daily in some sort of test of faith that 99.9% of Christians will never have to face.

    I haven’t given up the idea of some sort of greater power could possibly be out there…but the idea of a Christian all-knowing, all-powerful God that is completely good in everything he does that is unwilling to step in when such atrocities are committed is simply an impossibility.

    As far as taunts go, in the Army, you get taunted for anything that anyone can possibly taunt you about. Its all part of that brotherly relationship. I didn’t see any true negativity towards the Atheists in my platoon, nor did I see any going back the other way.

  • Ron in Houston

    He he, Carlie seriously, do you not see how you’re upsetting yourself?

    You clearly have the right to your own reaction whatever that may be. I’d much rather than you not upset yourself over my comments.

    What are you saying? That I SHOULDN’T make these comments? Even assuming that’s true, the question is what are you going to do if I continue?

    That’s clearly up to you.

  • Aaron

    Thank you all for the comments, they have been very helpful!

  • Jeff Dale

    Um, isn’t it obvious that there’s a big difference between “brotherly” taunts (like what rjk referred to), and taunts that indicate a denial of brotherliness, like what the letter writer and Richard Wade are talking about? The latter kind of taunt means that your fellows, with whom you put your life on the line, are less concerned for your welfare than they should be. To me, that seems like a bit more of a problem than whether or not you’re getting “upset.”

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    @ Ron in Houston: You are certainly entitled to your posts, but maybe some of the things you are saying aren’t helpful to “Lloyd.” If insults don’t get to you the same way they are getting to an individual who depends on his tormentors for his survival and functionality, then that’s just great. But it’s not the point, and that’s all Carlie and I are saying.

    My fiance is also in the armed forces, and will deploy to Iraq for the first time shortly. He identifies himself as agnostic as of now (but I think he’ll come around sooner or later). That being said, he puts up a Christian front whenever he is asked or whenever someone prays before a meal at an Army get-together. He has Christian on his dog tags instead of something non-religious. It’s his way of preserving a friendship with people who might treat him differently if they knew he wasn’t actually a Christian.

    While that all works out for my beau, I would not suggest that Lloyd cover his beliefs or hide them from his comrades. It is gutsy of him to be open about it, if even only a little. Other non-believers are out there, and you will find them. Once, at a Christmas dinner for my fiance’s unit, during the prayer, I was one of the two people who did not bow our heads. I and the other person made eye contact and smiled at each other, and it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who doesn’t believe in all this nonsense. I know it might seem hopeless, but Lloyd’s community of non-believers/free-thinkers and others who are accepting of his potential atheism exists, and he will eventually find it.

    Something else I might add is that when people make derogatory comments about atheism (For example, like the ones in Richard’s post), play dumb. Ask them why this derogatory attitude is funny. Ask them to actually explain why Lloyd is deserving of taunting. What I have noticed is that it tends to fluster people when you back them into their own little corner, and sometimes they end up thinking before they speak. Instances like that can turn into opportunities to educate someone else about something they clearly do not understand. They might even realize that Lloyd is the same good soldier regardless of his religious beliefs or lack thereof.

    I know it’s hard, but thanks to “Aaron” for supporting your brother-in-law. Best of luck to you both.

  • muggle

    Aaron’s handled this quite well and your additional comments and recommendations are excellent. Aaron, you’re right to be supportive and let Lloyd sort this out for himself, no matter what answers the questions will eventually lead him to. Keep on being there for him. That’s the most important thing you can do.

    I don’t think we should downplay the harrassment. I was harrassed on a job and can remember how badly that felt. I can’t even comprehend how much worse that must be on a battlefield with your life hanging in the balance.

    Ron, why is it you always think everyone else’s problems are trivial and make like you don’t ever have any? Just because it’s not important to you, doesn’t mean it’s not important to someone else or that it shouldn’t be.

  • JulietEcho

    We can clearly all just stop feeling troubled by things if we just set our minds to it! It’s no one’s fault but our own if we get upset! We should stop whining about things like the desire for acceptance and recognize the real problem – our own emotions and mindset… if only people would just eliminate the parts of their self-identities that involve any controversy or negative reactions from others, they wouldn’t be whining so much!

    /sarcasm

    Ron, you might be a robot programmed to smugly blame everyone for all their negative emotions, but part of being human, for most people, is identifying with certain parts of ourselves, and we can’t just turn that off, nor should we be expected to do so.

    And if this comes off as harsh, you just have to adjust your mindset, and it shouldn’t bother you! Ugh.

  • Gareth

    Richard, or whomever – I am in the Army, been deployed more than once. And I am an atheist. Never really seen my lack of belief affect anything in my career but I rarely discuss religion, or lack thereof, at work. Or outside of work for that matter. Not avoiding those discussions, it is just that they get boring very fast and I have absolutely no interest in trying to convince someone of something that they should have the wherewithal of investigating themselves. I tend to view other’s faith as their problem.

    Point being, if Aaron’s BiL needs someone to discuss this shit with feel free to send him my e-mail address (the one that will not be published….). If nothing else the BiL will not have to translate military speak for me. Always happy to help a fellow Soldier.

  • Richard Wade

    Gareth,
    Thank you for your offer of support. I have sent your unpublished e-mail address to Aaron.

    I’m glad to hear more than one atheist soldier report that their own experiences in the service have not been awful like the, if you’ll excuse the expression, “war stories” that we have heard. If serious intolerance is not that widespread, that offers more hope to those who do encounter it.

    Stay safe.


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