The United States Marine Corps’ training manual for commanders (PDF) has a very interesting section regarding how to recognize when soldiers are at risk for suicide. They should look out for soldiers who recently suffered a breakup, soldiers whose family history includes members who committed suicide, soldiers who have serious financial concerns, soldiers who have lost their spiritual faith, soldiers who have a past or current substance abuse problem, soldiers who—-wait, what?!
The manual cited “lack or loss of spiritual faith” as a subset of one of the 11 factors that could increase the risk of suicide. Specifically it was a subset of the “Guidance/Moral Compass” category, a detail that’s equally problematic.
The factor would put all atheist soldiers on The List; that sort of stigma could eventually prevent them from getting promotions or certain assignments:
Of course, losing spiritual faith is only a bad thing if you didn’t want to lose it. Someone who has lost all hope could indeed be at risk, but an atheist who has no religious faith but does have a positive outlook on life and a strong support network is likely not a risk. The manual, as it stands, doesn’t make any sort of differentiation between those two groups of people.
… [MRFF’s Blake] Page argues that this logic is flawed, because studies that come to the conclusion that religion reduces dangerous behavior “only measure religiosity through religious service attendance. This is a failed conclusion, because attending a regular social activity of any sort produces the same external community of support that a religious community provides.“
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is ready to sue the Marines if they don’t change that statement:
“The whole concept of judging service members based on their spirituality is completely unconstitutional,” says Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force officer and founder and president of MRFF. “This country was founded on a very critical principle — the Founding Framers looked at the horrors that occurred throughout history by mixing religion and war, and they said, ‘We’re going to separate church and state.’ And that means they cannot test for religion in the military.”
This isn’t the first time a military branch has done something like this. Just a few years ago, the Army required soldiers to take a test that measured their “Spiritual Fitness” and atheists who answered honestly were told that:
Spiritual fitness is an area of possible difficulty for you. You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles, and values.
In short: They were deemed “unfit” by that measure.
More recently, atheists were denied access to like-minded chaplains who could help them when they were going through rough times.
Atheism should be a non-issue in the military. Foxhole atheists, like all soldiers, deserve to be treated fairly by the government. There’s nothing inherently “risky” or dangerous about not believing in God, and the military should acknowledge that in its materials.