(Your) god is not my co-pilot

Former United States Air Force member, Ian Greer, wrote me a powerful letter last night.

This is one of the best accounts of a typical military experience as an out of the closet atheist in the US military. Long patches of ‘no big deal’ bookended by intense WTF-moments.

SGT Griffith,

My name is Ian. I enlisted in the United States Air Force in October of 2005, and over the course of the next 6 years I have seen and been the subject of many similar situations I have heard recounted on your blog.

You don’t want to go to church?

Fine. Grab a mop.

The first time it was made clear to me that religion, specifically Christianity, was encouraged was the Sunday church time. Everyone would get up early in the morning, and follow the Chapel guides to the chapel on Lackland Air Force Base. We technically had the option of opting out, but with consequences. First of all, to opt out, you had to single yourself out from the rest of your flight and bring yourself to the attention of the Military Training Instructor (MTI), something that had been reinforced to us as not conducive to success in BMT. Furthermore, opting out of church attendance meant scrubbing down the dormitory and the latrine while the faithful church goers would sing and dance to their contemporary worship music far from the eyes of any MTIs. The message was clear, go to church and get a short reprieve from Basic Training, or volunteer yourself for one-on-one quality time with the MTI. I, like everyone else, chose the former.

“Purpose Driven Life”… also lesbians

Then, at my first duty station with the 1st Air Support Operations Group at Ft. Lewis, I had an AF Major as a direct supervisor, who heavily “encouraged” me to read the Purpose Driven Life, and I have a heavy suspicion that he reported me to OSI because I had an open, friendly relationship with a lesbian (even though I was male, the OSI agent told me he was informed we met at a gay pride parade, even though I have never attended one in my life).

“No one has to know you’re an atheist, kid.”

My next duty station was Royal Air Field Molesworth in the UK in 2007, just down the road from RAF Lakenheath where the disastrous “Purpose Driven Airman” briefing was given. While I was there, our NCOs were asking for submissions for an award and one of the requirements for the award was “strong moral character”. I asked if me being an atheist would disqualify me, and the answer I was given was “no one has to know you’re an atheist.” That sentence really bothered me for a while, and I began to question why it was something I needed to hide.

1000 responses to “I’m an atheist”

I looked at our base-wide intranet bulletin board and the section marked “The Water Cooler” and saw many posts organizing off-site bible study and Christian fellowship, and I felt I had an opportunity to come out of the closet, so to speak. I made a brief post announcing that I was an atheist, and that there were many other atheists in the military as well, and that it was ok. This one post spawned a thread with over a thousand replies, many of them in support, and many with outright condemnation and challenges to my patriotism. One NCO pulled me aside at the morning Physical Training (PT) and told me to take it down. When I asked him if he was giving me a lawful order, he just shook his head and walked away. Over time, the thread died down, and life continued as normal, which illustrated my whole point. Atheists were just people too.

“No school = You’re dumb.

No Church? Same thing.”

I arrived at my next duty station in 2009 to the 552nd OSS at Tinker Air Force Base; in Oklahoma of all places. My flight commander was extremely religious, and was always inviting us to church functions and plugging religious charities, to which I always respectfully declined while noting that I was an atheist. Shortly before I deployed to Iraq, the commander held a flight meeting. He told us, as our commander, he was responsible for making sure we were fit enough to serve in the Air Force. He said we needed to be physically fit, so that is why we had to PT. We needed to be mentally fit, so that is why we had training courses and college opportunities, but of course, he had to include the notion that we needed to be “spiritually fit” as well. To use his words “when you don’t go to school, what happens? You’re dumb. Well, the same thing happens when you don’t go to church.” I made a complaint to my supervisor, who duly noted it, but I never heard if anything happened because of it.

Superior officers on my atheism:

“Too young to know any better”

The last example I would like to illustrate is my experience while deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq with the 727th EACS. I was deploying with a geographically separated squadron out of Mountain Home AFB in Idaho as additional intelligence support for the command desk. I had no one else in the unit deploying with me, and all of my new coworkers were officers I had never met before. Over the six month deployment, chapel and religious services were brought up, and when asked about why they never saw me going to the chapel, I told them I was an atheist. To the officer’s credit, many of them respected my beliefs and though some had questions, they were asked out of honest curiosity. A few however, mocked me for it, saying I was just in a phase and “too young to know any better”. There were also numerous Chick tracts that were scattered across the base in places like the DFAC, BX, and barber, which was a blatant violation of General Order 1, but no one seemed to care.


The combination of all these experiences led me to decline reenlisting. I now work as a contractor for the DoD, but I am exempt from all military functions and the religious rituals that go with it. In doing this, I still support my country without having to put up with all the religion associated with it.

Thank you for your time.

Ian Greer,

Former Senior Airman in the USAF

*[My response below the fold] *

I totally understand Ian’s frustrations, and why he wouldn’t re-enlist. I nearly went down the same path (before I ever became an activist). This is roughly analogous to my pre-activist experiences. The shit really hit the fan after that, but I think I’ve won many more times than I’ve lost. Most offenders are actually just trying to do CYA (cover your ass) after they are called out. If you actually give a shit, and stand firm – you’ll probably win.

I implore my fellow foxhole atheists to stay in. If we all quit, not only will there be a brain drain, but we’ll be playing right into the hands of the evangelicals who want nothing more than to intimidate us. They aren’t simply looking to intimidate us into our closets, they want to extract us altogether.

It’s a subversive battle, and experiences like Ian’s can weigh heavy as they begin to stack. I’m proud of Ian for taking as many stands as he did, and for communicating them so effectively. It’s courageous to take the ‘hard right’ rather than the ‘easy wrong’.

Good job Ian, you did your part. Anybody else out there wanting to speak out, you have my full support, and I can give you plenty of advice. Feel free to contact me directly – it makes me happy.

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  • Kudos for sticking to your guns while you were in, though I think it would’ve been even better had you stuck around. Still, I haven’t had it anywhere near as bad as you’ve had it.

    Being the rank I am and having the position I do in my ANG unit, it’s a bit nerve wracking to have put myself out there, but so far it’s been pretty painless. Getting my atheist dogtags was easy. The guy never said a word either way; he just did his job, handed me the tags, and sent me on my way with a smile and a “see you later.”

    In my flight, some people know. I’ve been “out” for a few months. Then last month I used the Wing online Community Announcements Bulletin Board to announce the new “Mountain State Freethinkers” group w/me as the POC for it to the whole Wing. Nothing. Then I went and put an “Atheist” license plate on the front of my car. Still nothing. And then last Friday I put a flyer out to the whole Wing for the team we’re putting together for a nearby Light the Night Walk w/Foundation Beyond Belief.

    So far, no one has said a word.

    Next step is MAAF lay leader application (and hopefully certification), and approaching the chaplains. We’ll see what happens. It’s cognitive dissonance for me that in West Virginia there hasn’t been any hoopla from anyone yet.

    Definitely makes it easier to stick around.

    • One of the things I learned during my service in the Army is that I received far more harassment by keeping quiet and appearing to be hiding my beliefs. The more open and above board I was about my beliefs, the less flack I got; at least until both my Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major were both Talibangelicals. Then the fur flew all the way up to the MACOM IG before things were settled.

  • Rufus

    I’m not sure, but the Chick Tracts at Balad (which if I remember rightly was also heavily used by the RAF) may not have been used entirely as the people who had left them would have intended. Stick any group of British troops (most notably Army, but RAF too) in a relatively forward position and they will start looking for the necessities that their kit is dubious on.

    The standard issue ration packs contain a number of sheets of what might be taken for greaseproof paper, whereas Chick Tracts were comparatively soft, strong, plentiful and absorbant…