Soldiers without Heaven

Our friend Justin Griffith recently contributed to an article about the US Army’s mandatory spiritual fitness test in the Pasadena Sun. However, what’s getting the most attention are the comments from Rev. Bryan Griem, who goes completely off the rails:

If you believe you’re nothing but worm-food at death, you aren’t going to jump on a grenade to save the platoon, or charge a machine-gun nest expecting to meet Jesus. You’re going to be reserved, second-guessing, and probably be a big fat chicken.

I can’t help but view this historically. I think of the great world conquering armies, like Alexander’s Macedonian army or the Roman legions. These ancient armies were not composed of atheists, but the soldiers all had no expectation of seeing some sort of afterlife if they caught a spear to the chest. That idea simply hadn’t developed yet.

So what on earth could compel them to travel across the ancient world and fighting horrendous battles? Clearly, to Rev. Griem, they should have stayed home and huddled about the fire, too afraid to lose their brief lives to strap on armor.

They fought for glory. They fought for honor. They fought for the hope of personal advancement. They fought for duty. They fought to defend their homelands and their family. They fought to advance their cities and their countries. They fought because their ancestors had fought, and because their children would fight, and because the generations could be linked by this common endeavor with a bond of such power that death could not break it.

None of this apparently makes sense to Rev. Griem.

Sometimes I think the idea of the afterlife is the most damaging idea that humans have created. It cheapens life. It makes the purpose of living to keep on living. But if life is meaningless without the afterlife, it is also meaningless with it. Zero multiplied by infinity is still zero. Maybe it’s only by appreciating the briefness of life that we can appreciate the importance of life’s contents.

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  • Irreverend Bastard

    I have to agree with you on the damaging idea of the afterlife.

    Life, reality and the natural world is of secondary importance to death, afterlife and the supernatural. It makes life into an entrance exam, nothing more. Be good or bad, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you kiss the ass of Jesus.

    Religion poisons everything.

  • Andrew

    I think it’s a shame that knowing you only have one life doesn’t stop some people from ending them early, for governments that are only concerned with their own wellbeing. Especially in wars that are far more political than humanitarian.

  • Azel

    Just to nitpick, 0×∞ is not equal to 0 but is an indeterminate form…But that suppose that the afterlife’s value is truly infinite, not merely immense, in which case the value of life plus the afterlife is zero times a great number, that is zero.
    But here we are assuming the things they usually assume: life is meaningless without an afterlife, you can’t give meaning to life yourself, afterlife is meaningful…

  • Neil

    I looked Griem up, and oddly enough, he’s never served in the military. It grinds me (a veteran and non-believer) that jackasses like Griem who’ve never served are the ones who are the the biggest hawks (see: Romney, Gingrich, Santorum) and think they know the most about how the military works. So I would ask Griem why he hasn’t joined up, or is he a big fat chicken?

    • gringa

      You definitely need to add this in the comments to the article.

  • vasaroti

    As a veteran, I’d like to see “glory” consigned to the same historical dustbin as the afterlife. Kind of dubious about “honor,” too. Too often honor is not listening to one’s conscience, but doing what the mob wants.

    “They fought because their ancestors had fought” I think there’s a certain amount of ritualized warfare still going on today. It’s stupid.

    • Terradea

      I agree with vasaroti. Dying in any war is stupid, and calling it honorable doesn’t make it less stupid. Thinking there is Jesus waiting when you die is no different than thinking 70 virgins are waiting for you when you die. It’s a waste of life and a waste of human potential to die in a war, any war.

      Unfortunately, our capitalist system has made it nearly impossible for many non-wealthy people to get an education or medical insurance or even live without joining the military. And, since religion worships capitalism, I can see why Griem is so gung ho on fighting wars. War keeps the rich people happy (plenty of poor people to fight their wars for them) and war keeps the religious leaders happy (fear is a great motivator to bring people to religion).

  • Jim

    So according to this reverend, American troops should be motivated by the same time of thing that motivated the 9/11 hijackers – that we’re going to get a glorious afterlife for dying while fighting the enemies of god? I can’t help but note that the Iraq and Afghan wars were orchestrated by leaders who are self=proclaimed evangelical christians. And the wars were fought by soldiers who the majority of which are self-proclaimed christians.

    What the reverend is really saying is this – it is a lot easier to kill someone when you think your god condones it. That’s why the right wingers have been so adamant about the conservative christians pushing a “just war” theology from the pulpit – to indoctrinate young men and women into thinking it’s okay to kill for American because god loves American more than other countries. The mulims are fighting against god. Kill them.

    Christianity is a religion that does not value all human life. It is one that values christian life. A fertilized egg has more right to life than an Afghan child. A religion can’t be a moral one that cherishes life while simultaneously decreeing that all those who oppose or disagree or simply don’t know deserve eternal torture.

    Some people were shocked recently of a video of US Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. When you think your enemy is deservedly going to hell to be tortured for eternity who cares, right? What’s a little waterboarding or torture in Guantanamo when god is going to send them to be tortured for eternity anyway, right?

    As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” As Mark Twain writes in The War Prayer, when we pray for our national deity, Jesus, to protect our nation’s troops what we’re really praying for is that our troops may slaughter everyone in their way, leaving their fields smeared with the blood of their dead and their children orphans without homes. That is the true prayer of the heart of those who say, “God bless our troops.”

    • dmantis

      Griem is a gatekeeper. Additionally, the idea that there is left and right factions actually at odds with eachother over actual, fundamental elements of the State is an illusion. Both ‘sides’ are trying to keep the gravy-train going. They only differ in their delivery.

      The point is that soldiers should NOT be reasonable, thinking individuals. Rather, Griem’s job is to convince them that they should simply hold fast to empty platitudes like “glory” and “honor”. In this way, the real rulers of this country (see George Carlin) can perpetuate the only money-making commodity we have and that we’re really good at: WAR.

      More and more rational and logical soldiers means more soldiers asking uncomfortable questions like “how the hell am I defending MY freedom by incinerating Afghan wedding parties with a remote-controlled sky-death-robot.”

      Major General Smedley D. Butler was the last true military hero.

      • dmantis

        LOL…did not mean to imply George Carlin was the real ruler of this country…second paragraph, 3rd sentence should have read “for more see George Carlin”:)

        • Custador

          I was wondering!

        • Mahousniper

          Though honestly, I wouldn’t mind that.

      • Brian K

        Thanks, dmantis. General Butler was a true iconclast.

        It’s all a racket. Obama is just the third term of W when it comes to fundamental policy issues. The looting may be a little more polite and more articulately defended, but looting it remains.

    • Julie42

      Your comment reminded me of this:
      “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
      And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
      That’s one of the many verses of the Star Spangled Banner. I find it very interesting that it’s not about defending ourselves, it’s about conquering others. But that’s okay as long as you tell everyone that God wants you to conquer these people.

      • dmantis

        HAHA…thats great Julie!

        We are surrounded by modes of control. Its even in the names…ie War Department changed to Department of Defense.

        Now that is a funny joke.

        • dmantis

          not so much funny like “haha”. More like “We just blew up your house and killed everyone in your family except you cause we got crappy intelligence that a bad guy may have passed by and stopped out front to pick up a quarter one time” funny.

  • Kodie

    How do they know the afterlife means the good place? If you don’t believe you’re going to heaven, that kind of makes it hard to drop a bomb on civilians, or really, kill anyone. You’re not sure. Maybe you have time to wonder if the person you have been sent to take out is not god as Jesus again. If you do believe in the bible, to love your enemy, or to consider the least of your brothers to be Jesus, etc. It’s really warped that no matter what you do, it’s more important to be motivated by the belief in the good afterlife. You’re not dead yet, so you don’t know. You only know this guy says if you don’t believe in an afterlife, he means heaven, but you have to believe you’re going to heaven. As long as you believe it, he doesn’t really care in the long run if you are hell-bound or worm-food or reincarnated as a flea on a housecat, as long as you get the job done.

    In the bigger picture, it’s weird to think that some people can’t think of any good reason to do anything unless there’s a prize for it. It’s probably psychologically difficult for some people to do dangerous things that might kill them any day, so like, if I’m going to save my platoon by dying, I might wish for another month or so, let my hypothetical children know I love them, or whatever, the comforts of not having to do it. “All this better be worth it, or I might have rather liked to be on the couch with my family, watching old Bugs Bunny cartoons while it pours rain outside.” That’s as good as it’s going to get. I’m not an expert on war, I have an idea not all of it’s necessary, but some of it must be. However, firefighters aren’t fighting an ambiguous cultural enemy. Most of the rest of us don’t think of ourselves like animals, going to work to find our nuts and bring them back to our squirrel family to survive, but that all this hard work better amount to something in the end. What would anyone rather do than sell a huge portion of their time every week so they can spend the rest of it working out and fixing the house, they never stop. People who seek and gain wealth are at least realistic. You can’t take it with you, but you can leave it with your loved ones so their lives aren’t so hard.

    But everyone who believes in heaven can be motivated to do destructive things with their own lives. The FACT remains that nobody knows where you’re going to go! We’re the good guys, of course we’re going to the good place. That guy shooting at us from the other side is going to the bad place, so would you hurry that along. Your superior can’t promise you that, he can only manipulate you by telling you what you like to hear.

  • Justin Griffith

    Thanks again, vorjack. FYI: The good pastor has just replied to one of the hundreds of people who sent him angry messages.


    “What have any of my comments got to do with good soldiers that serve this country, unless they are like the complainers that hate God and country, and only serve the military to get college money or advancement?”

    “I do not want to be an antagonist, I do not want to insult the soldiers, but if a soldier hates God and doesn’t like me telling him that God says he’ll end up in hell for his rebellion, that’s kind of too bad, wouldn’t you agree? Should I just say nice things and tell people who are going to hell that they will be fine; don’t worry about that loser Jesus?”

    At least in that same article several other religious leaders were on our side and very supportive.

    • Brian K

      Those other “religious leaders” who are on “our side” are just cherry picking.

      The “Good” reverend is actually right…his monstrous and demonic doctrine says “the rebels” are doomed.

      The “answer” is not liberal Christianity but derision towards the root ideas in that pernicious religion (pace Thomas Jefferson)

      At last the Aztecs were honest and upfront about the bloody sacrifices required for their deities. More hearts and entrails thrown into the machine, good soldiers! Pray as you go!

    • drax

      He moved the goal posts. He originally said that atheist soldiers were big chickens, and not as good as christian soldiers. Not that they were going to hell. I’m sure that every atheist knows that christians think they are going to hell. He also forgot to tell all the muslim, hindu, and buddhist soldiers that they were all going to hell too.

  • L.Long

    I was one of the lucky ones to cheat the military system.
    As a Vietnam Vet I was in NO way going to risk my life in an illegal war for some arsehole politicians and business twits.
    I was in the airforce learning my job as best I could and did my best to keep those airplanes in the air so those political minded officers could take all the risks.

    I would not survive in the army as soon as some dumb arsed general said ‘take that village!!’ the 1st thing out of my mouth would be WHY! Then ‘well if its so important you lead!’ At which point the general would have me shot!

    In a legal war (self defense) I’m not sure of what I would do, but fall on a grenade? Probably not. Do it for Cheeses? Phuck NO!

  • Barry

    I know as a Christian, i don’t hold the majority view here on faith. But from my perspective its sad that “conservative” Christianity haa taken on the mantle of war mongering gladly. The default postion of being against immoral and illegal wars make you a “liberal” Christian. What about the true “conservative” Christians like those of the anabaptist lineage, you’d be hard pressed to call them “liberal” theologically speaking.

    I also agree with one commenter, it funny that the biggest hawks are typically non-veterans. I’ve never served, but a large number of my family has. I know we have a volunteer army now, but when you put people in harms way needlessly, as our leaders have, you have blood on your hands.

    • grumpygirl

      I appreciate your presence on this website. Just because you are a Christian, doesn’t mean you don’t belong here. The website is titled “Unreasonable Faith”, and I think you’ve shown that your faith is not unreasonable!

  • Arkonbey

    Dear, Rev. Griem;

    I spent nine years in the USCG. Five* of my nine years were as a SAR helo crewman, going out on dark and stormy nights with four other Coasties to save the lives of strangers.

    I spent all of them as an atheist.

    I never thought twice, I never balked; I did my job even when I was scared. Please come call me a big chicken to my face.

    * So I don’t sound like I’m making my career full of awesome: the rest of the time spent working in a base grocery store in AK, a buoy tender out of Seattle and aviation training in NC.

  • Paul

    I always liked the line “for good people to do good and for bad people to do bad requires nothing but for good people to do bad requires religion”. I would change religion to unquestionable dogma, thus we have the actions of Stalin, Mao and Hitler and those who followed them.

    I can think of nothing worse than killing someone just because they are wearing a different uniform with the exception of brain washing our youth do kill people just because they have on a different uniform.

    Hawks are always ready to send the youth of the nation off to war. War also pushes our greatest minds to turn their efforts, which otherwise be free to improve life, to making new and “better” ways to kill people. World War II saw almost all the physicists in our country turned to building the Atomic bomb and chemists at prestigious Ivy league schools turned to creating napalm.

    Most people have lost sight of the fact that in both world wars the majority of Americans were against getting involved in European wars. When events occurred such as the sinking of the Lusitania or the bombing of Pearl Harbor drew us into massive European wars. Even after Pearl Harbor, where the people wanted revenge against the Japanese it took brilliant propaganda in the form of the Why We Fight films shown in boot camp to convince the recruits that we should go fight Germany first. Hollywood did the same for the folks at home. Go on youtube and look at the cartoons done by both Disney and Warner Brothers that are horribly racist but worked well at convincing the citizens that the Germans and Japanese were something less than human and we rallied to support the war.

    Vietnam lacked that support because the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations were affraid of rousing American passions in this way because it might lead to war with China or the USSR. Both Bush Presidents did not make this same mistake.

  • AnAtheistsPhilosophy

    I’m a bit confused about this article because the Roman army definitely believed in heaven and hell (albeit a different one). The same goes for Alexander’s armies. Where did you get this information about them not having a religion….?

    • Azel

      Remember the author did not say they didn’t have a religion, but that they didn’t expect an afterlife as Christians actually do. Which is not exactly true, but may be seen as misleading: the access conditions of the Elysian Fields and Tartarus were far more stringent than those of Heaven and Hell.