The military and spirituality

Ed Brayton has been doing yeoman work to expose the overtly religious agenda of various parts of the armed forces, especially the Air Force. Today he posts the second part of a story about the Army’s “Soldier Fitness Tracker,” a survey which evaluates “spiritual fitness,” and can require soldiers to undergo “spiritual remedial training” if they underperform. This is Orwellian and deeply offensive to atheists. It should also offend religious folks of other stripes, as the government has no business telling them that their spiritual life needs remediation. Given the military’s long history of religious discrimination and indoctrination and this program’s specifically sectarian agenda, it’s good to see people pushing for a fairer approach to soldiers’ religious choices.

That said, Ed’s list of the questions asked doesn’t convince me that the test itself is sectarian. This is only a partial list, but I assume Ed chose these 5 point Likert scale questions as the most egregious:

I am a spiritual person.

My life has lasting meaning.

I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.

I believe there is purpose in my life.

The first question is absurd, and has no place in a survey of soldier fitness. It’s no one’s business whether a soldier calls himself or herself spiritual, and the Army shouldn’t be asking it (except perhaps for statistical reasons) nor using it to judge fitness.

But reading the others reminds me of nothing so much as the sorts of questions you ask to evaluate depression and suicidal tendencies. Atheists and agnostics think their lives have meaning and value, they think they are connected to the world and people around them (a value the military is especially keen to inculcate), and they think their lives have purpose. It’s a different set of meanings, connections, and purposes than religious groups might cite, but different religious groups would differ, too.

And if these questions are about suicide prevention, then the Army is to be commended. Military suicides, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, have skyrocketed in recent years, and it’s indisputable that something has to be done about it. Assessments like this one, using the final three questions above, could be a valuable tool in tracking which soldiers are at risk, and getting them into counseling before they hurt themselves or others.

The problem, as Ed points out, is that the remediation offered by the Army is profoundly sectarian, not psychotherapeutic. It will only make military atheists feel less connected, which would only accentuate any underlying depression or suicidal tendency. It doesn’t promote unit cohesion, it doesn’t improve individual mental health or wellness.

This is one of the nation’s few official, legally institutionalized forms of discrimination against nontheists, and it should be ended speedily. The military just ended its policy of discrimination against gay soldiers, and it’s time to do the same for nontheists.


  1. #1 BenSix
    December 31, 2010

    Atheists and agnostics think their lives have meaning and value, they think they are connected to the world and people around them (a value the military is especially keen to inculcate), and they think their lives have purpose.

    Oy, don’t fence us in! I’m very sceptical of some of those propositions.

  2. #2 Neon Sequitur
    December 31, 2010

    I’m 100% in favor of the military taking appropriate steps to deal with depression or suicide, but these are mental health questions. Trying to address them under the guise of ‘spiritual fitness’ (does that ridiculous phrase even MEAN anything?) and prescribing sectarian ‘treatment’ for these problems not only violates the first amendment rights of servicemen/women — it also runs the risk of leaving those who do suffer from depression or depression-related problems without proper psychiatric care.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    December 31, 2010

    “I’m very sceptical of some of those propositions.”

    Such as? And why?

  4. #4 Spartacus
    December 31, 2010

    Just saw the same story on Christian Post. The Christians had some very unChristian things to say. However that seems pretty typical of so called Christian Bloggers. I think you are right to focus on helping the military deal with suicide foremost. And the efforts should help all members of the military: theist or nontheist. That said, some stories on Wikileaks add a rather distressing dimension. When non-combatants are killed, it surely haunts the soldiers and marines involved. The military has put these men and women in these distressing situations. An as one soldier said, when he went to his commander, the commander turned it on him and said he was weak. It is not weak to be tormented by the collateral damage associated with war. War is a monster too easily let out of Pandora’s Box. Kind of like the Hulk. The Hulk become amoral when he is enraged.

  5. #5 BenSix
    January 1, 2011

    (I should say that the “oy” might have come across as more combative than it was intended to. It was more “oy, are you sure” than “oy, you, are ya lookin’ fer trubble”…)

    Such as? And why?

    Well, from Schopenhauer to Camus to David Benatar a lot of nonbelievers have thought life is entirely purposeless. I’ve sympathy with them, as well. Sure, one could say the purpose/meaning of life is the purpose/meaning that one gives it but I can’t helping thinking that if a salesman offered one a product – Ratchet Screwdriver Fruit, say – and said that its function was the function that one gives it the whole purchase could seem futile if it had no real utility. In a heartless Universe I can’t help thinking this guy might have had half a point.

    Anyway, sorry for the side-track and no disagreement with the post at large. I doubt there’s all that many absurdists/antinatalists among the military recruits!

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