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.