In a Dec. 29 complaint to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said the U.S. Army has no business subjecting military troops to a mandatory “spiritual fitness” assessment. FFRF, which has many members who are “foxhole atheists,” asked the Army to immediately stop the evaluation that’s part of a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.
“It is ironic that while nonbelievers are fighting to protect freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are being trampled upon by this Army practice,” wrote Foundation Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The letter noted that while about 15% of the U.S. population is not religious, surveys have shown that close to one-fourth of all military personnel identify as atheist, agnostic or have no religious preference.
Nonbelieving soldiers who took the survey told FFRF that when they answered the spiritual questions on the survey negatively, they were referred to a “spiritual fitness training program.” Soldiers are evaluated by how they rank statements on a spectrum from “not like me at all” to “very much like me.” The spiritual statements include:
“I am a spiritual person.”
“My life has a lasting meaning.”
“I believe there is a purpose for my life.”
“I often find comfort in my religion or spiritual beliefs.”
“In difficult times, I pray or meditate.”
“I attended religious services [how often the last month].”
Barker and Gaylor called the negative assessment for nonspiritual soldiers deeply offensive and inappropriate. “By definition, nontheists do not believe in deities, spirits or the supernatural. The Army may not send the morale-deflating message to nonbelievers that they are lesser soldiers, much less imply they are somehow incomplete, purposeless or empty. As nontheists, we reject the idea that there is a purpose for life; we believe individuals make their own purpose in life.”
Those who receive low “spiritual fitness” ratings are referred to a training program in which they are told, absurdly, that “Prayer is for all individuals.” They are encouraged to use “spiritual support as your armor or battle gear” and seek out chaplain guidance, and to consider “church” and “higher power.”
“We are shocked that the training module resurrects a bogus Christian revisionist explanation for ceremonial flag folding, one which has been explicitly repudiated by the Department of Veteran Affairs,” noted Barker.
FFRF cited Supreme Court case law mandating government neutrality and protecting freedom of conscience. The spiritual fitness evaluation, FFRF noted, is also in violation of Army equal opportunity provisions.
“Service members have the constitutional right to decide whether to observe religious practices and what beliefs or nonbeliefs to profess, accept or reject about life, meaning, spirits, etc. Neither CSF nor the Army may dictate what is orthodox in matters of conscience,” the letter concluded.
After FFRF and other groups complained, Sgt. Justin Griffith, who is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., went public with his negative evaluation. Others have also spoken out, but Griffith, 27, co-founder of Military Atheists & Secular Humanists, has been very vocal. His low spiritual fitness score indicated he faced “some significant challenges. . . . You may click here at any time to connect with a counselor who is ready to assist you with a problem that requires immediate attention. . . . Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal.”
“I refuse to take this kind of insult any longer,” Griffith said on the Rock Beyond Belief website. “Not only am I an active duty U.S. Army soldier, I’m also an atheist. I’m equally proud of both descriptions, and I’m honored to be one of the thousands of foxhole atheists who have fought or are currently fighting for our country and our Constitution.”
Rock Beyond Belief is planning a free festival on an undetermined date in March or April at Fort Bragg that will feature secular musicians and speakers. It’s meant to counter the Rock the Fort Christian music festival the post hosted in conjunction with the Billy Graham ministry last fall. (See the page 6 story on FFRF’s continuing complaint to Fort Bragg for its co-sponsorhsip of a pervasively sectarian and proselytizing event.)