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Where Did God Go in Afghanistan? An Atheist Writes. November 16, 2010

Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
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NOVEMBER 16, 2010, 10:42 AM 

By KATHLEEN JOHNSON

Kathleen Johnson is the Vice President of American Atheists and founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. She is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and retired as a First Sergeant after more than 20 years service. She is now a Department of the Army civilian. This is her response to the At War post ‘Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?’ by Capt. Michael Cummings.

On Nov. 5, 2010, I read an article titled “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?” by Capt. Michael Cummings. Captain Cummings, who reported his thoughts concerning sparse attendance at religious services in Afghanistan, speculated as to why so few soldiers were willing to attend these services. He stated that he personally could not imagine anyone being in combat without a belief in God, but theorized that being openly religious wasn’t “cool” enough for modern troops and that’s why they failed to attend religious services that were arranged for them.

Throughout his heartfelt article, it was clear that he was distressed by the seeming lack of overt religious practice in combat theater and was bewildered by the cause.

I, however, as an atheist who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, viewed his experience as a reason to hope that the problem of religious coercion in the military has perhaps reached a peak and is starting to subside, at least in some places under some commanders. It has been a few years since I last served in a combat zone (my last redeployment was after a tour in Iraq near the end of 2007), but what Captain Cummings reported was far, far different than the situation I remembered from both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In both combat theaters, I recall endless and constant mandatory prayer circles being held by small units before military operations at which unit members who elected not to participate risked harassment, rebukes from their peers and supervisors, and even punishments. I recall dining halls decorated with bible verses, units adorned with bibles, and meetings started with Christian prayers. I recall the panic in a young soldier’s voice when he called me to tell me how his approved social meeting of military atheists was intentionally disrupted by an Army officer (a self-described “prayer warrior”) and that he was receiving threats against his life.

I recall how my short quote in a small article in Newsweek magazine, wherein I pointed out the falsehood and absurdity that exists in the statement “there are no atheists in foxholes,” resulted in several military members seeking me out through the government e-mail system to threaten me with rape, abuse, and murder. While I worked in a multifaith, tolerant environment, I recall being afraid, for the first time, of being in physical danger from anyone outside my unit who knew of my atheism and past history as an atheist activist.

I have my own theories on why the religious meetings Captain Cummings wrote about were so sparsely attended.

Between my experiences, as well as the experiences of the many atheist service members who have called and written to me over the years, it is clear to me that service members are openly religious only when they are compelled to be, and that’s why evangelical commanders and chaplains create command climates that publicly expose those less devout service members in an attempt to shame them into participation. When these commanders engage in these overtly religious activities, their actions are always Christian and there are never any efforts to reach out to those of other faiths or to create an environment of tolerance.

I used to believe that perhaps these commanders did not realize the harm they were causing to those that did not share their faith, but I later came to believe they knew exactly what they were doing. To commanders like these, there is nothing more important than compelling others to share their faith, through command authority, peer pressure, or any other means that suits their purpose. The real irony is that commanders like these truly believe they have the duty and right to force their faith on others and when that “right” is impeded, they see it as an infringement to their religious freedom.

When service members choose not to attend a public prayer meeting, this does not necessarily reflect a failure of faith but may instead indicate an understanding that public piety does not always correspond with private virtue. The faithful who choose not to attend these meetings practice their faith as a private relationship between them and the deity of their choice, as they should, with no coercion or interference. And for some, perhaps the horrors of war have shown them that there is no benevolent, loving god guiding the universe and they choose not to pretend to believe otherwise. Regardless, if these service members are lucky enough to be serving in an environment where they are not being obligated or compelled to attend the religious meetings Captain Cummings described, than indeed perhaps some progress has been made.

Things change when commands change, and I have no doubt Captain Cummings will again experience an environment where service members are strongly “encouraged” to attend religious meetings through the implied threat of negative consequences should they fail to conform. I hope when that happens, Captain Cummings recognizes that religious coercion is a blight that destroys morale, creates conflict, and turns friends into foes. I truly hope we are starting to see the end of those days.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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