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Atheists in Foxholes

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Message Jayne Stahl
Congress handed the president a belated Christmas present yesterday with passage of a new Iraq funding bill sans deadlines, or exit strategy. The Senate vote was nearly 8 to 1, (80 for, 14 against), and the House 2 to 1. Some may see this as a referendum on a unitary executive, and say the president won. Others might suggest the vote illustrates an executive branch on steroids, but as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin observes about Congress, "We do not have it within our power to make the will of America the law of the land."

Simply put, the vote conforms to the laws of gravity; Congress came up against an immoveable force---the president of the United States. This administration only proves, yet again, that despite our technological prowess, ideology can still triumph over reason and common sense. And, if nothing else, the past six years have shown us that ideology is a contact sport.

So, on the eve of a holiday that pays tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of those core values that distinguish us from theocracies and dictatorships, principles like religious tolerance, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state, why not look to those in the military who have served in Iraq, in active combat, and who openly differ with the ideological bent of their commanding officers. And, by extension, why not think, too, about religious coercion, in the U.S. armed forces, as an attempt to stifle political dissent.

While we may appear to have lost the battle to end the president's war in Congress yesterday, something very exciting is happening in the military that is so threatening to the Department of Defense that it has refused access to Web sites like You Tube and My Space, on department computers, to those in uniform. What, and who, is DOD trying to protect, and from what, and whom? If there is a crisis in belief, on all levels, and if groups are forming to ardently profess disbelief, is it any wonder?

It's no wonder, too, then that there are atheists in foxholes, and they're organizing, and speaking out, in greater numbers, about discrimination, and coercion, about infringement on their First Amendment rights, and maybe, just maybe, about an extremist vision that is a menace to the very principles they are fighting to defend.

Make no mistake, being an atheist, in the theatre of war, isn't just about the absence of belief in the Almighty, it's about the affirmation of choice, as well as acknowledgment that unbridled, and unchecked, zealotry poses a threat to society regardless of what the peculiar brand of ideology is. Some 20% of those now in the service profess to being atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers; that religious dissent is more prevalent in the military than in the civilian population leads one to wonder if disbelief isn't also a statement of profound, and unparalleled distrust in political leadership.

More active service members are coming together not merely to affirm their disbelief, but as resistance to extremist Christian proselytizing by their commanding officers, as well as in response to discrimination based on their refusal to participate in religious practice. While there have always been atheists and agnostics in the military, they are more vocal now, and we can expect their numbers to increase in direct proportion to the numbers of those dying, wounded, and a growing sense of helplessness, the kind of powerlessness Senator Durbin suggests .

But, if we really want to know what it means to be an atheist in the military today, why not ask one, the president of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Jason Torpy. MAAF is a group with members in 15 countries, 45 states, and over 100 military installations and ships.

Torpy, MAAF president since 2000, is a West Point graduate, trained intelligence officer, who enlisted in the Army back in 1994, and held the rank of Captain when he left the service in 2005. He calls for preserving the separation between church and state, and for protecting the First Amendment rights of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.

When asked how one preserves one's humanism in active combat situations, Mr. Torpy said "Combat lays bare any misconceptions one might have about any special place humanity might enjoy in the natural world."  This former Army captain confirms the pressure placed on service members to participate in prayer at what they thought were secular meetings, and testimonials, on MAAF's Web site, attest to efforts, by extreme Christian fundamentalists, to convert, and ostracize those who refuse to be converted.

He contends that religious discrimination comes "in two basic forms—active and passive. Active discrimination might involve denying a promotion, forcing undeserved labor, or providing undesirable assignments. Passive discrimination is far more common because it is sometimes unintentional, it is nonetheless very divisive… Our greatest concern is when leaders use their military power to express their personal religion by instituting personal religious ceremonies, symbolism, or statements in official activities."

"Combat does not inspire religion, and it certainly does not inspire Christianity," says Torpy adding that atheists "maintain their convictions despite external pressures, including combat." While belief in a higher power doesn't factor into those convictions, service in the military requires adherence to the Constitution, not the Bible.

Those in the military today who stand up for their constitutional rights are honoring every man and woman who gave their life so that they may enjoy these protections. By challenging ideological coercion, they are showing Congress how to take power back from those who have abused it.

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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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