Friday, June 3, 2011

The U.S. Military is not "God's" Army

I recently read an article posted on the "Rock Beyond Belief" website about an email the website's founder received from an Army Captain. In the email he spoke of the dangers of speaking out against discrimination against non-theists in the military. The email provided examples of just how dangerous it can be for non-theists to push for equality in the military, both personally and for their career. Please take a moment to read this short article:

While I was in the Marines I too was subjected to blatantly religious events. It is while you are at MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) that you affirm your allegiance to the United States by swearing/affirming to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. At the end of this affirmation, you are supposed to be provided the opportunity to leave out the "So help me God" part, and I was allowed that right. However, apparently that is not always the case. Perhaps it was because I was being processed in Washington State, which is a more liberal, and not it Alabama or Oklahoma that I did not experience any backlash for leaving out the "So help me god" part. The point is that many non-theists are expected to, right at the beginning of their service, ask for the help of a deity in carrying out their mission to defend the Constitution of the United States. This may seem trivial, but imagine you are a Christian who is asked to say the words "Insha'Allah," or even "So help me Zeus" at the end of your affirmation. Christians do not believe in the god of the Muslims, or the Prophet Muhammad, nor do they believe in the Greek god Zeus. This would surely not be allowed to happen and there would be tremendous uproar from Christians throughout the United States if it were to happen. If non-theists are expected to say the words "So help me god" at the end of their affirmation though? Who cares, right?

I attended boot camp at the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. During recruit training, recruits are allowed time to attend religious services on Sunday mornings. During my childhood, my family did not attend regular church services and as a result of that, I didn't plan on beginning to attend church service during boot camp. However, after what is referred to as "Black Friday" (the day you pick up with your platoon and "meet" your Drill Instructors) and the crazy week that followed, I decided to attend church as a way to get a break from the mayhem. The following week, I also attended services but the fact that I was not religious made church services rather unbearable and I decided that the following week I would not go to service. It turns out that this was a mistake.

There were only three of us, out of a platoon of 94 recruits, who chose not to go to church the next week. We were told that we would be allowed to spend "church time" doing laundry or writing letters, and as long as we did not do anything stupid, or talk to each other, the Drill Instructors would leave us alone. However, when you are a Marine recruit during Phase One of recruit training, you don't have to do anything wrong in order to be punished. The other two recruits and I, who did not attend religious services, were subjected to what is known as "Incentive Training" at the whim of the on-duty Drill Instructor. This is, as nicely as I can write it, a rather unpleasant experience. While our religiously-inclined fellow recruits were getting their worship on in a relaxing environment, free of Drill Instructors, we were being punished for nothing more than being in the squad bay.

During my five years on active duty, I was also subjected to Christian prayers at large gatherings. Everything from the Marine Corps Ball to battalion and division gatherings were opened with prayers that were quite obviously Christian in nature, even though they mostly did not mention Jesus. If I were Christian, I'm sure I would have been okay with this. However, for those Marines and Sailors who were not Christian (maybe they were Jewish, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, or just simply not religious), this seemed inappropriate at best. I also frequently experienced knocks on my barracks room door early on Saturday and Sunday mornings from religious individuals attempting to get me to come to their church or church events. This alone wasn't all that troubling except for the fact that no other groups were allowed to solicit on base and it was rather annoying to have to consistently tell them I was uninterested and ask them to leave.

Many military officers, politicians and others have mistakenly stated that "there are no atheists in fox holes." This is simply an untrue statement and it is an insult to the men and women who serve this nation proudly who do not believe in a supernatural deity and do not require the assistance of said deity to perform their tasks. There is a large percentage of service members who are non-theists and they deserve, and should receive, the same treatment that is provided to religious service members. This was one of the issues I discussed with the representatives of Senators and Congressmen when I lobbied Congress a few weeks ago with the Secular Coalition for America. Hopefully we can begin to see improvements in the treatment of non-theist service members and non-theists throughout the country. It is a fight worth fighting.

Head on over to and see what it is that you can do to support non-theists in the military. You can also check out the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at and see what they are doing to assist secular service members.


  1. In my 20 years in the USAF, I encountered so much blatant religiosity that I was glad to retire. It has gotten so bad that I would go so far as to say the Air Force is no longer an organization that reflects my values.

  2. As an "old" Marine, who served from 1979 thru 1984, I recall much the same type of religious bias existed then as it did in your case. Though I felt squeamish about it, I didn't rebel against it for the reasons you cite -- fear of retribution.

    I now regret that, and have vowed to stand up against assertions that the Christian Way is the only way, each and every time it happens. And we all know it continues to happen throughout our lives.

    Sgt. Ellis, thanks for the article, for standing up for what's right, and for your USMC service.

    Semper Fi,


  3. Thank you, Larian and Bryce, for the comments. A facebook friend of mine reminded me of another example a couple of days ago. The "Let us pray" drills we had to do. Every head had to bow at the same time, as if we were all little clones, praying to the same god. Pretty annoying and inappropriate if you ask me.

  4. And thank you both for your service!