As I stop to take a break from my cross-country move (more on that later) in my box-filled office, crammed in the corner with a computer sitting on a very small desk, I pause to think about baggage and all that word entails. You see, I'm a fairly new Atheist and while there was a long and emotional journey to get here, I've only just started to get over the rawness of being one of the most vilified minorities in America.
One of the single largest hangups I had about my journey into Atheism is that I am also an Air Force veteran and service member, and in modern America it is almost impossible to completely separate a belief in a higher power from a belief in selfless service and sacrifice. I have had minor (and not so minor) clashes with squadron and wing leadership about the role religion plays in military operations, where I had expressed concern over prayers before official unit functions or social gatherings, and cited the questionable legality of bible studies held in the building's auditorium during lunch hours.
I am not a "negation" Atheist. I do not want to remove religion from the lives of others; I simply do not want my military service to be synonymous with religious servitude, and that is a tall order in America's military. In fact, in What It's Like To Go To War, Karl Marlentes argues that it's impossible to separate combat from spirituality given the similarities between Western Religion and military service:
- Both are built on an awareness of your own mortality.
- Both require a total focus on the present.
- Both require valuing others' lives more than your own.
- Both require belonging to a community larger than yourself.
These similarities are striking, and Lt. Marlantes makes a compelling case that military service will always be synonymous with spirituality, and for many Americans spirituality becomes increasingly synonymous with religion; particularly Christianity. However, in America's military, there has become a push among the fringes to include a more verbose repertoire of spiritual agendas than the traditional religions; among them is the inclusion of humanism, or atheism.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of atheism is met with increasing hostility, and there has become an intra-service turf war between the theists and the atheists, resulting in Chaplains being chastised, Airmen being removed from military service, and the general contempt of the American people. And as this minority of American Airmen push for inclusion, they are being met with mixed results, and continue to do so with apprehension, fear, and uncertainty.
In order to apply for promotion or a duty assignment in the military, you must use your record of military data (RIP) which declares your religious preference outright; so that hiring committees may see.
Even the act of simply declaring your religious preference (or lack thereof) can be seen as threatening to leadership, your peers, or place you in an awkward position when attempting to advance your career. While I was lucky enough not to have faced any outright religious discrimination, I am cognizant of my relative fortune in this respect. Countless military service members find themselves in the awkward position of not fitting in, hiding their religious (dis)beliefs, or simply not belonging to their military communities.
So as I found myself in a religious upheaval, my military community was of little help. To make matters worse, as I lived in rural Arkansas, the local community outright despised me. I'm discerning enough to not plaster Humanist paraphernalia everywhere, but simply turning on the news yields all of the ammunition a young man needs to discern that the same people who love the military, hate Atheists. Take Ryan Bell, a former pastor turned Atheist who became the subject of death threats and ire from the national community. Or consider that schools continue pushing Christianity at the expense of those who do not want it.
As the conservatives find praise in my military service, but subtly or overtly despise my rejection of religion, the liberal community often finds itself in the inverse situation. As they support my rejection of religion, they find it easy to despise my connection to the military and its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program, claiming that I am part of an organization that "kills civilians."
Never mind the fact that, like law enforcement abuse or gun violence, our awareness causes us to believe that atrocities are on the rise, but the atrocities of war are actually declining - in large part because of increased oversight through things like UAVs.
This duality causes a stressful situation in which a well meaning Atheist can become "militant" or hostile to the notion of religion. However, like most "isms" or "ists," the newly converted slowly find their way to a more mature stance in which every religious observance isn't a slight or a call to arms, but simply a fact of life. This mature atheism is where I find myself headed; because, while I still have a ways to go, I am finding ways in which I can express my humanism without threatening the spirituality of my comrades.
It starts with educating not only the general public, but fellow service members, about the realities of military service. It starts with dispelling and combating harmful phrases like "there are no atheists in foxholes," or supporting Chaplains who understand the importance of reaching the Atheist Airmen. It starts with combating the belief that Airmen, Marines, and Sailors are "heroes" that fight for love of God and Country, but are simply civil servants doing a job no one else wants or is capable of doing.
As an Atheist Airmen, I do not sacrifice for the betterment of society with the belief that I'll be rewarded in the next life. I do so knowing that, if I am called upon to sacrifice, it is not a matter of divine providence, but of personal choice. This doesn't make me heroic, but it certainly doesn't make me villainous to simply want that distinction recognized and respected. Every service member is more than their military service; we are first and foremost American citizens who deserve the same respect and rights in which our civilian counterparts are afforded.
Rather than thank us for our service (a hollow gesture), take a moment to recognize that we're a person outside of that uniform. A person with whom you may disagree on a great many things; a person who may be a novelist, an atheist, or an engineer. Do not typecast us into a group of people deserving "hero cookies," but understand that our military service, like your day job, is mostly office politics and paperwork; it's fairly rare that we do anything "heroic."
You want to feel like you belong to a community when you clock into your monotonous job of data entry or nursing; so do we.