Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Good men should combat the believer in divine creation, maddened by an evil doctrine."

The symbol you see beside this paragraph is the official U.S. military headstone designation for an atheist soldier. I've placed it here because CNN is reporting that Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, a two-tour Iraq war veteran and atheist, is suing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Department of Defense for illegal religious discrimination. Spc. Hall claims that he was subjected to intense evangelical Christian proselytizing while on duty, and also passed up for promotions based on the view that his lack of visible piety would make him unfit for leadership. His lawsuit is also joined by Michael Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Weinstein and others have long alleged that there is a pervasive pattern of evangelical proselytization in the U.S. military, and CNN has periodically picked up on this story. Just last August, a scandal broke when several generals were found to have appeared in uniform inside the Pentagon for a promotional video by a group called "Christian Embassy." In Hall's recent lawsuit, the allegations of the videotape have again surfaced. All in all, from the Air Force Academy to General William Boykin, there does seem to be some pattern of evangelizing, although it is difficult for an outsider like myself to say how ingrained it is. When I served in the USAF Auxiliary-Civil Air Patrol many years ago, many of my fellow members and the chaplain were evangelicals. I once took our flight chaplain to task for misrepresenting the character of ancient Gnosticism during a pep talk, but that is a another story.

There are a number of intriguing angles to this issue. Clearly, one role of religion here is to help create "docile bodies," in this case a standing army of evangelical soldiers whose behavior and discipline are subject to the all-seeing Panopticon of Jehovah's omniscience and moral judgment. Also, the evangelical Christian nature of most military proselytizing potentially lends a propaganda victory to Al-Qaeda, which has long pushed the idea that the U.S. army is essentially modern "Crusader" force.

More importantly though, this lawsuit (and the accompanying media story) helps us think about what constitutes "atheism" in American culture. Legally and culturally speaking, "religion" is defined as a "set of beliefs." Notice how this is almost exactly equivalent to the notion of devotion expressed in Protestant Christianity. That is no accident. While other religions, like Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam emphasize correct practice and action (orthopraxis) over specific beliefs, Protestant Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism, emphasizes correct belief (orthodoxy). Although radical, certainly some members of the Jewish community have embraced a form of atheism while maintaining the need for ritual action.

The culture of religion and religion of culture in the U.S. has thus been framed in such a way that even dissent against its dominant content (Protestant Christianity) still follows the form (lack of "belief in God" or belief in a "lack of God") established for public discourse. Of course, other characteristics, such as monotheism, are also at work here, since few atheists discuss their disbelief in polytheisms. Atheism in the U.S., generally speaking, is a form of negative or inverse Protestantism, since, like Protestantism, holds that belief is somehow the most fundamental and irreducible characteristic of "religion." This stands in contrast to Secular Humanism, which is generally focused on promoting a common ethical way of life, rather than denying the theistic claims of others.

This is certainly not the only way that atheism has been expressed in worldwide religious arenas. Nor is atheism a modern phenomenon. The ancient Charvakas (Wikipedia has the best link, unfortunately) developed a high degree of skepticism regarding Gods and such. Jainism, a living religion of 8 million people today, has produced some of the strongest anti-theistic critiques ever known, yet it would be inaccurate to call it atheistic in the modern EuroWestern sense, as it is not materialistic or atomistic, in contrast to the U.S military's symbol for atheists.

Although the lawsuit has no chance of challenging or causing Americans to rethink how they view "religion," it nonetheless tests the boundaries of religious and ethical inclusion. Politically speaking, atheists are some of the least trusted people in the United States. In fact, several state Constitutions appear to discriminate against atheists. In 1961, the Supreme Courts's landmark case "Torcaso V. Watkins" nullified these portions of the state Constitutions, but they remain interesting by way of demonstrating the legal and historical climate for religion in this country.


David M. Crampton said...

Now I'm wondering if my Dad got any crap while he was in the Navy during Vietnam. He was a 3rd generation agnostic.

Christopher W. Chase said...

Hmmm. If you find out, please let me know. That would be interesting!