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Why Atheists Are Religious
Army must allow godless study groups

Sunday June 15, 2008


It's Sunday, a good time to remember that some God-fearing religious folks are downright obnoxious. They self-righteously force-feed their beliefs to those with different or less strident beliefs. Their numbers are few, but they threaten religious liberty.

They energize a more obnoxious, more threatening, and growing legion of activists who seem eager to silence believers in God. Many of them atheists, they misuse the First Amendment's establishment clause - which forbids government from sanctioning a religion - as a means to marginalize and stifle the free exercise of belief.

When the Army and Air Force sponsored a "Salute the Troops" Memorial Day event near Atlanta, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) balked. The groups convinced the military to drop its sponsorships and reduce participation, such as flyovers. The MRFF's "Religion Dispatches" publication characterized the event as "right-wing Christian evangelical." Apparently that's a bad thing.

By pressuring the military to back off, opponents urged the services to discriminate based on the religious and political leanings of an event and its organizers. Had it been an atheist function, would these groups have objected? Atheism, after all, is religion. What beliefs must a group embrace to qualify for military participation in a patriotic event?

Occasionally, though less often, atheists are victims of contentbased discrimination. A federal lawsuit filed against the Department of Defense reveals evidence of one possible example.

The same "Religion Dispatches" article that criticizes a "rightwing evangelical" party reports that Army Spc. Jeremy Hall filed suit after having his meeting of atheists broken up in Iraq. Hall claims that Maj. Freddy J. Welborn interrupted the meeting and said: "People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!"

If it's true, the major was wrong. Even active duty soldiers have the right to practice and express their beliefs. A meeting of atheists should be treated no differently than a Christian, Jewish, Muslim or evangelical prayer session.

Some atheists cringe when their philosophical belief, that God is myth, gets called a religion. They'd like to think it's something more than a mere belief. But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2005 that atheism is religion. Belief in the absence of God is no more valid than belief in the presence of God. The case involved a Wisconsin prisoner who was forbidden by wardens from holding atheist study sessions, even though fellow inmates were allowed to have prayer meetings.

The ruling outraged some Christians, including Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy. He said the decision means "up is down," because atheism is "the antithesis of religion."

It's not. It's the antithesis of theism, not religion. The ruling continues to perplex some atheists. Though it helped one of their own, some might prefer water torture to the label of religion.

It's hard to understand why anyone would object to seeing First Amendment protections applied to atheists. Clearly, atheism is a system of belief pertaining to the role, existence and importance of a supreme being. Therefore, it's religion. By treating it as religion, the courts grant it the same protections as, say, Christianity. And it becomes subject to the same restrictions that some abusive anti-religion activist thrust upon Christians.

If atheism is religion, then atheist study sessions get the same legal respect as prayer groups. But then atheist beliefs must also be actively excluded from the classroom and the like. Public school teachers aren't supposed to tell students that "Jesus saves," because that's a belief. Likewise, a teacher can't tell students "God is myth" - a statement of atheistic, religious belief. And if right-wing evangelical celebrations can't involve military pomp, neither can patriotic atheist events.

Atheism is just another religion. Military officers who break up atheist study sessions, therefore, must be stopped. Doing so would enhance religious freedoms for all.

The President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation's Colorado Springs Chapter Responds:

Dear Editor,

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has no problem with anyone’s belief in God or dedication to their religion and is a staunch advocate of freedom of religion. It is when those of a certain belief system reach beyond the confines of their faith and attempt to convert or compromise those of a dissimilar or less intense belief system using the draconian specter of military command influence to coercively force such conversion or acquiescence that I and other thinking Americans take a stand and is, coincidentally, why the MRFF was founded.

This evangelizing by Protestant Evangelical Military Chaplains, in league with like minded officers and civilian government officials, goes unchecked in all military venues, including our military academies. 14,000 of these officers are members of the Officers' Christian Fellowship, who's stated mission is to raise up a "spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for Christ in uniform," and Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry, whose stated goal is to turn our military into a force of "government-paid missionaries for Christ." These are their own words, not some unfounded opinion from MRFF.

This attempt to elevate Christianity above other religions and establish it as the dominant religious practice in America is to facilitate Christian domination of the armed forces and the Government of the United States; the purpose of which, ostensibly, is to subordinate world populations, under the evangelical's “Great Commission,” to this imperial brand of Christianity.

And what better way to accomplish that goal than to control the Armed Forces and arsenals of the world's greatest Super Power?

It doesn't take an astrophysicist to see that sponsorship of and association with Christian-only events by the military featuring weapons of immense destructive power and the fly-over of aircraft capable of carrying ordinance that could eradicate entire cities and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while marching by is tantamount to an endorsement of militant religion by the military.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is not an Atheist organization although a few Atheists may belong to it. Of the eight thousand plus client cases citing world-wide coercive Fundamentalist Christian proselytizing currently constituting the ever-growing MRFF case load, the vast majority of the cases are brought to MRFF by non-fundamentalist Christian Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors, National Guard, Reservists and Veterans. These are young men and women, often in battle zones, who suffer the indignity of being ordered to attend Christian services, repeat prescribed Christian prayer, or are otherwise subjected to doctrinal instruction and direction often amplified to a frenzy by Chaplains or superior officers and N.C.O.’s. This is an egregious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and a detraction that endangers the safety and well being of such subjects.

Frankly, this is unacceptable to a majority of Americans who take religious freedom and the United States Constitution seriously. With the support of concerned citizens, alarmed by the reality of what MRFF has uncovered, steps are being taken to stem this illegal activity and bring it to the attention of the courts and responsible military and civilian leaders.

Richard Baker
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Colorado Springs Chapter


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