Religion

US Army Survey: Atheists Unfit to Serve?

Sergeant Justin Griffith recently took a mandatory US Army survey called the Soldier Fitness Tracker (SFT), which was apparently meant to judge each soldier’s level of emotional, social, family, and spiritual fitness and recommend ways to improve those levels. Can you guess which level was the lowest for Griffith, who happens to be an atheist?

According to the SFT, here’s Griffith’s problem area:

Spiritual fitness is an area of possible difficulty for you. You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles, and values. Nevertheless, who you are and what you do matter. There are things to do to provide more meaning and purpose in your life. Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal. Change is possible, and the relevant self-development training modules will be helpful. If you need further help, please do not hesitate to seek out help from the people you care about and trust – strong people always do. Be patient in your development as it will take time to improve in this area. Still, persistence is key and you will improve here if you make this area a priority.

Apparently Griffith went wrong when he answered pragmatically when asked to indicate how much he agreed with phrases like “My life will have a lasting meaning.” First of all, “lasting” is a bit vague, no? Second of all, even many theists should understand that in the grand scheme of things, most likely no one will know their names a few generations from now. Griffith gave it 2 out of 5.

More worrying is the next statement Griffith says he had to judge: “I feel connected to a being that is greater than me.” Sure, there are atheists out there who could buy into a Dirk Gently-esque Interconnectedness of All Things, but even that wouldn’t really count as a “being,” would it? No, “being” implies a singular persona, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling a connection to such a thing.

I’d be interested in knowing what the other questions are. Presumably there’s nothing in there that would allow a non-believer to positively respond to the accusation that he “may lack a sense of meaning and purpose” in his life. (For those who don’t know, many non-believers do believe that it is an individual’s responsibility to find meaning and purpose in his own life, as opposed to having meaning thrust upon him by an ancient text or charismatic leader channeling the aforementioned greater being.)

And not being connected to a greater being doesn’t mean that non-believers don’t feel connected “to something larger” than themselves – those are two different questions. I feel connected to something larger than myself every time I blog here on Skepchick, but I don’t pretend that the skeptical movement is a being. So, it sounds to me like this survey fails thanks to extremely poor wording due to an assumed monotheistic outlook on the part of the writer(s).

I’d like to know how the army plans to use the results of this terribly worded survey. No one stepped from the shadows to strip Griffith of his rank, but he does mention that prior to seeing his scores he agreed to have his data included in an anonymous aggregation to be used in some undefined manner. He now worries that it will be used to increase funding to chaplains or in other ways meant to increase the spirituality of the troops.

Instead, let’s hope the Army gets enough feedback from disgruntled troops to direct more funding into crafting surveys that more accurately judge the fitness of their soldiers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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29 Comments

  1. If shoe were on other foot:

    Critical thinking is an area of possible difficulty for you. You may have an overdeveloped sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you. You may not feel way too connected to something likely nonexistent. You rarely to never question your beliefs, principles, and values. Nevertheless, who you are and what you do matter? There are things to do to provide more meaning and purpose in your life. Improving your critical thinking should be an important goal. Change is possible, and the relevant self-development training modules will be helpful. If you need further help, please do not hesitate to seek out help from the people you care about and trust – strong people always do. Be patient in your development as it will take time to improve in this area. Still, persistence is key and you will improve here if you make this area a priority.

  2. @Mjhavok: While capable is correct I think that I have to disagree with the assessment that Atheists are just as good to the army in general.

    In much the same way that males are on average physically stronger than females, at the moment in the US Atheists are more likely to be critical thinkers than theists. This is NOT something the army wants. For the majority of troops the Army wants someone who will follow orders and not think about it.

    It’s not something that should discount you, but it means that as an atheist you are less valuable to the army with all else held constant.

    edit: To be clear, I’m not trying to justify the actions of the army here. Just pointing out what I think may be their (stupid) line of thought.

  3. People create meaning and purpose for themselves all the time. We can’t not generate meaning and purpose.

    Take the trivial case: We see a particular pattern of white on a blue background and we infuse that image with the meaning ‘cloud’ and the purpose ‘to provide rain’.

    In the dramatic case: We can recognize that while the universe is incapable of caring about our little blue dot, we ourselves certainly can. We grant ourselves meaning by recognizing that if anyone’s going to sort our shit out, it’s going to have to be us. The purpose then becomes working towards a better world.

    What the heck does connectedness to a greater being have to do with any of this? Doesn’t that just trivialize the whole thing?

    Besides: If meaning and purpose can only come from someplace ‘higher’, then why would any kind of ultimate being bother creating something ‘lower’ than themselves?

    It doesn’t make sense. But then again, making sense was never religion’s forte.

  4. As a veteran and an atheist, I feel the usual frustration of being misunderstood. I consider myself an atheist only after a long and serious reflection on what that meaning and purpose actually is. I feel that I have spent a great deal of time and energy reflecting on these things, and that me being an atheist is actually an expression of that! Anyone who has been in the militery knows that the experience in general and the sense of camaraderie give you meaning and connection reguardless of what your philosophical isms are. They are just isms; and as far as individual lives are concerned, in this context, they are non sequiturs.

  5. I expect this part of the survey was written by a chaplain and that the chaplain corp in the Army was tasked with assessing what they see as an essential component of a solders life.

    @qyiet: You would be totally incorrect to the point of clearly being ignorant about most of the training a modern solder receives. Critical thinking, the ability to make clear assessments, having initiative and the ability to act independently absent a command structure is a significant priority in military training.

  6. I’d think that lack of religious identification would be a benefit to the military command, not a hindrance.

    A religious soldier might be faced with: “My commander says ‘Shoot him!’ My religion says ‘Don’t shoot him!’ More important to obey ‘God’ than to obey my commander.”

    Since the non-believing soldier has no such conflict, which one would the commander believe to be more reliable in a tight situation?

  7. With a massive political push to try to understand, track, and mitigate things like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you run into some significant problems in designing something like the SFT, especially in making it so that troops will understand it.

    First, my understanding is that the average ASVAB testing scores (used for entrance into the military and job specialization within it) are in the mid-40’s, of a possible score of 99. This points to a need to “dumb-down” any test to meet this reality. Secondly, though the Army does employ mental health professionals, any time spent in the military shows that the chaplain is always the go-to person when psychology is involved. Obviously, they are not experts in that field, but it would make sense that they have a strong hand in the creation of a test like this one, though I haven’t checked into that claim, and may be wrong. I will say that Chaplains tend to display what I’d call a general lack of clarity regarding human thought, action, or emotion, though their official standing tends to leave them unchallenged in their speaking prolifically on those subjects.

    Personally, My experience in the military showed me not to think too hard on any exercise like this test, though their weaknesses are pretty obvious, and a thinking person is going to run into many of those.

  8. Actually, I can totally understand why the armed forces would ask these questions. War, while not speaking from personal experience, is a brutal and ugly affair. I’m sure that many soldiers turn to religion to find solace (it would explain why there are so many army chaplains) and the military probably sees it as potentially stabilizing to a soldier’s psychology. Whether it actually does help a soldier’s psychology is probably debatable. What we need is a study to see if there is a correlation between soldiers’ performance, soldiers’ psychological well being (their mental state on and off the battlefield), and spiritual beliefs. If there actually is data to suggest that spiritual soldiers, in general, either perform well or are more psychologically healthy than non-spiritual soldiers, it would be fair for the armed forces to inquire about a soldier’s spiritual beliefs, especially if it is to determine the amount and type of psychological support that a soldier needs. Just because we’re all atheists here doesn’t mean that what the armed forces is doing in this case isn’t without justification.

  9. I wouldn’t say I’d outright lie on a test like that, but if a question is clearly probing for something specific that it shouldn’t be probing for, on top of using language that’s ambiguous and unclear, just go for the answer you KNOW they want to hear. You can probably fit the interpretation of the question and your answer to the reality of what you genuinely think/feel anyway. Their problem for using poor wording, not your problem for answering it creatively.

    I have similar issues with a lot of questions on OKcupid or Facebook quizzes for example. Multiple choices where none of the options really fit, or they all sorta fit but there’s no “all of the above” option. Of course, those won’t keep me from getting a promotion/raise, so it’s less imortant.

  10. I, too, agree with James Fox’s answer to qyiet. I spent quite a few years in the Air Force. Leadership training was part of our very existence. There was a time when “armies” weren’t trained that way. Kill the leader and the troops scattered. No more. Nowadays, if the lieutenant dies, the tech sergeant takes over. If he dies, the staff sergeant, and on down the line. Leadership is drummed into everyone, from the loftiest four-star to the lowliest no-striper. Consequently, the military doesn’t want stupid people–which makes the subject of this thread all the more curious and even disturbing.

  11. The excerpt says “You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself.” you said “More worrying is the next statement Griffith says he had to judge: “I feel connected to a being that is greater than me.”” Did they actually say being? Being connected to something larger than yourself could have nothing to do with religion. You can be not believe in god and feel connected to something greater and that you are living a purposeful life. Community, children, country…

  12. @coreyjf, one might even say the armed forces themselves (or maybe your country) are something greater than you which you could feel connected to. In fact, wouldn’t that be more interesting for the army to have someone like that than someone whose loyalties were split between god and country? Putting god first (as per the first commandment).

  13. @beerslayer: I can’t decide if you’re saying religious people don’t have well thought out ethical and moral philosophies, or if you’re saying an atheist wouldn’t have one or might not feel a need for a moral and ethical framework for making decisions. Both options seem absurd at best to me and if you think it’s a solders job to ignore his own personal ethics and morals you’d be incorrect.

  14. I am an officer in the Army and I just took this survey. It is possible enough people complained because I did not get the “higher being” question. Also, the following “disclaimer” was at the beginning of the survey:

    “You will be assessed on your emotional, spiritual, social, and family fitness. The spiritual dimension questions on the GAT pertain to the domain of the Human Spirit: they are not “religious” in nature. The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program defines spiritual fitness as strengthening a set of beliefs, principles, or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of support. Also, spiritual fitness provides a person a sense of purpose, meaning, and the strength to persevere and prevail when faced with significant challenges and responsibilities. It promotes general well-being, enhances self-confidence, and increases personal effectiveness.”

    The questions related to being spiritual I got were:
    -I am a spiritual person.
    -My life has a lasting meaning.
    -I believe in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.
    -I believe there is a purpose for my life

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