What are they worried about?

WriterDD already mentioned the latest in a long line of depressing stories about atheists in foxholes earlier this weekend but I wanted to rant a little more on this one. This story is obviously about blatant discrimination and, if true, I hope Jeremy Hall follows this to the very end and gets a huge settlement.  The men and women serving their country have it hard enough without adding crap like this to their daily lives. 

But the thing about this story that really got me thinking was the thread on the MSNBC discussion board about this article which said “Discuss: Should atheists be allowed to command troops?

First of all, the hell?  There’s an insult inherent in just asking the question (Do you think MSNBC would ever point people to a forum saying “Should black people be allowed to command troops?”).  But as I thought about it more, it became interesting to me to think about the key tenets of the military and how an atheist may have a reputation that conflicts with those tenets.

In the military, chain of command and obedience to a higher authority is paramount.  And following orders without question is key, at least when the fighting starts. Does that sound familiar? Is the real question, do Christians make better soldiers, because they prefer being unquestioning followers of authority? Or, at least, is that perception there among the miltary’s more godly?

Do they worry that being an atheist leader means you have more of a tendency to rebel against your authorities and, in turn, not give accurate orders to the troops under your command?

Or am I overthinking it? Atheists have adequate evidence their officers exist, and they are certain of punishment if they disobey. Is it as simple as “we don’t like atheists and don’t want them promoted”? Or “I don’t trust those heathens because I don’t understand their motivations — I’m here fighting because God loves America. How can I trust someone who’s fighting for some other reason?”

Discuss :)


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. If I were in the military I'd be much more afraid of a commander who thought that sending me to die in battle is a good thing because I'd get to go to heaven. I think an atheist commander would be less likely to sacrifice life needlessly.

  2. I'd say it doesn't even need to involve specific prejudicial beliefs — Christianity is their "moral tribe", and outsiders are suspect.

    In many cases, they've been explicitly taught that J.H.C. is the one-and-only source of moral behaviors, or even that the only reason anyone would possibly reject J.H.C. is because they've been corrupted by the Devil. But really, such programming just reinforces the natural instincts of tribalism.

    And someone who specifically chooses to reject their god is

  3. I read your last sentence before the drop, and even as I hit the "more" button, I was nodding my head because I could see where you were headed with this. I can't speak to the issue of prejudice in the military since I don't have experience with that, but I do have experience with the lemming-like obedience that seems to be common to many Christians.

    I can definitely see that it makes them better followers, and my understanding of the military is that you free thinking is not especially encouraged, shall we say. ;) So yeah, "God and country" works pretty well for those folks since they're already used to making decisions based on what somebody higher up the chain of command told them to do.

    There might be some sense that someone who is willing to sacrifice his desires and will to a greater cause already (his faith) will be more willing to do so for his country. I don't know how accurate that actually is, because there are plenty of self-centered jackasses in the military AND in church, and generalizations like that can break down awfully fast when you try applying them to something as complicated as an actual person.

    My father-in-law ended up being glad in the long run that his injury gave him an early discharge from his service in Vietnam because he was too independent a thinker to be happy in the military. So, given that atheists are almost by definition independent thinkers …

  4. I was in the military as an atheist (although not out, just "no religious pref"). I would be happy to follow an atheist commander. I know he is following orders from the chain of command, not a "higher power". And as an atheist rank and file, I feel that I followed a lot better than the religious folk. There weren't any conflicts of interest, no confusion on what to do, no inner turmoil. I followed orders based on a oath of service, and a deeply rooted sense of honor and patriotism. I would rather die for my country and fellow sailors than for any god.

  5. I was a bit surprised to see most of the initial comments at MSNBC favorable to atheists in the military, many of them from former or current service personnel.

  6. Dear eventhorizon07, Janiece, and other military personnel, whether you are retired or currently serving:

    My husband and I extend our gratitude to you for your service to us as well as to the United States. We are proud of anyone who serves in such a brave way and will continue to support you in any way we can. Stay safe and thank you for all you do.

  7. I think it is simply the religious bigotry variant of xenophobia.

    I think it has to do with what is called a "theory of mind", or ToM. This is what people use to understand other people by emulating them. A lot of communication is actually mediated this way, you don't need to transmit the whole idea if there is a shared ToM that encompasses the idea and you just transmit the label of the idea. The problem arises when two people have very different ToMs and the labels don't denote the same idea. A lot of the ID rhetoric simply redefines terms to mean something different and then puts those terms in the same grammatical structure that scientists use, but the "meaning" isn't there. That isn't a way to communicate; it is a way to miscommunicate, i.e. to lie.

    The psychological mechanism known as "projection" is when a person inappropriately applies their own ToM to another person. Essentially it is "I think you will do xyz in situation abc because that is what I would do under those circumstances". When you are working with people in a very high stress environment (such as a war zone), you do want a shared ToM because communication is easier, more precise and there are fewer mistakes. People who don't share the group ToM are the outsiders and there is group pressure for them to either conform, or to get out. This is no different than in any other group, perhaps a bit more extreme in a group that is deliberately set up to go out and kill people.

    The members of such a group have a different goal than their non-group commanding authority. Loyalty to the group is more important than loyalty to the non-group commanding authority. Lying to the non-group commanding authority (such as when group members violate that authority) is encouraged if the members have a higher authority (such as God) that they are more loyal to. This is what causes the great difficulty in dealing with this problem. People in the chain of command have greater loyalty to something outside the chain of command (their religion and God) than to the chain of command. Lying to the chain of command to preserve their religious group (and its power and authority) is the expected outcome. They will of course deny this, but that is them lying to the commanding authority to preserve the power of their group.

  8. Darn that General George Washington for thinking that, as a non-Christian, he could be an effective military leader.

    For that matter, darn my father, an atheistic yet decorated veteran of World War Two, now interred at Arlington, for daring to disprove that whole line of hooey simply by existing.

    My father, and oddly enough Perry DeAngelis, inspired a blog engry on this very topic.

  9. I'd love to see the end of this crap… Maybe I will. At least in the last entury, every generation has significantly more atheists than the last. Rationality and scientific though IS on the rise. It's not going to be an easy struggle, I think, but we're getting there.

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