Justin Griffith documents some of the treatment of non-believing soldiers who resist being forced into going to religious services by their superiors. A former Marine NCO writes to him about his experiences in boot camp when he requested permission not to attend church services on Sundays. As usually happens, he was forced to clean the barracks instead; he was also berated repeatedly by his drill instructors.
July, 7th 1998 I went to Marine Corps Basic Training in San Diego, CA. Shortly after being assigned to Platoon 1103 and meeting our Drill Instructors, the first Sunday of my enlistment rolled around. We sat in one of the theaters and listened to a Chaplain speak, telling us that they offered services for almost any form of religion and that after he was finished we were to get in line for our appropriate religion. He also said that there was a non-denominational group that would discuss our relationship with god. Lastly he said that we did not have to attend any church services if we did not want to.
I looked for the “not attending church” line, but could not find it. I was instead ordered to line up in the non-denominational line.
I sounded off, “Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!”
Another platoon’s Drill Instructor interrogated and berated me for quite some time as I continued to respond with that phrase. Finally he gave in and took me back to the barracks where my Drill Instructor did the same. Eventually he too gave in and put me to work cleaning different areas of the barracks.
My Senior Drill Instructor (a church choir singer and devout christian) was then informed. He attempted the interrogation and berating, having the same effect. Later he had both a private and a public “Hats off” more polite conversation urging me to attend church services. Again I sounded off with the phrase that became my mantra. ”Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!” He then seemed to want nothing to do with me since I wouldn’t “Do this for him.”
At least he stopped trying to force me to go.
As Justin notes, this is a story that you hear constantly from atheist soldiers. The experience seems to be so routine as to almost be a matter of official military policy. This particular soldier was even arrested for refusing to attend a religious service, though no charges were filed because the arrest was clearly illegal.
Here’s Justin’s own story:
There are two choices we can make when faced with this in boot camp.
1) Clean up and get yelled at every week – a punishment for not believing in god. 2) Go to a religious service and tune it out.
I tried both. I was not allowed to write letters, sleep, or even sit down. If for even one second I wasn’t actively cleaning, the Drill Sergeants would throw sand across the (freshly) waxed floor, or otherwise punish me. They get really creative. I was a special case because just before graduation, I was seriously injured. This extended my stay from the standard 9 weeks to a grueling 30-something weeks long.
This is why what Justin is doing in organizing Rock Beyond Belief and and in giving a voice to all atheist soldiers is so important. Atheist soldiers can no longer just sit back and take the abuse, they must speak up if they have any hope of ending it. By holding that event at Ft. Bragg, we are getting the attention of the Pentagon and letting them know that the rights of atheists are just as important as the rights of Christians — and that we’re going to be watching to make sure they get the point.