First off, Kate Dailey at the BBC wrote a great article. When she first approached me, I was envisioning a segment to be aired right before Doctor Who (naturally), but it turns out this was for a print + radio segment. Still, it was a refreshing conversation and I’m grateful for the exposure it generated (plenty!)
This is one of the best representations of our public plea for respect in the military community. She covered the upcoming atheist festival on Fort Bragg. We discussed the offensive mandatory Spiritual Fitness testing and training. I explained why it is important that military atheists gain a place of respect in the chaplaincy, and also why we need to fight so hard to get our records / dogtags changed to say “ATHEIST”. She even touched on the far-right hatchet job on me at Fox News that resulted in death threats and much more drama that I haven’t even made public yet.
I really only had one thing to nitpick here:
In a land of faith and flag, Justin Griffith is challenging the US military to abandon its religious ties.
When he was a child growing up in Plano, Texas – a place he describes as the “oversized, goofy buckle on the Bible belt” – he would bring his bible to science class and debate his teachers on the finer points of evolution.
“In my head, I won every time,” says Mr Griffith, now 29.
But somewhere along the way, his penchant for picking ideological fights with the non-religious got him in trouble. He found it harder and harder to argue with the points they were making. At 13, he suffered a crisis of faith.
“It was so painful. I lost my religion before I lost my first girlfriend. Nothing that big had ever happened to me, and I didn’t have any coping skills,” he says.
Right here. When I tell this story, it’s only to make a point – and the point is lost without the ending!
Ending: I learned to turn this lesson in humiliation into a lesson in being humble. I learned to embrace being wrong, and not to fear even potentially painful introspection. If you can’t ever ‘be wrong’, then you can’t ever learn or change in meaningful ways.
A pleasant surprise
Ben Abel, the Public Affairs guru at Fort Bragg, said some nice things about our plight. Readers may remember my anger at him stoking the flames of the Fox News non-story, by falsely claiming to be launching an investigation into the decency of our festival. The readers at Fox News were convinced that President Obama sent me to burn down churches on military bases.
I am naturally keeping a skeptical eye, but this seemed like a very positive step forward from there:
Though the general public is not always receptive to atheism, the military itself offers a promise of acceptance.
“The army really is a microcosm of the entirety of our nation,” says Benjamin Abel, a spokesman for Fort Bragg. “We serve the people, and we have an incredibly diverse population of people in the United States.”
He notes that there are steps religious groups can go through to gain more visibility on base.
The fight by atheists, he says, reminds him of the struggle the base’s Wiccan members endured years ago.
“Through history, the military has generally been out in front of a lot of social issues. We integrated the military first, we just had the recent change of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’, [and] women have been integrated in the military for a long time.
“We’re not out there as a force for social change, but we certainly don’t shy from it,” says Mr Abel.
I’ve made this same comparison many times before. I totally agree with Ben Abel. I’ve told countless reporters about the struggle Wiccans went through for over a decade (beginning in the mid/late 1990′s). I usually frame it like this:
“The Wiccans used to be looked at as blood thirsty puppy-stabbers sent by Satan. Now they are simply looked at as ‘World of Warcraft nerds’. Atheists want a similar upgrade – instead of baby-eaters, perhaps bookworms?”
While I’ve got no respect for the beliefs and religious concepts of any religion, I do respect the people who hold them. It is important for all of us to stand up for the constitution – and for both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The chaplain’s regulations specifically urge ‘striking a balance’ between the two. So I’m proud of my Wiccan service-members, they fought a rough uphill battle – and won. Me next.
I’m sure they forgive me if I dismiss them for having +5 fire damage (the jab is meant as lighthearted.) Because at the same time, I’m ready to vociferously defend their rights to have ceremonies and congregate together. Just like I recently helped one of my soldiers hold his first Bible study (ironically, on the same day that I received a death threat from an extremist fundie.)
I urge you to please read the rest of the excellent article, and spread it!