Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Atheist In the Foxhole? So Help Me God…

 

As many are aware, the Air Force became the last branch of the military to make “so help me God” optional in the oath of enlistment this past week.

A legal review of rules that required the phrase occurred after the American Humanist Association (AHA) threatened to sue on behalf of an atheist airman. The unnamed airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied re-enlistment Aug. 25 after crossing the phrase out of the oath.

Unsurprisingly, this week’s manufactured outrage de jour had conservatives angry. Allen West stated:

Hmm, I thought the first amendment stated “Freedom of religion and the free exercise thereof” — so again, am I missing something? When did atheism become a religion? It seems this group has interpreted the First Amendment to say “freedom FROM religion” but then again where in stating “so help me God” is anyone being forced to support a religion?

And Pat Robertson said:

“You want these guys flying the airplanes to defend us when you got one little guy [Mikey Weinstein] terrorizing them?” Robertson went on. “That’s what it amounts to. … How can [the Air Force] fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?”

Robertson added that you don’t necessarily have to believe in God to say the phrase. “You just say, ‘I want some help besides myself [with] the oath I’m taking,’” he reasoned.

I heard the usual hyperbole on talk radio this week of God being “kicked out” of the Air Force and similar such nonsense. The truth is that the Air Force is merely joining the rest of the the services in making the phrase in the oath of enlistment optional. The logic of the Offendetariat follows that not forcing an atheist serviceman to swear by a divinity he does not believe in is a war on our Judeo-Christian heritage.

The Left and Right both imagine their preferred boogeyman in the military, a point illustrated by two remarkably similar conversations I had this year. An atheist friend of mine sought my presumed confirmation that the Army is full of bible-thumpers seeking to turn it into a theocracy and that I must be besieged on all sides by mad-eyed proselytizers. Around the same time, a former theology teacher of mine wondered if the dark forces of secularism had succeeded in snuffing out every mention of God and if Christian soldiers would soon be resorting to celebrating religious services secretly by candlelight away from the prying eyes of authorities. Both miss the mark.

As an atheist who has spent the last 6 years associated with the military, two things have been striking when it comes to religion:

  1. Servicemen are far less religious than people imagine. And the ones who are believers are extremely muted on the subject. I lead a platoon of 25 soldiers for a year and learned everything there was to know about most of them. But religious preference? I could maybe tell you for sure what the faith was of three of them, and that is only because several of them mentioned attending Ash Wednesday services. Religion simply does not come up except for the occasional and very non-denominational sounding invocation at unit events. If anything, I have been surprised by the commonness of non-belief among the war veterans. Foxholes are filled with atheists.
  2. The military is perfectly accommodating to any religious preference or lack of preference. I have never once felt pressured or had my rights “threatened” as a non-believer. No one has ever even asked what I do with my Sunday mornings. I have no need to disclose or trumpet my godlessness to who I work with. (Humorously enough — or sadly if stereotypes bother you — I have been presumed Jewish on multiple occasions due to my draconian stinginess with money as well as some tattoos in Hebrew that I have.)

Getting back to the oath of enlistment, I happen to think the AHA and MRFF (lead by another master of hyperbole Mikey Weinstein) are overblown in their criticisms, though I think the Air Force ruled correctly. For those who are believers, you can still invoke God in your oath of enlistment, while the atheist need not. It is a practical and commonsense ruling.

Image Credit: Flickr user US Air Force.

There are 27 comments.

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  1. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Do humanists believe that allowing service members to swear an oath to God constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of religion? Like voluntary prayer in the public schools?

    • #1
    • September 21, 2014, at 3:50 PM PDT
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  2. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    The dispute concerned non-theists being compulsed to make a theological affirmation and had nothing to do with servicemen voluntarily making that oath.

    • #2
    • September 21, 2014, at 3:58 PM PDT
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  3. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    That wasn’t the question I asked.

    • #3
    • September 21, 2014, at 4:02 PM PDT
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  4. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Well I don’t know what the AHA says on the matter. I certainly don’t.

    • #4
    • September 21, 2014, at 4:08 PM PDT
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  5. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Byron Horatio:Well I don’t know what the AHA says on the matter. I certainly don’t.

    I was just curious, Byron. It seems to me that the same logic that would prohibit voluntary public prayer by an individual at a government school commencement ceremony would also prohibit voluntary public swearing to God during a government military enlistment ceremony. I’d think that the same logic would also apply to oaths before judicial bodies. To be fair to the AHA, however, they don’t appear to have the same concern over voluntary prayer by individuals in schools that the ACLU seems to have.

    • #5
    • September 21, 2014, at 4:44 PM PDT
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  6. Profile Photo Member

    Forcing a nonbeliever to to invoke the name of God seems kind of blasphemous, so it’s a good change.

    • #6
    • September 21, 2014, at 6:11 PM PDT
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  7. David Knights Member

    Forcing “So help me God” in the oath seems to me to come close to a religious test. NO big deal as far as I can see.

    • #7
    • September 21, 2014, at 8:22 PM PDT
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  8. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Why bother having them swear anything at all? Or even say an oath. It is not like anybody believes in that stuff any longer.

    • #8
    • September 21, 2014, at 8:59 PM PDT
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  9. Knotwise the Poet Member

    I’m religious and am upset about faith being pushed out of the public square, but I don’t have a problem with this. Somebody who does not believe in God should not be required to invoke his name.

    • #9
    • September 21, 2014, at 9:08 PM PDT
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  10. Al Sparks Thatcher

    When I was in the Coast Guard (1979-1986) , there were a few people on board the cutters I was stationed on that did do some minor proselytizing. No pressure, but they did take their own stand.

    Byron said he led a platoon, implying he was an officer, which means the level of fraternization, especially with the privates, would be small. I suspect that amongst themselves they had a better idea who was religious and who wasn’t.

    Or maybe it’s different in a naval service or maybe times have changed. I do agree that religion wasn’t a big deal when I was in, and most of the people I served with did not go to church.

    This issue with the oath of enlistment is small beer to me, whether it was left in or not. I do wonder if the unnamed enlisted man is otherwise a jerk in general. Maybe not, the Air Force has pretty high re-enlistment standards, especially at the moment when they’re going through reduction in force (RIF).

    Some battles are not worth fighting, and one way I assess people is when they stand on principle, how small or large the issue really is when they do.

    • #10
    • September 21, 2014, at 9:29 PM PDT
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  11. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    @FJG,

    As oaths go, people in uniform take them pretty seriously. We have proportionally as many dirtbags as society at large, but outside of them, the oath and the NCO creed do mean something.

    I was very close to the enlisted personnel, NCOs especially, many of whom became friends after they or I left. But even amongst officer peers and superiors, the subject was never broached.

    • #11
    • September 21, 2014, at 10:23 PM PDT
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  12. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Do you know if the enlistment oath is still administered in a “repeat after me” format, or does each enlistee get a written copy to read from? If the former, which version is read by the officer administering the oath?

    • #12
    • September 22, 2014, at 3:51 AM PDT
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  13. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    One thing many people forget about service members: most of them are away from home for the first time. They are experiencing a level of liberty (and license) they never even knew existed before they enlisted in the military. Some adhere to the faith of their families, but more common is a return to it after a sort of Rumspringa. I found (in general) much more faith among the E-4 and above folks than in the E-3 and below.

    • #13
    • September 22, 2014, at 6:33 AM PDT
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  14. Neil Hansen (Klaatu) Inactive

    My question is, who authorized the USAF or any service to alter the oath?

    10 USC 502 states:

    (a) Enlistment Oath.—Each person enlisting in an armed force shall take the following oath:

    “I, ____________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

    If Congress mandated this portion of the oath, what authority do the services have to make it optional?

    • #14
    • September 22, 2014, at 6:36 AM PDT
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  15. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The King Prawn:One thing many people forget about service members: most of them are away from home for the first time. They are experiencing a level of liberty (and license) they never even knew existed before they enlisted in the military. Some adhere to the faith of their families, but more common is a return to it after a sort of Rumspringa. I found (in general) much more faith among the E-4 and above folks than in the E-3 and below.

    My experience as well.

    • #15
    • September 22, 2014, at 6:45 AM PDT
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  16. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    Darn good question, Klaatu.

    • #16
    • September 22, 2014, at 6:45 AM PDT
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  17. gts109 Member

    What about God, Corps, Country? Is that out the window? Should a tiny minority be permitted to smash the esprit de corps of highly effective military units because it thinks that being forced to say a word (in taking an oath that it’s voluntarily decided to make) violates its religious beliefs (or lack thereof)? Really? Maybe just say the five words and move on, so you can fly airplanes and drop bombs on ISIS. This country is SO good at making mountains out of mole hills.

    • #17
    • September 22, 2014, at 9:18 AM PDT
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  18. Profile Photo Member

    Byron, my recently-retired, military chaplain pastor talks about the “irreligious, unchurched” nature of many with whom he ministered; he talks about the challenges of bringing the faith to those who were CC [culturally Catholic]. It seems that this reflects the wider culture…I just wonder when an opt-out becomes across the board policy, how we’ll hold ourselves and each other accountable?

    • #18
    • September 22, 2014, at 9:43 AM PDT
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  19. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Basil, the oath is still done in a repeat-after-me format. The joke being that we’re too stupid to memorize it.

    Klattu,

    I don’t know the legal side of it, but from what I understand, every service now makes the phrase optional.

    • #19
    • September 22, 2014, at 10:27 AM PDT
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  20. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Byron Horatio:@FJG,

    As oaths go, people in uniform take them pretty seriously.We have proportionally as many dirtbags as society at large, but outside of them, the oath and the NCO creed do mean something.

    I was very close to the enlisted personnel, NCOs especially, many of whom became friends after they or I left.But even amongst officer peers and superiors, the subject was never broached.

    Maybe, but if God is not involved it is not an oath, it is a legal affirmation and should be called such. You are not swearing on your immortal soul to your deity of choice but am instead just acknowledging that you agree to abide by the words or the government will hurt you. How seriously you wish to take those words would depend on how serious you take your government and its intent to enforce its will on you.

    • #20
    • September 22, 2014, at 10:34 AM PDT
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  21. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Re # 17:What about God, Core, Country? Is that out the window?

    To suggest that this “destroys the espirit de corps of fighting units” is patently absurd. Does it matter what the common soldiery believes about divinity so long as they don’t run in the face of danger and destroy what they are ordered to?

    And if the response is “Well, it’s just a few words, so what’s the big deal?” then clearly it isn’t that big a deal and it shouldn’t matter whether the words are included or not. Effectively the phrase is not so much an oath as it is calling on God as a third party witness to your oath. If you don’t believe in such a being or if you are a Buddhist or Hindu, then it makes little sense for you to say it.

    • #21
    • September 22, 2014, at 11:21 AM PDT
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  22. Brad B. Inactive
    Brad B.

    Interesting to note, but I attempted to include an image in the original post but was unsuccessful due to some error in uploading photos. I see once the article promoted, it also included a photo not of my choosing above the text. I’m not complaining, but wonder who the mysterious agent (or higher power?) behind this is. Albert Arthur, did you hack my post?

    • #22
    • September 22, 2014, at 11:27 AM PDT
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  23. gts109 Member

    I imagine that almost no soldiers have a problem with the language as is (despite your personal experiences), and this sort of non-denominational recognition of a god isn’t establishment of a religion, as far as the Constitution is concerned. Our Founders, including George Washington, used this sort of phrasing all the time, and that explains why it continues in various oaths (military and otherwise) to this day.

    Anyway, I was exaggerating with my prior comment, but it is our constant position in this country to flog ourselves for our traditions and to have the views of the majority bend to those of the minority, even when it comes to banal things like the wording of oaths. People file lawsuits, and make a big stink out of this sort of thing all the time. I don’t think we should cede territory on the issue. You can say the oath or not join. I’m certain such a policy, mean as it may be, would have no material impact on recruitment.

    • #23
    • September 22, 2014, at 12:44 PM PDT
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  24. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    If we can require the Little Sisters of the Poor to supply abortifacients, I’d think we could require atheists to say “so help me God” once every four years.

    • #24
    • September 22, 2014, at 1:11 PM PDT
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  25. Herbert defender of the Realm,… Inactive

    …How seriously you wish to take those words would depend on how serious you take your government and its intent to enforce its will on you…

    and a atheist forced to recite a oath to God would face the same issue (he doesn’t take swearing to God seriously, because he doesn’t believe in it.).

    • #25
    • September 24, 2014, at 5:57 AM PDT
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  26. Herbert defender of the Realm,… Inactive

    …If we can require the Little Sisters of the Poor to supply abortifacients, I’d think we could require atheists to say “so help me God” once every four years…

    Weren’t the little sisters given a mechanism to opt out ( just like atheists are being allowed to on the under God issue)?

    • #26
    • September 24, 2014, at 6:06 AM PDT
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  27. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Not a meaningful one. The analogy would be to excuse an atheist from swearing to God but then require him to have his lawyer do it for him.

    • #27
    • September 24, 2014, at 6:21 AM PDT
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