Atheists In Foxholes

I’ve always had a lot of respect for military chaplains. I personally never attended a church parade unless I was ordered to, but the average padre does a lot more than the Sunday sermon. Outside the chain of command but intimately familiar with military life, they’re almost like uniformed social workers. Soldiers know they can discuss any problems they’re having with the padre, and that’s an immense help to many of them. Sometimes the padre can use his status as an officer to sort out problems; other times, just having a sympathetic ear is what an unhappy soldier needs.

So I thoroughly approve of padres, despite being one of those atheists in foxholes that some people claim don’t exist. Yes, I even approve of their religious role. I might be an infidel but many soldiers are not, and religion brings them a lot of comfort and help in stressful, dangerous situations. By leading prayers or hymns for anyone who wants to participate, padres make an immense contribution to morale.

ChurchWhere I draw the line is with religious activities that aren’t voluntary. As I mentioned earlier, I have been ordered to turn up for church parades on occasion, and I was never happy with that. Technically those were illegal orders, because my atheism was clearly recorded in my personnel file, but there really wasn’t a lot of mileage in refusing to obey. I contented myself with passive resistance – not joining in the hymns, and keeping my head resolutely unbowed during prayers. My bosses noticed that of course, but didn’t say anything about it as long as I was actually there; so honor was satisfied on both sides.

That’s not to say I was happy about it, of course. What’s the benefit in ordering someone to join an act of worship to a god they don’t believe in? Who is it helping? I have no idea. I do know who it isn’t helping, and that’s atheist soldiers. They get put in a very awkward position – challenge an order, which is never going to be popular with the chain of command, or take part in an event that’s at best meaningless to them and may be actively offensive. Yes, offensive. If you’re a Christian you’d probably be pretty outraged if you were forced to recite, “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” Well, that’s how I feel about being ordered to sing Onward, Christian soldiers.

As I said, voluntary church parades (insert other religious service as appropriate) benefit a lot of soldiers and I’m all for them. Involuntary ones, however, are just not one. There is no excuse for the chain of command to get involved in ordering, or even “encouraging,” their troops to attend. It’s up to the padre to issue those invitations and there should be no adverse consequences for not going. Sending the unbelievers on a litter sweep while everyone else is in church is unacceptable; so is hinting that failure to attend will be considered at report-writing time. The freedom to worship as you choose includes the freedom to not worship, and denying that freedom is to take a leaf out of ISIS’s book.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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