Atheists in military service

This is a follow-up to an earlier, controversial post, Religious institutions as a counterweight to the state. Here’s my quote of the day:

Before I got to be the rank I am I had to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I had commanding officers who made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate atheism in their ranks.

Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, who founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and who will be deployed to Iraq this fall.

Michael / Snaars provided the link to that article in a comment on my post.

I ought to know by now how different the atmosphere is in the USA as compared to Canada. Here, the atheism of a soldier would absolutely not be an issue.

It is certainly not my intention to deny the contribution atheists are making in the US military. I have no doubt that atheists are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their country. But the issue I raised in the earlier post is different, for two reasons.

First, the fight would be (in a sense) against one’s country:  i.e., against its government. Second, because it wouldn’t be a question of joining an existing institution (the military) but of having institutions of one’s own that can call forth a loyalty higher than that of one’s loyalty to one’s country.

Religion is a powerful motivator; it takes institutional forms which provide a ready mechanism to organize masses of individuals; and inevitably there is some tension between one’s religion and the state, as two entities that make competing claims on one’s allegiance. (With the notable exception of theocracies, which I deplore as strenuously as Snaars and Juggling Mother do.)

For the above reasons, church / monastery / synagogue function as potential counterweights to the state, should the state take a totalitarian turn. Given the technological sophistication of the modern state, with its formidable powers of surveillance including the ability to track people’s movements, this is an issue that everyone ought to be alert to.

Atheists who hope that one day all religious institutions will go belly up do not appear to be taking this issue into consideration in their calculations. I believe that is an extremely significant omission in their public arguments.

That was the argument of my earlier post, and frankly I was surprised that it would be a controversial position.

For my part, I continue to doubt that atheists have any comparable institutions to take over this role from churches, synagogues, and monasteries. Others disagree, and they are welcome to do so. But they ought to acknowledge the magnitude of the risk involved here.

Craps, anyone?


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 15:18:24

    For the above reasons, church / monastery / synagogue function as potential counterweights to the state, should the state take a totalitarian turn.

    They just as often (if not more often) do the opposite.


  2. McSwain
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 15:49:14

    Back in the late 80’s, I was on tour in the (then) Soviet Union. What was striking to us in that “athiest” state, was how religious institutions had been replaced with what was, really, another form of religious observance. It just didn’t involve God. For example, young couples who used to go lay roses at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary after weddings now went to lay roses at the eternal flame behind Lenin’s tomb. I watched that, along with other state “ceremony.” It was very odd. Where there is no religion, there is a great vacuum. It must be filled with something. I think that the Marxists found a way to fill that vacuum with state/atheist ceremony, at least for a short time. But the oppression in the air was palpable–something no people should have to experience.


  3. Stephen
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 18:21:47

    • JA:
    Arguably so. My position is that church and state should remain separate, so that each can check the excesses of the other.

    Some seek, in effect, to eliminate the state by establishing the religion as the government. For that reason, I have consistently left “mosque” off my list: because it isn’t clear that Islam is prepared to tolerate a distinction between the religion and the government.

    Whereas atheists want to eliminate religious institutions: which would be every bit as dangerous, because it would clears a path for totalitarianism.

    • McSwain:
    It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

    Human beings are incurably religious, it seems. (For that reason, I don’t expect the Dawkins / Hitchens program to come to pass any time soon.)

    But you illustrate my point: the state became a substitute religion in communist Russia: e.g., venerating Lenin in the place of the Virgin Mary. Thus the way was cleared for the state to demand absolute allegiance.


  4. JewishAtheist
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 18:55:05

    Whereas atheists want to eliminate religious institutions: which would be every bit as dangerous, because it would clears a path for totalitarianism.

    Hold on now. I stand exactly where you do on religious institutions: keep them separate from the state. I’ve never advocated eliminating them.

    Do I argue against counterfactual religious claims? Yes, because I think the truth is important. But there are some religious institutions which are not necessarily counterfactual, like some liberal Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian ones. And I would fight strongly against the government deciding which ones are acceptable. Better a hundred million people deluding themselves than a government that prohibits the free exercise of religion.


  5. Stephen
    Oct 08, 2007 @ 07:06:38

    My apologies, JA. I shouldn’t have written “atheists”, as if all atheists are agreed on this point. That was sloppy of me.

    The original post made it clear that I was responding to the militant atheism that is currently on the rise, mentioning Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris by name.

    Those three men do advocate the elimination of religion entirely (but is Harris softening up a bit?). They are the ones whose public arguments do not seem to take account of the crucial importance of religious institutions as a counterweight to the state.


  6. JewishAtheist
    Oct 08, 2007 @ 10:27:02

    Those three men do advocate the elimination of religion entirely (but is Harris softening up a bit?)

    Do they?


  7. Stephen
    Oct 08, 2007 @ 14:55:54

    I admit that I haven’t read any of those books. The authors are obviously setting out to perform a hatchet-job, with no attempt at objectivity or even-handedness, and I’m not going to waste my time on polemical bullshit. Let atheists read those books, and be confirmed in all their ignorant prejudices — exactly like the simple Christian folk who read the drivel available at a profit from the local Christian book store.

    So I’m basing my assertion on online reviews. Like this one, a review of Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

    “What does Hitchens mean by religion? Under the same umbrella he groups Mother Teresa, voodoo, the pope, ‘fear-ridden peasants of antiquity,’ Muslim suicide bombers, animists, ‘arid monotheism,’ the archbishop of Canterbury, séances, Thomas Aquinas, an evangelical huckster ‘dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit,’ Muhammad, the ‘tawdry myths of Bethlehem,’ the ‘vapid and annoying holiday known as “Hanukah,”‘ Mormons, ‘hysterical Jewish congregations,’ the ‘sordid’ theology of Pascal, Martin Luther King, rednecks, ‘cobbled-together ancient Jewish books’ (i.e., the Bible), WWII-era Japanese emperor worship, and male circumcision (which Hitchens describes as ‘mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life’).”

    So is there any part of “religion” that Hitchens would care to preserve? You be the judge.


  8. Snaars
    Oct 08, 2007 @ 21:40:53

    I’m more at ease with this post than its predecessor. It is true that we atheists don’t have any institutions comparable to religious ones in their ability to organize sheer numbers of people. I never argued against this. As I said before, I’m not certain the atheist authors would dispute this either.

    A friend of mine lent me his copy of “The God Delusion” by Dawkins, and I read most of it. It wasn’t anything like what was described by ignorant critics, who were obviously setting out to perform a hatchet-job, with no attempt at objectivity or even-handedness. 😛


  9. Stephen
    Oct 09, 2007 @ 07:02:11

    Oh, I don’t know, Snaars. I’ve seen Youtube videos of Dawkins in action. He now represents a fundamentalist strain of atheism.

    I have read some of The Blind Watchmaker, and I was suitably impressed. But since then Dawkins has degenerated into fervent, fire and brimstone evangelism. And it’s every bit as offensive in an atheist as in a Christian televangelist.


  10. Anonymous
    Oct 09, 2007 @ 19:19:18

    I don’t mean to take a tangent, Stephen, but which videos did you watch? I was curious, so I watched at least half a dozen Dawkins videos on YouTube today, and I didn’t see anything like fire-and-brimstone. Now I’m curious whether you saw a different video, or if it is our perceptions that differ.


  11. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Oct 09, 2007 @ 19:20:11

    Oops, that last comment was from me. 😳


  12. Stephen
    Oct 09, 2007 @ 22:31:46

    I find the TV segment in which Dawkins baits Ted Haggard deeply offensive.

    Pay careful attention: who throws the first punch? “That was really quite a show you gave us,” says Dawkins. “I was almost reminded, if you’ll forgive me, of a Nuremberg rally. … Dr. Goebbels would have been proud.”

    Later, in a voiceover, Dawkins offers this analysis:

    “[Evolution and creationism] are not equal theories. Evolution by natural selection is supported by mountains of evidence, while creation contradicts the evidence, and is only backed by some ancient scribblings.”

    The derisory language offends me. Also the tone of voice: so sanctimonious, so infinitely superior to Haggard and his ignorant rubes.

    But they are human beings, even if they are ignorant of the scientific facts. And in many cases they are very fine human beings indeed — certainly not warranting of Dawkins’s scorn.

    But the most important thing to recognize is this: it’s atheist propaganda. It’s poking a stick in the eye of the televangelist, provoking him into an outburst in order to make him look bad. It’s using a superior tone of voice that coaches viewers to be contemptuous of Haggard and his followers. And it is in no way educational — just emotive.

    Ergo, just like the TV evangelists, except Dawkins is selling a different brand of soap. I don’t defend televangelists, and I see Dawkins as just a variant strain.


  13. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Oct 10, 2007 @ 15:59:07

    Thanks. I completely disagree with your over-all assessment, but we can save that discussion for another time. I do certainly appreciate that the particular remarks you cited are offensive.


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