Religion in Society

Does the U.S. Army Discriminate Against Atheists?

| by American Atheists

By Kathleen Johnson

Today I learned something rather startling.  Apparently, according to the assessment tool currently in use by the US Army to measure mental fitness, I am deficient in the area of “spiritual fitness” and I need to “work hard” to improve my scores in this area.

Here’s some background on the test.  The Army has a new program called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program that is supposed to “create an Army of balanced, healthy, self-confident Soldiers, Families, and Army civilians whose resilience and total fitness enables them to thrive in an era of high operational tempo and persistent conflict.”  This quote is extracted directly from the Army’s official blog at http://armylive.dodlive.mil/index.php/2009/12/csf-global-assessment-tool/.  The mental health components of this initiative are Emotional Fitness, Social Fitness, Family Fitness, and Spiritual Fitness.  All soldiers were required to complete the Global Assessment Tool (GAT) that was designed to measure these components of fitness and this requirement will soon apply to Army civilians as well.  As a civilian employee of the Army, I have access to the test, and after receiving several complaints, I decided to take the test and check this out for myself.  According to the test website, individual results are not reported to commanders by name, but commanders will receive an aggregated report of all the responses in their unit so that they can identify potential issues and conduct interventions and corrective training if issues are identified.  However, since I did have to complete the test using my official Army login, it is a certainty that my individual results are a part of my electronic personnel record and I have no clear picture concerning what use these results could be put to in the future.

I have no real way to know if the assessment is exactly the same for soldiers and civilians, but according to the complaints I received, at least some of the questions are the same. Here’s a sample of some of the questions I had to answer:

Answer in terms of whether the statement describes how you actually live your life.

I am a spiritual person.

My life has a lasting meaning.

I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.

The job I am doing in the military has lasting meaning.

I believe there is a purpose for my life.

I basically answered the questions in the following way, which is the way a lot of atheists would answer them.  I am not a spiritual person, I don’t believe my life has a lasting meaning, I do not feel connected to all of humanity and the world, and I don’t believe my life has a defined purpose.  What I do believe, and what’s not possible to address using this assessment, is that although there are no such things as spirits or spiritual connections and human lives have no preordained meaning, we can make meaning for ourselves which doesn’t require calling on anything spiritual.  I also believe there is no such thing as being spiritually connected to humanity but that it is possible to honor and respect humanity and all life, and that while there is no preordained purpose to my life other than what I create for myself, there is nothing wrong with that.

Here’s what the test had to say about my responses:

“Spiritual fitness is an area of possible difficulty for you. You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles, and values. Nevertheless, who you are and what you do matter. There are things to do to provide more meaning and purpose in your life. Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal. Change is possible, and the relevant self-development training modules will be helpful. If you need further help, please do not hesitate to seek out help from the people you care about and trust – strong people always do. Be patient in your development as it will take time to improve in this area. Still, persistence is key and you will improve here if you make this area a priority.”

Wow, what a bunch of hooey.  To say the least, I found this evaluation to be utterly offensive.  There is NOTHING wrong with me or my beliefs that needs to be fixed and I firmly believe that any strong atheist like myself cannot honestly answer the questions in a way that allows them to pass the test.

This morning, American Atheists dispatched a letter to the Secretary of the Army that alleges that the assessment is flawed and discriminatory and will give commanders a misleading and false assessment concerning the state of their units’ fitness and readiness.   We further stated that this assessment violates the provisions of Army Regulation 600-20 by discriminating against atheist Soldiers due to their lack of spiritual beliefs and we requested the Army immediately cease using this assessment until these flaws are fixed and Soldiers are no longer subjected to a religious test to assess their overall fitness for duty.

Here are the First and Second pages of the letter I sent.

I am interested in your thoughts on this and would especially like to hear from you Army folks who have taken this assessment.