The latest issue of The Humanist has an incredible article by Karen Frantz about army specialist Agustin Aguayo.
Aguayo is an “agnostic who believe[s] in a higher power.” During his army training, he realized he could not kill someone even in the case of war:
During his training in arms and military operations he began to feel a “crystallization” of belief — and this belief was causing him anguish and guilt. He knew he couldn’t use a bayonet against anyone. He knew he could never shoot someone…
The day before his unit was to go to Iraq, Aguayo went AWOL. He soon turned himself in, but knew he faced an uphill battle in filing as a “conscientious objector.” He had been through the same battle many times before. There was one reason he’d been having all this trouble:
… although Aguayo met many of the requirements of a conscientious objector according to military policy, he failed to meet one important non-official requirement: his belief system wasn’t Christian.
Aguayo wasn’t court-martialed that day. Instead the army told him he was going to Iraq whether he liked it or not — even if he had to be forcefully carried onto the plane. Soon after, Aguayo went AWOL again.
You should see the hell he had already been through in filing as a CO prior to this incident. After filling out the long application, it was ultimately denied by a judge who wrote this:
PFC Aguayo’s convictions do not appear to be sincerely held… PFC Aguayo did not identify any specific ways he has altered his behavior to accommodate his beliefs. Although practicing a religion is not a requirement for CO approval, PFC Aguayo has not discussed any equally significant source of his beliefs other than he was raised in a kind and respectful family.
In other words, because Aguayo didn’t attend a church, it was hard for the judge to understand where these “morals” of his were put into practice other than his upbringing.
In that kind of scenario, how could any non-religious person publicly display moral fortitude?
For example, a nontheist might have to demonstrate that they engage in activities similar to attending church to prove a place for belief in their lives. But to someone who is religious, any activity that is not church may be a very poor substitute. An example of this might be seen in Aguayo’s case — the military chaplain who was assigned to assess his application wrote, “PFC Aguayo seems to be sincere in his beliefs… It is difficult to assess the depths of his beliefs because they rest solely within his own thinking and personal values without the support of background, family, or faith group.”
One last excerpt from the piece:
Nevertheless, it stands to reason that non-traditional and nontheist COs likely face a higher burden. The Center on Conscience and War, a nonprofit anti-war organization founded in 1940 to defend the rights of COs, reports that non-Christians “statistically have a greater difficulty submitting and proving their sincerity to a chain-of-command… who self-identifies as Christian.” And one successful CO I spoke with told me that he believed he had an easier time discharging from the military because he was Christian (and white). Whether due to misunderstanding or due to prejudice, other faiths or a lack of religious faith may simply make little sense to the Christian majority. And, frankly, it’s no secret that prejudice against nontheists and non-Christians is present in the U.S. military. One need only look at the tribulations of PFC Jeremy Hall, who endured discrimination, alienation, and even death threats for his atheist views.
You can read the entire piece — and get angry-as-hell while you do it — at The Humanist‘s website.
In case you’re more curious about this, here’s a video of Aguayo speaking about his ordeals: