Can Atheists Be Conscientious Objectors? February 17, 2009

Can Atheists Be Conscientious Objectors?

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:

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  • Cindy

    I understand COs back during the draft, but this is a volunteer army now. Shouldn’t he have thought about this before he enlisted? Don’t army recruiters ask these kind of questions before someone signs up?

  • BowserTheCat

    I think that when you dispense with the need for an afterlife of any sort it becomes harder to take another life. The people you kill (whether in the line of duty or not) will not go to a “better” place. They are just dead. I find that taking a life brings an even greater burden (and responsibility) as a Atheist than it would have as a theist of any sort.

  • Luther Weeks

    Wait, I thought there were supposed to be no Atheists in foxholes?

  • Here’s a quick comparison with the situation in France:

    It used to be that all male French citizens of a certain age were required to do a certain abount of military service (like for a year or something), or they could file as “conscientious objector” and do civil service instead. (Now I think it’s no longer required.) As I understand it, the civil service option required a much longer period of service in order to discourage people from filing as C.O. if they’re not serious about it.

    My husband filed as a conscientious objector and ended up setting up computer networks in public buildings (I think libraries). He said it was a simple matter of sending in a standard letter. As I recall, he said he tried composing his own letter, and they made him re-write it to be more like the standard one. And religion had nothing to do with it — he’s an atheist.

  • Nancy

    Ironic considering many atheists have recognized an association of wars throughout history with religion.

  • inkadu

    I was reading about filing for CO a few years ago, and almost everyone recommended joining a church as soon as possible to show your “bona fides.”

    I really don’t know what the judge was thinking when he wrote:
    “PFC Aguayo did not identify any specific ways he has altered his behavior to accommodate his beliefs.”

    How does it work, really? Do you say, “YOu know what? I think killing people is WRONG. Therefore, I’m going to go to a big building for 3 hours every Sunday and listen to sermons and sing hymns, all the while making sure that I don’t kill anyone.”

    How about, instead of doing that, you say, “I think killing people is wrong, therefore I am going to apply for CO status and when it is denied, I am going to go AWOL and will go to military prison before I pick up a gun.”

    Refusing to kill people is a much better indicator of your views on killing people than singing hymns is.

    This is so infuriatingly stupid.

  • Justin jm

    Refusing to kill people is a much better indicator of your views on killing people than singing hymns is.

    This is so infuriatingly stupid.


    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

    I was confused by this passage. What is the “higher power” that Aguayo believes in if he’s an agnostic?

  • fifthoffive

    My brother got CO status during Vietnam because his vegetarianism is based in his belief that it is wrong to take any life. He had become a vegetarian in 9th grade and had witnesses to attest to his reason. Still follows this belief “religiously.” He is and was an atheist.

    We still argue over the fate of the poor potato.

  • Robbo

    I’ve been in uniform since 1986, so no surprise that I don’t have much sympathy for him, even though I’m an atheist.

    I am familiar with the CO process from trying to put together a package for a guy about 10 years ago. The fact is, it’s a volunteer force, he signed up, and he has to fulfill his end of the contract. To get out of that contract is a big deal, so yes, he needs some big proof. “Because that’s how I feel” isn’t really a lot of proof.

    Not only that, but if he was a medic then BY DEFINITION he is a non-combatant, just like chaplains. Medics carry weapons only for the purpose of defending themselves or their patients. I admit I can’t figure out the CO mindset, because it just seems like common sense to shoot back at someone shooting at you.

    In the end, the Army probably should have let him go, after he served his time for AWOL and missing movement. The captain, closest to him in the chain, probably had the best perspective. But the odds are against him and all CO requests, especially if you can’t point to some “conversion” that happened while in uniform. He was a humanist/agnostic before he went in, and then he became … humanist/agnostic???

    In reality his ‘beliefs’ are very human, and not extraordinary. The tragedy of war is that it irreparably harms all participants, dead or alive, wounded or unscathed, combatant or civilian. Modern military training is all about making individuals put aside those feelings at least long enough to carry out the mission given to us, ultimately, by our elected representatives, and on behalf of our countrymen. It is thoroughly natural to not want to kill someone, and to abhor the thought of taking a life. These feelings are widely held across humanity, including the military. I think that is one reason why it is so hard to convince others you are CO.

  • So, wait. First they complain that nontheists can’t have morals, because morals come from god. Then when a non-christian claims to have morals so strongly held that he wanted to break a contract, they simply clap their hands over their ears and refuse to listen?

    Robbo – Not everyone knows themselves perfectly well. It’s also possible for people to change due to circumstances. This guy thought he was up for something and then discovered he wasn’t. Isn’t it better he bows out now so they can put someone in his place who actually wants to be there?

  • If, for some reason, the draft were re-enacted (also assuming women were included in the draft pool), then I would file as CO and actually would use my vegetarianism as an example of why I think it’s wrong to take another life of any kind (and then I’d go to jail if they didn’t accept that). You don’t have to believe in a god to think that killing is wrong.

    I know people’s beliefs change over time, so I’m sure it’s feasible that Aguayo went into the military thinking one thing and his experience changed him. From this entry, it sounds like that’s what happened to him. It makes me think of the book, whose title is escaping me, about soldiers who refused to go to Iraq. Some of them were coerced into the Army under false pretenses by shady recruiters, while others were in the military before Iraq was on the table, and could not in good conscience follow through with it.

    I recognize that Aguayo did sign a contract, and the fact that we have a volunteer army makes his case more problematic than if we did have a draft. Still, I feel sorry for him, and wish he could have realized his position before joining the military.

  • inkadu

    In reality his ‘beliefs’ are very human, and not extraordinary.

    This is where it gets interesting. Religion often confirms what people already think. Hate gays? There’s a church for you. Want to help the poor? There’s another church for you. Why do we ascribe higher value to weakly held church-sponsored beliefs than fervently held individual beliefs?

    “Because that’s how I feel” isn’t really a lot of proof…

    How do you prove something like that? Short of a real-world demonstration of pacificism? If you’re religious, you can “demonstrate” your belief by sitting in a pew. If you’re an atheist you can’t.

    He was a humanist/agnostic before he went in, and then he became … humanist/agnostic???

    This is another relic of church thinking. Belonging to a church putatatively gives you a coherent set of beliefs you supposedly believe in. Individuals — even church-going ones — often have varying (and even self-conflicting) beliefs. People’s beliefs can change without changing their designation. As far as I know, agnosticism has no fixed system of beliefs.

    What is the “higher power” that Aguayo believes in if he’s an agnostic?

    Probably something abstract like moral law. Or maybe he’s just phrasing his beliefs in poetic, abstract language to be more platable to the religious. It’s a time-honored technique.

  • inkadu

    My brother got CO status during Vietnam because his vegetarianism is based in his belief that it is wrong to take any life.

    Did he have to prove that basis?

  • I was in the Marines, and I got lucky because I didn’t see any war time. The whole time I thought to myself, “I don’t want to have to kill anyone” because I know the people I would be killing are people just like me, have families, and at one point were an innocent baby that like myself was conditioned by their environment to be how they are and where they are, and it would be hard to justify killing these people over a war that even as a whole is more than likely unjustified itself.

    Somebody above said something to the effect of “kill or be killed.” But how I see it is two wrongs don’t make a right. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. The bloodshed will never end with this mentality. I am an atheist, and will I die for the sake of my moral values? Yes, If I think it will make the world a better place, if I can stop the chain of “an eye for an eye.”

    Why? Because I have been conditioned to believe that purpose is subjective, and if I am to do anything with my life, I will dedicate it to making other lives better, more peaceful. And I don’t want to take credit for it either, because I know I have been conditioned this way, “I” am out of my control. Making the world better, makes my life better, worth living.

    I sympathize with this guy, if somebody doesn’t want to kill, why should they be punished for this!? The religious military leaders want to force an atheist to kill and yet they have the audacity to claim that atheists don’t have moral values, and that moral values must come from religion. They are the ones forcing him to kill! What we learn about the religious here is that they are the ones trying to force people to kill, specifically in this case a person that has openly stated a moral objection to killing. And it doesn’t take being a member of religion to hold such values.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I was confused by this passage. What is the “higher power” that Aguayo believes in if he’s an agnostic?

    I noticed that as well. I don’t know Aguayo’s views, but I am reminded of George Smith’s distinction between belief & knowledge. Smith says that “atheist” and “agnostic” are answers to different questions.

  • fifthoffive

    inkadu –

    He had to write an defense of his position. I believe it was not so much why he believed it, more that he did, and had behaved accordingly. He had always told people that that was his reason for becoming a vegetarian. Several affidavits testified to that.

    As I recall, he did not have to justify it as being based in any religious tradition.

  • Beetle

    As a young adult, I successfully pursued an honorable discharge from NROTC as a conscientious objectors. There was no guile involved as I spent a year actively trying to reconcile Christian ideals with military service, and found the two simply incompatible.

    For a very long time after, I remained nonplussed that more Christians were not bothered by the contradiction. Twenty-some years later, continuing what became a rather passive search for spiritual truth, I have come to realize that I am an atheist. This particular manifestation of nominal Christian hypocrisy now seems so quaint!

    In the time since, I have often pondered how difficult it would have been to achieve CO status had I not been involved in a religious community. The irony of the situation is not lost on me, and I am saddened that my experience provides me no particular insight to the struggle that this man is facing.

  • 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.

    I think this quote by Karen Frantz quoting the military chaplain disturbs me the most.

    Anyone, and many, many do, fake a depth of belief with the “support” of background, family, or faith group.

    No, each person’s faith and beliefs must rest solely within their own thinking and personal values. Anything more is simply culture.

  • andrew


  • Curtis

    My initial reaction to Aguayo’s claim was very dismissive – he enlisted and when the going got tough he ran away.

    Then I read that he had already done one tour of duty in Iraq. I think he should have been able to quit the army for any reason. I respect his courage for fighting in a war and, IMO, he should be let out of his contract. I do not care whether he wanted out for moral reason or because he missed his mother’s cooking.

  • Erp

    I should point out that this quandary also applies to immigrants applying to become citizens. They have to take an oath (or affirmation) that they will defend the US with arms unless they are COs in which case they can omit that part of the oath (but they have to prove that status).

  • Crux Australis

    I work with a fundamental creationist/Christian…who used to be in the army. He is very staunch and tough, but I have yet to ask him how he could justify being trained to take someone else’s life. That sound you hear, is my irony gland rupturing.

  • So he’s a deist of some sort – are we going to damn him for not using the label we like? It’s not like “agnostic” still means what Huxley meant when he coined it.* It’s very possible for someone to join the army without realizing how they will react to combat. Maybe CO isn’t the best label, either, but if he means he won’t kill, he’ll probably get others in his unit killed.

    I recall a movie (The Lighthorsemen) in which a young Aussie soldier froze up under fire. The Brits in that war would have shot him for cowardice; the Aussies put him to driving an ambulance. Unarmed.

    Our fetishization of The Warrior is a symptom of a deep sickness, I think. Yes, we need soldiers, but do we need to worship them, and destroy those who don’t measure up?

    ps – I should probably say that I was in the army for ten years

    * Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of your intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

  • Anyway, the answer is, I think, yes. Conscience is not restricted to members of organized religions – or any theist, for that matter.

  • Ty

    I have to agree with the people who wonder why this guy never thought about this PRIOR to signing the contract.

  • Beetle

    Addressing the question, “Why didn’t you think of this before you signed up?” is very much a standard part of any CO application. That aspect of the case doesn’t strike me as particularly unique.

  • Chris Baskins

    Exactly people don’t always think about what will happen until they get there. Also being a Christian or muslim should mean nothing in this situation. All these religions mean is that you believe in a messiah not a god. If you don’t believe that Jesus is a messiah you are going to hell and if you don’t believe in Muhammed you are going to hell, these are not beliefs in god for only to believe that you have to pray through a man’s name to connect togod so lets skip this stuff and become agnostic and pray directly to god without letting a mortal get into the way. .

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