An Army Survey Biased Against Foxhole Atheists December 22, 2010

An Army Survey Biased Against Foxhole Atheists

Sgt. Justin Griffith recently took a test called the Soldier Fitness Tracker (SFT) that would test his competency in four areas: Emotional, Social, Family, and Spiritual.

One of these things is not like the others…

Why is Spiritual on that list? Who knows…

Among the questions Justin had to answer on a scale of 1 (disagree) to 5 (agree):

— My life has a lasting meaning

I feel connected to a being that is greater than me I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world

— I’m a spiritual person

(The full spirituality part of the questionnaire can be seen here.)

Well, Justin answered honestly and got these results:

The red bar under spiritual isn’t a good thing…

A red bar means that you face some significant challenges in this area. This means that you should focus most of your attention on this area, though you should also note that placing too much emphasis here could result in other dimensions dropping. The key is to properly balance where you need the most development with the areas you are already doing well in.

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.

It seems like an atheist would have no chance being “spiritually fit” under this assessment. Even though there’s nothing at all wrong with not being religious — and atheists absolutely can feel connected to something “larger” and have meaning and purpose in their lives.

Ridiculous, right?

Rebecca Watson points out the possible consequences of all this:

I’d like to know how the army plans to use the results of this terribly worded survey. No one stepped from the shadows to strip Griffith of his rank, but he does mention that prior to seeing his scores he agreed to have his data included in an anonymous aggregation to be used in some undefined manner. He now worries that it will be used to increase funding to chaplains or in other ways meant to increase the spirituality of the troops.

There’s no evidence that’s happening yet, but the fact that this survey was approved by someone in power and soldiers are taking it as we speak worries me.

On a side note, Justin is trying to increase the visibility of atheists in the military with his Rock Beyond Belief event happening next year. You’ll hear more about that later, but it’s bound to be a huge event and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rob

    “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

    I realize that no one is likely to lose his job over doing poorly in the spiritual section of the test, but you don’t need to be a genius lawyer to recognize that the no religious test clause could be broadly interpreted to apply here. This is especially true if the results are negatively noted in his performance reports or promotion boards.

  • My word. To me that’s shocking. In my own life, I sort of always thought that I was an atheist. It wasn’t until a very tragic event in my life that confirmed this for me. I should preface all of this by saying that I think both of my patents are atheist, though my dad would never say it, my mom would. I was not raised religious, but I was also not influenced to be non-religious. I guess I had the freedom to choose type of upbringing.

    Five years ago I was driving on a country road. A dump truck was turning into a driveway at a gravel pit and drove right into the side of me. The short list of my most serious injuries is: C1 vertebra fractured, left occiput fractured, corotid artery tear, hypoglossal nerve damage, broken ribs, collapsed lung, fractured collar bone, declining laceration and fracture of left arm, major blood loss, and of course, traumatic brain injury. Many other issues have come forward as a result if my brain injury, things you wouldn’t even believe are related to a motor vehicle accident unless I gave a big speech explaining one thing then the other and so on.

    I spent sone time in a coma and months in hospital doing rehab. I still participate carry actively in rehab, every day, five years after my accident. I get asked very regularly if u feel like I have a “closer connection to God” because I was “so lucky” to live after such a serious accident. I stopped breathing for 7 or 8 minutes. When people ask me that question, I cringe. I cringe because I feel like honouring something that’s unknown with all of the hard work that I did, and continue to do, is a tremendous insult. I don’t walk today because of God, I walk today because I worked my ass off to do it. I don’t speak today because of God. I don’t read and write today because of God. I don’t eat by myself because of God. I do all of those things today because of my own determination and very hard work.

    Like I said, I always considered myself an atheist of sorts, but maybe I didn’t know why. Today I can say that my atheism came as a result of developing a very strong belief in myself. If I wanted anything in my life as I had it pre-accident, the strongest faith I needed was in myself.

  • “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.”

    To me, it seems that the people who created the test have yet to remove their training wheels.

    It is my opinion that this makes them unfit to test others, as well as unfit to serve. The Army needs ADULTS, not people who cling to their invisible friends and superstitions.

  • Richard Wade

    What absurdities. Having a sense of the bias that produced these vague and basically meaningless questions, I would have answered them with “agree” honestly by finding my own rationale:

    – My life will have a lasting meaning

    Yeah. Lasting a lot longer than my stint in the Army.
    – I feel connected to a being that is greater than me

    Of course. There’s General Quackadoodle (or whoever) our commander, and there’s the Army. I’m connected to it, and its a lot bigger than me.
    – I’m a very spiritual person


    I’d get a much better evaluation with a clean conscience.

  • Prof. K

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of those as inherently religious questions… well, except for the last, that is.
    A soldier should feel that his life will have lasting meaning – by his action, he shapes the future more surely than 90% of civilians.
    And for felling connected to something larger than himself?
    He’s a part of the army, thousands of people working together with one purpose.

  • Nick

    I took that survey about a month before I got out of the Army. I knew what was going on. I showed all my buddies the results laughing hysterically that the top three bars were good and the bottom (spiritual) was almost zero. They were amused, but I’m sure the mental health “professionals” who this go to were not. I could go on and on about the Armys bias against atheists. Like the time a First Sergeant yelled at me for sitting during an invocation at an official government function. Next thing ya know my First Sergeant was yelling at me for telling off an E-8. I let him know she was wrong and the invocation was illegal and I was being nice not taking it further, but that stuff happens aplenty. I knew I was getting out so I just brushed off my shoulder.

  • As an atheist, I can absolutely see myself as part of something greater than me, but that’s not what the test asks. The word there is “a being”.

    To me this test shows something I observe in most tests, technical or statistical or evaluations: They only want the answers they expect, and sometimes (often) that can mean they rule out a lot of good, correct answers as being wrong.

  • S-Y

    “You godless heathens! Without God, who is going to stop you from being unfit to serve and even betraying your country! Who would stop you from going psycho and killing everyone?”

    That’s probably their “reasoning”… The U.S. military has long had a tradition of putting the non-religious in awkward, uncomfortable, or other such situations.

    “Spiritual” is also a pretty subjective term in itself. One may have many characteristics in their personality considered to be spiritual, but in the end recognize that we are simply just talking mammals with “baseball caps and automatic weapons.”

    If they only re-worded the second question from “a being” to “someone or something”, they could’ve easily avoided making the whole thing so loaded. Obviously this is one of those things put together by questionable people with questionable motives, to say the least.

  • Leslie

    Prof K, Did you know women could be soldiers too these days?? ;D

  • Tom

    I’m disturbed, but sadly unsurprised, that part of their idea of “spiritual fitness” could, in practical terms, be boiled down to “never being introspective or questioning oneself.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I can see something of a downside in having soldiers who might suddenly muse along the lines of “do I really have the right to do this? How can I be sure I’m right? What does right even mean?” seconds before pulling a trigger.

    The trouble is, I can also see a big freaking downside of having soldiers whose only brief forays into deep reflection come up with little other than “God is on our side, ergo we can only be the good guys. Doubt? What’s that?”

    Doubt and perplexity are an integral part of human life. How drab and pointless would existence be without any mystery or challenge in the universe? How mind-crushingly dull would life seem if everything were cut and dried from birth to death? (as a sideline of this train of thought, how unbearable must it be for a god to be omniscient and omnipotent?) One should relish a little doubt and uncertainty, embrace it as a challenge, not treat it as something to be ignored or suppressed utterly. Besides, loudly telling yourself that you have the answer to everything, when even the most superficial examination invariably shows this to be patently false, is is just stupid.

    Furthermore, right now the US is allegedly at war with terrorism. Though not usually precisely specified, the primary opponents are fanatical religious extremists, and practically their defining characteristic is that they have no self doubt whatsoever, and would likely all get near perfect scores on this test for “spiritual fitness.” Indeed, so sure are they that they’ve got the universe all figured out that they wish to force us all live in a world with them where nobody is allowed to have doubts or be unsure about their place in reality either. “My life will have a lasting meaning,” “I feel connected to a being that is greater than me,” and “I’m a very spiritual person” may all sound very wholesome, but ask yourself if any of these would seem at all incongruous if they were affirmed by a suicide bomber.

    In other words, you’re actually fighting, or should be, amongst other things, for the very right to be spiritually weak, doubtful or undecided; in light of this, having a test for “spiritual fitness” in serving personnel, and moreover one that plainly seems to assume a lack of it is undesirable, seems inappropriate and inconsistent, to say the least.

  • Enough has been said about the military of today, but I just wanted to add that the U.S. military of today is not the military that I was in back in the 1980’s. Hopefully, what has recently been made can be unmade as our voices become heard (and understood) more and more with time.
    @Tooks – Thanks for sharing your touching and inspiring personal experience. Made my day.

  • You may question your beliefs, principles, and values.

    OHHH NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Anything but thinking about why you believe and value what you do!

  • Marty

    I spent 20+ years in the Army Reserve and was proselytized to many times. I was once asked if I had taken jebus as my personal savior by a commanding officer, a devout mormon. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. Congrats to Nick for sitting out an invocation. I never had the nerve to do that.

  • TychaBrahe

    Other than the concept of a “being” greater than oneself, I see nothing wrong with these questions, which are straight out of the MMPD, by the way.

    I bet Carl Sagan would have scored high on the spirituality test. This was, after all, a man who felt connected to the Universe (“Every atom in our bodies was created in the heart of a star. We are made of star stuff.”) and felt a compelling connection to mankind. The Voyager record and the Pioneer plaque are symptoms of a man who had faith in the irrepressible nature of intelligence everywhere.

  • I would confiscate that “survey” as evidence of a state/church violation.

  • Godless Lawyer

    I would suggest that someone immediately make a freedom of information request to obtain the aggregate results of the survey.I’d do it, but I imagine you have to be a US National.

  • Randy

    Well it makes sense in way, wanting religious soldiers over non. If you have someone who truely believes that heaven awaits they may well be more willing to jump out of the foxhole.

  • I suspect the desire to have soldiers be religious is one motivated, not by religious piety at the highest levels, but by cold calculation. Someone, somewhere, believes that religious soldiers serve with more unquestioning verve and vigor than non-religious soldiers. Atheists and Gays are undesirable because they are more likely to have developed their own thoughts and opinions on the world independant of what the military tells them to think and believe.

  • There you go! Randy and I were having the same thought at the same time.

  • Silent Service

    We get this same crap in the Air Force. Our “Four Dimensions of Wellness” bullshit includes Spiritual Wellness. It’s meant as a way to judge somebody’s emotional stability but is really used as a prod to acknowledge people’s religious faith.

  • Wasn’t the flap over the forced attendance of the Christian rock concert related to the commander’s goal of increasing the “spiritual fitness” of the soldiers? This is probably just another step in Fundamentalists’ attempts to convert our military into a Christian spiritual force.

  • Why is Spiritual on that list?

    Um, for the same reason the connected to a larger being is. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re engaged in a holy war. Yeah, I know. It’s about oil too but it’s also Christian vs. Muslim.

    There’s a reason that MRFF exists. This country is becoming more and more Christian and wants its soldiers to be.

    I will point to the elephant in the room, damnit.

  • AnonymousSM

    To give people some background, that comes from a program called “Composite Soldier Fitness (CSF),” and the assessment was the “Global Assessment Tool (GAT)” that everyone had to take. Composite Soldier Fitness is the new program the Army developed in response to the rash of suicides in the force and aims to build resiliency in the force (i.e. the ability to bounce back from minor or major challenges without resorting to suicide). The program is in its infancy and so while not perfect, I do applaud their effort to do something and keep trying. A majority of the force is spiritual and if someone turning to that keeps them from killing themselves then I’m OK with the biased questions. The GAT isn’t reported or used with anything else, just for personal use. Nothing I have seen ever links it to a person. The GAT is also one key in CSF which also includes increasing family time, etc. Again, I’m an atheist in a foxhole, and while it could be formated better (i.e. have question logic where you can answer that you’re not spiritual and drop those questions), I, overall, don’t have too many problems with it.

  • Sean Santos

    I know of at least one soldier who dealt with CSF by contacting the chaplains on base and asking them to stock atheist “spiritual” books along with all the other spiritual books. That’s an improvement, but it doesn’t address the key problems, such as that these are good qualities to many atheists:

    You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles, and values.

    Another problem is that some people who are apathetic Christians might be pressured into feeling deficient for not thinking about God enough. The military shouldn’t be pressuring or guilting people into becoming more devout religionists.

    I’m also very interested in what specifically they suggest to “improve” your spiritual fitness. It could be meaningless platitudes, or it could be a big problem.

  • Kyle Marquis

    “At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and others around you.”

    Anyone sitting under a pile of rocks outside Kabul with bullets zipping over his head who suddenly makes sense of what is happening would immediately and irrevocably lose his Goddamn mind. I think we ought to discourage satori moments from our infantry, unless we want a bunch of people who aren’t qualified to kill commies for Christ anymore.

  • Nerdette

    My husband was a First Lieutenant when he took his SFT (he has since “separated” from the military) – he called me shortly after to laugh about his low Spirituality score. While I pressed him at the time to report it as biased against atheists, he shrugged it off as not worth the trouble. However, he did mention that one of the purposes of the survey was to look for soldiers at risk of suicide, so the military can have a better grasp at those suffering from PTSD. Not that we’ve seen any improvement in that regard…

  • Jon Peterson

    I was given a test including those very same questions (word for word) as part of psychological testing when I was a teenager. As a result, I was diagnosed as bipolar. When this diagnosis resulted in some significant complications later in life, I approached another psychologist about getting re-tested, and upon conclusion of the test I clarified that I had responded to those questions in that way because I was an atheist, and that my atheism has not led to any negative emotions or sensations, so those questions were not only irrelevant to the testing in my case, but possibly leading toward a negative biased conclusion that would have a harmful impact on my career.

    The conclusion at that point was that I had indeed never actually qualified as bipolar and the original assessment had produced a gross mis-diagnosis. As I have subsequently learned though, the relevant test blocks (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Third Edition [WAIS-III)], Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – 2 [MMPI-2], Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory – III [MCMI-III], and Beck Depression Inventory – II [BDI-II]) are all considered standards, and used across the country for testing mental and emotional health. Additionally, a subsequent test where I answered falsely (the way the test feels is positive) to these questions showed that these questions were weighted more heavily than others for the results.

    This is really something that needs to be addressed by someone like the FRFF, who has the resources to effect positive change. These questions to not necessarily evoke responses that are truly indicative of an individual’s mental or emotional health, and their use in standardized testing creates a bias towards mental disorder diagnoses among atheists.

  • the m00ch

    When your job entails extinguishing life, I should imagine that spirituality would be the least of your concerns.

  • farmerbb

    IF repeat IF the purpose of the survey was to help identify those members of the armed forces at risk of committing suicide, are there enough data points (sorry to sound so callous) that some sort of correlation could be made ? From no knowledge at all, I wonder if the less-spiritual are less-well represented ? I seem to remember reading that some people who lose their faith as adults tend to have it collapse rather suddenly. Could this be a warning sign ?

  • Seriocomix

    @Kyle Marquis: I don’t think that the goal is satori, but the continued avoidance of it.

    Close proximity to military action-and military minds-is far more likely to lead one to suicide than the absence of single or multiple imaginary friends. It is an Orwellian, perverted concept that the military is qualified to assess anyone’s “spirituality”.

    The recent Jason Leopold article at Truthout- gives much-needed detail about the people who have sold CSF to the Army — and some handy torture techniques to Gitmo. It seems far more a tool to squeeze a hyper-performance level out of the troops than to bring peace to their lives. A whole system of “Positive Psychology” (soft, catchy name, eh?) that allows you to visualize only success, and makes running away from possible bad outcomes just unnecessary.

    While the military is by its nature a dogmatic and herd-instinctive culture, such mind-mashing appears to put way more at risk than just the freedom-from-religion of those who serve.

error: Content is protected !!