Continuing the saga of the American military and atheism. A test implemented last year as part of a wider resiliency and suicide-prevention programme, rates service members on the strength of their spiritual life. Sergeant Griffiths counts about 100 members in Fort Bragg’s atheist community but it is not recognized by the military as a distinctive faith group though it recognizes the three main religions plus Buddhism and Wiccan, a pagan religion. "It took me a year and a half to get my records changed to atheist,” he says. “When I told them I was atheist, they put 'no religious preference.' "I told them that's unacceptable. I do have a preference, and that's atheism. “These records are important,” he says, “because of the end-of-life services provided to soldiers who may have been wounded in war. I want them to know that I am an atheist: do not pray; do not do last rites; do not do any goofy ceremonies for me." Steven Hewett, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who describes himself agnostic, became the target of public scorn after he requested that a Christian flag be removed from a military monument in King, North Carolina. "I've been vilified as this individual that hates Christianity and hates Christians, and that's certainly not the case," says Mr. Hewett, who says that he's had to take out a restraining order against one of his neighbours, and that some religious leaders have encouraged him to leave town. After the city council voted to remove the flag, thousands of residents protested. "This community stands together to support the Christian flag. It stands for God, peace, love, purity and the blood of Jesus," one woman was quoted as saying in the Winston-Salem Journal. Because atheists so often fight to keep religion out of public property or government activities they are perceived as being anti-Christian. An article in Fox News resulted in an influx of hate mail and death threats.
"The army really is a microcosm of the entirety of our nation," says Benjamin Abel, a spokesman for Fort Bragg. "We serve the people, and we have an incredibly diverse population of people in the United States. Through history the military has generally been out in front of a lot of social issues. We integrated the military first, we just had the recent change of 'don't ask don't tell', [and] women have been integrated in the military for a long time. We're not out there as a force for social change, but we certainly don't shy from it," he says.
While Sergeant Griffith does not believe in God, he does believe in the military and plans to make his career in the service. A few months ago he re-enlisted for another five-year tour of duty,