Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
Victory! sort of…
To offer an insight into MAAF operations, the following article will put in perspective the collaborative efforts of MAAF. As listed on the site, MAAF is primarily about supporting and growing the community of atheists and humanists in the military. We spend less time pointing out problems in the military, which are numerous but often handled by other organizations. The challenges that occur with our collaborative niche strategy are twofold: First, military leaders have given MAAF a cold reception, providing limited encouragement or reciprocity for the outreach we’ve provided. This has inhibited our ability to build on initial successes with our collaborative approach. Second, the media is primarily interested in a controversy, especially the conservative media. There is a strong interest in accentuating terrible stories of direct abuse while ignoring the systematic failures that make atheists second-class citizens. Alternatively, conservative media commonly re-frame issues from Constitutional violations to Christian persecution. The unfortunate net effect of these two issues is that MAAF, and atheists in general, are only noticed when we have something to complain about.
Dear Muslims, we learned how to kill, and now we’ll learn why and who.
It is true that there are an almost infinite number of extremely troubling issues within the military. MAAF spends some time trying to address these problems because they promote and at least are symptoms of a culture not welcoming to atheists and humanists. Our efforts include complaints, for example, to the office of heraldry. One issue (see picture above) was with the Rapid Capabilities Office, an Air Force acquisitions activity that used the motto (in latin) “Doing God’s Work with Other People’s Money.” After several months of needling they opted to quietly change the logo to “Miracles With Other People’s Money.” This is a victory, but certainly nothing to write home about. A few phone calls and emails were worth the effort to coax these AF officials to exercise restraint in government endorsement of religious activities. So far, there has been no action on Bibles branded for military units. Pictured here is a Special Forces Bibles that would be a gold mine for Muslim insurgents recruiting against our forces, and that costs American lives. There is also the simple concern that these units, from a Constitutional perspective, may not slap their logo on a Bible because that is a government endorsement of religion. And just to be clear, troops can have any Bible they like, including camouflage, so long as the military isn’t authorizing its own logos to be printed on those Bibles. Government-branded religion is one of many issues that MAAF has presented for action to help the military to develop a command climate more accepting of all beliefs, including those of atheists and humanists.
The most obvious example of media focus on controversy was the recent Camp Pendleton Cross issue. MAAF covered this as the second of two stories in a Veteran’s Day recap of how military service is being co-opted to secure Christian privilege in government. Christians rushed to the defense of this cross, indicating that MAAF was part of a “radical secularist” effort to “crucify Christianity.” The effort to paint MAAF as disrespectful of military personnel never included reference to the honor we show to our own service members, our own military service, or our outreach to troops. Coverage rarely if ever even referenced our own follow-up coverage of the issue most likely because it addressed and resolved the perceived controversies.
Another good example is coverage of “atheist chaplains.” Media personnel seem to be quite interested in pitting chaplains, who are in the view of the media, representatives of religion, against atheists, who are, in the view of the media, hateful of religion. The MAAF Chaplain Outreach program is positive in nature, affirming the chaplaincy and providing support and assistance. One part of this program is an interest in humanist chaplains who happen not to believe in god but who would otherwise be fully equal members of what is currently a religiously-diverse chaplaincy performing primarily secular duties.
NPR recently diverted somewhat from this troubling trend, focusing instead on a positive story of our efforts to reach out to existing chaplains. From about 15 minutes of audio, they pulled out several quotes about our positive programs to support atheists and humanists. Media response? News follow-ups on the story focused almost exclusively on one quote about a military commander who ordered troops into prayer immediately prior to a convoy. Labelling the story “Atheist Leader Complains About U.S. Troops Praying Together Before Combat Mission,” CNS News deliberately misrepresented my position with their headline. MAAF supports the rights of troops to pray prior to combat missions, but opposes mandatory prayer ordered by commanders. These sorts of misrepresentations may boost ratings but do so at the expense of perpetuating negative stereotypes and inhibiting positive change in the military.
There should be more stories covering the community development, leadership education, and collaborative reform MAAF has engaged in. For over a year, we have worked closely with the AF Academy to develop training. We are negotiating with Diversity leaders in the Army to improve programs for diversity of belief. Over 20 local groups have formed around the world in response to MAAF efforts. The Rock Beyond Belief event, developed independently at Ft Bragg, is set to be a great event for military atheists. A letter sent to over 130 chaplain endorsers puts the message out to help them help us, if they choose. A replacement website fills the gaps as chaplains claim lack of resources and funding to fix their site. Care packages are sent around the world to support atheists in foxholes.
MAAF will continue to identify Constitutional violations and chaplain misconduct where appropriate. We will continue to focus on positive outreach to support our community. We will celebrate our victories and coordinate with our humanist partner organizations to strengthen our efforts. MAAF also asks for the support of its members to donate to achieve our vision of equal opportunity and respect for atheists and humanists in the US military. We also ask the media to focus on our collaborative stance without unduly biasing coverage toward controversy and away from the needs of the members of MAAF who serve honorably around the world.