Atheist Leader Complains About U.S. Troops Praying Together Before Combat Mission

December 5, 2011 - 8:18 PM

Jason Torpy, Military Atheists and Freethinkers

Jason Torpy, president Military Atheists and FreeThinkers. (Photo courtesy MAAF and West Point)

(CNSNews.com) - The man pushing to get the military to install “atheist chaplains” in the armed forces told government-subsidized National Public Radio that military officers should not be praying with their men before going out on missions.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Atheists and Free Thinkers Association, told “All Things Considered” over the weekend about an incident in 2003 or 2004, in which his commander gathered his team together to pray before the Army unit deployed -- rather than make preparations for the mission.

NPR: Can you give some examples of where as an atheist, as a humanist, you felt left out?

TORPY: Going on a military mission, for example, we were getting ready to roll out. And ‘Everybody come in.’ So as the commander of this convoy (said), ‘Everybody come in and we’re going to do a prayer first together.’ We’re not going to talk about communications, we’re not going to talk about route planning, we’re not going to talk about first aid, we’re not going to talk about maintenance.

TOPRY: So I had to opt myself out of that situation, to ‘out’ myself because this commander took it upon himself to have a personal religious activity in the midst of a military mission.

NPR: You didn’t participate?

TOPRY: No.

NPR: How did you walk away from that?

TORPY: Well, as a captain, there’s a lot fewer people that can tell me what to do. Now the person that was in command was a major so I was still stepping outside – he was extremely unhappy about it. He said. “Why are you creating trouble?” And I said, “Why are you creating trouble? Why are you excluding me from this activity? This is a military mission, and I support your right to pray, but right this second we have a military mission, and for to use your power to pull everyone in to do a Christian prayer is wrong.”

In the remainder of the interview, Torpy told NPR that chaplains in the military today do not "minister" to troops. but carry out secular "support" roles -- and that atheist chaplains are needed to support humanist soldiers.

CNSNews.com contacted Torpy about the incident he described, which he said occurred in Iraq when he was with the Army's 1st Armored Division.

However, the atheist/humanist admitted that his unit did indeed make preparations before the mission occurred – but he said the prayer “threw everything off.”

“There was preparation that happened, but it really distracted – what he did at that point in time really distracted from the flow of the mission and the preparation for the mission,” Torpy told CNSNews.com. “It was a critical time that could have better spent focused on other areas.”

When asked if the fact that there was prayer at all was what he found most objectionable, Torpy told CNSNews.com: “Well, it was the assumption on the part of the military officer that was in charge of me for that time that everybody was Christian and this his role as the commander--he could use his power to impose his personal religion on the unit,” Torpy said.

“So that was one issue--he was imposing his power--kind of forcing me into a Christian prayer. And that is not part of his mandate.”

Torpy said his commander was “dishonoring” his command by praying, which he said was a "religious wedge."

“I was being excluded from the team; put in a bad position that made it more difficult to be a part of that military team--he was putting that religious wedge, which was bad for the team in general. So he was sort of dishonoring his military command which was putting a wedge in the team, and for the purpose of that mission, he was distracting from the main point at a critical time,” Torpy told CNSNews.com.

He reiterated that there were “a lot of things we could have been doing at the time” besides prayer.

“There’s a lot better time that people can engage in prayer--and at that particular point, emphasizing the purposes of the mission, the preparation for the mission and the important focuses to ensure the success of that mission from a military perspective--from a command perspective--is what he should have been doing. And he chose instead to put his personal religious practices.

In Torpy’s view, the First Amendment always prohibits military officers from “imposing” their religion on the job.

“The First Amendment has two clauses that balance each other out. The Establishment ensures that the government--and officials acting on behalf of the government, like military officers--don’t let their personal religious beliefs interfere with their authority with the government; they don’t use the power of the government to privilege or prioritize, or to force their religion on others,” he said.

“But the free exercise clause makes it clear that individuals acting privately – even if they are acting privately in a public space – have the opportunity to be true to their conscience and do religious practices according to their wishes.”