An Interview With Jason Torpy
President, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
Jason enlisted in the Army in 1994 as an Intelligence Interceptor. After earning top graduate honors from two intelligence training programs, Jason was offered direct admission to the United States Military Academy. Upon graduation, Jason was commissioned and served for five years in Germany, Kuwait, and Iraq with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. Jason left the service in 2005 at the rank of Captain.
Jason has been active with the nontheist community since entering the military. He has addressed issues of separation of church and state and equal opportunity for nonreligious service members in Army basic training, Army parachutist training, military academy programs, and in combat situations. Jason has served as President of MAAF since 2000 and continues to support the military community in his civilian status. Jason earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Management from West Point and Master of Business Administration from The Ohio State University.
Background Information: The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) was founded by Army Master Sergeant Kathleen Johnson (currently on deployment in Iraq) and now boasts members in 15 countries, 45 states, and over 100 military installations and ships. Johnson now serves as the Military Advisor for American Atheists.
In various interviews about her experiences in the Army, Johnson commented on being forced to “keep her head down,” because of intolerance toward atheism and atheists by her commanding officers. MAAF now tracks such discrimination, and has issued action alerts on various matters, including a “water scheme” conducted by Army chaplain Josh Llano, who gave bathing water to U.S. troops only on the condition that they would listen to his 90-minute sermons. You can read about Llano here.
In August 2007, Johnson reported on the interruption of a MAAF event in Iraq by a fundamentalist Christian Major who berated and humiliated attendees, and warned them that they would be punished. You can read Johnson’s report here.
Another atheist soldier, Jeremy Hall, has been threatened with “fragging” (being killed by “friendly fire,” as was football star and Corporal of the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan Pat Tillman). Read about Hall’s case here, including a lawsuit in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates figures as a defendant.
Along with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, founded by Michael Wienstein, MAAF is a watchdog group, protecting the Constitutional guarantees for religious freedom (and freedom from religion) among U.S. military forces. MAAF is also affiliated with The Secular Coalition for America (SCA), and you can find a joint statement by Jason Torpy and Herb Silverman (President of SCA) here.
Q: Jason, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview for The Eloquent Atheist. For our readers who are unfamiliar with MAAF (Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers) briefly describe how the organization began, and why you became so invested in it.
A: The organization began as a listserv in 1997. I took over in order to make MAAF a more active member organization. Today, MAAF is a 501c3 nonprofit with nearly 1000 members around the world. More importantly, we have created close relationships with nearly every major nontheist organization as well as local groups around the country. I have been invested as a result of my own military experiences and the reports I receive from active duty members every day. There is a need for a nontheist community support organization like MAAF because the current military leadership is not meeting the need.
Q: MAAF was certainly a presence at the Atheists in Foxholes event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by American Atheists on Veterans Day, 2005, where you spoke along with Warren Allen Smith (Who’s Who in Hell), Jim Heldberg (founder of San Francisco Atheists), and several other eloquent individuals. For all of these speeches, click here.
At the event, you expressed a concern regarding military chaplains, saying the following: “Chaplains are considered unconstitutional by many of us because they serve as a government promotion of religion. What we must do is make them live up to their mandate to support ALL service members, including atheists.”
What progress has been made on this concern? One project mentioned on MAAF’s web site is finding Humanist celebrants for nonreligious military members. What is the status of that project?
A: AA (American Atheists) organized an excellent event and they have continued to be supportive of MAAF. As a community support organization, we have continued to reach out to chaplains, both directly and through our Chaplain Outreach program. One highlight of our progress is the minimum statement of support, which states that chaplains shall provide the same support to nontheists that they do all service members. [You can read the full statement here.]
We have also reached out to the civilian chaplains such as the Harvard Chaplaincy and Humanists and those with more of a military focus such as the UU Military Ministry. As we build our policy statements and chaplain partners, MAAF members and other organizations will have more resources to reach out to military chaplains and change military policy.
Q: MAAF works closely, it seems, with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), headed by Michael Weinstein who, like you, is a veteran. There was law suit filed in September, 2007, by MRFF, on behalf of an atheist soldier who was harassed for trying to organize a MAAF chapter. Kathleen Johnson had sent out a report, via email, about this matter in August 2007 for the widest distribution possible. What can you tell us about this matter?
A: Yes, Jeremy Hall started the MAAF Iraq Chapter. After organizing, he was harassed by a senior officer. After Jeremy coordinated with MAAF, we referred the issue to MRFF. Although the acronyms are similar only by coincidence, MAAF and MRFF have worked closely on a number of issues and will continue to do so. MAAF builds community, but MRFF has the legal and financial power to provide the best support.
The details of that incident as well as the name of the officer and his myspace page have passed into public record. However, we have not come to the end of Mikey Weinstein’s lawsuit, in which Jeremy is the plaintiff. Jeremy is in transit to the States right now. Apparently the insurgents in Iraq aren’t too dangerous, but the evangelists are too dangerous. Stay tuned.
Q: Michael Weinstein was recently interviewed by Dan Rather on HDNet regarding the evangelizing of our armed forces by Christian activists. [View the interview here] Throughout the interview, the topic of “Dominionism” came up several times. “Dominionism” is, of course, the goal of crusading for Christianity on a global scale. What are your thoughts on this matter? How pervasive is this ideology among today’s military leaders?
A: Mikey has laid out the issue of Dominionism well enough. As you say, there are some who consider the highest form of Christianity to be global theocracy. More specifically, the goal is for the US to lead that charge. In addition, the military is a proving ground for that experiment.
Although I will not speculate as to the proportion of officers trying to further this goal, I will say that every report of discrimination is evidence of this problem. We also find evidence from systematic preference for religion in prayers at meetings, military formations, and every day over ship’s loudspeakers. The list goes on.
Another example is the common assertion that proselytism is a requirement of Christianity, and that evangelism is acceptable, even required, when you are in uniform. Because this is a ‘requirement’ of Christianity, it is acceptable in uniform, as is the wearing of religious symbols. There is, however, a clear conflict between Christian proselytism and the fair execution of one’s military duties. The Dominionists can be identified by this argument [their zealotry in proselytizing] as well.
Q: What are your thoughts about Pat Tillman? His story seems to have dropped off the radar screen, in the corporate media. Are you aware of any progress regarding the investigation into his death and the cover-up?
A: We in the nontheist community see his example as the highest form of patriotism. He abandoned his livelihood and his life’s work, football, for what he felt was a higher authority – service to his country. He was also clearly an atheist, to his last words. MAAF and a number of other nontheist organizations have reached out to his family, to recognize his service through his family. They have continued to protect their privacy, and we respect that. However, we are here whenever they want support.
The cover up of the circumstances of his death is also a matter of record. The Christian zealotry of investigator LTC Kauzlarich and the lack of punishment doled out by military leadership is something that warrants further investigation.
[You can read about Tillman and the circumstances surrounding his death here.]
Q: Tell us something about yourself. Why did you join the military? What are your hopes for this wonderful country of ours, regarding the proper role of its military forces? How badly has the military been depleted by the Iraq campaign?
A: I am from Ohio originally and now live in Boston, MA. I enlisted at 18 in the Intelligence Corps. I then spent 4 years at West Point and the next 5 years with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. I spent over a year in Iraq and left the military as a Captain. I speak separately regarding our military and our role in Iraq, but as president of MAAF I maintain a role strictly to support nontheists wherever the military takes them.
One status of our military is that commanders at various levels, if not at the highest levels, see the US military as a representative of Christian might and use our service members to that end. Not surprisingly, our former partners, not just in Europe but around the world, see those leaders and wonder what the United States is truly about. Until we can refocus the United States and our military on the ideals of Liberty and Personal Responsibility upon which this nation has thrived in the past, we will continue to be one nation divided by religion, and we will continue to alienate the rest of the world, especially those parts of the world that have non-Christian religious views.
Q: What plans are in the works, by MAAF and other atheist/freethinking organizations working in tandem with MAAF, for Veterans Day 2007? How can our readers become involved with these activities?
A: We do not have events built specifically for this Veteran’s Day; however, MAAF is holding a fundraising dinner in Washington, D.C. on November 8th and there is a Great American God-Out in New York City on November 15th. In addition to these activities, MAAF has partnered with Operation Foxhole Atheists for support of overseas service members and will be publishing a new letter to members promoting the importance of community in the upcoming ‘nativity scene’ season. Veterans Administration hospitals and military posts everywhere are about to be inundated with public displays of religion. This also applies to our state capitols and public parks and gardens. Get on the planning committee and make sure that the displays are for all of us, not focused purely on the personal religious traditions of the organizers and unit leaders.