Human beings have been making war as they pray to their gods since the dawn of time. The two activities seem to reinforce one another and draw on our species' most primitive instincts.
I associate war prayers with primitive, tribal cultures and manipulative leaders. Osama bin Laden comes to mind. So does Sen. Jim DeMint.
South Carolina's junior senator recently proposed that June 6 be recognized as a National Day of Prayer for America's military personnel. The idea of praying for our troops while we fail to give them funding for armored combat vehicles, medical care, and veteran's benefits sounds like something this pietistic and supercilious administration would do.
Creating such a Day of Prayer would perpetuate the myth that all people who risk their lives in service to our nation share DeMint's religious beliefs. His proposal that a prayer with references to God and Lord be read aloud in Congress every June 6 falsely assumes that all military personnel and their families believe in some god.
The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (www.maaf.info) takes issue with this arrogant assumption. "Nontheistic service members serve honorably throughout the world — always have; always will," according to the MAAF website. Whoever said there are no atheists in foxholes — and it sounds like something a politician would say — clearly knew little about atheists or foxholes. That would describe Jim DeMint, whose religion appears skin deep and who never served in the military.
According to a 2004 report in Population Bulletin, 20 percent of U.S. military personnel identify themselves as atheist or nonreligious — about twice the rate as the general population. And they have done it in a culture of religiosity, hypocrisy, and pious bombast. DeMint's resolution ignores the 280,000 soldiers, sailors, pilots, and marines who declare themselves nonreligious. But I suspect the senator's resolution is more about politics than about providing comfort and support to our men and women in uniform.
The most famous atheist in the military in recent years was Pat Tillman. After watching the carnage of 9/11 this patriot walked away from a multimillion-dollar professional football career to put on the uniform of an Army Ranger. He was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004 and posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, there was much preaching and public lament over Tillman's heroic death. It took months of digging by his family before the truth came out — that Tillman was killed by friendly fire and the posthumous medal was part of the cover-up. Then something even more shocking was revealed — that Tillman (with the other members of his family) was a nonbeliever. His brother objected to the presence of chaplains and prayers during a repatriation ceremony in Germany before Tillman's body was returned to the United States.
As Tillman's family pressed harder for answers about Pat's death, the Army struck back, explaining the family's anger as a result of their atheism. In an interview last year with espn.com, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich said this: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."
Thank you, colonel. What a sensitive, Christian expression of condolences. It apparently never occurred to Kauzlarich that the family's anger might be the result of the battlefield bungling that killed Pat and the bureaucratic cover-up that kept them from learning the truth.
In media coverage of Tillman's memorial service, Sen. John McCain and celebrity journalist Maria Shriver were quoted extensively. But the remarks of Tillman's younger brother, Richard, went largely unreported: "Just make no mistake, he'd want me to say this," Richard Tillman said. "He's not with God. He's fucking dead. He's not religious. So, thanks for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead."
The broadcast media probably justified their decision not to carry the brother's words due to the strong language. Yet they have been bleeping expletives from tape for years — just not expletives about religion.
And the cover-up goes on. Much of the material in this column was written to the Post and Courier as a letter to the editor by Charleston's favorite atheist, Herb Silverman. Needless to say, it was not published.
I called editor Barbara Williams for an explanation but got not response. Apparently, there are some things the public is better off not knowing.