Can Atheists qualify as Conscientious Objectors?

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Discussion by: whiteraven

Conscientious Objector status is not a trivial exemption to obtain. How can Atheists (etc.)  have a fair chance at achieving it if the general attitude is that without a belief in god, one has no basis for morality?

Most of us may have forgotten about it but it turns out the USA still has a Selective Service Agency (www.sss.gov), Not only that …

“Almost all male U.S. citizens, and male aliens living in the U.S., who are 18 through 25, are required to register … ” and “In a crisis requiring a draft, men would be called … examined for mental, physical and moral fitness … before being deferred or exempted from military service or inducted into the Armed Forces”. (http://www.sss.gov/FSwho.htm)

Who takes this very seriously? Probably no one. But then there were a lot of National Guard reservists who never really expected they’d be called up for an indeterminate period of  active duty after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attack.

Given all the craziness, uncertainty, instability and conflicts in the world – changes in economic and military balances of power, climatic changes, natural resource constraints, etc., it struck me that thinking about Conscientious Objection was reasonable and realistic.

“WHO QUALIFIES? Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.” (http://www.sss.gov/FSconsobj.htm )

I am particularly interested in what additional problems confront Atheists, Secular Humanists, and others who don’t have any religious foundation at all to support conscientious objector status. Being a Christian in and off itself  is not good enough in spite of the commandment “thou shall not kill”. I don’t know if Christians have to take some sort of oath about this. In practice, the majority of Christians have treated it as good advice that goes out the door when the opportunity for a good war comes along. In the case of Buddhism, one may take vows to abstain from taking life (formulated in various ways).in addition to others. Maybe having trapped a mouse or swatted a fly will be counted as a disqualification.

It would be really interesting to hear from someone – a draftee, selective service board member, … - who had experience with conscientious objection in the time up to 1972 when the last draft effectively ended. 

21 COMMENTS

  1. I agree that atheists should qualify for conscientious objector status but frankly I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a CO in today’s US military. Its all volunteer, no one is drafted so if you volunteer I don’t see how you can then turn around and say “well yeah I volunteered to be in the military but not for this fight”. If you object to most of the ways the US has used its military for since the end of WWII and think those uses haven’t been justified I’m right there with you but if you feel that way why the heck would you ever volunteer for the military in the first place?

    • In reply to #1 by Red Dog: Your observation is valid; however, I was posing this as a hypothetical question. Nothing prevents the institution of a draft, all that’s needed is “a crisis requiring a draft”. Given the right conjunction of events and politics, a wave of the magic wand can make it so.

      I agree that atheists should qualify for conscientious objector status but frankly I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a CO in today’s US military. Its all volunteer, no one is drafted so if you volunteer I don’t see how you can then turn around and say “well yeah I volunteered to be in the military but not for this fight”. If you object to most of the ways the US has used its military for since the end of WWII and think those uses haven’t been justified I’m right there with you but if you feel that way why the heck would you ever volunteer for the military in the first place?

  2. There’s an irony here we could easily miss. Males will be assessed for moral fitness. The US army has in recent years had all sorts of “spiritual fitness” tests that are basically ways of saying if you’re not religious they don’t like you. So even if atheists can’t conscientiously object their way out of the Army, the Army doesn’t really want them anyway.

    • In reply to #2 by Jos Gibbons:

      There’s an irony here we could easily miss. Males will be assessed for moral fitness. The US army has in recent years had all sorts of “spiritual fitness” tests that are basically ways of saying if you’re not religious they don’t like you. So even if atheists can’t conscientiously object their way out of the Army, the Army doesn’t really want them anyway.

      I’m sure if another situation arose that required compulsory drafting they’d soon devise a spiritual fitness test that identified specific ‘spiritual’ leanings that made for good cannon fodder

  3. During the Vietnam draft, the understood if unwritten rule for conscientious objector status was that you had to be a Quaker of long standing. As an atheist conscientious objector without a prayer :) , I just hid out in the mountains until the world was safe from Nixon (a Quaker, by the way). I came down later and served in the Army, ironically teaching my draft-dodging skills of winter mountain survival to Army Rangers. When signing up, I was asked my religious affiliation. I replied, “None — lifelong atheist”. That wasn’t an acceptable category, so when pressed I said, “OK then, Paiute”. This was something of an inside joke — in American prisons, adherents to the Native American Paiute ‘religion’ are allowed to participate in peyote ceremonies. That didn’t wash either, so under religion my dog tags read “No Preference”. This meant that, in the event of my death or its imminence, any religious rites deemed convenient could be practiced. I wonder if that could have included emergency baptism and, if so, would waterboarding have qualified?

    }}}}

  4. In time of war it is the religious that should be debarred from conscientious objector status, death being a mere gear change in eternity.

    We know the lethal harm we may do doesn’t get kissed better.

    • I’ve wondered about the strange cozy relationship between religion and war. I think that it may have something to do with at least one of religion’s social ‘benefits’, which is knowing in whom to trust. And no, I don’t mean God — I mean fellow humans who are easily recognizable by their willingness to ascribe to strange ideas. Most obvious is circumcision; man, if he’ll do something that damn crazy he must be a true believer! And it shades off to other beliefs & less obvious actions like mode of dress & grooming and certain code phrases inserted into public speech. Key to effectiveness is that such presentations must be hard to fake. Even I could go shout “Praise the Lawd!”, and get a smattering of applause, but so could anyone bent on deception. But if I could show that I’ve given 10% of my income to the church for 20 years, well that’s some credibility. And the more patently ridiculous beliefs espoused the ‘better’. If I was in an al Qaeda cell and confided that I wasn’t all that sure about the whole 72 virgins thing, I probably wouldn’t be trusted. It’s the very willingness to demonstrate adherence to absurdity at high personal cost that makes religious action a key indicator of status within a tribe, and the US military, like most militaries, is nothing if not tribal.

      }}}}

      • In reply to #8 by Ted Foureagles:

        Most obvious is circumcision; man, if he’ll do something that damn crazy he must be a true believer!

        Nope, not obvious at all. You’ll never guess big man, but the Israeli army is full to the gunwales with circumcised males.

        Because the ‘he’ in question does nothing, crazy or otherwise. Male children of the Jewish tradition don’t get a say in the matter. The ‘Brit Milah’ is performed when the unwary infant is merely 8 days old.

        Anyway, just an observation.

      • I can’t recall where saw it but just recently I came across something comparing (unfavorably) the western Quakers that Nixon came out of with, oh maybe it was the eastern variety. I thought I might find something about it in wikipedia but it lists so many varieties I haven’t got the appetite to digest it. As for Nixon, they’ve got to be ashamed of him. He should have been executed as a traitor. In reply to #8 by Ted Foureagles:

        I’ve wondered about the strange cozy relationship between religion and war. I think that it may have something to do with at least one of religion’s social ‘benefits’, which is knowing in whom to trust. And no, I don’t mean God — I mean fellow humans who are easily recognizable by their willingness to ascribe to strange ideas. Most obvious is circumcision; man, if he’ll do something that damn crazy he must be a true believer! And it shades off to other beliefs & less obvious actions like mode of dress & grooming and certain code phrases inserted into public speech. Key to effectiveness is that such presentations must be hard to fake. Even I could go shout “Praise the Lawd!”, and get a smattering of applause, but so could anyone bent on deception. But if I could show that I’ve given 10% of my income to the church for 20 years, well that’s some credibility. And the more patently ridiculous beliefs espoused the ‘better’. If I was in an al Qaeda cell and confided that I wasn’t all that sure about the whole 72 virgins thing, I probably wouldn’t be trusted. It’s the very willingness to demonstrate adherence to absurdity at high personal cost that makes religious action a key indicator of status within a tribe, and the US military, like most militaries, is nothing if not tribal.

        }}}}

      • *In reply to #8 by Ted Foureagles: God and war “go together like soup and sandwich”. In preparation for battle, warriors become brothers, decorate their bodies, perform various rituals sometimes enhanced by drugs and shaman’s magic, vanquish fear of death, pray their gods help them kill their enemies and gain victory. If you don’t believe supernatural power greater than your enemy’s is on your side, you’re just whistling in the dark. The account of Patton’s battle prayers at Bastogne in 1944 is good reading: General George S. Patton and the Battle of the Bulge
        By Stanley Weintraub http://www.historynet.com/general-george-s-patton-and-the-battle-of-the-bulge.htm/8 approximately paragraphs 35 – 50. *

        I’ve wondered about the strange cozy relationship between religion and war. I think that it may have something to do with at least one of religion’s social ‘benefits’, which is knowing in whom to trust. And no, I don’t mean God — I mean fellow humans who are easily recognizable by their willingness to ascribe to strange ideas. Most obvious is circumcision; man, if he’ll do something that damn crazy he must be a true believer! And it shades off to other beliefs & less obvious actions like mode of dress & grooming and certain code phrases inserted into public speech. Key to effectiveness is that such presentations must be hard to fake. Even I could go shout “Praise the Lawd!”, and get a smattering of applause, but so could anyone bent on deception. But if I could show that I’ve given 10% of my income to the church for 20 years, well that’s some credibility. And the more patently ridiculous beliefs espoused the ‘better’. If I was in an al Qaeda cell and confided that I wasn’t all that sure about the whole 72 virgins thing, I probably wouldn’t be trusted. It’s the very willingness to demonstrate adherence to absurdity at high personal cost that makes religious action a key indicator of status within a tribe, and the US military, like most militaries, is nothing if not tribal.

        }}}}

  5. I was posing this as a hypothetical question. Nothing prevents the institution of a draft, all that’s needed is “a crisis requiring a draft”. Given the right conjunction of events and politics, a wave of the magic wand can make it so.

    As a hypothetical question, “a crisis requiring a draft” in the US would be that dire a situation that it would probably mean the non-believer’s CO stance being suicidal. By the time the US would be reduced to the draft all the other gung-ho eejits queuing up to get some rounds down the range would’ve been wasted.

    On an ethical note though, anyone objecting to getting involved in taking other human lives, should be considered conscientious.

  6. “if the general attitude is that without a belief in god, one has no basis for morality?”

    “In a crisis requiring a draft, men would be called … examined for mental, physical and moral fitness …”

    If the first statement is true then surely Atheists automatically fail the examinations mentioned in the second.

    Although it is a commandment that “thou shall not kill” the Bible is full of examples of precisely the opposite behaviour, because the commandment carries the (almost totally unnoticed) additional clause “unless God says so”.

    If morality is a non-negotiable code, then this kind of exception should not exist. But it does exist, and it exists because morality is subjective, not objective as religious people claim.

    I have never met a person I wanted to kill, or whom I thought deserved to die, and I hope I never do, but as an Atheist I think I would suffer greater pangs of conscience than a religious person who can rationalise such a crime as “serving a god’s will”. The crime would be mine and mine alone, and I have no problem accepting the consequences.

    If one can rationalise murder and say it has no consequences because it is “God’s will”, then you have proved that your god’s “commandments” are merely guidelines, that you are in-capable of behaving morally, and incidentally, are well on your way to meeting the definition of a psychopath.

    • *In reply to #11 by N_Ellis: I guess my thinking was that as an atheist one can’t claim make a supportable claim that is supported by the practices of a group one belongs to, such as the Quakers. On the other hand, there are no official policies that atheists are totally devoid of morals and equivalent to moral (and criminal) offenders like rapists; just poll results revealing prejudicial attitudes that deem them equally untrustworthy. Plus, there are enough texts and videos where atheist speakers insist that atheist can be moral without religion. It seems one would have to lead an exemplary and well documented life to qualify. *

      “if the general attitude is that without a belief in god, one has no basis for morality?”

      “In a crisis requiring a draft, men would be called … examined for mental, physical and moral fitness …”

      If the first statement is true then surely Atheists automatically fail the examinations mentioned in the second.

      Although it is a commandment that “thou shall not kill” the Bible is full of examples of precisely the opposite behaviour, because the commandment carries the (almost totally unnoticed) additional clause “unless God says so”.

      If morality is a non-negotiable code, then this kind of exception should not exist. But it does exist, and it exists because morality is subjective, not objective as religious people claim.

      I have never met a person I wanted to kill, or whom I thought deserved to die, and I hope I never do, but as an Atheist I think I would suffer greater pangs of conscience than a religious person who can rationalise such a crime as “serving a god’s will”. The crime would be mine and mine alone, and I have no problem accepting the consequences.

      If one can rationalise murder and say it has no consequences because it is “God’s will”, then you have proved that your god’s “commandments” are merely guidelines, that you are in-capable of behaving morally, and incidentally, are well on your way to meeting the definition of a psychopath.

    • Actually the bible does not say don’t kill, it says don’t murder. Kill is just a bad translation. The bible writers loved killing, they just didn’t want any “illegal” (in other words, not sanctioned by them) killing.

      In reply to #11 by N_Ellis:

      “if the general attitude is that without a belief in god, one has no basis for morality?”

      “In a crisis requiring a draft, men would be called … examined for mental, physical and moral fitness …”

      If the first statement is true then surely Atheists automatically fail the examinations mentioned in th…

    • In reply to #12 by Unbiased Bias:

      Wait can buddhists be consceintious objectors because if atheism is not a religion then I think buddhism isn’t either.

      You definition of a religion is probably restrictive. Buddhism features both a faith in a supernatural order of things (cycle of reincarnations, Karmic Law) and institutions to organise the community around this faith (in particular a strong monastic tradition).

      • *In reply to #15 by loqueelviento: From my own point of view and experience, I reject the notion that at its core, Buddhism has anything to do with gods, religion or faith, other than faith in oneself and in the path to self-knowledge. Reading an account of the Buddha’s death does not give the impression of a person selling himself as a divinity or that he wanted his followers to treat him as such. When you peel away the mysticism that’s been layered on, what seems left at the core is a great human teacher; maybe one of the first to whittle the pantheon of gods down to none. Suggest reading Was the Buddha the First Humanist by P. D. Hutcheon http://www.humanists.net/pdhutcheon/humanist%20articles/buddha.htmI *

        In reply to #12 by Unbiased Bias:

        Wait can buddhists be consceintious objectors because if atheism is not a religion then I think buddhism isn’t either.

        You definition of a religion is probably restrictive. Buddhism features both a faith in a supernatural order of things (cycle of reincarnations, Karmic Law) and institutions to organise the community around this faith (in particular a strong monastic tradition).

  7. To the OP the answer is YES ! Certainly in Britain. I knew a few who escaped the clutches of the military that way. Pacifists, socialists and a few others. Mind you they had a job to convince the Tribunal that they weren’t just shirking their so-called National Service. We no longer have the draft in Britain. Modern warfare demands a pretty highly trained killing machine, rather than just cannon fodder as in the good old days, when people died of diphtheria and suffered from rickets .

  8. In order to be a conscientious objector, you have to oppose the use of violence across the board. You can’t be à la carte about it. In an all volunteer military, it’s irrelevant. If you sign up, you sign up knowing full well you have to do what you’re ordered to do within the limit of the law. The likelihood that the draft will be needed again anytime in the future, with our population size and military funding as it is, is very small indeed, even if a major war were to break out (by “major” I mean like a world war), as I presume many would volunteer all on their own.

    As a purely hypothetical exercise, you have to ask yourself this: do you, as an Atheist preach nonresistance to evil, is there nothing you’d be willing to fight for, no people or cause you’d die to protect? You can’t pick and choose your conflicts like that if you’d ever wish to claim conscientious objector status. Consider Gandhi’s advice to the Jewish people and the British in particular regarding the Second World War, his recommendation for dealing with the Nazis. If you can agree with Gandhi (complete surrender, and even suicide) then you can successfully claim conscientious objector status. If you would have preached that Bosnia and Kosovo should have been allowed to be ethnically cleansed, that nothing should have been done in defense of those people, you can claim conscientious objector status. You can’t just say “I disagree with this particular war, because your justifications for engaging in it are wrong for reasons X, Y, and Z.” You can be completely right in that argument, but conscientious objector status is for those agree with any violent action being used for any reason, anywhere, and at any time.

    So, can you ever in a hypothetical sense claim conscientious objector status as an Atheist? Sure. As we all know, all that means is that one doesn’t believe in a god. However, in order to successfully claim that status you would need to be a fanatic. The only real option, if there was a draft and you were thrust into a war you felt was immoral, was to resist and refuse to fight whatever may come.

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