Jason Torpy is the President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF). Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? What have been some pivotal movements to more freethinking in personal life?
Jason Torpy: I grew up in southeast Ohio in a Catholic family. I spent much of my early teens investigating other kinds of Christianity and even occult options in my community.
Once Catholic confirmation came around, I could confirm I wasn’t Catholic, and that I was relatively secure in my atheism. I wouldn’t say anything pivotal other than the freedom to investigate. That accelerated my opportunity to learn.
On the other hand, repression during that process would most likely have just increased my desire to learn at the first opportunity. I think I would have ended up at the same place.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated? How have these been important for building a more robust view of the world?
Torpy: I have an engineering degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University. I took a number of philosophy electives at West Point and took graduate philosophy courses through California State.
I deployed to Iraq in 2003 and then started planning for an MBA, so I didn’t complete the coursework. Education is important. Having the interest and opportunity to learn more leads to truth and resilient values, mostly. I’d like to think it worked out that way for me, but I’m still growing.
Jacobsen: As the President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, who have been the important people in the work for MAAF? What have been some successes within the military through the work of the MAAF through its history of operation?
Torpy: There is a really long list, and I’d first like to apologize to all those I don’t list here.
I hope they don’t feel unappreciated. took formal leadership of the group in 2002 and then set up formal nonprofit status in 2006. Jason Heap stood forward as a Humanist Chaplain candidate from 2012 and later a plaintiff in the ensuing lawsuit.
Major Ray Bradley was the plaintiff who stood forward to successfully get the addition of “Humanist” to the Army’s religious preference listing. Taylor Grin partnered with Vicki Gettman to start Humanist Services at Air Force Basic Training.
Under Vicki’s leadership, those services are now trending over 1500 every weekend. Ray Doeksen has volunteered for weekly Humanist Services at Navy Basic Training now. And there are many others unsung.
For example, Doug Wright who has appeared to speak in a number of contexts and was primary organizer for a Memorial Service on the USS Midway in 2014.
Jen Kiesling, Carlos Bertha, Jeff Lucas, Cliff Andrew, Ryan Jean and many others have contributed to MAAF events at each military academy. It’s really hard to list all those who have contributed to successes over the years with their time, money, and negative career impacts.
Jacobsen: In terms of some of the losses in the activism of MAAF, what have been those losses? How can other organizations learn from those honest failures? How have military and civilian leader leaders failed to protect the rights of military atheists equally?
Torpy: We have a long list of successes, but this is in the context of a US military still controlled in large part not by religious people but by political evangelicals.
These elements have Christian evangelism as a first and only priority. Our allies who value things like supporting all troops and a chaplaincy that fulfills its mission of religious pluralism are not able to overcome the anti-atheist culture and practice within our military.
I’m sorry I’m not providing a specific story. We as military atheists are the oppressed minority. It’s best to ask our military and civilian leaders why they have failed to protect our rights equally.
To put a fine point on it: Military leaders are refusing service, but they are not calling me telling me what I’ve done wrong or what our people have done wrong, other than just being atheists. They offer no path to equality.
Jacobsen: As the MAAF focuses within a niche atheist and freethinker sector, what are some of the potentially unique challenges faced by the association not FACED by other associations or organizations?
How does solidarity with minority religions alongside atheists in service provide a better basis upon which to show organizational support fo the general principles of equality and fairness in treatment in the military for all members?
Torpy: I wouldn’t want to diminish the struggle of any other group that needs help.
We’ve celebrated successes and spoken in support of Sikhs and Hindus, women, lesbians and gays, affirming chaplains, trans members and others. I might say that our needs as atheists and humanists, are minimal relative to those other communities.
Gender confirmation surgery, special clothes, or days of the week for service are needs others have that we don’t. I think the opposition to our needs is as great as some of those other communities, but what we’re asking for is relatively minimal.
I wouldn’t call this solidarity exactly. That’s useful of course. More numbers is good for any movement. We appreciate their support when we have it, and we hope they appreciate ours. Presumably there is a logical connection between support of one minority and support of equality for all. In that sense, it may be a better basis.
The point is that inclusion of diverse perspectives, protection of minority rights, and equality including religious equality are all our values. Whether or not it is a better basis for our own equality, we will still help those in need.
Jacobsen: Of those considerations of the atheists and freethinkers within the military, what are their community concerns? How are they, possibly, having some issues in building communal activities in the midst of more religious oriented other communities within the military?
Torpy: Many religious communities in the military, including even Wiccans, have chaplains who provide for their needs.
These chaplains might not be Hindu or Wiccan or Muslim personally, but they are trained about the needs of those communities. They have materials and local clergy contacts who can provide authentic services.
Chaplains have free facilities and advertising they make available to enrich those events. Not only do they not provide services to humanists, they seem to be told specifically not to provide those services.
This paid and resourced full-time cadre of religious support personnel are available to everyone but us. And that lack of equal access does restrict our ability to build communities.
MAAF exists to remedy this shortfal, to do chaplains’ job for them especially while they refuse. (Please note that our support of training activities is in the absence of chaplain support.
Other non-chaplain leaders have made a space for us to do everything entirely with our own volunteers and at our own expense while all others enjoy religious services with chaplain sponsorship.)
Jacobsen: Of those books and articles written around the military atheists and freethinkers, what ones really nail the appropriate tone and contextualization of the military for atheists and freethinkers?
For a prospective author, what can they do in order to write on this subject matter in a competent manner to better represent this ignored minority within the military?
Torpy: I’m not sure I understand. A few books have been written about the atheist perspective and certainly many have been written around the military perspective. I’d say no book adequately addresses the military atheist perspective.
The first step is to be a quality author or have some basis to write. It’s harder than it sounds to just write a book. Others can speak better on that than I can. But beyond that, just meet with people and tell their stories. The stories are out there.
Also remember the good stories. Too many authors, especially journalists, just want to hear the bad stuff. There are lots of inspiring stories as well, and just humanizing stories that are about life not activism specifically.
Jacobsen: What are the demographics of MAAF? How does impact its services of limited resources?
Torpy: As you mentioned earlier, we are an atheist minority within a military minority within the US. Resources are limited, especially relative to the well-funded efforts to evangelize the military through chaplaincy and ministry.
That having been said, we have broad support through the larger atheist and humanist movement and are gaining interfaith allies. Over 100 interfaith allies including military chaplains, divinity school leaders, and denominational leaders signed on in support of humanist chaplains.
To the extent that those allies, atheist and interfaith, spend some of their resources to reform our military’s continuing anti-atheist bias, that will support their general mission of pluralism.
MAAF can guide the efforts of many organizations to the MAAF goal of equal support for military atheists and the broad goals of equality for atheists and of religious freedom and harmony for all.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Torpy: militaryatheists.org is a primary resource to join, donate, and to read more about the organization. Outreach through militaryatheists.org is also the best way to find case-by-case opportunities to share articles for publication, to gain insight or interviews, and to find resources like demographics and regulations to inform shared campaigns for reform.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Torpy: This is a long term effort, and we need to stick together. MAAF has a number of Canadian members and it would be great to see that core grow and become more active to support the larger effort of equality and support for Canadian Atheists.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Torpy.
Torpy: Thank you.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.