The Army Made Me Religious—Even Though I Still Don’t Believe in God

The old saw that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is nonsense. I spent five years in the Army, and neither being exposed to small arms fire nor being unable to save a dying civilian made me reconsider not believing in God. However, my time in the military did lead to a wholly unexpected change in my religious posture: It drove me to church.

This came as a significant surprise, both to me and to those who know me well. Unlike many who were raised in a faith community and then fell away, I was raised atheist. Even more unusually, so was my mother, who was born in small-town Oklahoma in the 1940s—doubtless a much harder place and time to shun religion compared to my upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, more than 30 years later. My half-sister Yarrow became a born-again Christian as an adult, and her newfound faith baffled me. However, when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, it was clear that Yarrow’s belief offered solace—and as her illness progressed, members of their church brought meals for her and her husband, drawing together as a community to offer invaluable support. When I headed off to college, I had no idea who would drop off a casserole if I fell ill.

I joined the Army in 2000 and was immediately struck by the overt religiosity that infused the institution. My first official act as a soldier reinforced that as an atheist I was an outlier: I had to use the modified oath of enlistment to “affirm” that I would support and defend the Constitution, staying silent on the last line, “So help me God.” My childhood schools had not opened with the Pledge of Allegiance; it felt awkward to stay silent on the “under God” addition when I had to recite the pledge in the military—which was often. During basic training, on Sunday mornings the choice was to go to religious services or clean the barracks. I chose to attend Muslim services in order to learn about a religion with which I was even less familiar than the other major monotheistic faiths.

The author's MI company celebrating Christmas 2003 in Tal Afar, Iraq. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

The author’s Military Intelligence company celebrating Christmas 2003 in Tal Afar, Iraq. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

While I was learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute as a junior enlisted soldier, one of our instructors passed out religious materials related to her evangelical faith. Before we took our oral examinations, she called all the Christian students in our class up for a prayer circle while the Hindus, Mormons, and I sat in bemused shock. Troops, if feeling stressed, were urged to see a chaplain, who deployed with us to Iraq. Every military event—a graduation, change of command ceremony, or nearly anything else—opened with a benediction given by a chaplain, who wore a uniform and drew a military paycheck. I squirmed as everyone else closed their eyes and bowed their heads in prayer, unsure what was appropriate for me to do: Lowering my head felt as if I were faking something; standing tall felt rude. Awkward fidgeting while glancing around to see if anyone else was doing the same was my typical compromise. The entire institution was firmly supportive of religious faith. Exposure to all this did not, however, convert me. Nor did the anxiety of being at war. I remained staunchly committed to my own nonbelief while my best friend in the Army drifted away from Catholicism during our year downrange.

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One of the few genuine reliefs of reentering the civilian workforce was not having to endure mandatory public prayers anymore. Simultaneously, however, becoming a civilian was isolating. I no longer had the camaraderie of being around other troops, the comfort of having a common purpose and belonging to the same community. When moving into a new barracks, soldiers who didn’t know you would grab some gear and help you carry it to your room; you would do the same for them. This did not happen moving into civilian apartments where fellow tenants walked past me and my pile of boxes without saying a word.

Soldiers who had never before met would huddle together during breaks, “smoking and joking” regardless of the weather, trying to one-up each other about how shitty their lives were. Civilian strangers studiously ignored one another when forced to share common spaces like parks or coffee shops. In the Army, I had leaders who were supposed to support my professional development and knew multiple resources existed if I was struggling emotionally or financially—despite very real stigma that discouraged admitting as much.

When I returned to civilian life and began a career in research, progress at work and support for personal problems were my responsibility alone to navigate. I missed simply knowing an institutional structure to guide me was available. I ached for the days when I knew that even if another soldier and I actively disliked each other, if attacked we would have each other’s “six”—they watch your back while you watch theirs. Driving a Humvee in Iraq, it was an unquestioned article of faith that even if another soldier thought I was an asshole, he would still shoot an enemy firing at me should our convoy be hit—and I would do the same. Even if I thought another soldier was an immature gossip, I would still perform first aid if she got shot—and she would do the same. I missed the feeling of being on the same team, having a tribe.

The author and a teammate during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

The author and a teammate during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

These feelings became more acute once my husband and I had children. Not only did we live hours away from family and sometimes long for respite from the relentless demands of parenting, but I also fretted over how best to instill our values in our children. Modern secular America seemed loathe even using values-based language. I found myself craving the principles that permeated military service.

The Army had seven official values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Each value had a definition; we had to memorize them in basic training, penalized with push-ups should we misstate one. A plastic dog tag listing them was an “inspectable item” as part of my uniform: At any moment, my leadership could demand to see it; failing to have it would lead to more push-ups. In civilian offices I worked in, a poster with a kitten clinging to a tree branch exhorting employees to “Hang in There!” would be the norm; in the Army, posters on the Army values abounded. There was no hesitation to speak bluntly about patriotism, sacrifice, the willingness to die for one’s belief. Our unit’s historical accomplishments were touted, encouraging us to take pride in the legacy of those who had come before us and see ourselves as part of an unbroken line of people committed to those values. Our leaders urged us to “choose the hard right over the easy wrong,” to “do what’s right even when no one is looking.” Certainly not everyone lived up to all these ideals all the time, but doing so was framed as the goal. In the civilian world, moral relativism seemed reasonable. … but also seemed to undermine the lessons I wanted to teach my children.

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I knew what my values were, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate them. I also didn’t know where to find a community that would share them. And I worried about finding both fellowship and religious education for my children. I still remember the shame of missing a question on a freshman-year high school English test about the religious symbolism in The Red Badge of Courage. References to a wafer and a Samaritan were lost on me; I lacked basic knowledge of the tenets of the major religion in my own country. It was important to me that my children know more. A flush still rose in my cheeks when I remembered mocking others for their faith when I was young, too. My mother had conveyed the message that faith was for the unintelligent, that anyone smart would have realized there was no God. I parroted that conviction for years, doubtless hurting and insulting many intelligent, kind people who did not deserve scorn. Part of my willingness to sneer at others for their beliefs was also defensiveness: Multiple Christians had told me that I was going to Hell. No matter how well I lived my life, they averred, I was destined for eternal damnation for not accepting Jesus as my lord and savior. When I probed, they confidently assured me that if my rapist repented on his death bed, he would be granted salvation, while if I never forgave him and converted, I would be condemned to hellfire. This seemed ludicrous, and the utter refusal to accept that I could be a good person without religion evoked both resentment and resistance in me.

Only as an adult did I come to recognize the benefits faith could bring others, even if it did not do so for me. I deeply wanted my children to grow up honoring all faiths, respecting all people, being aware of core major religious beliefs, and seeing that our values were shared by a broader group. So I began searching for a place where both my nominally Christian husband and secular humanist self would be welcome. For a congregation that embraced doing good works. For people who would support me in a crisis, and who I could help in return. For something I had lacked since leaving the Army and that seemed in short supply throughout America: a community.

The author giving remarks during a Memorial Day service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sterling in Virginia in 2015. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

The author giving remarks during a Memorial Day service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sterling in Virginia in 2015. Courtesy of Kayla Williams

Once we started going to a Unitarian Universalist church I was astonished to find myself crying during every service for the first year. It’s not as if the setting was dredging up childhood memories; church was a new experience for me. But there is something primal about participating in rituals. The service has a rhythm: We stand, we sing, we sit, we listen, we recite. We pass a collection plate. We share joys and sorrows: Members of the congregation celebrate births, anniversaries, new jobs, and retirements together; and together they mourn deaths, hope medical maladies pass swiftly, and ache at losses. During church services, I can almost feel the emotions of all those around me, swelling and cresting and crashing. Hearing parables from various faith traditions pulls buried bits of myself out of my own heart. Sitting in a group of people, following the simple rituals of lighting a flame, honoring the change of seasons, and being urged to be our best selves seems to dredge up genetically encoded memories of my ancestors doing this crouched around a fire 50 thousand years ago. It forces me to acknowledge I am human, I am vulnerable, I am lonely, I am afraid—it allows me to recognize those feelings, because the presence of the beloved community reassures me that despite those intense feelings, I am not alone.

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On Sundays when the children were rambunctious toddlers, after a hard week I felt like I could breathe again as members of the congregation smiled broadly at their enthusiasm and energy, rather than judging my parenting skills with tight lips. My daughter climbed onto the lap of a grandmotherly woman across the aisle and I felt less guilty about how rarely she saw my mother. As the kids grow, we are able to affirm our commitment to our values as part of a community through protest marches and small acts of kindness. We drop muffins and stew off on the doorstep of a family we’ve only seen in passing at church that just welcomed a newborn. We deliver flowers to a mosque as a show of solidarity and support after violence targets Muslims. My children hear stories about historical figures whose actions exemplify our values. I take solace knowing our minister is available to listen and offer guidance when existential crises loom: Should I face an ethical struggle, I will not have to navigate the moral dilemma alone. If a member of my family were to fall ill, the pastoral care team would drop off a casserole.

I still don’t believe in God, but I’ve found religion.

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Kayla Williams

Kayla Williams served as a sergeant and Arabic linguist in the Army from 2000-2005, including a deployment to Iraq from 2003-2004. She now lives in Virginia with her husband and two children and works as a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She’s the author of two nonfiction books, Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home. Williams is a 2018 War Horse Fellow.

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