Intelligence officer Capt. Ryan Jean of Baltimore, MD is an army reservist and regular family guy. He also happens to be a fine person who has been paying attention to certain inequalities in the military concerning those of faith and those without. In addition, he cares about the mental and emotional health of fellow non-believing soldiers. Thank you, Capt. Ryan Jean.
It seems that soldiers of faith are receiving an inordinate amount of privilege and resources. While those without are struggling to not only find community, but hitting brick walls erected by military officials who refuse to acknowledge petitions for Humanist lay leaders (like the positions acknowledged for lay Jews, lay Christians, and lay Buddhists who assist military Chaplains) or to grant non-believers space and resources to congregate on-site. Many Humanists, atheists, and freethinkers are now meeting off-site in defiance while working towards full recognition as a cultural community in need of representation.
Cue the MAAF (Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers).
MAAF welcomes you. Nontheistic service members serve honorably throughout the world — always have; always will. However, nontheists are the last unprotected minority. The nontheistic, whether an atheist, humanist, agnostic, freethinker, or other secular minority, have a strong community. MAAF provides geographically dispersed service members with information, resources, and contacts. MAAF provides information about nontheistic services members to other organizations as well as the media.
Capt. Ryan Jean belongs to the MAAF. And in a bold move, allowed for himself to be interviewed by the Baltimore Sun (Atheists at Fort Meade seek official recognition, Nov 5, 2011) where he shared some of his challenges over the past three years as he sought recognition to become a humanist lay leader.
After one such confrontation with a chaplain, Capt. Jean recounts a time he’d been ridiculed and called a disgrace by a supposed spiritual leader.
“He basically told me that if I don’t get right with God, then I’m worthless,” said Jean, now an intelligence officer at Fort Meade. “That if I don’t believe in Jesus, why am I in uniform, because this is God’s army, and that I should resign my commission in order to stop disgracing the military.” – Capt. Ryan Jean, Baltimore Sun, Nov 7 2011
It can be easy at times to cross paths with news items like this and think, “Cool. Good for him for standing up. Somebody had to say something.” And then move along. We care, but it’s not exactly our world, our fight, our concern.
But there is more to this story, and more to this person who has stepped up, stood out, and put a face to this issue so that others might benefit at some point when the fight has been chosen, the battles fought and hopefully won, and the recognition earned and delivered.
It’s not over, and he’s still standing out there with his heart on his sleeve and his reputation on the line. Right NOW. Today, he wrote to me,
… going public has created significant friction with my extremely religious family, which considers me largely an “embarrassing failure.” That latter experience, as well as the fear of reprisals in everything from promotions to civilian jobs and beyond, is the hurdle that allows narrow religious interests to continue to dominate the public discourse.
A disgrace? Failure? Worthless?! He’s among the most worthwhile, honorable, and forthright human beings for his compassion and concern for others! And a person with a heart and ears who hears every verbal abuse slung, and must shake every cheap punch pulled. A father with children and a wife to consider, who balances his morals with his responsibilities and walks a fine line each day while trying to be true to his nature and what he knows to be just and right.
Several weeks ago, I sat with this reality for a few hours after also reading some community discussion areas about apathy amongst atheists and how it’s fine to gripe and quip at the irony of religious righteousness, but that some are becoming bored. There are only so many shallow jokes and one-liners and links to news stories that ‘happen to other people in other places’ that a thoughtful mind can handle before it craves some sustenance, balance, and relevance. They expressed a wish for more meaningful interaction.
As it happens, I get a taste of meaningful interaction each and everytime I go to meet with my fiber circle. A collective of people (men and women, Christian/Muslim/Jew/Non-believers) who gather to share their lives and the work on their needles. In that place, all topics are generally permissible and conversations are good. It also happened that the place I ran across the online discussion had started on a fiber arts enthusiast hub called Ravelry.
I belong to a discussion group there called Atheist & Agnostic Crafters. Seldom do we talk about what’s on our needles (because most everywhere else there is dedicated to knitting/crochet/spinning). We talk about the current events of the day and our own travels and struggles with being ‘out’ in a world claimed by Christians/Muslims/the religious. What better place to start a discussion about appreciation, projects, and maybe starting a little something to brighten someone’s day? We needed a boost. I needed a boost.
An idea was conceived. Why not a care package for Capt. Ryan Jean? Soldiers receive care packages all the time. How about a little something specific to show our support for someone who is not only a patriot and soldier, but someone who stands up expressly for separation of church and state and also for the LEAST represented among us? — The open and declared atheist, Humanist, freethinker and agnostic.
So, I got myself to work and designed a scarf… a scarf for Atheists in Foxholes and those who strive to get representation for them. It started with some charting (graph paper and pens — actually computer software and creativity) and a lot of feverish knitting.
And became this.
And was also joined by a Trilobyte themed hat.
And those were also joined by several written and emailed letters of support from AAC members that made it into the care package I mailed out this past Saturday.
Which returned this appreciative email the following Wednesday,
Just as the weather finally starts to dip in this unseasonably warm December in Maryland, I was graced by your care package. The scarf is wonderful and quite warm; I wore it this afternoon as I went about my business around town. The special addition of the Trilobyte Cap was a lovely surprise, and my wife has already claimed it for herself. I tried to get her picture in it, but was denied the chance.
The six accompanying letters from fellow crafters, however, were by far the best part. It is always reassuring to know that the efforts that unexpectedly vaulted me into the spotlight are appreciated, and I can only hope that I will be a positive model for other Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers in our Armed Forces who are considering “coming out” while the climate is still openly hostile to the non-theistic. Although it has not been secret for some time that I was an Atheist and a Humanist, the publicity of the campaign for Humanist Lay Leaders has dramatically changed the context. The ranks of the Atheists of Meade have roughly doubled since the article launched and I have gotten well wishes from fellow Service Members, Civilians, and even Foreign Nation Military personnel, as well as several individuals who were theistic but understand the difficulties faced due to being from other vilified religious minorities. On the other side, going public has created significant friction with my extremely religious family, which considers me largely an “embarrassing failure.” That latter experience, as well as the fear of reprisals in everything from promotions to civilian jobs and beyond, is the hurdle that allows narrow religious interests to continue to dominate the public discourse.
Only through such displays of presence, will, and determination will the stigma attached to non-belief be eroded from the public mindset. Bit by bit we hear more vocalizations from our brethren both in and out of uniform, challenging the majority view to finally uphold the principles set forth in the Constitution so long ago. The Atheist and Agnostic Crafters of Revelry are exactly the groundswell of support that makes this possible. Be proud in the knowledge that your efforts, however modest they may seem to you, make all the difference in the world to those on the receiving end of your generosity.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, or whatever may bring you and your loved ones joy this Winter.
~ Ryan M. Jean
nam homini – “For My Fellow Man”
So, the next time some bit of news flies by that catches your interest, maybe stay with it for a few more moments. Think on the actual people within the words… connect with them and make them real in your mind’s eye as flesh and bone. Consider joining the conversation in a more tangible way than a quick comment, a smug remark, a lament of irony, or a snide dismissal. Get involved. You can make someone’s day a little bit better by offering a material AND cerebral show of appreciation. You never know, it just might embolden the recipient and soothe the sting of wounds accrued.