Army faces queries on ‘spiritual fitness’ test

January 6, 2011

The army is facing questions over a "spiritual fitness" portion of a
mandatory questionnaire, with some atheists calling it "invidious and
not inclusive" of soldiers who are nonbelievers.

The
Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation learned in December
that soldiers were being asked to respond to statements such as "I am a
spiritual person" and "I believe there is a purpose for my life."

If
soldiers received a low score on their spiritual fitness questions,
they received an assessment that said "spiritual fitness is an area of
possible difficulty for you. . . . Improving your spiritual fitness
should be an important goal."

In a December 29 letter to Secretary
of the Army John McHugh, the atheist foundation asked for an immediate
end to the spiritual evaluation components of the Global Assessment Tool
and related programs.

"It is ironic that while nonbelievers are
fighting to protect the freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are
being trampled upon by this army practice," wrote Dan Barker and Annie
Laurie Gaylor.

A lawyer for the Military Religious Freedom
Foundation, which has combated aggressive proselytizing at the U.S. Air
Force Academy, also demanded that McHugh end the spiritual assessment,
which the group called unconstitutional.

Lt. Col. David Patterson,
a spokes­man for the army, said officials respect soldiers' individual
choices about religion. "Although spiritual fitness is offered to all
soldiers, it is not meant by any means to influence, dissuade nor entice
soldiers to believe in a deity, endorse religion, or in any way state
that a soldier is unfit to serve if they lack spiritual fitness," he
said.

The Global Assessment Tool has been mandatory since October
2009 for soldiers in basic training and is taken annually by those who
are not deployed to a combat zone. Soldiers' scores are confidential and
cannot be used in determining promotions, Patterson said.

Capt.
Paul Lester, a research psychologist with the army's Comprehensive
Soldier Fitness program, said the follow-up "spiritual fitness modules"
that are meant to help a soldier improve his or her spirituality are
voluntary. "If you score low, you are not required to take the modules,"
he said. "You take it at your own volition."

He emphasized that
despite the scoring of the questionnaire, no one is considered to have
failed it. "It is not a test," he said. "You don't pass or fail. You
take the questionnaire and we provide tailored feedback to how you do
overall."

Lester said scientific research links spirituality with
positive coping skills and decreased odds of attempting suicide. "That's
what the peer-reviewed research shows," he said.

But Gaylor of
the Freedom From Religion Foundation said a low score on a
spiritual-fitness questionnaire—and what she called its accompanying
"arrogant and condescending" response—could be detrimental. "It's the
kind of thing that might make someone go out and commit suicide," she
said.

Lester said there is ongoing analysis to determine if the
assessment tool is making a positive difference in the army. "It is too
soon to say publicly," he said.  —RNS