The U.S. Army takes the fitness of its soldiers very seriously. And not just physical fitness. After nearly a decade of protracted war, many U.S. soldiers have been deeply affected by extreme stress, leading some to commit inhuman acts and mindless atrocities.
In response to this fast-growing problem, the U.S. Army now provides a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. The idea behind the CSF is for soldiers to have “resiliency” — the inner strength to cope and continue to function well in challenging, even traumatic, situations.
The CSF program is concerned with five domains of fitness:
- Physical fitness
- Emotional fitness
- Family fitness
- Social fitness
- Spiritual fitness
It is that last one that is causing controversy. For although the Army insists that it means “spiritual” in a broad, modern sense, there are growing fears, rumours and signs that this is just a neat excuse — or even a kind of covert operation — to indoctrinate all soldiers into Christianity.
So what is spiritual fitness supposed to mean anyway? And how does the Army evaluate it?
As it happens, the latest issue of the academic journal American Psychologist is a special edition on the CSF program and includes a number of papers written by the psychologists behind it.
One paper is called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building Resilience in a Challenging Institutional Context” [PDF link]. The abstract explains:
“Based on the principles of positive psychology, CSF is a historically unique approach to behavioral health in a large (1.1 million members) organization. There are four program elements: (a) the assessment of emotional, social, family, and spiritual fitness; (b) individualized learning modules to improve fitness in these domains; (c) formal resilience training; and (d) training of Army master resilience trainers (MRTs) to instill better thinking skills and resilience in their subordinates. In contrast to traditional approaches, CSF is proactive; rather than waiting to see who has a negative outcome following stress, it provides ways of improving resilience for all members of the Army. CSF aims to move the full spectrum of responses to trauma and adversity—ranging from stress-related disorders to ordinary resilience—toward personal growth.”
So the whole thing is inspired, in fact, by positive psychology — a field close to my heart. So far so good.
There is also an article on the spiritual fitness component by Kenneth Pargament (Bowling Green University, Ohio) and Patrick J. Sweeney (United States Military Academy at West Point). Here is what they say about spirituality:
“Spirituality is defined in the human sense as the journey people take to discover and realize their essential selves and higher order aspirations.”
I’m OK with that, though I suspect it sounds like hocus-pocus to those with a materialistic-atheistic worldview. But Pargament and Sweeney say that there are “several theoretically and empirically based reasons … why spirituality is a necessary component of the CSF program.” There is indeed some good science to back this up. In overcoming life’s challenges and transcending traumatic experiences, individuals do appear to benefit from spirituality.
Assessing soldiers’ spirituality
Since October 2009, as part of the CSF program, all American soldiers have had to complete a questionnaire known as the Global Assessment Tool. This is “a self-report survey that measures psychosocial fitness in emotional, social, family, and spiritual domains” [Peterson et al., 2011]. It asks soldiers to rate their agreement with various statements about the non-physical aspects of their fitness, including the spiritual.
Those who score high on all aspects of fitness are assessed as having good resiliency. Scoring low on one component indicates the need for some sort of improvement through “corrective” training.
Here are the five items on the Global Assessment Tool that address spiritual fitness:
41. I believe there is a purpose for my life.
42. I am a spiritual person.
43. My life has a lasting meaning.
44. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.
45. The job I am doing in the military has lasting meaning.
Again, this seems fairly neutral in terms of religion. But again, it does seem to alienate atheists. Is there an underlying assumption that atheism makes a soldier “unfit” in terms of resilience?
One U. S. Army chaplain, Master Sgt. Harry Bryan, sees no contradiction between spiritual fitness and atheism:
“They [soldiers with spiritual fitness] may not profess a belief in God but within their mentality they have a line they’re not going to cross whether they call it religion or atheism. ‘I don’t believe in God but I’m not going to cross that line.'” — Hooah 4 Heal
But while the psychologists behind “spiritual fitness” seem to be coming from the right place, and some of the Army’s own chaplains appear to get it, the Army as a whole appears to be way off message.
The very idea of evaluating a soldier’s spiritual fitness — and providing training to “improve” it — has raised more than a few alarm bells.
When the pro-atheist Freedom From Religion Foundation learned about the assessment in December 2010, it asked for the immediate cessation of its use by the Army. The Foundation claims that the whole concept discriminates against atheists.
“It is ironic,” said the Foundation, “that while nonbelievers are fighting to protect freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are being trampled upon by this Army practice.”
The same goes for the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who called the assessment unconstitutional.
The latter Foundation’s founder, Michael Weinstein, a former U.S. Air Force lawyer, says he has “220 soldiers ready to sue if the survey doesn’t drop those questions.”
Despite the criticisms, the Army’s assessment of spiritual fitness has been defended by renowned psychologist Martin Seligman. He is director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a former president of the American Psychological Association, and co-author of one of my favourite books, Character Strengths and Virtues. Seligman says:
“The ‘spirituality’ items on the survey are not about religion and I have been told that they were vetted by government lawyers so as not to violate the first amendment.” — OPEdNews.com
Incidentally, there is one website (truth-out.org) which claims that the whole assessment was designed by Seligman himself (it wasn’t) in a dastardly attempt to promote his theory of learned helplessness. (Learned helplessness is a well-founded behavioural response to inescapable pain, which Seligman sees as a component of clinical depression — not as a tool for torture). 
Aside from these slightly paranoid reactions, there is a more realistic concern — that poor soldiers who happen to have a religious faith will be deemed more fit to fight than good soldiers who happen to be atheists.
The psychologists say that nothing actually happens to those who score low on spiritual fitness. They are given some simple feedback (“Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal”), and the results are not shown to anyone else. Training is available but it is voluntary, not mandatory.
For spiritual fitness training, Pargament and Sweeney have devised a computer-based training program. This is described as an educational program designed to build awareness of the human spirit in self and in others.
A spokesman for the Army has said:
“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.”
Nevertheless, the way the Army itself promotes spiritual fitness does seem to be little more than one-size-fits-all Christianity.
For example, take a look at this video of the Spiritual Fitness Center at Fort Hood…
Whoever designed this building clearly had a church in mind. There are crosses everywhere and references to Jesus this and Christ that. But what if a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist wanted to drop in to give his or her spiritual fitness a boost?
Similarly, the Army in Virginia has been laying on “spiritual fitness concerts” for soldiers — but clearly these are Christian shows featuring evangelical pop groups. See –
This surely amounts to religious discrimination.
I would say the Army needs to pay more attention to some of its own chaplains:
“The Soldier has both the responsibility and constitutional freedom to determine the lens through which matters of the spirit are defined, developed, and displayed. Today’s Soldier may not be religious; yet, they are spiritual. It is this non-religious spirituality that Abraham Maslow believed existed and argued that such spiritual aspirations of the human personality was the result of a natural phenomenon and should not be restricted to a theological construct.”