Bigotry (big-ot-ry) noun—stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.
Question: What does it take to be recognized as a humanist in the military?
Answer: Can’t happen. The chaplaincy dictates to the military personnel offices what religious preferences can be claimed in official military records. No humanists are allowed.
Of course, the chaplaincy doesn’t actually deny anyone his or her religious freedom. Its leaders find it much easier and safer just to ignore requests they don’t want to support. Case in point: over a year ago, I requested that my military records be changed from “No Religious Preference” to “humanist.” I filled out the appropriate form and submitted it to my personnel office. It was a simple request for a routine change to a single data field in the Personal Section of my official military record. This is the section where promotion boards, academic selections boards, supervisors, and commanders can see where I was born, my marital status, and other personal data. Also, upon a service member’s arrival at a new duty station, this data provides key information for determining the best sponsor to assist the incoming service member and his or her family with settling into their new surroundings.
Currently, my record is inaccurate. It says that I have no religious preference, meaning that any chaplain of any religious denomination can serve my religious needs. This is simply not the case. I do have a preference. I am a humanist, and I prefer the services and support provided by a credentialedHumanist Celebrant or a humanist chaplain who understands my world-view.
Weeks went by after my request with no change to my records. When I inquired about the delay, I learned that in order to meet my request, the Army HumanResources Command would need to add a new entry for “Humanist” into the “Religion” field of its personnel database. Those in charge would not do this without consent from the Department of the Army’s Office of the Chaplain, which had quickly sent the matter to a higher authority, the Armed ForcesChaplains Board. This board normally meets each month to discuss current issues and policy changes.
Conveniently, when my issue had been added to the agenda, the board stopped holding monthly meetings. “Sorry,” I was told, “but we cancelled every meeting for the last six months. We will keep you updated as the situation progresses.” The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for board minutes from the previous twelve months. The materials released in response showed meeting dates only up through May 2012, with most agenda items and minutes redacted—and no sign that my request had been discussed.
Military chaplains may not be allowed to carry weapons, but they sure know how to wield the arms of passive aggression.
Apparently such passive-aggressive behavior is not limited to the chaplaincy. I then appealed to one of my elected representatives. Senator Mark Begich(D-Alaska) sits on the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, which has jurisdiction over all matters relating to active and reserve military personnel. An initial courteous reply from his aide was followed by several excuses for inaction before the proverbial line ultimately went dead. I have never known a congressional inquiry to go unanswered. Apparently, Senator Begich decided either that his personal beliefs prevented him from assisting me or that it was politically too risky for him to do so. MAAF and the Secular Coalition for America have inquired to other members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees about this and similar issues, and they have received similar inaction in response.
Ironically, were I to die today, the Department of Veterans Affairs would provide a headstone engraved with the official humanist emblem, even though my Army record does not reflect my wish that a Humanist Celebrant perform my funeral. In fact, because my records currently indicate “No Religious Preference,” a chaplain of any religion at all could conduct my funeral service, reciting whatever prayers or incantations are used by his or her particular denomination. And my grieving family would be forced to endure the same aggravation suffered by Pat Tillman’s family when the religiosity of others was imposed at his very public memorial service.
I no longer have any expectation that the Armed Forces Chaplains Board will decide on this matter. Instead, I expect to receive nothing but polite apathy from an unsupportive clergy who likely view my request to identify as a humanist as an intrusion upon their intolerant sectarian views. This leaves me with but one recourse—to change my religious preference to “Atheist,” which is an available option. I will continue to pressure the Armed Forces Chaplains Board to decide on my request if for no other reason than to remind them that when they stonewall service members who do not identify with any established church, they are fighting against the fastest-growing segment within the military community. Ultimately, I suspect that MAAF’s Jason Torpy was right when he declared that atheists in the military must first be counted separately from all other religious groups before the official chaplaincy will recognize nontheistic religious preferences such as humanism.
Some may think that adding “Humanist” to the list of approved religious preferences will be a capitulation relegating humanism to the status of just another religion. This risk is unavoidable if we are to gain equal treatment for humanists in the military. However, such precedence only affects individual records and statistical data used by the chaplaincy to allocate support. It would have little bearing outside the military except to empirically expose the rising tide of secularism among those serving their nation.
So far, fewer than 1 percent of nontheistic service members have been brave enough to change their religious preference to “Atheist.” There is good reason for this. I have spoken to many atheists in foxholes; several have expressed concern for their careers should their nonreligious worldview become known to superiors and board members. It is absolutely appalling to think that, out of fear for their careers, service members must forfeit one of the fundamental freedoms that they fight to preserve. And, of course, the chaplaincy is doing nothing to combat this cultural intolerance within the military. On the contrary, it perpetuates this bigotry by preventing service members from identifying with nontheistic belief systems such as humanism.
Secular members in the military can learn a cogent lesson from the gay rights movement: determination, even in the face of overwhelming odds, leads to success. And we have an advantage in numbers. By all accounts except one, there are tens of thousands of atheists in the military—the one exception being that most of those atheists do not appear in official military records. And that’s where we need to focus our efforts. We must encourage every secular service member to change his or her religious preference to read “Atheist” until such time as the chaplaincy acknowledges the full range of nontheistic belief systems. If you are a member of our nation’s military, reserve or active, and your records indicate “No Religious Preference” or a religious preference that is no longer yours, go straight to your personnel office and request a change. Don’t let a bi
goted few in positions of power prevent you from being counted.
All statements in this article reflect the author’s position and opinions. They in no way represent the Army’s views, concepts, or regulatory guidance.