Remembering Atheists and Humanist Service Members on Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, let us take time to remember our troops who defend American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After nearly ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation has many combat veterans and currently deployed service members. These men and women have answered a call to serve the nation, and they deserve our gratitude and support. This is applicable to all service members, whether they are secular humanist, Christian, Muslim, Wiccan, or some other designation.

Whether it’s Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Flag Day, Armed Forces Day, Independence Day, or another celebration of American values, we should often take time to consider those who have offered—and sometimes given their lives—in service to the nation.

The service of humanists is just now receiving equal recognition. Around the world, local communities of humanists have begun at over fifteen installations and ships, with more to follow. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers is providing international support, endorsement, advocacy to local chains of command, and care packages. The U.S. Air Force, Naval, and Military (Army) Academies all have established groups of students preparing for military service. Groups of actively-serving personnel have come together in Japan, Italy, and Germany. In the United States, Justin Griffith is leading the Military Atheists & Secular Humanists at Fort Bragg as well as organizing Rock Beyond Belief, a major event for nontheists, to be held at Fort Bragg. Remember these local groups and reach out to them to provide care packages, help with speakers and events, and encourage local support if your local group is near a military installation.

Religious and lifestance support services have historically focused on Protestants, but there must be increased effort on the part of the military to keep pace with increasing religious diversity. In January, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission published a composite study of Department of Defense data and three independent surveys that show a large subset of humanists in the military. The MLDC reported that “No Religious Preference” was the largest individual demographic, ahead of Catholics and Baptists. Following closely behind Methodists were Humanists, which were represented in greater numbers than all others, including Pentecostal, Lutheran, and Jewish. Atheists continue to serve, and they need support and recognition from the humanist community as well as their chain of command.

Military leaders have provided varying levels of support, but soon they must recognize that atheists and humanists deserve equal access and support from all agencies, including chaplains. Promotion of Evangelical Christianity through concerts, prayer, major facilities, training programs, and Bible distribution implies that Christianity is the preferred religion of the military. These activities have all happened within the last few years. These pro-Christian activities must be reduced and tempered with support for humanists to remove bias. Outreach from leaders, use of facilities, advertisement, and actual humanist chaplains would all be necessary to show that humanists have equal opportunity in the military.  Whether faced with the rigors of peacetime training or the terrible reality of war, all service members, including atheists and humanists, need the comfort and support of likeminded individuals and communities.

As we stop to contemplate and celebrate our national values, we should reach out to connect with those who have volunteered to enforce those values. As humanists, we see all the potential of humanity, as a species and as a nation. War is nearly the ugliest of human endeavors, nearly. War is not so ugly as apathy in the face of tyranny, genocide, or slavery.

When our humanist service members take up arms, they take on the great responsibility to reconcile their humanist values and our national values with the duties laid out to them by their superiors. Let us reach out, with comfort, with support, and with a strong foundation of humanist ethics. In this way, we can provide not just support but strength to those who defend our nation.

Jason Torpy is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and treasurer of the American Humanist Association.

For further reading, check out Jason Torpy’s commentary in The Guardian (UK) on “Oh Yes, There Are Atheists in Foxholes,” which appeared on May 16, 2011.