Remove Military Requirement to Choose Religion

By Jason Torpy

“What is your religion?”

One of the first experiences for all military personnel is putting together their personal information, including a statement of their religious preference. All Presidential candidates, who would be the Commander in Chief of our military forces, must undergo a de-facto test to ensure they have strong Christian faith. While unconstitutional, this is the reality in practice. Our military has a strong cultural bias toward Christianity as well. This is mitigated by accommodations for religious freedom, but the  cultural bias is known. Especially within the disciplined, team environment of the military, there is strong pressure to conform with the majority.

There are at least two purposes for collecting demographics about religious preference in the military. The first is to have the preference printed on ID tags to inform last rites and burial in combat situations. The second is to provide demographics information for use in providing chaplain and religious services. Knowing how many personnel desire a certain service, at the unit level and across the military, theoretically helps with funding of religious support activities, including facilities, chaplains, and chaplain materials.

These two options – religious rites and religious services – are entirely voluntary and at the discretion of the individual. The current assumption is that military personnel want whatever religious service is available. If an individual chooses not specify a religious preference, then they should be assumed to want no religious services.  In addition, the mandatory question, often asked in the first few days of military service, increases the pressure to conform (to the Christian majority). To avoid pressure and to confirm the voluntary nature of religious affiliation, the question should not be asked and the entry left blank until an individual requests a selection.

In addition, those who choose to opt in may not have their preference available. While many different religious options are available, atheists may be denied that option even if they ask. Many Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) members report pressure to choose the default “No Religious Preference” by clerks biased against atheism or by military leaders who recognize the danger of prejudice against someone who has atheist on their records or tags. This is not limited to nontheists. Jewish and Mormon personnel often fear reprisals for their beliefs.

Some simply don’t have the option to choose their preferred belief system. Humanists, for example, are atheist in their beliefs about gods but prefer the more positive expression of ethics, family, and community that “humanist” provides. The military does not currently offer this option. In recent decades, many have adopted the label “spiritual but not religious.” While not adhering to a specific belief system, they feel attachment to a divine or supernatural power, while rejecting formal religious structures. Often, these individuals are left only with the nonsensical default value “No Religious Preference.” Stating no preference implies that any religion will do. All but the most apathetic agnostic would reject a religion not their own.

Because of the voluntary nature of religious preference, the importance of maintaining government neutrality toward religion, and in order to better track the diversity of belief within the military, MAAF recommends the following changes:

  • Eliminate the standard question “what is your religion” in entrance processing.
  • Change the default entry for religious preference from “No Religious Preference” to blank (no entry).
  • Eliminate the “No Religious Preference” option (to facilitate change).
  • Add an option for “Humanist.”
  • Add an option for “Spiritual But Not Religious” aka SBNR, Spiritual or Spiritual BNR.

The following administrative notes are provided to clarify these recommendations and answer possible objections and concerns:

First, for MAAF members: whatever your preferred label, should choose “atheist” as the best of bad options. This is the only way to communicate our numbers through military demographics. Update your records today.

The proponent for these changes in the military is within the personnel department, not the chaplaincy. This is a matter of record-keeping and so the chaplains do not control the listing of options or record keeping. Oddly, a Defense casualty processing manual is the best reference for the listing of religious preference options aside from an outdated 1996 Army listing of transaction codes. Part of the difficulty of this reform is finding a valid proponent to implement the change in policy and practice.

An additional requirement is to ensure that these changes are reflected by the Defense Manpower Data Agency, a demographics service that aggregates information about all military personnel. If their processes are not updated, then details at lower levels will be lost in aggregation.

While this change may indicate that MAAF considers “humanism” a dogmatic, supernatural religion just like any other, that is not the case. The question is moot in this case as “religious preference” already includes “atheist” as an option as well as “unknown” and “no religious preference,” so this personnel entry relates to an individual’s preference about religion whether or not that preference indicates a religious belief. The question is also moot as the military either leaves the term religion undefined or provides for a secular definition of religion.

The intended purpose of removing “No Religious Preference” is to facilitate change. If the new default entry is no entry at all, trained clerks may continue to enter No-Pref when faced with an entry they don’t like or they may continue with No-Pref out of habit. The new default is more likely to be quickly adopted if No-Pref isn’t an option. It is important to note that MAAF believes No-Pref is not actually anyone’s preference. If any military person truly prefers No-Pref to blank, the new SBNR, or the many others, then No-Pref should be retained.

While a blank entry is the preferable default, an entry such as “no response” would be acceptable if a text value is required for the database.

Some may object to MAAF advocating for the addition of a “spiritual” option. The intention is to distinguish between naturalistic and secular beliefs such as humanism and supernatural beliefs better characterized as “spiritual.” SBNR is not an option a humanist would choose, despite what some religious critics may insist. Many critics have also contended that the nearly one-quarter of military personnel who are currently categorized as No-Pref are actually Spiritual But Not Religious or some other god-believing subset who have no better option. MAAF wants to make that option available to eliminate the opportunity to marginalize the new humanist option as supernatural or god-believing humanists. In this way, the humanist option can be properly identified as entirely secular and naturalistic. This addition should also show that MAAF does not want to mute anyone’s ability to authentically express their beliefs.

MAAF invites support from military, religious, and nontheistic organizations in supporting this change. To support this effort, please encourage your membership to sign the White House petition.

Jason Torpy is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and serves on the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association.