Every person entering service in the U.S. Army is asked, “What’s your religious preference?” They can select from over 100 options, and if you are an atheist or have no religious preference, that’s okay—the Army recognizes non-religions as well. But what you may not know is that just this past week, the Army added “Humanist” to the list of recognized preferences under the category of religion.
The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) and its members have been fighting for the humanist recognition for years after historically being denied. Ray Bradley, an Army Major who identifies as a humanist, has been working directly on the religious preference issue to gain recognition. After two years, he and MAAF prevailed upon the ACLU to take an interest. Finally, after months of wrangling, the Army added “Humanist” to its list of religious preferences.
For many atheists in the military, identifying as a humanist is a positive expression of their values. The unintended consequence of religion vs. non-religion debate results in only two options: belief in a god (usually the Christian one) or belief in nothing. Humanists believe in many things—reason, compassion, empathy, and service for others, as exemplified by Humanist Society Celebrants or charitable organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief.
In addition, recognizing “Humanist” as an answer to the religious preference question is a step toward recognizing humanist chaplains in the military. Religious service members have long enjoyed the benefit of talking privately with a chaplain, and humanists should be afforded the same access to a leader who is training in counseling and understanding of humanist and non-religious viewpoints. Many major religious and non-religious leaders are in full support of a humanist chaplain in the military, even when the House of Representatives rejected the idea.
But should some humanists, especially those who strongly identify as secular humanists, be concerned that humanism will be labeled as a religion? The Army already recognizes “Atheist,” “Agnostic,” “No religious preference,” “None,” and “Unknown”—all of these identities are under the religious preference category. For the purposes of categorizing and identifying service members, religious preferences and non-religious preferences are the same.
It’s time for the rest of the military to catch up with the Army and do right by their humanist soldiers. For now though, every military humanist should head down to the Veterans Administration or your military personnel unit to update your records to “Humanist.” If they refuse, contact the American Humanist Association or the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers.