Frequently Asked Questions

The following topics are often brought up to MAAF.  Nothing is intended to be comprehensive or applicable in every situation.  Nothing should be taken as legal advice. You can always contact MAAF with any questions. Click question to view answer.

What is Humanism all about?

Like traditional religions, humanists and other nontheists have deeply held beliefs, core values, and community that are central to a our identity. “Humanist” is a common collective identifier that refers to those who may identify as nontheist, atheist, agnostic, humanist, pastafarian, bright, freethinker, or other designations.

While terminology and emblems are varied, there are core philosophical foundations that are held in common regardless of labels: Scientific naturalism sees the lens of science as the best way to understand the world, assigning certainty only according to the weight of evidence. Humanists are skeptical of evidence through any source, especially revelation, tradition, or authority. Right actions follow from an ultimate value of human-flourishing, human-based rational ethics and our evolved empathy and instincts as social animals. Tools such as deontology, virtue ethics, consequentialism, and utilitarianism are used in concert to create a solid foundation for ethical action in any given situation. A humanist makes meaning in life by viewing the world through the lens of scientific naturalism, acting according to human-based, rational ethics, and by seeking lasting personal fulfillment through the advancement of oneself, one’s community, and humanity. Also refer to Humanism and Its Aspirations of the American Humanist Association and the 2014 recommitment to scientific integrity.

Chaplains are required to serve all military personnel, but as a naturalistic philosophy, humanism has no divine worship, hierarchical clergy, scripture, or divine truth/dogma. As such, humanists generally do not identify with terms such as “faith,” “worship,” or “religion.”  Traditional religions and traditional religious terms are common in the chaplaincy regulations but should be applied with care to humanists. While humanists have no prescribed time or mode of services, they benefit from community activities such as discussion, music, intellectual lectures, and social interaction. These are best led by a fellow humanist rather than a leader (or chaplain) from a traditional faith group.

Find a document tailored for military administrative information here: Humanist Background & Philosophy

Find a brochure for use in chaplain offices here: Living Well Through Humanism Brochure

Here is a short introduction from Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist about interfaith dialogue and humanism vs atheism.

Jerry DeWitt, prior Christian minister, talks about his desire to serve people and to preach within his new atheist world view.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, explains the awe and wonder of the universe.

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What can I do?

There are a lot of problems in the world, and you are in a good position to make the world a better place. There are several things you should do, including but not limited to the following:

  • Join MAAF. Hopefully you have done this already, but many have not. Without a strong membership, MAAF is not relevant to military and political leaders, and we will not be able to make change.
  • Donate to MAAF. Once again: Hopefully you have done this already, but many have not. Without a strong financial base, MAAF will simply cease to exist. If these things are important to you, please put your money into the cause. We should support important causes, and it should feel good to do so.
  • Come out online first. MAAF is on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Start with us come out online to fellow military atheists. Then check the MAAF Network to come out to military atheists in your local area. You can get encouragement, support, and pointers from fellow MAAF members who have gone before you. Also consider reading a book about the topic such as Coming Out Atheist by Greta Christina. Next, go to your friends. If they can’t accept your atheism, then they are not real friends. It can be tough, but you are just being yourself so you have nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to express who you are. This need not be a great hassle, just speak your mind if the topic comes up, and if they ask your views, be honest. Ethics and honesty are qualities of atheists, and you can dispel their misconceptions of sad, evil, angry atheists. Then considering coming out at work (see the step below about updating your official records). The military, if you are still in, is very religious, but it would be less so if we all were open and honest. If you have any issues, seek MAAF and command support (see harassment FAQ below). Come out to your family. Hopefully they will be open, and they should be, but as an adult, you can advocate for your rights and at least let them know the intelligent, intellectually-honest, ethical, and caring son, daughter, or relative they have.
  • Speak out publicly with an entry on the Atheists in Foxholes list. Provide a picture for the AIF list and on the MAAF Facebook page. This way you are showing the world the face of another atheist in a foxhole. It will be liberating for you and give encouragement to those who are still trying to come out of the closet. Also consider the Openly Secular campaign to ensure your military voice is heard.
  • Change your official records in the military or as a veteran. (See ID tag and records FAQ for more information.) By coming out on your official records, you show the military that there are atheists in foxholes. Chaplains and military leaders try to suggest that the “No-Rel-Pref” demographic, which is nearly one-quarter of the military, are all Christians or Jews who just don’t have their records updated. Stand up and be counted. This will also help to ensure that military leaders and your family know what to do in the worst case. Ensuring your wishes are known can help you to have a god-free memorial and headstone should anything happen. UPDATE May 2014: Members like you have made Humanist an option for official records in the Army and Veterans Administration. Time to update if that is the option you prefer. Other branches of service hopefully soon to follow.
  • Encourage others. Joining, donating, coming out, and all these activities are good for you and all of your atheist, humanist, and nontheistic friends. The more of us that stand out and act out, the faster we will achieve the equality and respect we seek.
  • Lead in your area as a lay leader, point of contact, or local group organizer. Points of contact provide a beacon for others to come together. Organizing a local group provides visibility and community for others in the area. Being a lay leader allows you to work with chaplains to ensure advertising, resources, and command support are afforded to atheists and humanists as well. Contact MAAF for more information.
  • Expand your network by joining a non-military national and local nontheist organization. Many great national organizations exist outside of the military context. It is great to plug in and show your support for them as well. You can find local communities and large conventions to meet others. Also find or start a local group. This may be on post or off post, but ensure that your local community sees a strong atheist or humanist group doing service and supporting one another.
  • Be active locally and/or nationally. Do service projects. Write letters to the editor. Sign petitions. Approach your chain of command or government to resolve violations of separation of church and state. Increase the visibility and respect for humanists. Activism and service can really add meaning to your life and improve the lives of everyone around you. You can make a difference.

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Are military chaplains constitutional? (All chaplain questions)

:: Alert :: Chaplain policy is contained in the MAAF chaplain outreach program

Chaplains in government service should serve the needs of all service members. They should help service members to grow in their personal values and to connect with a supportive community of like-minded individuals. Chaplains should protect the beliefs of all service members and ensure that there is no actual or perceived discrimination within the command based on service members’ beliefs. MAAF also intends for this policy to reconcile chaplains with nontheistic service members or commanders who may have a negative view of the chaplaincy.

In order to do this, chaplains must have sufficient training and experience to provide service to all military personnel. The ability to run worship services for one faith group is a skill chaplains must focus on one group, but their ability to counsel, provide for all beliefs, and to advise the command on religious accommodation and morale issues involves training far beyond what normally they bring from their seminary or religious training. This task starts by opening communication between chaplains, MAAF, and the many nontheist organizations that are ready to support service members.

Read More at the MAAF Chaplain Outreach Program

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Should gays be able to serve in the military? (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – DADT)

MAAF applauds the ongoing Presidential, Congressional, and DoD efforts to implement open service for all and we look forward to the first Military Coming Out Day. The Military’s Coming Out Day is something we should all look forward to, but as implementation nears, there should be an understanding of the many legal challenges still available. MAAF recommends caution for active duty personnel in coming out. That cannot be undone, and discrimination will be hard to prove. Everyone, civilian, active duty, and veterans, should loudly and publicly applaud the repeal of DADT. Marching in parades in uniform (as authorized by your local command) and showing support in the workplace are helpful and do not necessarily constitute “coming out.” As implementation begins officially, only active duty personnel who understand the risks and have a comfort level with their position should come out immediately. Coming out cannot be undone if the military does not follow thru or if sectarian political forces start to block enforcement.

Enter comments at the official DoD comment page: http://www.defense.gov/dadt Military login (CAC) required.

We join many other excellent organizations including the the Center For Inquiry, KnightsOut.org, and VoteVets.org who have also supported open service for all.

[MAAF and partner FAQ leading up to the repeal of DADT] Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) is an antiquated policy that must be replaced by open service for all service members regardless of sexual orientation. DADT has hurt the military by forcing honorable service members to either hide their personal life or be removed from service. After decades of hand-wringing about the impact open service may have on combat power, senior military leaders and respected veterans confirm that the military is ready to choose integrity over discrimination. Our military deserves to support integrity for all and a team that is built upon American values and combat power without sectarian division. We call upon military and civilian leaders to repeal DADT and support open service for all with regulation, military legislation, and vocal support at the line level.

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What if I can’t access military sites or get MAAF email at work?

Military installations and units have domain firewalls just like private corporations. These firewalls sometimes block emails or websites of nontheist organizations including MAAF. This has occurred at several installations including those listed below. The challenge is that domain restrictions are set at different command levels and implemented, technically, in different ways. This leads to an extremely time-consuming set of phone calls to get someone to take responsibility for the changes, and then someone to actually make the changes.

It is important to identify the nature of the issue. Those seeing MAAF or any of the other nontheist orgs blocked should take the additional step of seeing if alternative organizations are also blocked. Check ocfusa.org, ccci.org, navigators.org, and billygraham.org. If they are blocked, send the following items to MAAF:

  • The 5 screenshots (the 4 other sites and militaryatheists.org)
  • Yes/No if you are willing to be identified by name in the complaint
  • Any contact information you have for your domain administrator
  • Any actions you have already taken to resolve the issue

Currently under review: Yongsan AB, Korea, reported Oct 2011.

Resolved: West Point, NY; Ft Detrick, MD

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Why is “God” on coins and the national motto?

The Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto (In God We Trust) are religious in nature and thus unconstitutional. They are also dismissive of the service of atheist patriots who established and have defended this nation. The insertion in the 1950s of religion into the motto and pledge represent a dark time in our nation when our secular founders were scorned in favor of the Red Scare of Fascist McCarthyism.

The motto “In God We Trust” is the US National Motto and found on US Currency. This is an unconstitutional preference of religion over non-religion. Before “In God We Trust” was the motto, our founding fathers chose “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many one, a motto celebrating our cultural diversity and national unity. This is a motto the entire nation can support, and we advocate re-instituting it on our currency and as our official national motto.

In 1954, the Knights of Columbus, a religious organization, convinced the federal government to add the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This represents an unconstitutional preference of religion over non-religion. We advocate removing these two divisive words from our Pledge.

As long as the words “Under God” remain in the Pledge, its recitation in schools causes secular students to feel excluded and presents the appearance that the government, through its school systems and teachers, promotes religion. As soon as the words “Under God” are removed from the Pledge, it reverts to its original status as a motivational and patriotic expression of the commitment of citizens to the US Government and its values, and citizens everywhere should recite it regularly, especially while benefiting from government-provided services.

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Why can the Boy Scouts and other Congressionally-Charted Organizations discriminate against atheists?

The US Congress issues Congressional Charters in accordance with US Code Title 36. These Congressional Charters constitute official government sponsorship, and authorize other government organizations to offer special privileges to these organizations and their members. Because of this, what might be considered a private organization acquires a federal status. The Congress has a responsibility to revoke charters of organizations that violate federal guidelines, including guidelines against religious discrimination, or when the operations of organizations would create an excessive entanglement of government with religion. At the same time, organizations must recognize the responsibility they take on with a Congressional Charter and either act in accordance with government regulations or rescind their Chartered status.

The Boy Scouts of America holds a Congressional Charter while discriminating against atheists. The BSA ejects openly atheist members and leaders, even those that have reached the highest ranks of the organization. All branches of the military issue an promotion (to E2 or E3) for Eagle Scouts, the highest Boy Scout rank. This constitutes discrimination in hiring by the military as well as government approval of the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policies. There are also various laws and regulation directing special access to resources for Boy Scout Troops and gatherings. The values, community, and service so fundamental to the BSA would provide an even greater service to the nation if they would promote respect for all beliefs, including atheism. The BSA must either support atheist scouts as they do all other scouts or step down from their Chartered status. Failing this, Congress should revoke their Chartered status.

On 12 Jan 09, MAAF joined the American Humanist Association in asking President-elect Obama to reject the title of honorary president of the Boy Scouts – press release.

As of 15 Nov 04, the ACLU of Illinois secured a settlement with the pentagon. The pentagon agreed to stop
its military bases from chartering Boy Scout units due to their
god-belief requirements:http://www.aclu-il.org/news/press/000220.shtml Veterans group American Legion wants the pentagon and the president to stand up for religious discrimination against atheists and violate the constitution: http://www.legion.org/?section=pub_relations&subsection=pr_listreleases&content=pr_press_release&id=249
MAAF issued
a July 2012 call for an end to federal funding following the Boy Scouts’ reaffirmation of their discriminatory policies

In 2005, the Veterans of Foreign Wars published a new, nonsectarian membership application that included none of the religious requirements of their previous application. Previously, the VFW required new members to attest to a belief in “Almighty God” on their membership applications. We applaud this action and consider their stated membership requirements to be comprehensive and fair: US citizenship, an honorable discharge, and an overseas campaign medal (or 30 days’ service in Korea). We encourage all veterans to join the VFW, both to continue the long service of the VFW to soldiers and in recognition of the VFW’s newfound respect for nonreligious soldiers. Also note that many local posts still use the old religious application. MAAF encourages members to notify the posts of

We consider it the responsibility of MAAF members to generate new, progressive change in the policies of the VFW and all veterans service organizations. We encourage the VFW to continue to represent all soldiers by avoiding religious issues and focusing on military policies. We encourage the VFW to publicly recognize their new membership policy by official resolution. Previous issues such as the firing of the VFW PAC, support of the Summum case, a Soledad, Mojave Desert, and Utah trooper government-sponsored Christian crosses show Christian bias rather than equal rights for all veterans. The VFW should rescind its support of the current “Under God” Pledge, a document that creates religious division in America, and lobby the supreme court for the original Pledge, the true statement of patriotism in America. We encourage the VFW to work with the Boy Scouts of America to adopt a similar, nonsectarian membership application that does not discriminate against nonreligious young men. Members should encourage the VFW to represent their nonreligious as well as religious membership by rescinding or changing sectarian policies.

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What Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) does MAAF recommend?

The Combined Federal Campaign is a list of charities disseminated by the US Government to all government employees, basically like the United Way. Federal employees can easily select from among these vetted and approved charities for their personal giving programs. MAAF is not currently listed, but MAAF accepts donations directly - one-time donations or automatic, recurring donations just like CFC. No paypal account required. If you prefer to work with CFC charities, MAAF does review programs to identify the charities with the best fit to MAAF goals of supporting nontheists in the military and promoting interfaith toleration.

See a full review and how various charities conform

In summary, MAAF recommends the following CFC charities:

  • 12504 – Society for Humanistic Judaism – Human-centered celebration of Jewish culture and identity, promoting humanism, dignity, equality and ethical behavior. Building humanistic Jewish congregations today, creating continuity for our children tomorrow.
  • 30916 – Unity Productions Foundation – UPF produces films and educational campaigns aimed to increase understanding and foster dialogue among the world’s cultural traditions with a focus on Muslim-U.S. relations.
  • 32519 – Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. – Join our effective national association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), founded in 1978, in promoting freethought and defending the constitutional principle of state/church separation.
  • 12437 – Middle East Peace Dialogue Network, Inc. – Supports dialogue activities throughout the Middle East between its many and varied nationalities, cultures, religion and political philosophies. Dialogue is the key to future peace.
  • 12438 – Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh – Promotes mutual understanding among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and economic development throughout all of Ireland. Job training, economic development and educational organization.
  • 12440 – International Center for Religion and Diplomacy – ICRD resolves conflict where religion is a factor. Help us bridge political differences between adversaries in areas of potential or actual conflict.
  • 19492 – American Humanist Association – We advocate for the rights of humanist, atheist, and secular Americans, defend the separation of church and state, advance science and reason, promote humanist values.

MAAF reviewed a list of over 2500 programs. There were a disturbing amount of primarily designed to convert others to Christianity. CFC is a government program that disseminates charities to well over 1 million potential subscribers. This type of program must maintain Church/State Separation. Currently, there are several charities that openly proselytize and must not be included in this government-sponsored charity promotion.
See a full review and how various charities conform.

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What can I say and do in uniform as an atheist or humanist activist?

Service members should at a minimum contact their local commanders and public affairs personnel for official advice. Service members should also look around and avoid imitating the types of public speaking activities they disagree with. Also consider the following types of speaking: Speaking in uniform is different than out of uniform. Speaking topics could include personal military experiences, comments on religious feelings, complaining about military decisions, etc. Speakers could be active duty, deployed, reservists, veterans, retired, etc. Military status, speaking topic, and dress code are all significant.

The Federal Government regulates the activities of service members in and out of uniform. The US Code, DOD Regulations, individual service regulations, and, where applicable, foreign national military regulations, hold the power of law. This policy is intended to promote legal activity.
MAAF members should at no time present the appearance that they are speaking as a representative of the military, the government, or MAAF without prior approval. Including one’s rank, title, or making reference to one’s service may do that, but in general those things are acceptable so long as they include the disclaimer that the comments are about personal experience and not official statements. Service members are generally restricted to speaking out of uniform, off post, and outside the duty day.

At a minimum, military personnel should seek counsel when participating in any activist event in uniform.
Military personnel often attend religious events and engage in religious speech in uniform, thus giving the appearance of government promotion of religion. However, those violations do not justify similar activities on our part.

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What can I do if I am being harassed?

Disclaimer on Legal Counsel

There is no substitute for professional legal advice. Advice from MAAF officer, staff, or members is not legal advice. If you feel that you are being illegally discriminated against, it is important that you understand your rights. You have a right to legal counsel. If you feel that you may be in a situation where you may get in trouble, it is imperative that you consult a lawyer. A free consultation with a military lawyer is your right as a service member and you can contact defense counsel at your local Judge Advocate office. If you do not qualify for free military legal representation or feel uncomfortable with the military legal system you may contact us for help finding legal counsel.

Use your Chain of Command

Although you may choose a number of options, the “approved solution” is to use your chain of command. They are your leaders and may pleasantly surprise you if you communicate with them. In addition, prior history has shown that legal action (whether civilian, JAG, or IG) will likely have no effect if the chain of command is not given an opportunity to resolve the issue. There may be cases whether the chain of command is the problem, but before civilian legal action is pursued, your chain of command must become involved. See below for several steps that can be taken prior to or in addition to your chain of command.

Communication is the Key

Most problematic situations can be resolved with communication. Many people may unintentionally make insensitive remarks or promote an activity you find offensive. Some military folks are not accustomed to thinking that there may be atheists, humanists, or other ideological minorities in their midst. It is critical to be rational, to try to find common ground, and not to make rash remarks. Communication with neutral third parties like friends and mentors (in person or through MAAF) may also help to clarify the situation. If communication is not possible with the person or persons with whom you are having a problem, other solutions exist.

Chaplains may help

Chaplains are charged with attending to religious affairs in the unit, including the command climate. Many discrimination situations are within the responsibility of your unit chaplain to address and resolve. If the chaplain is the problem or is overtly hostile, this may not be an option. However, take time to give your chaplain an opportunity to provide you the same support other service members receive. On a simpler level, chaplains are trained to provide personal, confidential counseling, and many can do this without resorting to an unwanted faith-based approach.

** of the below options, EO (Equal Opportunity + EEO, Equal Employment Opportunity + MEO, Military Equal Opportunity) is generally appropriate to protect your individual rights and IG (Inspector General) is generally appropriate when the command has violated regulations. There is overlap as well. In all cases, you can contact JAG (Judge Advocate) to get free military legal counsel on your behalf. **

Equal Opportunity

As an atheist you are protected by Equal Opportunity (and Equal Employment Opportunity) regulations. Department of Defense directive on Military Equal Opportunity (MEO, 1350.2) states, “Persons shall be evaluated on individual merit, fitness, and capability, regardless of race, sex, color, national origin, or religion”. The MEO regulation further defines religion as “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.” This is entirely compatible with nontheistic ideologies. All Department of Defense organizations are required to have an equal opportunity representative. However, do not be surprised if your representative has never thought about the rights of atheists before. These individuals are required to treat you fairly and should help you find a solution or lodge a formal complaint. If your equal opportunity representative is unable or unwilling to help you, you should still be able to contact another representative from your unit’s higher headquarters.

The Inspector General and Article 138

If you find that you cannot work your issue through communication or through equal opportunity channels or command channels, you are still entitled to a couple of methods of redress. The first course of action is to file a complaint through the Inspector General (IG). The IG has the responsibility of investigating complaints and enforcing regulations. The IG may or may not be a lawyer and your success may vary. Just like the equal opportunity channels, it is possible to keep submitting your complaint to higher levels up to the applicable department’s headquarters. Finally, you can file an Article 138 complaint against your commander (definitely seek legal counsel first). Article 138 complaint procedures vary from service to service so it is important that you read the applicable regulations or seek legal counsel. Remember, all these processes can take a lot of time and can monopolize a lot of your commander’s time. For these reasons, it is important that you try to resolve the issue through communication and at the lowest level possible. You have the right to stand up for what you believe in and we stand ready to support atheists and freethinkers experiencing discrimination.

Going Outside the Military

If you find that you cannot resolve your issues within the military, you still have several options. Organizations such as MAAF and our affiliates are always ready to fight for your rights. In addition, you may find that working through the local media, writing editorials, and raising awareness about your plight may be effective. Service members still retain the right to publish newsletters, articles, and engage in public speaking. You may want to familiarize yourself with the applicable regulations. Another approach which can be effective is to contact your representatives in Congress. The best way is usually to present your case by writing a letter (or by showing up at their door). Most legislators can be reached by email, phone, or fax. Filing a congressional complaint is easy. Filing a “congressional” should be the last step as it can be very time consuming for your command and your legislator. I would like to reiterate the first point that your chain of command must be given an opportunity to address issues before you go outside the military for formal legal action or else it will be very easy for IG, legal, or congressional investigators to simply refer the issue back to your chain of command for action.

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Why can’t I have humanist instead of No Pref on my records?

As stated in the ID Tag FAQ (see below) and actions for members FAQ (see above), MAAF encourages members to choose “atheist” as their “religious preference.” MAAF does so as the best option for a system that assumes supernatural religious views and creates difficults for those that are not of the majority faith group, those that prefer to stay anonymous, or those who are simply uninterested in specialized support. The current system also includes outdated and confusing language that should be changed. MAAF is reaching out to military leaders to propose the following changes to the current system:

  • 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
  • Add an option for “Humanist”
  • Add an option for “Spiritual But Not Religious” aka SBNR, Spiritual or Spiritual BNR

The question “what is your religion” is posed to new recruits as a matter of course to be put on ID tags and official records. Reasons for this include assisting with chaplain corps planning and providing last rites based on information list on the ID tag, but nothing else other than habit. Because these are opt-in activities, individuals should not be asked. MAAF members frequently complain about actual and perceived negative consequences from this question. Eliminating the question during processing eliminates the problematic situations that arise. Individuals have the option at any time to add the information or change their information whenever their choose. That opt-in approach would better reflect the true desires of the individual and the true needs of the military to provide for free expression of religion.

The second two bullets ask that “No Religious Preference (NRP)” be eliminated and that a blank entry be the default. “NRP” is a well-recognized option in the military, but viewed out of context, this option is clearly nonsensical. Individuals, even atheists, care what kind of religion they are subjected to. A committed atheist has a preference about religion. Even a non-denominational Christian has a preference — certainly not Hindu or Muslim. On a more practical note “No Religious Preference” is currently the largest single denomination in the military, at nearly 25%. This is a meaningless and confusing demographic. Taking away that option would allow the chaplains to have a better understanding of who needs support because it would only be those who opt in to a specific denomination. Leaving blank the entry for an individuals religious preference is more appropriate than entering a meaningless term.

The last two items involve the addition of two options to allow for better record-keeping. “Humanist” is a request MAAF puts forward on behalf of prospective lay leader and chaplain endorsers like the American Ethical Union and the Humanist Society. These organizations have adherents who, though atheist, perfer the term “humanist” as a more authentic representation of their religious preference. Finally, although outside the purview of MAAF specifically, modern trends in culture indicate the “Spiritual But Not Religious” is a widely-preferred and growing type of belief among the population. It would be appropriate for the Personnel office and chaplains to begin capturing this demographic. If the military adopts “SBNR” and no other recommendation, it would be a smoking gun that atheistic and naturalistic beliefs are unwelcome in the military.

MAAF has addressed these issues to various professional chaplains and military leadership agencies. Each military service would need to adopt these process and administrative updates in their respective personnel areas. Chaplains would need to update their aggregation of demographics. And probably most importantly, the Defense Manpower Data Agency, which aggregates personnel data across the services, would have to recognize the change and update their processes as well. This would all be for the benefit of individual troops primarily and also for the military’s understanding of its diversity of religion and belief.

Also see: Remove Military Requirement to Choose Religion

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Can I have atheist on my official records, ID tags, and military headstone?

Breaking victory: The Army approved “Humanist”  on 5/12/2014. VA facilities provide the option as well. MAAF is coordinating with members to add a “Humanist” option in other branches. Stay tuned.

Yes. Simply ask for it. Atheist options exist in the system if the clerk chooses to input it. Just go to your local personnal (or S-1) and ask for an update. If your request is refused, escalate the issue to the clerk’s superiors, your superiors, or MAAF. (Also see “harassment” FAQ.) For example, Army Regulation 680-29 confirms that code 75 is for atheist. Also consider 00 – blank or 74 – Other. For ID tags in particular, there are a number of online locations to purchase military-spec ID tags, and you can put on them whatever you like or nothing at all, in the religion line at least.

Atheist is a convenient umbrella term, but just like Protestants, many atheists prefer a more specific, positive expression of their values. If, for example, you prefer to identify as Humanists as your alternative to religion, then put in a request. This is currently not an option, but MAAF members should request and insist on their right to self-identify as whatever they want. MAAF will help with EO or IG complaints to secure our rights to our own beliefs. As a note, many atheists like the term Pastafarian and other satire on religion. Unless you really believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, above all others and really practices Pastafarian ways, then do not put in that request. MAAF will not help to have joke entries on your official records. Our beliefs are deeply-held and deserve as much institutional support as Christianity, Judaism, or other traditional faith perspectives. (See the other FAQ entry about having humanist on official records.)

If your preference (Humanist, Ethical Culture, Humanistic Judaism, etc) is not available, start with atheist so you can be counted separately from No-Preference, Jewish, Christian, or whatever your records may currently say. Then we can work to make your specific preference available. If there is room for over 80 Christian denominations, there can be room for a few atheistic preferences.

ID Tags aren’t the only place to have your atheism represented. MAAF encourages all of its members to change your official records to atheist, to update your ID tags to say atheist, and to ensure your will reflects your desire for an atheist funeral and an atheist headstone. Those out of the military should also update their VA hospital records. Atheist is an option there as well. Humanist may not be, but you should ask for what you like. The Veterans Administration provides for “religious” emblems on military grave markers. Currently the American Atheists symbol and the “Happy Human” of humanism are on the list of approved VA grave emblems. You can also contact MAAF or another national organization to have a humanist celebrant provide comments at your ceremony (or a ceremony for a relative).

Here are some specifics from (at the time) AA Military Director Justin Griffith. Update Navy Page 2 online (https://nsips.nmci.navy.mil/): Update Personal Information -> Religion, Race and Ethnic Code ZA for Atheist (submitted by silentsacrifice), Marine Corps (https://www.mol.usmc.mil/), Air Force Virtual MPF(https://www.my.af.mil/): Select VRed >update religious preference (submitted by Timothy). All branches can go to their personnel office to request the change.

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Do I have to say “So Help Me God” during my enlistment/officer oath?

No. This is a common question with a simple answer. Simply ask the officer administering the oath to say “affirm” rather than “swear” and to omit the “So Help Me God” at the end. This secular option applies equally to all government oaths, including the oath of office for military officers and ROTC/Academy cadets and even the oath for jury duty. Anyone denied this right should contact MAAF for assistance. If the officer says the “so help me god” portion, simply do not repeat that portion. Drop your hand because the oath is over. You may also choose to set up a new ceremony, initiate an Equal Opportunity complaint against the officer for such discrimination, and/or contact MAAF for assistance.

It is illegal and unethical to force someone to swear to god if they do not want to. The governing regulation here is the Constitution Article VI Paragraph 3 “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office”. Given this freedom, do the following two things:

  • Use ‘affirm’ rather than ‘swear’ in the spoken oath and end prior to the ‘so help me god’ portion.
  • Line-out and initial the ‘so help me god’ portion on the written paperwork.
  • Contact MAAF if anyone threatens or has threatened your commission/enlistement/career in response to your request for these rights. MAAF can also coordinate for an officer willing to perform a secular enlistment or commissioning ceremony.

If applicable, point them at AR 601-280 “The Army Retention Program,” Appendix D Paragraph 2k, which states specifically that the reenlisting soldier need not swear to god. Or to USC 512 Title 28 (Revision June 25, 1948 ch. 646, 62 Stat. 925) which clarifies that an oath of affirmation excludes the “so help me god” portion. Air Force should refer to AFI 36-2606 (Ch.3, 2. “Detailed Instructions for Completing the DD Forms 4/1 and 4/2″, Table 3.9, Item Number 15 – Confirmation of (Re)enlistment Oath). Each service has similar alternatives which may be unclear in written policy but should be made clear by any legal advisor.

Additional References: About.com, Wikipedia, US Code.

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Can I, as a service member, be ordered to pray?

First, just to be clear, praying is impossible without belief. Also, one might consider praying without belief to be a kind of mockery. However, there are cases where senior personnel attempt to push their personal beliefs on subordinates. Remember that prayer rituals are not consistent between different religious traditions. These requests are likely to offend not only nonreligious persons, but believers with different religious backgrounds than the prospective leader of the prayer. Note that you have been forced into an uncomfortable position by having to choose between betraying your beliefs (by bowing your head) and identifying yourself as someone who is “different” (by not bowing). Consider addressing these events, either before or after the fact, to leaders, EO Representatives, and chaplains as indicated below.

The issue of “Ceremonial Deism” is very difficult for MAAF members. Military leaders are currently authorized to offer non-sectarian prayer in large ceremonies. MAAF does not condone this practice, but we do offer appropriate ways for MAAF members to respond.

  • 1) You can ask to be excused from the prayer or the whole event. There is
    mixed success in being excused and that obviously singles-out the person
    asking and does not repair the problem of command religious sponsorship.
  • 2) You suggest events or activities to welcome and support the nontheists
    in the unit. With command sponsorship of religious beliefs through
    ceremonial prayer, there should be an attempt to balance the scales with
    support of atheist/humanist events.
  • 3) The “MAAF nod” greeting is suggested. If you are included in a prayer against your wishes, keep your head up and look around. Smile and nod to commune with others. This is not a protest; it is a type of personal connection that is foundational to our humanistic perspective.
  • 4) If there is any attempt to force someone to bow their head or otherwise
    actively participate in the prayer, that should be reported as
    discrimination. Christians bow their head in prayer, but Jews, for
    example, do not, and atheists don’t pray at all. Should the formation kneel and touch their head to the floor
    in the Muslim tradition of prayer? If there is an objection
    to looking for others in the crowd, point out that a bowed head is also
    not proper for attention/parade rest.
  • 5) If there is any sectarian content – Jesus, Savior, Son, etc – it should
    be reported with the date, location, person prayer, and other details.
    MAAF will follow up to resolve the violation. Note – The Army has explicitly endorsed sectarian prayer at mandatory events.

* note that retirement ceremonies may have special requests from the
individual being honored that may allow for additional leeway in some
aspects of a ceremony.

* there should be no prayer at informal or daily events like staff meetings. Contact MAAF to report instances of frequent prayer at daily, official events.

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If I’m ordered to go to AA, can I get a religious exemption?

Maybe, but there are some definite prerequisites. Service members are sometimes referred to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This can be problematic as the 12 steps revolve around the idea of a higher power. This higher power often refers to god, and reference to earlier foundational documents show a strong bias toward Christianity. We are encouraged that MAAF members and other atheists have been successful with AA. In addition, there are statements from AA officially recognizing the opportunity for a secular interpretation of the religious statements. We do want to make sure that those who need help have a comfortable and welcoming environment.

MAAF will not second-guess the directive to seek substance abuse counseling or support. We have had requests that are clearly veiled substitutes attempts to avoid treatment or deny that the person has a problem. We can help with counseling alternatives, but cannot help eliminate the counseling. With that in mind, please see below.

First, seek the option of a secular program. MAAF recommends to alternative programs:

  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is an alternative recovery method for those alcoholics or drug addicts who are uncomfortable with the spiritual content of widely available 12-Step programs. SOS takes a reasonable, secular approach to recovery and maintains that sobriety is a separate issue from religion or spirituality. [more locations to follow]
  • SMART Recovery (Self-Management And Recovery Training) is an international non-profit organization that offers free, self-empowering, science-based mutual help groups for abstaining from any substance or activity addiction. The Meetings tab provides references to online, voice, and in-person meetings as well as online chat and forums.

If non-AA alternatives are not available or if a legal mandate has specified an AA-based program, we recommend giving the program a try. Go to the AA meeting or AA-based treatment program, be open about being atheist, and follow the secular intent of the program. The program has an undercurrent requiring surrender to a “higher power.” For this portion, consider choosing one of several proxies for a higher power:

  • The Group: AA itself and your AA group in particular should very much be your “higher power.” It is something outside yourself with expertise and caring that you can lean on in times of trouble.
  • An Ideal: Your Ideal Self or an Ideal Hero that you look up to can give you a goal to strive for. AA will encourage an external locus of control and an external source of strength, so you may need to explain this Ideal Self or Ideal Hero is outside rather than within yourself, but it may be a valid inspiration for personal development.
  • A Symbol: Your military rank or uniform, a diploma or degree, or a meaningful memento from family. Anything that you have that inspires you to be greater may provide solace and support just as the idea of a god may support some others
  • A Fake: You might pick the nearest chair or Harry Potter (HP – higher power), or a lightbulb or something as powerless as god is to you. This may work if the idea of any “higher power” is too contradictory to your world view. It would most likely depend on your dedication to other portions of the program.

If you go to the meeting and participate and pick a higher power of your choosing and then if you are forced to choose a religious or Christian higher power, we can help. If an atheist-friendly group with sufficient services is unavailable within a reasonable distance and local AA programs have proven to be religious in nature, then we can help “fix” your group or seek alternate judgment against you (vis AA). At this point, you will have shown that you are committed to recovery, but that you need help to find a supportive program.

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How do I get on the Atheists in Foxholes List?

At the MAAF Atheists in Foxholes list, (http://militaryatheists.org/atheists-in-foxholes/), over 200 MAAF members have provided service record and pictures to show there are atheists in foxholes. If you would like to be listed, first you must join MAAF and then send the information listed below.

If you send this information to MAAF, we will post it on the website. Standing up for yourself allows you to stand up for so many others.

Please use proper punctuation (not all lower case, not all caps). Please explain acronyms and job codes. All information is optional.

Copy the information listed below and send it using the MAAF contact form. You’ll also receive this information when you join MAAF or update your membership and you can reply to that email with information and attachments.

Service component(s):
Rank(s):
Name:
Dates of service:
Decorations:
Tours of duty, with dates:
Specialty:
Website:
Link to AIF video:
& Comments:
Please also provide other comments relating to hazardous duty, what you believe about prayer in combat, and any experiences you have had relating to religious tolerance/discrimination in the military.

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Can an atheist be a conscientious objector?

Yes. The American Humanist Association resolved the religious bias in Conscientious Objection (CO) law way back in 1965 in US vs Seeger. (Also see Welsh vs US, 1970.) While CO status is assumed to be reserved only to the religious, atheists and humanists with strong moral objections to war may be exempted. That having been said, remember this must be objection to war in general not to one war in particular. There is no standing whatsoever to disagree with a certain specific war or military action. The two categories are objection to any involvement with military action at all. In this case, the person will be excused from service. The second is objection to personal violent action. In such a case, the person would be given an administrative position rather than a war-fighting position. In both cases, the paperwork and justifications will be extensive, but for those with strong conviction, it is entirely possible. Also, anyone who joins the military has effectively stated that they do not have a conscientious objection to war. Therefore any later CO status application would have to include a clear explanation of what changed between enlistment and CO status. A religious conversion is an obvious excuse but a change in secular thinking may also be the case.

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