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.