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

Update: The Army approved “Humanist” on 5/12/2014, and the DoD in March 2017. VA facilities provide the option as well. However, military personnel and veterans are still commonly refused this option by clerks. The Navy and Air Force have not taken necessary steps to implement these options in administrative systems. This FAQ should be obsolete based on the DoD recognition in 2017, but unfortunately, it still largely applies.

As stated in our ID Tag FAQ and actions for members FAQ, MAAF encourages members to choose “atheist” or “humanist” 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 The current system also includes outdated and confusing language that should be changed.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