Lesson Plan Supplement

Accommodation of Religious Practices - Nontheistic Service Members

Reference: Jason Torpy, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, www.militaryatheists.org, 2006; Version: 20060524-b

Current copy found at http://www.militaryatheists.org/chaplain.html

Table of Contents

Administrative Data

Audience: Chaplains
Purpose: To increase the ability of chaplains to provide for the free exercise of nontheistic service members and to more effectively advise the chain of command on matters of religious practice within the command.
Method: Provide information, resources, and anecdotes relating to the community, practices, and perspectives of nontheistic service members.
Assumptions: Chaplains are instructed in other areas on the policies and regulations that require chaplains to support all service members.
Terms: A comprehensive list of terms is not found here because a list of defined terms can imply that there are that nontheists operate on dogmatic beliefs or immutable faith foundations. This misconception should be avoided. That having been said, the term nontheism is something that might be unfamiliar. Nontheist is an umbrella term referring to those who may individually identify as atheists, agnostics, secular americans, humanists, secular humanists, skeptics, ethical culturalists, freethinkers, or something else. Nontheists hold a naturalistic worldview inspired by reason and science and separate from other groups like monotheists, deists, polytheists, pantheists and others. The term "nonreligious" is common in public use, but it is important to realize that some nontheists consider themselves to be religious (ref SHJ, AEU). Some demographic surveys (ARIS, Pew, others) refer to nontheists as "nones." Nontheist is generally a preferred group identifier, but individuals should be asked how they prefer to be identified. The most important thing in these instances is that labels are not as important as understanding, respect, and support to ensure that religion does not create a rift in the unit.
Religion: Notwithstanding the general statement on terms above, we do recognize and support the official military definition of religion (DOD Directive 1350.2), which is inclusive of nontheistic beliefs and reads as follows: "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."

The Chaplain and Nontheistic Service Members

The chaplain must support all service members. Although traditional language focuses on “religious freedom,” it is important that chaplains support nontheistic soldiers as well who may categorize themselves as religious or nonreligious. Just as chaplains take action to understand faith traditions different than their own; they must understand nontheistic belief systems. Just as chaplains throughout history have had difficulty accepting Catholics, then Jews, then Muslims, then Wiccans, and other minority belief systems, we all must now recognize and account for nontheistic belief systems. We must do this for the same reason we accepted others – in order to support the single Army team concept and, in a broader sense, stay true to our oath to Constitution and its Amendments, which prevent a religious test for public office, promote freedom of expression, and prohibit government entanglement with religion.

As advisers to the command, chaplains serve as the experts in religious accommodation. As commanders rotate in and out of their command positions, they may not have been in a situation that required them to make the difficult mental adjustment to accept other belief systems. It is incumbent upon the chaplains to pass these lessons on to the command for the benefit of all service members.

The Nontheistic Perspective

People often seek answers to ‘higher’ questions of purpose, origins, and community identity. However, people search in different ways and reach different conclusions, many of which are compatible with military service. Traditionally, the question of religion focuses on scriptural bases, methods of worship, and church governance in addition to pious ethics and how to live in accordance with religious law. The fundamental difference is that a religious perspective has dimensions involving punishment and rewards from church hierarchy, an active deity, and/or the afterlife. Nontheistic service members do not seek to reject these influences; they merely see the supernatural as nonexistent and irrelevant to these ‘higher’ questions.

It is important to understand that this isn’t an effort to reject religion; it is set of evidence-based ethics that stand alone. In addition, it is not uncommon that nontheists have a good understanding of more traditional religions Many have explored other options and found the secular or nontheistic option to provide more satisfying answers.

Although some think that this lack of belief is due to anger or ignorance, it is important to respect the beliefs of nontheistic soldiers without question, just as Christian chaplains are expected to respect the beliefs of Jews, Muslims, and others, and as Jewish and Muslim chaplains are expected to respect Christians. Every person that believes in a certain god disbelieve in many others. Nontheistic service members have simply rejected one more god than monotheists.

There is a myth that ethics can not arise from the nontheistic perspective. This is an absolute falsehood and should be a focus in any education program. Nontheistic people often seek the same things as their religious counterparts: to live a good life and impact others positively. They might simply have other motivations, reasons, and methods to reach these goals. Without the belief in some higher power and the supporting hierarchy of clergy, nontheistic service members have the challenging opportunity to develop their own way of life. In addition, there is no tradition or authority to provide dogma and terms to which nontheistic service members can default. Conversely, nontheistic service members draw from the entire history of philosophy and religion. The entire history of human thought is viewed with equal skepticism[1] and rules of logic. It is logic and skeptical inquiry that direct the development of a nontheistic individual’s ethics. Lessons from history, figures of authority, and intuition are accepted, but they are all subject to skepticism. Whether or not individual chaplains internalize the validity of the nontheistic viewpoint, chaplains can only be effective if they have an understanding of the nontheistic viewpoint and can both support and advise others in this area.

Supporting Nontheistic Service Members

Nontheistic service members need the same assistance with respect to morale, family, community, stress, all soldiers need. However, faith and prayer are not useful tools for helping these service members. It is important to understand that prayer is not significant to nontheistic service members, and offering prayer might be seen as disrespectful, not helpful. Referencing faith is likely to alienate the chaplain from the service member.

Chaplains are instructed in a wide variety of counseling techniques. Divinity school often involves non-scriptural philosophy from which the chaplain can draw lessons. Chaplains school offers counseling training. Most chaplains are likely to have training in both philosophy and counseling in addition to their religious training. Nontheistic service members will react positively if the chaplain has the ability to explain why a certain behavior is beneficial without resorting to religious basis. Even if the conclusion is the same, the justification must be other than personal revelation, personal religious tradition, or scripture. While these sources are not invalid, presenting them, especially at first, sends a message that the chaplain is unable to counsel from a secular perspective. As chaplains steward religious freedom and unit morale, they can and must make the adjustment to reach out to all service members – including the nontheistic.

Nontheistic Organizations[2]

Chaplains can receive philosophical insight, counseling support, and community referrals from nontheistic organizations. These organizations have different perspectives on the best philosophy. None claim divine backing or absolute authority. The directors of each organization present their philosophy as a consistent, scientific, and rationally-based way of life available given a naturalistic world view. Whether or not individuals associate themselves with an organization, the focus is generally on personal development rather than organizational success. The websites of these organizations have philosophical insights, representatives, activities, and a community.

Nontheistic service members often feel that they have no support and that they are excluded from the military team. Religious service members may feel justified in discriminating against their teammates if they feel their teammates don’t have an ‘approved religion.’ Directing nontheistic service members to these organizations can not only provide service members social support, but can also provide them with lessons and direction in their personal development.

Insensitive Practices

There are many practices that may be authorized, but that show a lack of respect for nontheistic service members. Chaplains, if not inclined to change policy, should understand and advertise the damaging effects these practices can have on the military team. While chaplains may have been a party to many of these practices in the past and had no objection, the lack of objection was likely a result of fear of retribution rather than a true lack of objection. Some are presented as personal stories, while others are presented as a more general case.

Each insensitive practice is matched with a more accommodating approach. These more accommodating approaches are presented as an effort to appeal to the interests of all involved rather than resorting to litigation or command policy restrictions.

“There are no atheists at the end of static lines”

Army Parachutist training, otherwise known as “Airborne School,” is a rigorous three-week program designed to train soldiers to parachute from planes. Certification is not only prestigious within the military but also important for career progression. Regardless of rank, all trainees are subject to the close control of the trainers, or “Black Hats”, and other administrative officials.

On the eve of the first jump, the company commander, in the presence of the command chaplain, addressed the trainees. Included in his speech was the statement, “there are no atheists at the end of static lines.” As previously stated, this is an untrue and discriminatory statement that offended at least one atheist in the audience. In order to make his objections known and possibly change opinions, the atheist would have had to approach the commander and make it known that there are atheists at the end of static lines and in his audience.

This would have made the trainee subject to additional scrutiny, if not outright harassment. This particular commander may or may not have reacted favorably, but considering the statements made, the command created the perception of bias against nontheists. The chaplain, by his presence and the actions of his command, create a culture of exclusion rather than accommodation.

To avoid this situation, chaplains should avoid discriminatory statements. In addition, chaplains should be sure to advise their commanders in advance to prevent these situations and take action to advise their commanders if commanders make statements that divide their command. This logic applies to all variations of this particular statement, whether related to atheists in foxholes, cockpits, boats, or whatever atheists serve. The responsibility for chaplains to ensure accommodation in command grows when in training environments that eliminate the opportunity for trainees to speak for themselves. (1998 incident)

Chaplain's Time at West Point Cadet Basic Training

There is a commonly-known story where new entrants to the military are given the option to go to church or clean the barracks on Sunday morning. At West Point, there is a period during the first summer where entering freshmen have Cadet Basic Training. During this period, Wednesday evening is reserved for "Chaplain's Time." Chaplain's Time involved the option to go to the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Latter-Day Saints place of worship and partake in cookies and recreation, along with an optional prayer service.

It is clear in this situation, with the several religious options and the optional prayer service that at least some care was given to avoid a discriminatory environment. In addition, the cookies and drinks were donated by religious groups, and so this avoided and government financial support, at least for the food. Senior cadets were also admonished not to bother freshmen during this time for any reason. The mission-oriented justification for the event was that it allowed for a release from the stress of training. An additional consideration was that the Protestant event was held in an auditorium, which provided one secular location.

In an extremely stressful environment where every aspect of life was controlled, nontheists found themselves in a formation with others, in front of his leaders. The command ordered all Protestants into the formation for Chaplain's Time, then all Catholics, then all Jews, then all Mormons, and everyone else, left to stand in formation as everyone else marched to enjoy the benefits allowed to their particular faith group, nontheists and those with un-sponsored beliefs were tacitly identified as outsiders and sent back to no benefits in the barracks.

In this case, there are accommodations made to allow for several groups while avoiding any active discrimination against cadets of minority faith groups. However, there still existed a strong incentive, in the form of recreation and food, to participate in the sectarian events. The command, if it did believe in the mission-oriented purpose of providing a release to freshmen, could have provided a non-sectarian event for all cadets. The event as it happened, caused the public segmentation of certain religious groups and those not of those preferred religious groups, and the provision of special treatment to those religious groups. While the events were not overtly exclusive, they were exclusive in spirit. Freshmen not normally affiliated with those religious groups would have been incentivized to accept gifts and religious messages

Chaplains should ensure that general morale-building events are tied to no specific sectarian organization and are open to all service members. Separations to different areas should not involve a requirement to publicly self-identify to any specific religious faith. (estimate. 1990-present)

Basic Training Field Trip

At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, basic trainees, following orders, went on a field trip 30 miles away to Lebanon, Missouri. The field trip was billed as a one-time morale-building event during which the trainees would be allowed to enjoy themselves with outdoor events. Upon arriving, the event was as billed. However, the event was capped with a fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christian worship service. The sermon included The service ended with a request for all comers, especially soldiers, to come forward and be saved.

The question in this situation involves the command structure, authorizations, funding, and lesson plans. This situation, involving an overt, highly-attractive evangelical event combined with an off-post trip for basic trainees, is an example of when many checks-and-balances fail to stop religious favoritism from occurring. The trainee, while surrounded by a religion he did not enlist to follow, had no recourse to question drill sergeants who clearly must have had the support of many other administration officials including the training Brigade commander to make this event happen.

Continue to follow updates on this issue at the MAAF watch list - http://www.militaryatheists.org/watchlist.html. (estimate. 1970-present)

USAREUR Chaplain messages

The USAREUR Chaplains Corps began showing chaplains delivering a 2-minute message. In most cases, these messages stated the chaplains view of the benefits of family, community, honor, service, and other essentially Army values. In other cases, the message promoted faith and/or church attendance in particular. It is in these cases where chaplains promote religion and exclude nontheistic soldiers. Placing religion above nontheistic values degrades nontheistic soldiers and alienates soldiers from the chaplain’s corps.

Chaplains should ensure their messages promote Army values, teamwork, family, and personal development. There will invariably be cases where a chaplain feels that faith is a fundamental requirement of personal, family, and team growth. The chaplain must be careful to use his or her position to deliver the message of the Army while delivering his or her own personal feelings only in personal situations. (estimate. 2002-present)

Prayer at meetings, invocations, and benedictions

This issue is the most commonly-identified problem of exclusionary religious climate in the military. Military meetings are not religious in nature. Prayer is extraneous to the purpose of any meeting. In addition, the prayer involved is left to the choice of the commander. This creates an opportunity to use the power of command for the purpose of proselytism. This is an abuse of power to assert personal convictions to the detriment of the military team. Members of the command serve the nation, not a specific religion. Whether or not they are religious, they are forced to perform duties outside the scope of their military duties.

The “vanilla prayer” is often provided as the answer to this problem. The assertion is that all chaplains can pray to the benefit of all Chaplains have recently presented a significant amount of opposition to this practice because it regulates their own religious expression. Nontheistic service members have always objected to the practice for the reasons listed above. Nontheistic service members are sometimes allowed to opt out of the religious portion of ceremonies. This is a very public exclusion and creates more problems than it solves.

The only solution is to maintain a military purpose to military meetings and ceremonies. Prayers may still be conducted individually and during religious services.

Religious flag folding ceremonies

There is a religious flag folding ceremony often associated with an Air Force Academy chaplain.[3] Sites claim that this is an official-endorsed military ceremony. This is a myth and the Air Force has taken action to present patriotic rather than religious text to eliminate the myth and perception of religious favoritism. (estimate 1950s - 2005)

Identification Tag Religious Preference

ID tags on line 5 require service members to state their religious preference. The intention is to ensure proper burial rites. However, the effect is to put service members in a position to state their religious preferences publicly very early in their career. Some religious service members also have to change this entry when going to certain oversees assignments due to the danger of retribution after capture. Making this entry optional or eliminating it altogether would eliminate the problem. Religious demographics could still be collected without public display.

Proselytism of the "unchurched"

Some branches of the military have in the past allowed for proselytism of the “unchurched.” Proselytism is specifically prohibited in combat zones and arguably not allowed in any position. In this case, the assertion is that proselytism is always acceptable when referring to those who are "unchurched." The labelling of people as "unchurched" makes the known problems with proselytism even worse. This is especially bad if someone decides that anyone not of their faith orientation is "unchurched". Atheists, humanists, and other nontheists are particularly susceptible to this type of discrimination. Nontheistic service members are not confused about their beliefs. They have a naturalistic worldview and reason-based ethics that are just as valid as supernatural, scripture-based ethics. This allowance for proselytism of the “unchurched” is an inappropriate loophole sometimes found in chaplain policy, ecclesiastical endorsing agencies, and/or individual interpretations of policy. Chaplains must, by their actions and future policy updates, ensure that all service members are protected from evangelism. (up to 2006)


[1] Skepticism is sometimes thought to be a negative attitude or an unfair weighting towards the rejection of an idea. This is inaccurate. Skepticism is better described as the fair review of ideas without any unfair preference for traditional or favorable conclusions.

[2] Organizations listed together have connected leadership.

[3] Air Force Link, 18 August 05 http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123011364