Study highlights need for secular community

Easy re-entry of 67% vs 43% depending on weekly attendance of services

A recent survey by the Pew Forum on reintegration identified a 24% bump for “religious” Post-9/11 veterans.  This question specifically asked “how often a recent veteran attends religious services.”  Those claiming to attend once per week were 24% more likely to declare an easy re-entry back to civilian life than those who never attend services.  More significantly, the study indicates that this 24% increase is eliminated for those who completed their service prior to 9/11.  This indicates the continuing need for the chaplaincy to recognize its responsibilities to support nontheists.

MAAF continues to reach out to chaplains to close this gap in support.  By providing an opportunity for regular meetings and study with like-minded individuals, the military could extend this 24% re-integration benefit to atheists and humanists.  Nearly one-quarter of the military claims “no religious preference” so there is a significant portion requiring other than traditional religious worship services.  MAAF has provided clear steps that will put in place services for atheists and humanists, many of whom may be hiding in this “No Preference” category.  These changes should also applies to the ill-conceived “spiritual fitness” programs that may help religious service members but hurt the well-being of nontheists.

This concept of “religious benefit” is misunderstood by some to mean prayer or faith exclusively, but it is better attached to personal affirmation, development of one’s beliefs, and the community of like-minded individuals.  A 2008 study referenced by Pew and others to promote “spirituality and religion” unintentionally shows equal benefit of social interaction, regardless of belief system.  “religious congregations become social circles that provide support and reduce stress in people’s lives.”  The value is from the stress reduction related to a positive and supportive social circle independent of belief: Hindu, Christian, secular or something else.  Regarding the likelihood of health problems, “the most socially isolated people … were at the highest risk … even when they adjusted for health status … and the types of social ties” (religious/civil).   They also indicated that “periods of rest and respite from work … serve to reduce stress.”  These are easily and frequently available to those willing to opt into weekly Christian or Jewish chaplain services, but not for humanist activities. A similar study by the American Journal of Epidemiology confirmed, “people who lacked social and community ties were more likely to die” (earlier then others in the study).  It should not be surprising that strong community ties are better for health, and as our troops come home, military leaders and chaplains should be helping to strengthen those community ties.  They already do so in many ways, but not for nontheists.

MAAF continues to reach out to chaplain leaders, diversity leaders, and others in the military chain of command to show what our community looks like.  As we help to foster local atheist and humanist communities, we are slowed by lack of official recognition.  As military personnel continue to return from Iraq and other overseas locations and reintegrate with their families, providing a social connection for atheists and humanists should be an equal priority.

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