Remove Military Requirement to Choose Religion

Click here to sign WhiteHouse.gov petition

See update: Army denies humanist right to identify as humanist.

What is your religion?

One of the first experiences for all military personnel is putting together their personal information, including a statement of their religious preference. All Presidential candidates, who would be the Commander in Chief of our military forces, must undergo a de-facto test to ensure they have strong Christian faith. While unconstitutional, this is the reality in practice. Our military has a strong cultural bias toward Christianity as well. This is mitigated by accommodations for religious freedom, but the the cultural bias is known. Especially within the disciplined, team environment of the military, there is strong pressure to conform with the majority.

There are at least two purposes for collecting demographics about religious preference in the military. The first is to have the preference printed on ID Tags to inform last rites and burial in combat situations. The second is to provide demographics information for use in providing chaplain and religious services. Knowing how many personnel desire a certain service, at the unit level and across the military, theoretically helps with funding of religious support activities, including facilities, chaplains, and chaplain materials.

These two options – religious rites and religious services – are entirely voluntary and at the discretion of the individual. The current assumption is that military personnel want whatever religious service is available. If an individual chooses not specify a religious preference, then they should be assumed to want no religious services.  In addition, the mandatory question, often asked in the first few days of military service, increases the pressure to conform (to the Christian majority). To avoid pressure and to confirm the voluntary nature of religious affiliation, the question should not be asked and the entry left blank until an individual requests a selection.

In addition, those who choose to opt in may not have their preference available. While many different religious options are available, atheists may be denied that option even if they ask. Many MAAF members report pressure to choose the default, “No Religious Preference”, by clerks biased against atheism or by military leaders who recognize the danger of prejudice against someone who has atheist on their records or tags. This is not limited to nontheists. Jewish and Mormon personnel often fear reprisals for their beliefs.

Some simply don’t have the option to choose their preferred belief system. Humanists, for example, are atheist in their beliefs about gods but prefer the more positive expression of ethics, family, and community that “humanist” provides. The military does not currently offer this option. In recent decades, many have adopted the label “spiritual but not religious”. While not adhering to a specific belief system, they feel attachment to a divine or supernatural power, while rejecting formal religious structures. Often, these individuals are left only with the nonsensical default value “No Religious Preference”. Stating no preference implies that any religion will do. All but the most apathetic agnostic would reject a religion not their own.

Because of the voluntary nature of religious preference, the importance of maintaining government neutrality toward religion, and in order to better track the diversity of belief within the military, MAAF recommends the following changes:

  • 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 (to facilitate change)
  • Add an option for “Humanist”.
  • Add an option for “Spiritual But Not Religious” aka SBNR, Spiritual or Spiritual BNR.

The following administrative notes are provided to clarify these recommendations and answer possible objections and concerns:

First, MAAF members, whatever your preferred label, should choose “atheist” as the best of bad options. This is the only way to communicate our numbers through military demographics. Update your records today.

The proponent for these changes in the military is within the personnel department, not the chaplaincy. This is a matter of record-keeping and so the chaplains do not control the listing of options or record keeping. Oddly, a Defense casualty processing manual is the best reference for the listing of religious preference options aside from an outdated 1996 Army listing of transaction codes. Part of the difficulty of this reform is finding a valid proponent to implement the change in policy and practice.

And an additional requirement is to ensure that these changes are reflected by the Defense Manpower Data Agency, a demographics service that aggregates information about all military personnel. If their processes are not updated, then details at lower levels will be lost in aggregation.

While this change may indicate that MAAF considers “humanism” a dogmatic, supernatural religion just like any other, that is not the case. The question is moot in this case as “religious preference” already includes “atheist” as an option as well as “unknown” and “no religious preference”, so this personnel entry relates to an individual’s preference about religion whether or not that preference indicates a religious belief. The question is also moot as the military either leaves the term religion undefined or provides for a secular definition of religion.

The intended purpose of removing “No Religious Preference” is to facilitate change. If the new default entry is no entry at all, trained clerks may continue to enter No-Pref when faced with an entry they don’t like or they may continue with No-Pref out of habit. The new default is more likely to be quickly adopted if No-Pref isn’t an option. It is important to note that MAAF believes No-Pref is not actually anyone’s preference. If any military person truly prefers No-Pref to blank, the new SBNR, or the many others, then No-Pref should be retained.

While a blank entry is the preferable default, an entry such as “no response” would be acceptable if a text value is required for the database.

Some may object to MAAF advocating for the addition of a “spiritual” option. The intention is to distinguish between naturalistic and secular beliefs such as humanism and supernatural beliefs better characterized as “spiritual”. SBNR is not an option a humanist would choose, despite what some religious critics may insist. Many critics have also contended that the nearly one-quarter of miliary personnel who are currently categorized as No-Pref are actually Spiritual But Not Religious or some other god-believing subset who have no better option. MAAF wants to make that option available to eliminate the opportunity to marginalize the new humanist option as supernatural or god-believing humanists. In this way, the humanist option can be properly identified as entirely secular and naturalistic. This addition should also show that MAAF does not want to mute anyone’s ability to authentically express their beliefs.

MAAF invites support from military, religious, and nontheistic organizations in supporting this change. To support this effort, please encourage your membership to sign the White House petition.

16 Responses to Remove Military Requirement to Choose Religion

  1. Pingback: U.S. Military Finally Approves “Humanism” as an Acceptable Religious Preference for Soldiers

  2. Army LTC Atheist

    The ORBs which are seen by promotion boards have religion & dependent data blanked out.

    • That’s good information. Is there an easy way to confirm that?
      I think the perception will still create problems but if they are blacked out that would be good information. Let me know if there is a regulation or manual you could refer to, preferably for each branch of service.

  3. I welcome this change and I also hope that religion and marital status are eliminated from ORB/ERB as they are not legitimate indicators of good military people.

  4. I should add, I fully support the removing it from your ORB/ERB so that boards can’t see it for promotion purposes. That would serve much the same purpose as banning wearing of Masonic rings in official photos (in the Army), etc. It isn’t just about atheists being discriminated against. It is about promotion boards and other entities using religious feelings to determine the future of a soldier’s career.

  5. I was never asked this in in-processing or any other time. My ID tags are blank, and my ORB says ‘unknown’. I’m trying to figure out if I want to face the prejudice by putting ‘atheist’ on there or not… But so far, no pressure. And two chaplains in our brigade are actually going to an international chaplain conference specifically to learn about Humanism. There is hope!

    • Please write in to MAAF and let me know. I’d love to contact these chaplains and figure out what conference they are going to. They can learn about humanism by contact MAAF as well. I hope you’ll go down and ask for humanist and let me know how it goes.

  6. I read in a military.com article that the petition was lacking sufficient signatures. Has this group considered using avenues such as change.org to spread the message to a wider audience? I have faced much difficulties in the military for my beliefs (or percieved lack of) and plan on signing.

    • The petition has grown significantly, and I hope everyone will still go to sign. Change.org is a great vehicle, but this could be solved by the Commander In Chief, so it was best located on WH.gov. That their server is painfully slow is frustrating… In the end, the petition was to increase visibility on the issue. This can be solved at much lower levels, if leaders are willing to change. More signatures are better though, so I hope this will spread. A general “end discrimination” petition has over 6000 signatures, so it’s frustrating that a petition that provides specific action to do the same thing has fewer signatures.

  7. Pingback: Atheist group: when it comes to religion in the military, don't ask. | The Barbershop: Dennis Byrne, Proprietor

  8. I think the removal of religious preference from documents used in boards and in your record (i.e. ORB’s in the Army) and the addition of options for Humanism, etc to be added to the dogtags would be a more practical and tangible goal. Needless marketing of ones believe or lack there of should always be avoided and I never understood the reason for that block being added to the ORB as it has caused me issue in the past. However, the dogtag’s listing does serve a practical purpose in allowing any Soldier to have their preferences voiced in how their remains should be treated and I don’t think that an organization should stand in the way of religious freedom to believe or not believe.

    • Several people have brought up the idea of removing the religion block from the official records (used in promotion and assignments). This is a good idea. This petition does not suggest that people be prevented from stating their religious preference or have their religious preference listed on ID tags if they wish.

  9. How about we stop pandering to ignorant superstition altogether? My, what a novel idea! But then, that might mean the end of war, and we can’t have that, now can we?

  10. If you are asking religious preference how about a “not applicable” option because that question should be irrelevant.

  11. How about just having a fill in the blank instead of multiple choice. what if a SEAL was from the church of FSM? or IPU? or teapot! is that an option?

    I figure he is a big boy who can make decisions for himself and can write in his world view.

  12. What about those of us who are religious but not spiritual? My religion does not have any spiritual teachings; most of us are skeptical about the “spirit world”.

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