Big Win! ‘Humanists’ Now Recognized by the US Army

Are you a nonbeliever in the US Army or know someone who is? Let them know you can now identify as “humanist” on dog tags and military records. Unfortunately the other four services still don’t allow this (absurdly), but you have a chance to change that if you or someone you know are serving in the other forces, because they can now make a request and cite the Army as precedent. And maybe those forces will change to recognize that humanists exist, too, and have the same rights as Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anyone else.

This is a major accomplishment by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (in coordination with the ACLU). An official “Religious Preference” is important to military personnel not only because it allows their beliefs to be recognized on equality with any other belief system (and be counted in military statistics), but also because it can affect which chaplaincies get created and funded (and other related rights, such as access to chapel facilities, and everything else the religious get in the military), which is crucial for men and women in the service, who need these things in ways ordinary civilians do not.

The religious have the right to counsel from a chaplain, for example, to discuss problems or seek moral advice, and this comes with several privileges–such as, conversations with a chaplain are confidential (whereas, for example, albeit perversely, conversations with a psychotherapist often are not, even though that increasing lack of confidentiality destroys the medical efficacy of therapy). Chaplains can also act as advocates throughout the chain of command (most important for adherents of minority belief-systems facing discrimination or being ignored, but again just to be on equality with believers: believers can avail themselves of chaplain advocacy; atheists and humanists should have that same right). Chaplains can also facilitate requests for access to literature or family communications on the front lines. Everything they do for Christians can and should be available equally to atheists and humanists. And getting humanism recognized is the first crucial step toward that goal.

The MAAF is working to have a humanist chaplaincy finally created in the military to serve the military atheist and humanist community. There is no reason for the military not to do this, other than prejudice and immoral opposition from religious leaders. In other words, discrimination. One way to ensure the military cannot claim to be a religious body is if it officially recognizes non-religious chaplaincies. That’s precisely why religious leaders oppose this. Even though it would be an expression of fairness and equality under the law. So this recent victory with the Army, getting humanism to be a recognized religious preference, is a major step toward that important goal. For more information on why we need a humanist chaplaincy in the military, and resources for making that happen (and for existing chaplaincy support for nonbelievers), see the MAAF Chaplaincy Page and Chris Stedman’s article at the Huffington Post.

On at least getting “humanist” recognized as a religious preference, the MAAF reports:

This resolves, at least in the Army, one of the most obvious examples of discrimination in the military. The MAAF worked with Major Ray Bradley and the ACLU to push the system from inside and outside to make this change happen. Now, humanists for the first time can can be recognized for what they DO believe and not just what they don’t believe. There are non-religious entries already on the Army’s list, like atheist, agnostic, and no-religious-preference, so this doesn’t label humanism a ‘religion’, but we now have an equal and positive option [to religion].

Take a personal role in this victory:

  • If you are in the Army, go update your records TODAY!
  • If you are in the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, humanist is still not an option for you. Put in the request with your human resources personnel and contact MAAF for support.
  • If you are a veteran, the Veterans Administration should have this option as well. They already provide a humanist emblem after death; there should be recognition while alive as well.

There is still a long way to go. The Army deserves recognition for their willingness to make this change. But it took senior officer objections, MAAF, the ACLU, and two years to make a simple administrative adjustment. We all need to work together to ensure equality across all branches of service, at the DoD level, and in the Veterans Administration.

An article on this development was also written by Major Ray Bradley for the ACLU, which you can read here, to learn more about the importance of what has just happened. There he writes, among other things:

Until this week, we could choose between “atheist” or “no religious preference.” These codes do not reflect my actual identity as a Humanist. Humanism is a non-theistic, progressive system of beliefs based around the moral values of compassion, pursuit of knowledge, and commitment to human rights. These principles help me through life’s challenges and provide me with a sense of purpose to experience life to its fullest in the same way that religious individuals are guided by their faith tenets.

The ability to accurately identify myself in my official Army records as a Humanist is not only a matter of personal integrity and dignity, but it also has important implications for my military service. These records are used by promotion boards, academic selections boards, supervisors, and commanders to see who I am, where I was born, my marital status, and other data. Upon arrival at a new duty station, this data provides key information for assigning a sponsor best suited to assist service members and their families settle into a new community. In addition, with the approval of the Humanist faith code, I and other Humanists can now ask for support from the Army Chaplaincy, including space to gather regularly and to have these meetings advertised as other religious services are.

If you want to see more gains like this, donate to the MAAF today, and tell them you support this mission goal.


  1. Seth says

    I support this measure now that my one concern has found an answer in the final paragraph you quoted; the reservation was born from your own wording in the introductory paragraph, where it seemed that “Humanist” was the *only* non-theistic religious identity available to the Army. I consider myself an atheist, a secularist, and a humanist, and while these identities overlap somewhat, they refer to distinct areas of my philosophical existence. Were I a member of the United States Army I would identify with them as “atheist,” rather than “Humanist,” though I am glad that there are more options available now.

    • says

      That’s certainly fine, too, but be aware of the politics of this: the religious (de facto that means: Christian) opponents of a secular military argue that “atheist” means no beliefs and therefore you have no right to a chaplain (or chapel resources or any of the other benefits believers receive); whereas humanist is an assertion of a positive belief system about which no such argument can be made.

      This has played out several times, as preference-declared atheists get stonewalled when they try to, for example, get access to chapel resources for a wedding, or ask for a non-believing chaplain as counselor, adviser, and advocate. It’s also playing out now in resistance to an atheist chaplaincy, which is one reason why the mission now focuses on establishing a humanist chaplaincy, which would then service atheists who don’t declare a preference of humanist.

      The more soldiers etc. who declare “humanist” and thus show up in the stats, the stronger the case for a secular chaplain becomes. In essence, the bullshit of Christians is being used to hide the true number of people in the military who warrant a secular chaplain, by only counting humanists as warranting that, and then not allowing atheists to be counted as humanists.

      So there is a reason to declare yourself a humanist in military databases, if you are indeed a humanist (in addition to your other identities), or indeed even if you aren’t but want access to humanist chaplains and chapel resources and privileges (like getting the same time off as believers do for chapel service each week).

    • Seth says

      Thanks very much for providing that necessary background information, which I should probably have looked up before making my initial comment. It definitely clears the air; in such an environment, I would positively identify as “Humanist” in order to combat the Christian-led thinking that seeks to deny atheists access to essential community services within the military. The practical consequences of discrimination that you’ve pointed out must be corrected, and it sounds like this is a reasonable way of having that fight, since the chain of command and the federal bureaucracy are either asleep at the switch or actively colluding with the Christian propaganda of denying atheists those community services.

      Ideally, of course, the military would *only* employ secular counsellors/chaplains…or at least uncontroversially employ them along with the myriad other kinds of chaplains currently extant. The fact that this fight is even necessary shows how successful the Christian Right has been in taking over the US military apparatus. In order to successfully prevent the establishment of a secular/humanist/atheist chaplaincy, the religious authorities have effectively elided three categories into one: religion, politics, and ethics.

      Atheism is a religious stance. This is not (or is not merely) to say that “dictionary atheism” is the only legitimate form of atheism, but it is a fact that “atheist” is an answer to a religious question. Secularism is a political stance, having to do with the relationship between state power and religious authority. Humanism is an ethical stance, having to do with both aggregate human behaviour and specific choices individuals may make in response to questionable scenarios.

      An atheist can be secular or not; e.g., some atheists want atheism established as a matter of state, or some very small number of atheists might believe theism is necessary for the masses and should have some kind of official sanction. An atheist can also be humanist or not (as your reply acknowledged). Likewise a secularist might well be religious or not, or humanist or not. Similarly for a humanist with respect to atheism and secularism. There is overlap between all of these philosophical positions, not just statistically but also logically, but that overlap is nowhere complete. Only by the Christian (or at least the religious) insistence that the second two categories are necessarily subsets of the first category can the current state of affairs be understood. Consequently, it will only be the disabusal of that notion which might lead to a true solution to the chaplaincy issue in all of the branches of the US military.

  2. lorn says

    I’m a bit divided on this. On the one hand it is important to make sure that humanists and atheists are protected and represented within the military and that they have equal rights to hold and express their world views as any religion. Favoritism toward the overtly religious is both rampant and wrong.

    On the other hand chaplaincy within the military is there primarily to get people back into the fight. To reassure the service members that the supernatural forces many believe in are all right with what the military tells them to do. The old ‘God is on your (and your nation’s) side’ argument helps to assuage the natural and human revulsion to murder, maiming, and mayhem. All the better to calm their doubts and fears over possibly being wrong or unjustified and get them back to the work of visiting death and destruction upon people who have never done you wrong.

    I’m not sure retreading soldiers morally bald tires so they can pound a few more people into the ground is what humanists want to associate themselves with.

    • says

      On the other hand chaplaincy within the military is there primarily to get people back into the fight.

      That’s not really true. Most military service does not consist of fighting. And needs in the service are very different than for civilians: they own you 24/7. You have vast array of obligations and rules to follow and situations to deal with that civilians don’t. Military life is strange and difficult. Spiritual (moral) counseling is a pervasive need simply for health and welfare, and includes career advice (what decisions to make for one’s future), advice dealing with difficult work situations or life problems that are conflicting with work or even that have nothing to do with it (e.g. those in the service are away from family, spouses, children, friends for months at a time, often the better part of a year, and when problems arise in those domains it can be hard dealing with them from afar), and a lot else, like help getting your needs met by the chain of command. Civilians can get this advice easily. Military personnel often have no one near them to turn to.

      Chaplains also provide social services (e.g. they can marry you, provide you with information that you may not have any easy channel to otherwise, etc.) and assistance in crucial ways that, again, civilians take for granted but that often are accessible to people in the service in no other way (e.g. soldiers suffering severe injuries or psychological traumas often need someone to turn to that they can speak with in confidence and be confident share their values–this is not about getting them back in the fight, but simply meeting their needs as a human being).

  3. DonDueed says

    A friend of mine was drafted in the Vietnam era. When asked for his religious affiliation at induction time, he told them “Atheist”. He was told he couldn’t specify that as a religion. He then tried “Agnostic” and then “None”, but was rejected each time.

    Then he tried “Humanist”. That was accepted. I’ve seen his dog tags, with HUMANIST stamped right into the tin.

    So the Army has recognized humanism before, quite a while ago — but probably not officially until now. No doubt my friend’s case was an outlier.

  4. satanaugustine says

    I’ll have to double-check with my many atheist friends who are in the Air Force (I live in Dayton, OH, home of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the largest Air Force base in the US), but I’m fairly certain that they can get ‘Humanist’ stamped on their dog tags.