American Legion Poll Confuses Issue of Military Religious Data

Recently, I posted a White House Petition (on the intolerably slow whitehouse.gov site) to remove the requirement for service members to choose a religious preference. Military personnel could always state a preference on their records if they felt strongly about the issue, but it wouldn’t be a requirement to state a preference. As part of this, there’s also a recommendation to add “humanist,” which isn’t currently an option.

A writer at the Burn Pit, a blog at the American Legion website, took issue with the proposal. Well, they took issue with the idea that “Atheist group seeks to ban religious preference from military documentation.” There are good reasons to make that change as well as good reasons why such a change would be infeasible. Whatever those reasons may be, the MAAF proposal suggests nothing of the sort. The blog’s author and I are in communication and hope to resolve any misunderstandings. In the meantime, the Legion also posted a poll to gather reader input on the issue.

Should the military be banned from asking servicemembers their religious affiliations?

  • Yes, it creates a situation where people will only claim to be a particular faith to avoid being ostracized by peers.
  • Yes, under the principle of separation of church and state, the government should not be allowed to ask.
  • No, if someone dies on active duty, the military needs to know what religious customs and practices to afford the deceased.
  • No, it’s not compulsory, so if you don’t want to answer the question, you just claim no religious affiliation.

The first option implies that people will ONLY choose a faith not their own. No one has claimed that.

Option two brings up separation of church and state. That is a relevant consideration, but the option seems more intended for shock value to imply that separation of church and state (a concept some Burn Pit readers seem to reject) is being abused. The intended purpose is to gather better data and to improve team cohesiveness, not to be strict about church-state separation.

Number 4 is factually incorrect for two reasons. It is in fact compulsory to have an answer to the question. And the default option for those not wanting to answer is “no preference” not “no affiliation.” Those are very different options. The former implies any old religion will do, and the latter implies no religion is preferred.

Option 3 rightfully points out a benefit of knowing a service member’s religious preference, but the reason given is incorrect. The military does not have a need to know what religious customs and practices to afford the deceased. The service member has an interest in informing the military what religious customs and practices are preferred in the event of death. The option to make one’s religious preference known is in no way infringed by MAAF’s suggested reforms.

A poll with the wording below would better represent the options and issues:

Should military personnel be required to state their religious affiliation?

  • No, it creates a situation where people may pick a faith not their own to avoid being ostracized and that reduces the quality of the data.
  • No, under the principle of separation of church and state, the government should not be allowed to ask.
  • No, if a service member wants last rites or special religious burial, they always have the option to do that.
  • Yes, it is compulsory, but you can just claim no religious affiliation.

Polls of this nature aren’t meant to be scientific. These alternate options resolve some of the issues of the original poll, but still aren’t comprehensive or scientific. Polls guide readers about what options are available on an issue. In this case, the Legion poll has provided bad options that confuse the issue, possibly with the intent of guiding reader opinion against MAAF’s recommended changes. I’m confident that with more dialogue, Burn Pit writers and Legion leaders will become more open to reforms for atheists and humanists. But it has been a rocky start.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • http://omnipotentpoobah.myopenid.com/ Omnipotent Poobah

    Excellent post!

    When I was in the military 30 years ago, I simply made up a religious name (Granatellism) and they accepted it. It even appeared on my dog tags. Still, you shouldn’t have to make things up.

    This isn’t the only military issue that infringes on the atheist community though. The “Soldier Fitness Tracker” (http://omnipotentpoobah.com/2011/01/18/soldier-fitness-tracker-how-would-it-grade-pat-tillman/) is another area that demands a theist point of view.

  • Kristian Gore

    My dogtags listed my “religion” as Atheist.

    • Rocky Oliver

      Same – I mentioned that in my comment as well.

  • Izzy Leonard

    Where does this myth that “this philosophy” or “that religion” isn’t an option comes from? You can have whatever you want on your dog tags, and you can put whatever you want in your records. The only limit is the length (18 char, IIRC). 

    My dog tags and records said Atheist and I’ve seen Heathen, Infidel, Pagan, Humanist and Jedi on various sets of tags. If you don’t fill out a particular field on a form with you join your records and tags come out saying “NO REL PREF,” which you can change later, as I did. This is an imaginary issue.

    • Chris

      No it is not an imaginary issue.  I have been to the ID card section several times since I joined 5 years ago and just in the past week I had a new set made and asked that they wrote “None” or “Atheist” instead of anything to do with religious preference. And sure enough, they came back with “No Rel Pref” written on them, when I specifically asked for none or atheist. next time I’m going to have them write Church of the FSM and see if they still come back with No Rel Pref on them…

      • Anonymous

        Why don’t you ask to speak to someone there about the issue? A lot of people are reporting problems about this, but it seems there is a lot of ignorance by the administrators. Time to educate them

    • Stephen Murphy

      I attempted to get new dog tags at Redstone Arsenal and filled out “Atheist” on the form.  Three days later I came to pick them up to find they had changed it to “NO REL PREF”.  I turned them back in for error correction with a note spelling out how NO REL PREF is not the same as Atheist and why.  Three days later I had a corrected set, but no note of apology or anything like that.  Oh well.

      On a similar note of censorship:  the gym I went to on Redstone Arsenal had a collection of magazine and papers that patrons would leave when done for other people to read and enjoy.  I would leave my FFRF newspapers (Freethought Today) there and the next day it would be gone but all the other (sometimes ancient ones) would be exactly where they were from the previous day.  Finally one time I found the Freethought Today in the trash.  I added a quick note to it as well regarding censorship, etc.  It was finally left alone.

  • Rocky Oliver

    When I was in the USAF I chose Atheist. You could also choose “No Religious Preference”. This was back in the mid-1980s. I definitely think Humanist should be an option, and the American Legion needs to learn to read and comprehend more thoroughly.

    Just wanted to offer some first-hand info.

  • scinquiry

    While I agree that excluding us as atheists from identifying openly as such is anti-inclusive, I can’t help to draw a parallel to the don’t ask, don’t tell policy.  This policy was quite obviously an outdated one which needed to go.  People should have the right to identify their respective faiths (or sexual orientation) or lack thereof, especially when it is something so central to one’s identity.

  • Gabriel

    Like you others my dog tags and ID card read Atheist. The military was the one place where I felt the most comfortable about being openly atheist. I was able to have frank and open discussions about what it meant to me to be an atheist and why I was one and I never felt judged for it. It makes me sad to read all of the stories of people catching an extra ration of shit for being atheists. I’m glad that this is being addressed and challanged since my atheist son will be joining the military after he graduates high school in May.

  • http://www.chucksteel.com/ csteelatgburg

    I disagree with the comment that the military doesn’t have a need to identify the religious customs identified with the deceased. I’m sure that if they automatically conducted last rights for everyone that died there would be a lot of criticism (from this blog included). Asking religious preference is a good due diligence measure to make sure they don’t end up doing the wrong thing down the line. 

  • Doggle341

    In the 60′s I told them Atheist and the tags came back Protestant!  That gave me a laugh, so I had them corrected to read Catholic Bishop, and they returned as such. I later used those tags as proof i was actually a Bishop and got as far as a meeting with an archbishop who caught on to it and laughed, and laughed and laughed. He was an atheist. Really!  he said he read too much of the Bible to be religious, but it was a hell of a job with some serious perks.  He claimed to be seriously popular and a millionaire too. I think he was, he drove a fine Rolls.  The strange ways of this world… 


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