Another foxhole atheist given “No-Rel-Pref” against her will

I’ve written previously about my difficulty getting both my dog tags and my Enlisted Records Brief to accurately reflect ‘ATHEIST’. Some of the story is kind of funny and even eventually made it on the Flying Spaghetti Monster website. My corrected dogtags even made it on Wikipedia!

NO-REL-PREF makes you a target for proselytism (even more than ATHEIST), as the largest Chaplain’s endorsing agency has a policy “… reserving the right to evangelize the unchurched“. Every time this subject comes up, a bunch of people relate similar experiences – each of us initially thinking it was an isolated incident. This is absolutely rampant.

Anyway, a new Marine Corps recruit just wrote me about her experiences. It’s got some uplifting stuff in there, and I’m extremely proud to see so many of you standing up and demanding respect! It’s about time!

Sergeant Griffith,

Please let me begin by saying that I’ve followed the Fort Bragg situation since I first heard about it last year, and I’ve been following your posts ever since.  It’s people like you that inspire me to be open about my atheism, and I commend for your actions.

I’m not quite sure what to do about my situation, and any advice you can give me would be much appreciated.

I’m an atheist rating a six on the Dawkins scale, and I’m enlisting in the Marine Corps.  I’m scheduled to ship to boot camp in soon.  The whole process has been fairly smooth sailing; the Marines at my recruiting station have known me for quite some time, and have gone the extra mile to get me in the Corps (it’s been a long and interesting journey, with twists I never saw coming but that’s another story that I’m happy to share at another time).

I took the oath and signed my initial contract recently.  I was a little worried about swearing in, but even that went without a hitch as the officer in charge of administering the oaths was professional and explained to my group that we could swear or affirm, whichever we felt most comfortable with, and that we were under no obligation to state “So help me God” at the end of the oath.  For all that it was a long day at MEPS, I was pleasantly surprised at how even this potentially touchy issue was handled, and was able to take the oath in the secular manner I had hoped to.

There’s only one problem I’ve with the whole process, and that’s the part of my package stating my religious preference.  Two days before I went to MEPS, one of the Marines at my Recruiting Station (RS) called me on the phone to double check with me on some items, one of which was religious preference.  I clearly stated that I was an atheist, he said okay, and that was that.

The next day I went into my RS to go over my package to make sure that everything was filled out correctly, and sign the initial paperwork for my package.  As I was going through everything, I noticed that “No Rel Pref” was listed under the Religion section.  I pointed this out to the Marine going over my package, and asked why he hadn’t put in “Atheist,” as I had stated that was my religious preference when we talked on the phone the day before.  I jokingly pointed out that “No Rel Pref” implied that I couldn’t make up my mind, and he knew me well enough to know that I have an opinion about everything.  He shrugged and told me that there wasn’t a code he could input for Atheist, so this was the next best thing. 

I told him that he was mistaken about there not being a code for Atheist; he assured me he was not.  As he continued to double check his work on my package, I pulled out my iPhone, and in less than three minutes had located online the “Military Personnel Procurement Manual, Volume 2: Enlisted Procurement” that had in one of the appendices a “Consolidated List of Religious Preferences,” with Atheist listed as code 75.  I didn’t have the time to check to see if the manual is this most current one, but I reasoned that the code for Atheist wouldn’t have changed, and that this proved that it was possible to code for Atheist…

I showed him what I had found on my phone; he called over to one of the other recruiters and asked why that other recruiter had said there wasn’t a code for Atheist, and showed the second recruiter what I had found.  The second recruiter looked, shrugged, and walked away.

I asked the recruiter I’d been going over my paperwork with to change the package so it accurately reflected my religious preference.  He said that since this was just my initial package that it would take more effort than the situation warranted to go back, change the code and reprint the relevant pages since I would have to go through this process again when I signed my formal contract right before shipping.  He said I could just have things changed for my final package, so why bother now when it didn’t really matter.  He also said “don’t be surprised if, when you’re in the Corps, no matter how many times you try to change it to Atheist, it comes back as No Rel Pref.”  

At that point I shut up and just let it go; there was still a lot to go over, and I really wanted to go through MEPS the next day, take the oath, and sign my initial contract.  Since I couldn’t physically force him to change it, I figured it was best to wait until I was safely in the pipeline.  I’m kind of kicking myself now for not standing up for myself more that day, but you pick your battles, and this was only the first skirmish, not a decisive engagement.

I am not in the closet about my atheism.  In fact, I’ve joked about it with several of the other recruiters in the station, including the SSgt in charge, whom I’ve known for over a year and a half now.  I think that one of the best ways that I can change other people’s negative perceptions of atheists and atheism is to be personally open about it, so they can see that I’m a nice, intelligent, moral, and successful person.  I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding the fact that I’m an atheist from anyone, not my family, friends, or from my future platoon mates or DIs by not having Atheist in my package or on my dog tags.  I know I may face some crap at boot camp (and in the Corps in general) for being an atheist, but I figure if I am open about my lack of faith when asked about it, and I still do my damnedest to be the best frakkin’ recruit the DIs have ever seen, maybe things will be a little bit better for the next atheist who enlists.

I took the oath, so I can’t refuse to ship, nor do I wish to, especially for something that I believe many people see as trivial (although if a Protestant were complaining about being listed as Wiccan, I doubt they’d still see it as trivial).  I don’t want to be in a position where I am arguing with my recruiters that I am not signing the package again unless it clearly states correctly that my religious preference is Atheist, since that would be threatening their ability to make mission that month and all of them, especially the SSgt in charge of the RS, really have gone to great lengths to get me that particular shipping spot.  On the other hand, I really don’t want to go along with No Rel Pref for a second time.  I see it as an integrity violation, both to the Corps and to myself.  I don’t wish to seem ungrateful to my recruiters; I really don’t think this happened out of malice (more like indifference), and they’ve been great to me.  These are a good group of gentlemen, and I honestly think that they just don’t understand why an atheist isn’t okay with No Rel Pref on her package, and eventually her dog tags.

So, my question to you is this: how should I handle this when I have to go through this process again a day or two before I ship?  Is it even worth it to try to fix it now, or should I just wait until after boot camp?  What do you recommend?

Thank you for your time in this matter.


(Name, exact dates, and some personally identifiable information redacted)

There is no reason for such difficulties, it’s on the same list as all the other choices – and has been for decades now. The problem comes from the leadership in the initial phase of enlistment. The fact that the ‘ATHEIST’ option is plainly visible (in alphabetical order) on the same master list as all of the others leads me to believe that this is usually intentional. If a recruiter simply didn’t know better, he’d have to at least look it up on the list before jumping to the conclusion that “NO-REL-PREF” was the only selection. Perhaps not in your case, but you never know.

I was angry, and I even threw my dog tags away and at every inspection I demanded that I get correct versions. They were an inspectable item, but when I started on my rant they just checked me off as if I had my dog tags. Nobody offered to help, and I had no clue what to do.

Eventually I got to my first duty station and my leadership showed me how incredibly easy it is to rectify the situation. Not sure if the Marine Corps calls it ‘S-1’ like the Army, but you basically need to go to the section of your unit that deals with personnel records. They can change all of the stuff on your paperwork. Possibly even issue you new dogtags. However, most of us victims of the NO-REL-PREF stamp had to purchase our own replacement dog tags. They are cheap, and worth it.

I have a preference, thank you very much.

For you, there is plenty of time to get this fixed. I would absolutely stand my ground if I were you. Call your recruiter’s boss. Calmly explain everything to him, and why it is extremely important to you. All they have to do is simply re-print some paperwork, re-sign things, have you re-sign things, and then put it in envelopes.

You are a hero. You are about to become a Marine. You deserve that little bit of decency.

Keep it warm, friendly, and respectful – yet firm. Also, feel free to explain how much you do sincerely like and appreciate their hard work, and reiterate that you don’t want to get anybody in trouble. Everything will be fine, nobody will get in trouble, and you should get the situation fixed.

If not, call me – I’m sending you my contact information. I’ll square you away personally.

For everyone else out there, there is a growing collection of ATHEIST dog tags on this Facebook group, please add yours!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • csrster

    I’ll bet that if you converted from no-rel-pref to christianity it would take you about five minutes to get everything changed and sorted.

    • Randy

      Heck, the converting chaplain would probably do all the legwork for you if you did that!

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    I don’t want to be in a position where I am arguing with my recruiters that I am not signing the package again unless it clearly states correctly that my religious preference is Atheist, since that would be threatening their ability to make mission that month

    Tell them that if it’s not correct in all aspects, you can’t sign. And if they can’t get their act together and correct that LITTLE thing, maybe they don’t deserve to make “mission” that month.

  • Dookiestain LaFlair

    As a Atheist and ex-Marine, the best advice I can think of is to not joint he Marine Corps.

    • Justin Griffith

      Whatever happened to ‘there are no ex-marines’? I’m assuming you worded your statement intentionally. Care to send me a story about why you are pessimistic?

      Shit is changing right now. But we can’t let yesterday’s mistakes go unlearned. Please send me something if you’d like.

      • hector

        Ex marine here..all i have to say is dont do it. nothing patriotic about joining the military these days..all you do is fight for corporations.

        • all you do is fight for corporations.

          That’s exactly what I do all day.

          So next time you are at McDonalds, Kmart, TGIFridays, Gas stations, Malls, movie theater… or paying your power company, Internet Service Provider, Car insurance company, or paying your Smart phone bill… or logging into Facebook, using Google to search for stuff, or reading a report from the Associated Press…

          You can think to yourself, “Screw those assholes fighting for corporations.”

          Then please go live the amish lifestyle you fought for when you were a Marine. Have fun churning butter without Land-o-Lakes.

          • Igakusei

            While I chose to pursue a different career path and did not re-enlist, I loved my time in the Corps and learned many valuable lessons along the way. It’s certainly not for everyone and I reserve no judgement for those who do not feel they would make a positive difference in the world by serving, but I personally do not have that problem. I hope the young lady who wrote you that e-mail doesn’t, either. So as an atheist and [i]former[/i] Marine, Semper Fi!

          • Marketa

            Poor choice of response, I think. There are painfully few options to use non-corporate entities any more, and those that do exist are often more expensive (a terrible hindrance when one is struggling in the economy).

            The issue, I believe, that hector was stating was not so much the corporations, as the corporate purchasing power inside of our own government.

            When the vote of Congress or Senate are purchasable with bribes (my apologies: campaign donations), and laws are repeatedly enacted to improve the strength of the corporations and weaken the strength of the individual, it is quite fair to make a grip such as hector’s.

            SOPA and PROTECT IP are two very immanent examples of this.

  • Vin Rohm

    To answer your question in the blog…yes it is “S1” in the Army, AirForce, Navy and Marines at the lowest level. I’m an ex advisor for the Army and have worked numerous times in Joint Ops that included all services. The letter indicates the level, and the number indicates “personnel” (2=plans; 3=ops; 4=Logistics)

    • ~pickles

      In the Navy it was often N-1, N-2, &c… Instead of S-1, S-2, &c…

  • papango

    I can’t beleive they make you pay for dog tags correting their mistake. That is so rude. This stuff is important.

    When my grandfather went to WWII his mother gave him the rosary that her brother had carried in WWI for luck. They weren’t practising catholics (the farm was miles out, and the more religious family members were mostly Polish speaking), but Uncle Chris took this thing to the Somme and back, and that seemed like a good sign. But, when grandad had a proper look at it he realised it had ‘I am a Catholic, in case of emergency please call a priest’ engraved on the back (very common during WWI). So, thinking he might be better off if they called a medic or even any other soldier, he tucked it right down in the bottom of his pack and left it there. Which turned out to be the right decision. He was shot and so badly injured that he was not considered worth treating and was put into a hospital tent with the other lost causes. A nurse came around and looked at his tags and instead of calling a priest she saw he was a New Zealander and called over another nurse who was also a New Zealander (and because this is a tiny tiny country, of course they knew each other and Grandad had played rugby with her fiance). Bessy (the NZ nurse) managed to wrangle him back into the treatment tent and then made sure he got extra food and care until he was ready to be shipped back home. The rosary made it back, one of my cousins recently joined the army, but Grandad passed the rosary and a few other family bits and pieces on to me, because I studied history and might be interested in ‘all this old stuff’.

    Anyway, they accepted you as you are, they should be prepared to acknowledge that. Good luck.

  • fastlane

    Justin, I like your blog mostly, and I definitely think you are on the right side of the ‘fight’ in your atheist activism, but being proud of fighting for corporations is pretty whack. Also, it’s mostly multinational conglomerates like Halliburton, the big finance and big oil companies that are really pulling a lot of the government strings. Do you really want to be proud that you’re fighting for them?

    The US defense budget is insanely overblown, and as I’m sure you are well aware, we spend more on our military than the next several countries combined.

    Yes, we need some military for defense, but our military has been used almost exclusively for offense since what, post Civil war? Certainly since post WWI.

    Think about what you’re really defending here, and pick your battles more wisely. Criticism of the US military’s use (by politicians) is very warranted, but it does not translate into criticism of the people serving. Bring most of them home, and use the military personnel and resources for civilian projects.

    Sorry for the off-topic, but your reply to hector was OTT, IMO.

    • flan

      I think that you and hector have a pretty facile and silly worldview, IMHO.

  • Nomen Nescio

    i can’t speak for hector, but when i read that “fighting for corporations” line i assumed it was a not-so-oblique reference to Smedley Butler’s famous rant in War is a Racket. insofar as it still has a point to it, taking any pride in such fighting is… pretty ethically questionable, i’d say.

    of course, if time and change since those years have proven Gen. Butler wrong, that would be good news indeed — i’m not qualified to comment on that, myself, but i’m pessimistic.

  • sithrazer

    I’m going to err on the side of misunderstanding rather than kneejerk assholery and assume Mr. Griffith misunderstood where hector was coming from.

    Hectors comment sounded, to me, like he felt that he was reduced to corporate crony-ism, directly fighting for just the profit and interests of corporations rather than for the profit and interests of the nation (which would include the rights of corporations to exist and do business, though not necessarily their success).