I am considering joining the Navy, and would like advice on how to go about it as an atheist. What do I tell the recruiter? Are there atheist chaplains? What do I put on dog tags as my religion? Is being an atheist in the military looked at like being gay/lesbian, in regards to “don’t ask don’t tell”?
I really appreciate your time, and thank you for getting back.
– (name withheld)
Advice on how to go about as an atheist:
Start out strong, out of the closet. Encourage other atheists you encounter early on to do so as well. In general don’t set out trying to deconvert people. Reply to others who challenge you with equal tone (perhaps respectful, or playful, or aggressive etc.) Report abuse.
What to tell your recruiter:
Tell the recruiter you are an atheist. Tell him SPECIFICALLY that you are *NOT* this: “NO-REL-PREF” (No religious preference). Many recruiters incorrectly tell atheists that “ATHEIST” isn’t available, but it has been for decades. It might sound trivial, but it’s extremely important.
Usually it’s not on purpose, and they are surprised when somebody walks in with the regs (regulations – those are your friend). If you experience ANY difficulty with this regard, please see this. If you still have problems, I’ll call your recruiter directly. You will win this argument, and it’s no trouble at all – just a piece of paper that needs to be filed.
What do I put on my dog tags? Interestingly, your dog tags are somewhat independent of your official records. The government can’t say what is or isn’t a religious preference, so lots of service members have ‘Jedi’ and similar jokes (but if you tried to claim ‘jedi’ or ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster” on your official paperwork, and did it with a serious face, you’d get “OTHER” listed.) It’s important to have your official records say “ATHEIST”, and dog tags you can have fun with, but most choose to simply put the same thing there.
You can see a growing collection of military atheists dog tags in the official American Atheists Military facebook group. Add yours when you get them!
What is being an atheist in the military like? First off, it’s totally worth joining for the reasons that made you consider joining in the first place (varies person to person). It’s also possible that you can make a real difference from the inside. Do not let the following dissuade you from joining, it’s just things that we’re still working on – and progress is being made. There are two main categories of discrimination on the inside, institutionalized and face to face.
As for face to face ugliness, for most, it’s largely long stretches (years) of “no issues whatsoever” bookended by incidents of disrespect, bullying, or harassment. These incidents can be mild or extreme, and unfortunately really serious incidents often go unreported, or paperwork gets ‘conveniently lost’. Contact me if something serious comes up, I’ll walk you through how to avoid being swept under the rug.
Institutionalized discrimination happens in the form of mandatory attendance for events featuring prayer. There are also tests of ‘spiritual fitness’ (with mandatory remedial training and suicide hotlines flashed at you if you fail). Chaplains may target you for *more* proselytism if they find out you are “unchurched”. You mentioned the Navy, well every night on a ship you are likely to hear Christian prayer piped into the room you sleep in, every single night.
Every branch of the military has a coercive Sunday service routine as far as basic training (boot camp) goes. You either go to some form of church, or get punished in the form of cleaning or in extreme cases even exhausting physical exercise. Pick your poison, many atheists choose either path. I resisted initially but then ended up going to Spanish Protestant because I don’t speak Spanish and it all sounded like gibberish, but you get to dance around and say “SI SENIOR!” Please do definitely take a ‘holy book’ with you. It’s the only book you can take with you to boot camp. I chose The Gospel According to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and we all laughed like a bastard when the Drill Sergeant tried to take it from me. Others have brought Hitchens or Dawkins, or something similar.
Keep in mind that many chaplains can be your allies. Try to work with them rather than against. With your religious peers, you need to approach them with the equal respect that you demand. You don’t have to respect their beliefs, but you do have to respect the person. They are ways to quickly mitigate most of the milder instances of disrespect. If your situation doesn’t improve, contact me.
Is being an atheist in the military similar to Don’t Ask Dont Tell? As far as DADT, there are some similarities and some differences. DADT was mandatory under threat of expulsion, and thus affected every day speech in the military LBGT community. They had to live in fear of accidentally slipping up and saying ‘she’ or ‘he’, or leaving their facebook logged in, etc. The pronoun game was a daily reminder of their 2nd class status. Conversely, it’s been entirely legal to shout “I am an atheist” at the top of your lungs.
The DADT concept does have some similarities, though. Many foxhole atheists don’t feel able to come out of the closet. This is especially true for many officers (the people entitled to a salute), those ‘going career’, people with financial hardships and families to feed, and so on. Pretty much anybody who perceives they stand to lose ‘everything’ by speaking may feel pressured into perpetual silence. These people often have to get the word out by speaking with anonymity to activists like myself. We take care to protect their identities, and often obfuscate potentially identifying details.
The next generation of foxhole atheists is changing everything though. They tend to come out swinging, and never look back. It forces the few truly bigoted service members into the closet. Instead of having free reign to disrespect atheists with a megaphone, the bigots are beginning to have to look around to see if anyone can hear them muttering some idiotic phrase phrase under their breath. Join us!
Don’t bow your head, don’t back down, and don’t be afraid.
I wouldn’t go plastering upside down crosses on your wall locker, but the message is a good one to internalize. Turn the paradigm upside down, and believe in yourself.