Considering a military career? What every atheist needs to know first.

Dear Justin,

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.

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About Justin Griffith
  • http://www.facebook.com/sharkseatmore sharkycarter

    Excellent article!

    Having been in for “awhile” , once you complete Basic/boot then a lot of religion seems to diminish somewhat.

  • Thom R

    Hey good job on joining the Navy. You’ll Go to RTC in great lakes for boot camp. Sundays from maybe 0700 to 1100 there’s holiday routine. The religious people get to go to the chapel – there are several services – and if you do want to go, you won’t have to. You’ll just stay in the large compartment shinin your boots and folding your clothes with the other recruits. Not difficult but it can be boring. Towards the end of camp l, I opted to go to chapel for the Islamic service. Only a few actual Muslims were in attendance so they geared it more towards “this is what Muslims believe.” I’m a corpsman now, and I haven’t encountered any obvious discrimination. I even keep in touch with a few of my fellow recruits at RTC who turned out to also be atheists. The corpsman rate is very big, and already in the med lab side where I work I’ve met a few atheists. There were a lot of chip-on-the-shoulder Christians in basic corpsman A school though. Mainly the ones hoping to deploy with marines. I’m fairly evangelical about my atheism so I drew them holiday cards with Jesus on cross. No big deal. And if they get pjssed I’d just say Jesus will send you to hell if you can’t take a joke. I dunno. I don’t stress out over it too much. There are several atheists out there and they’re fairly outspoken thanks to pushing the social norm. Good luck.

  • ricklabus

    Go Navy. I was in from 1980 – 1988 I was preached to many times but for the most part I just simply ignored it. One time when we were still Airman E-3′s a Master Chief tried to get me and a buddy to pray with him and declare that Jesus was lord. My buddy accepted because he was a chicken shit. I stated that I would not pray with them but would respect them while they do. OHHHHH Man the look I got could have killed. I just sat there impassively. (Seriously though I thought I was going to wet myself) I was never publicly called out on it but my buddy did make Petty Officer before me. Seems I did not quite make the grade even though my appraisals were perfect. Other than that one instance I never really gave it much thought. Since I was never on a boat (Airedale) I never had to deal with to much mandatory religious bullshit.

  • Brian M

    I was in the Navy in the early 90′s and was boatswain on the bridge while at sea. Maybe it was just the boats I served on (FFG and CG) but we didn’t pipe any prayers over the 1MC every evening. Special occasions maybe but beyond that … nothing. We had a chips chaplain on my second boat and he was a fun guy. Used to do the bar crawls w/ us in P.I. I’ll admit my perspective is 20 yrs out-of-date but I never saw any religious discrimination while I was in. Not saying it doesn’t happen. In any case, good luck to you and remember to volunteer for the mail-buoy watch. You’ll be the most popular guy onboard. ;D

  • left0ver1under

    My brother was in the Canadian military many years ago and endured a lot of similar guff, though that’s a story for another time.

    He’s also an electrician. A lot of people working in construction are smokers, and like the religious you speak of who expect atheists to work, the smokers expect the non-smokers to keep working. The smokers sit around six times a day doing nothing with a butt in their mouths, an hour they waste but still get paid for. And if non-smokers take five at the same time and just sit drinking coffee, the smokers will make a big production out of it.

    I’m not comparing the two situations, only saying that laziness and arrogance toward non-participants know no bounds and can happen anywhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.horne.180 davehorne

    I retired from the military 17 years ago and wore my atheism proudly. I spent 20 years at West Point in the USMA Band (as a jazz pianist … yes, those jobs actually exist). When it was time to renew my contract, I always ‘affirmed’ and didn’t ‘swear’. There weren’t many options at that time.

    On the other hand, even though there were a lot of Born Agains in the Band, the education level of my fellow musicians was quite high so there were never any issues for me. I’m sure it’s much different down the trenches though.

    I am reminded of a quote from Tom Lehrer …

    The Army has carried the American ideal to its logical conclusion. Not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability.

  • http://justdfacsmaam.wordpress.com MarkNS

    I did 27 years in the Canadian military and other than having to attend one religious service in Basic Training way back in the early 80′s, I had no trouble being an outspoken atheist. In fact, hard core religious folks tended to be giggled about and most of the people I worked with were either apathetic, non-practicing Christians in name only or agnostics/atheists.

  • Alex M

    I was in the Navy for a while and have many family members (both religious, non-religious, enlisted, and commissioned officers) in several branches of the military. From our experiences the military is rather apathetic to religious views.

    When I was going through Officer Candidate School I did not go to any religious services because I’m agnostic. Instead I prepared for inspections and prepped my uniforms. Never had any kind of a prayer on a ship through the shipboard microphones. My brother-in-law is a Senior Chief on submarines and is not religious at all and has never had an issue. My cousin is enlisted in the Marines, is fairly religious, and has no problems with people of other faiths. My friend from college is enlisted in the Navy and has never had an issue with being non-religious. On a side note my father was in Vietnam as a Marine and his sister sent him a serviceman’s bible (it has a metal plate in it meant to “protect your heart from a bullet”). When I commissioned he gave it to me and signed it. He knows I’m not religious but it is a very sentimental and touching piece of family history for me. Many of my brothers and sisters in the military felt likewise… they were religious but in times of stress come to you with something to comfort you.

    My dog tags say “NO REL PREF” because I was unaware atheist was a choice. No padres (chaps) I encountered (from any branch) care about your religious preference. My padres actually encouraged atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, and pastafarians, etc. to see them if they ever needed help with anything. They sincerely meant it and several non-believing friends of mine saw them. They never tried to shove religious doctrine down their throat… instead they simply showed a care in the individual. Most padres are just as good at being a counselor for us as they are a chaplain for religious folk and are very useful.

    My experience in the military was also very welcoming of homosexuals. You will, of course, encounter bigoted religious fundies but you will meet just as many tolerant religious people. Its the same as any other job. I now work back home as a sales manager in a retail store and have very religious coworkers… just like the Navy! We get along just fine. If you are deployed to a combat zone no one will think about your religious preference… they will only think negatively of you if you are screwing up and might get them killed.

    I know this is a long post but I just wanted to let you know that not everyone in the military is religious or against non-believers. Trust me, there are atheists in foxholes and the religious people in foxholes are right there with you.

  • lochaber

    Prior USMC infantry here. I initially did that ‘no pref’ bit, but corrected it after I realized it meant less ‘not religious’ and more ‘not picky – will go to any and all churches’.

    Aside from a few random comments and group lectures, I didn’t really have much of an issue. There will be some general institutionalized crap, but most of the people in your unit won’t care too much as long as you pull your own weight, don’t fuck things up, and don’t make things difficult for other people.

    I had heard the bit about boot camp and sunday service, but when the first sunday came around, I guess I decided things weren’t difficult enough or something, so I elected to stay behind, despite warnings of pit time and field days. Turned out it wasn’t bad at all, turned out to be relatively unsupervised uniform maintenance time, so we just sat there polishing boots, pressing cammies, studying, etc.

    My first unit was pretty much a WASP wonderland, but my second was quite a bit more diverse, and had muslim, atheist, occult philosophy, satanist, and wiccans (that I was personally aware of, probably others as well). Not everyone understood or always accepted everyone else’s beliefs, but generally, their ability to do their job was more important. I know I was kind of lucky in this, and not everyone is or will be.

    It also helps if you can avoid attention. I made it through most of boot camp without any of the instructors knowing me by name.

  • steve b

    Many if not most of my fellow Soldiers would probably be surprised by my atheism. Of course the fact that we only see each other one weekend a month might have something to do with it, but I don’t want to give people the impression that I’m going to play favorites (I certainly don’t want people thinking that as I move up in rank and I’ll end up having influence over more and more Soldiers). I don’t think any more or any less of people based on their religion. My evaluations are going to be on people’s performance, end of story.

  • Kyle

    I need to get some more volunteer hours for my eval, but everything aroud me is run through the church. Any ideas on where to do something not sponsored by my overbearing chaplain?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rockbeyondbelief/ Justin Griffith

      The Wounded Warrior Project has local presence at many bases. They specifically ask people not to use religious language when sending letters to wounded soldiers. Just a thought.

  • shakeb

    I went through earlier this year, and will second that at Navy boot camp all that not attending church means is an extra hour or two to read/write letters and sit around shining boots/bs’ing with your friends in the division. Most of the division didn’t go to any services, even the very religious ones. Haven’t had any issues, but I haven’t been in for long and have only been at two commands, both training commands.

  • lochaber

    Kyle> what sort of requirements do you have to meet? Libraries almost always need more help then they can afford, and are usually quite welcoming of volunteers. I’ve seen a lot of programs at state and national parks, everything from helping with scientific studies, to trailblazing, to general clean-up and maintenance.

    I’ve never done any work with them, but it might be worth checking out various non-profits, like animal shelters and what not. Especially with the economy being a recent mess, many non-profit and government-sponsored organizations are understaffed and have their services in high demand, which leaves a lot of room for volunteers.

  • George

    No joke. Just do what everyone else has since forever. When they ask what box to check about religion, tell them your moms and get the fuck on with it! Who cares?


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