Follow up with the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
(Somehat Ironically, Scientific American has a related story today: In Atheists We Distrust)
(Also note that MAAF would like it known that the picture above is for American Atheists and not MAAF. The reality is I used it because a) it is the headstone provided by the VA for Atheists, and b) there is no copyright infringement as there would have been had I used the MAAF logo. Nonetheless, they wanted that noted.)
So last week’s post about MAAF (Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers) obviously hit a chord, both good and bad. Had a ton of comments, visits were REALLY high, and repeat visits were also really high. Most fun was of course the various emails I got. Of all the ones I got, two deserve some mention. The first is from a MAAF person (NOT MAAF President Torpy) who apparently really doesn’t think much of me:
The issue that I had with the article is first that you list MAAF as an 'Atheist Group' when they are in fact, just a secular or at most a freethinker group (if you have a problem differentiating, I can help explain if dictionaries or google [sic] prove to be to [sic] difficult for your writer to navigate and use properly.)
Generally speaking, emails which begin by attacking my intelligence and suggesting I learn to use a dictionary only amuse me. As I pointed out to this person, the website for MAAF is militaryATHEISTS.org and I wonder if the lack of “freethinkers” in their url also makes them guilty. Also, NASA is often referred to as a “space agency” even though their name also encompasses “aeronautics”, does he also take exception to anyone that refers to NASA in that manner?
From there the email discussion actually improved somewhat, until by the end his major complaint was with my lack of “context” on the argument. I find that somewhat humorous if only because on MAAF’s website right now has a piece on how Arleen Ocasio and the Houston VA are absolutely correct in their policies with regards to the cemetery and religion, without noting that the VA completely capitulated on their argument, even paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to the plaintiffs in that case. Arguing that we are only stating part of the argument, while also ignoring evidence to the contrary is apparently wrong in our case, but not in theirs. (Allegedly MAAF is going to do an update, I’ll stand by for that one, but I hope they note that after all the fighting over it, the various litigants got everything they asked for, and they got attorneys fees.)
It should be noted that I offered this individual an opportunity to respond in full by drafting his own piece that I would publish, but he declined on the grounds that he is currently on active duty, and didn’t wish to do so anonymously.
Now, I am obviously under no obligation moral or otherwise to portray the arguments of MAAF, versus those of The American Legion on our website. I could just drop the whole thing and ride off into the sunset. But, I contacted Jason Torpy the President of that organization, and he responded with some of his complaints with our posting.
First, there's the matter of the title of your article: "Atheist group seeks to ban “religious preference” from military documentation." I got some hate mail from your poor readers who thought I was actually trying to do such a thing. Nowhere did I suggest that. I'm only asking that the question not be asked and that answers not be required. If someone wants to state a religious preference, then I absolutely support their right to do so. More to the point, MAAF affirms the right of individuals to have their religious needs met and recognizes the value of having the military meet those needs. "Atheist group seeks to remove requirement to choose a religion." - that title would be accurate. Your title has nothing to do with the MAAF petition.
He does have a valid point here to a certain extent. My title came from something in the military.com article, where the Military Religious Freedom Foundation was complaining about how religious affiliation shows up on other documentation. Jason points out that he is with MAAF, and not MRFF, and thus I conflated the position of the latter with that of the former. Fair enough, although I would note that I was MORE in agreement with that argument than any others that were made. Nonetheless, I can see where I should have been more clear, Mea Culpa.
The end state of these changes will be to improve the value of the religious preference information. Religious preference data for the military currently has nearly 30% "No Pref" or "Unknown". With better options and opt-in choices, the chaplaincy and military leaders will have better data on religious preference, having mitigated the pressure to give false answers and having weeded out those who don't really care to receive religious services. Our changes won't remove religious preference data. The changes will improve data.
I always thought “No Religious Preference” was just military speak for Atheists and Agnostics etc, in other words, those who (if killed on active duty) didn’t want any specific religious component to the handling of their remains. I guess I can see where that might not be entirely fair, so I can see where these changes could be advantageous. I certainly have nothing against more accurate data.
I probably should have noted MAAF’s entire petition the first go-around, but the reality is that the longer I make these posts, the less likely folks will actually read them, and then I get ill-informed comments. But, they have 5 requests:
- Eliminate the religious preference question in entrance processing.
- Change the default entry from "No Religious Preference" to blank (no entry).
- Eliminate the "No Religious Preference" option (to facilitate change).
- Add "Humanist".
- Add "Spiritual But Not Religious".
I’m fine with all of them except the first one. Again, I thought “No Religious Preference” was essentially just a blank anyway, the default, and it didn’t have any negative connotation to me. Since I’m not really married to it, I really don’t care if it is changed to “Humanist”, “Spiritual But Not Religious” or anything else. Although, assuming the need for religious affiliation is the proper care of remains, how would a “Humanist” or “Spiritual But Not Religious” be treated any different than No Rel Pref? Or is this just a semantic change that doesn’t actually change anything concrete?
Mr Torpy actually sort of addressed that in his email to me:
As for "No Religious Preference," I explained that in the original article. The main reason here is not that "NRP" is so bad. It's just that taking the option away will facilitate the change to a new default entry. I also explained that having no preference implies any old religion will do, which is not the same as having no interest in religious services. So NRP is also not an ideal entry, especially not as a default entry.
Again, that makes sense, but then why add “Humanist" and "Spiritual But Not Religious"? Wouldn’t just a blank field result in the exact same thing?
The one I guess we differ on is “Eliminate the religious preference question in entrance processing.” I asked Mr. Torpy to clarify his position on it, because he argues that the question should go away entirely in one place, but noted in his email to me that allowing other responses to the question would facilitate better collection of that information.
The "in entrance processing" is key. I don't advocate to eliminate the data field. The option to provide the data should absolutely be available. The requirement to provide the data should go away, along with the question.
Currently, this requirement is placed before recruits during 'entrance processing' which is generally the first week or so in the military. The intention is not to move the question elsewhere either. Asking during first-unit in-processing or prior to a promotion or something like that would also be a problem. Of all the questions asked during entrance processing, the religious preference question should be removed. And military personnel should never be asked. Recruits can provide the information at any time, but they should not be asked nor required in any way to provide the information.
So by providing the option and not the requirement, the military will collect more accurate data. The pressure to give the 'right' answer or to state a preference they don't really care about will be removed.
All that having been said, yes, the question should not be asked. Asking the question and saying it's optional to answer doesn't really fix the problem. People would still have that pressure to answer. Better to leave it to the individual to drop by and have their preference entered entirely on their own terms.
Just how not asking the question will result in more accurate info is completely beyond me. The logic that these people entering the military are highly susceptible to peer pressure, and yet also sophisticated enough to actually go and find out how to add their religious affiliation is also beyond me. Presumably if the question is not asked, then we take it off the dog tags as well. So, when someone realizes they need to change that, they walk down to the S1 (instead of the person at the in-processing station) and then they remake dog tags? If I was in a religious minority, would I prefer to tell the relatively faceless bureaucrat who does the dog tags, or the Battalion S1? And if we put off filling this stuff out until the person actually requests it, or they reach their down-range unit, what about people like Mr. Walker that I noted died at basic training? If a soldier didn’t fill it out, and then his parents say that he actually wanted a Roman Catholic service, do we forbid it based on lack of proper documentation, or allow it because that is what the parents wanted? And what of the case of a decedent who has parents who are divorced, and one wants a Buddhist funeral, and the other wants a Jewish one? Shouldn’t the desire of the soldier be paramount? We seem to be banking a lot on the fact that incoming soldiers are sophisticated enough to know who to talk to if they want record a religion.
I could accept marking the field optional, or even a statement from those doing the paperwork that you have the right not to state one, but to take the question out entirely and rely on word of mouth or something to inform the recruits that they can have their religious preference changed through paperwork seems problematic. In fact, it would seem to me to encourage evangelism in the ranks, by having other troops repeatedly asking you if you had gone down and changed your religious affiliation.
Either way, I have showed this post to Mr. Torpy and he took exception to some of the things, but it would take 500 years to get something we both agree on, so I’ll give him the last word, even though I clearly disagree with just taking his word for it….
I appreciate the response posted here, and I hope this is the first in a trend of dialogue. The idea of atheists in the military and separation of church and state creates vehement anger, especially here at the Legion. We've got nothing to hide and are perfectly happy to engage in discussions (even if there isn't full agreement).
I appreciate re-posting the full list of requests and other clarifications about what MAAF is really asking for. I often find that many concerns people raise are either addressed in our original documents or fabricated entirely. That means people can really save themselves a lot of heartburn by checking out our site.
I want to be clear that "humanist" and "blank" or "no preference" are different requests. Humanists have beliefs, communities, and values that distinguish us and are valuable for chaplains to support. Adding this option will be helpful for humanists, and why not provide the option?
The biggest contention seems to be that requiring recruits to choose a religious preference is no big deal and that personnel won't know how to update their records. The question is a big deal for people who aren't Christian (and some Christians). Take our word for it. It's a problem. That doesn't mean our feelings are hurt. It means the data is bad. Also consider the 30% of NRP and Unknown that proves the data is bad. These changes (all 5) will help fix that problem. And at Friday/Saturday/Sunday services, the chaplains will have every opportunity to double-check and make sure troops have encouragement and information for updating their religious preference. That will mitigate any issue with a devout person unsure how to get their tags/records updated.