U.S. Army Major Wants Dog Tag to Say ‘Humanist’; Military Says No February 9, 2012

U.S. Army Major Wants Dog Tag to Say ‘Humanist’; Military Says No

U.S Army Major Ray Bradley calls himself a Humanist. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we know that’s not synonymous with “atheist.” It’s atheism + ethics. It’s what you’re for instead of what you’re against. And people who use the “Humanism” label feel it’s a more thorough description of who they are — atheist just isn’t enough. (Dave Silverman, on the other hand, is an atheist, not a “Humanist.”)

The military, however, doesn’t recognize the difference. They allow soldiers to wear dog tags that say “Atheist” but not “Humanist.” Why not? Who knows. But Bradley is trying to fix that.

Maj. Ray Bradley is applying to be the first humanist recognized as a “distinctive faith group leader” by the Army. In the meantime, he can’t be designated as a humanist on his official records or dog tags, although he can be classified as an atheist.

Bradley said he applied for the change to his record after learning that “atheist” was now an officially recognized choice for soldiers. His request was ultimately rejected by the Army Chaplain Corps, he said, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. Bradley believes some of the resistance comes from a lack of familiarity with humanism.

“I don’t think the chaplaincy really understands the difference between atheism and humanism,” he said.

The Army currently has no humanist chaplains or laypersons authorized to perform limited chaplain duties, a position roughly equivalent to a deacon or elder in a Christian church. A soldier at Fort Meade, Md., has also filed the paperwork seeking the designation, which is a more formal process in the Army and Navy than in the Air Force, where a humanist lay leader is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., according to Torpy.

Incidentally, that Fort Meade soldier is Cpt. Ryan Jean, whom I mentioned here.

I’d love to hear a good reason from military officials as to why they won’t allow the label, but there really isn’t one. It’s just ignorance on their part. It ought to be a quick fix. And yet, when it comes to non-religious people in the military, there’s always some sort of resistance when they try to assert themselves.

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  • Anonymous

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just drop all the labels? You are either a human male, female or transgender. On second thought for those that need a label maybe we should keep the racist and bigot labels.

  • Jess

    I don’t see why listing your imaginary friend social club (or lack of) belongs on a dog tag in the first place..

  • Anonymous

    I understand the logic behind not allowing Humanist. Atheist defines his religious preference, just as Christian/Muslim/Wicca would. Humanist defines his outlook on life. Should a soldier be able to put “Badass” in that space? or maybe just “Nice guy”? It seems like they had to draw a line in the sand some place, and religious preference is on one side of the line, everything else is on the other.

    I just don’t see this as a fight worthy of our time, or anyone else’s. It sounds like the question for that line of the dog tag says “Do you believe in a god? If yes, which one?” If the answer is no, it reads Atheist, if yes, you say which one.

    I also don’t understand his statement of “I don’t think the chaplaincy really understands the difference between atheism and humanism,”. He is comparing apples and oranges. Humanism is defined as “an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns…” (From Wikipedia). There are literally hundreds of studies/philosophies/world views that people have. Any non-christian who believes that ALL Christians share the same study/philosophy/world view is being ridiculous. The same goes for all religions (or lack there of).

    His religious views are atheistic, that is what his dog tag should read. His world view and personal philosophy are irrelevant, just as they are on a theist’s dog tags.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    Why should the Army Chaplain Corps be the ones to decide what goes on his dogtag?

  • Rod Chlebek

    A clear lack of respect. Who is anyone to decide one’s worldview?

  • Zeeneri

    It’s kind of like a will crammed into one word so that people on the field will have a better idea of how to treat them if they’re about to die or dead. If you’re religious of one type or another efforts will be made to get a religious person of your listed faith to perform whatever rituals they’d want if they were able to convey the desire. It technically doesn’t mean anything if atheists are correct, but to the grieving family it could lend reassurances. I mean humans generally have a basic desire to carry out such things that their deceased loved ones would have wanted regardless of religious views.

  • Marguerite

    I tend to agree with this. As far as I know, humanism is a philosophy/worldview, not a religion or lack thereof. As far as I know, that information on dog tags is simply there so that if a soldier is injured, his religious beliefs can be properly ministered to. So “atheist” would seem to cover the needed information adequately. Or am I missing something here?

  • Anonymous

    Binary trans* people exist, don’t you stick us in some third gender category. Plus, transgender is not a noun. Seriously.

    On the real subject: you must be privileged in a big way. I never met someone who was “label-free” and not white, cisgender, abled and likely straight. You have the privilege of being seen as default. Other people, however, do not, and when we use labels it may be a way to get the privileged folks to stop  erasing our identities. Please don’t assume.

    Also: noticing difference on its own does not make a person bigoted.

  • “It sounds like the question for that line of the dog tag says “Do you believe in a god? If yes, which one?” If the answer is no, it reads Atheist, if yes, you say which one.”

    Even though Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe in the same god, they’re separate designations on dog tags. Furthermore, dog tags distinguish between different Christian denominations. How is the difference between atheism and humanism different?

  • Atheistdruid


    You say that Humanism is ‘atheism+ethics’. This implies that those atheists who do not consider themselves Humanists do not have any ethics, which sounds a little too close to the religious ‘atheists have no morals’ trope for comfort. Non-Humanist atheists do exist, and do still have ethics and values.

    For instance, I am an atheist, but do not define myself as a Humanist because  I think the term is too narrow and speciesist, and does not allow enough focus for animal rights and environmentalist issues. This certainly does not mean that I lack ethics, or even that I do not also care about humans too and try to be a good person, just that the term ‘Humanist’ is too narrow in my opinion.

    There are many ways to be an atheist and have ethics, of which Humanism is just one.

  •  If they die, and their religious preference has certain practices for their burial, it’s to make sure they respect those practices for the families sake. My husband for instance would have a problem because they screwed up his dog tag and it read No Religious Preference instead of Roman Catholic.

  • Anonymous

     Put it this way, if you die or are in danger of death, far away from your next of kin and unable to speak for yourself, a dog-tag will determine some of what happens to you. In the US army you can be sure that if you do not specify otherwise, you will be treated as a Christian. Now that may not bother you, but I’m fairly certain it would bother some people.

    I’ve heard many stories about atheist soldiers looking to chaplains for help, only to get lectured about how they need to get right with Jesus (which is just what you need to hear when you may be suicidal, eh?). The absolute last thing I would want, if something were to happen to me, is for some clergy to go to my grieving atheist parents to try to make it about God. It would not help, and it might get my dad arrested for assault.

  • Anonymous

    So when you are dead/dying your comrades are able to give you the last rites and ceremonies in accordance to your beliefs.

  • Anonymous

    From Wiki:
    Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.

    see now?

  • John

    my christian uncle always said, “you gotta beleive in something or you can’t be trusted”  … well, secular humanism is the answer for some atheists to have a beleif system (minimize human suffering, justice and ethics through reason).  There are many types of humanist, religious and not.  I suspect the chaplins wish to exclude humanist as it is a very broad term and a subset of many religions.  Secular humanist would be more correct.  I wonder if acknowledgement of humanism would threaten their organisation as it crosses religious boundaries more easily and does not require a specific faith to be applied? 

  • Anonymous

     I think the point of this affair is that at present dog-tags allow for shades of difference for theists but prohibit it for atheists. It is absolutely accepted that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians etc. have different worldviews and this is to be reflected. Christians in particular are allowed tremendous specificity on their dog-tags, distinguishing different kinds of Christians (you can even have official Salvation Army dog-tags). However non-theists are allowed no shades of difference. Basically, according to the armed forces, all non-theists believe the same thing, i.e: nothing.

    The problem with this is that it’s not true. Even though atheism is only a lack of belief in gods, there are very obviously different kinds of atheists. For some, simply saying “atheist” is enough, but for others their identity is more properly fleshed out with an identifier such as Humanist. It’s not fair to allow the theist to distinguish just what kind of theist they are when atheists are not afforded the same right.

  • Anonymous

     This isn’t so much about the dog tags but what it says in the personnel file. And there you can only pick from predefined categories. He could go to some private company and get any dogtags he wants. But those are only relevant in emergency situations. His file would still say “atheist”

  • Heidela

    When my husband served he was asked ” what religion are you?” he said ” atheist” they put ” no preference” he and the others who said tbe same were given the same
    ” no pref” for my husband implied to him he believed in god just had no pref for religion. It infuriated him. Today saying ” atheist” at all on dog tags is a huge step forward to him.
    I am an atheist but also have a humanistic ” outlook”
    So I agree the space on a dog tag is to alert. Folks who or how to care for the religious when they need spiritual help. If you do not believe in God the statement is simple ” atheist”

  • Spencer

    “This implies that those atheists who do not consider themselves Humanists do not have any ethics”
    No, it doesn’t.

  • Jess

    I guess I understand the reasoning for having religion on dog tags, but risk of untimely death isn’t limited to the military. Perhaps a better solution would be something similar to a medic-alert bracelet that those with superstitions can wear, leaving the government issued supplies free of superstition and controversy.

  • I have to wonder how much of this has to do with that idea that, for every recognized category, the Army (as in, every base) must have a way to minister to it. While it is easy to find chaplains who can manage different faiths, those who can effectively speak to the lack thereof are few and far between.

    It doesn’t help that, in order to be considered ‘effective’ while giving advice, many faiths require ordainment, especially for last rites (as others have said, this is one of the prime reasons religion is even listed on dog tags.) This means the Army doesn’t even have to figure out who qualifies; the various churches have set their own standards. How does one go about selecting a qualified humanist counselor?

    And does this mean it’s up to us to define such for them?

  • Silverman isn’t a Humanist? While I am sure it isn’t the label he prefers, I think the label does fit him. 

  • FSq

    Yes, but, is anyone really that surpirsed? I mean, this is the US military. That stalwart ogranization of good and hope that persuaded Kennedy to screw up, allows soliders to rape and pillage and indoctrinates the soliders to believe they are the soldiers of the lord. 

    I mean, it is the US military. They really aren’t the good guys.

  • Erp

    First this isn’t about dog tags where I suspect you can get humanist but about the religion listed on a person’s official records  (probably more needed for deciding what to provide, e.g., we have a lot of Jewish solders so chaplains better be trained about Judaism  or deciding provisions for worship  in areas where it is not possible (or easy) to get off base or when notifying relatives [presumably of the same faith] about his or her death [especially if no body with dog tags is around]).   It probably needs to be on the official list so it has a numeric code assigned to it.

    Second I wonder if Ethical Culture is a listed religion (this is a particular long established major Humanist group with regular meetings, etc.).  

  • Anonymous

    Neither Atheism or Humanism are religions. That is the difference. Non-believers arguing for more differentiation of the ‘denominations’ of atheism creates an atheism religious umbrella that has many flavors. Atheism is not a religion. Neither is Humanism.

    I would argue that in the space provided for your religious affiliation on your dog tags should have a religion or be blank or say “none”.

    I am an atheist and I suppose I consider myself a humanist as well. That doesn’t mean I approve of people saying my religion is atheism or humanism. Neither of these things are a religion and neither should be considered one. Under religion I would mark none or leave the space blank.

  • Michael

    In fairness to the military, this sounds more like bureaucratic malarky than religious malarky.  I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the same delay in recognizing some tiny Christian sect.  Doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, but I don’t think we can assume conspiracy or malice yet.  I think its more likely that they are resistant to adding any new classifications without understanding the distinction more clearly.

  • Of course, the implication of this is that the entry on the tag is only relevant in so far as it means something to the people reading the tag, and makes a difference. Even if ‘atheist’ and ‘humanist’ were recognised as equally valid, what differences would it make in practice? Clearly you give a Catholic different rites to a Muslim, but what difference does the distinction between atheist and humanist make to the problem that these tags are addressing?

    If none, then there’s no point making the distinction at all.

  • I don’t understand why we should use labels either.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    ” I believe in Humans – in fact I’ve actually seen them”

  • Noel Ang

    It is impossible to be an atheist without ethics.

    You can’t hold principles (“Reason is the only source of truth”) and evade ethics, because to have principles mean to abide by their moral imperatives. Ethics is not an optional accessory. It was the consequence of philosophy long before religion hijacked it.

    Using the term “humanism” to connote some sort of “softer,” “spiritual,” “pragmatic,” or “inclusive” outlook is at best vain and at worst a sure sign that one does not grasp the full, moral implications of acknowledging the primacy of reason and objective existence.

    The last thing atheism needs is to be parceled out to various denominations. Reason does not have the same epistemological status as faith.

    I’d be embarassed to meet an atheist who calls himself a “humanist.”

  • Just wear a medal with the Star Fleet logo.  Most intelligent people would instantly recognize it as symbolic of the best known humanist philosopher, Gene Roddenberry.

  • Anonymous

    As far what the dog tags are used for it wouldn’t make a difference if it says ‘Atheist’ or ‘Humanist’. So i can understand why someone wouldn’t want to spend so much time doing the paperwork to create new categories.

  • Anonymous

    If you think acknowledging difference causes bigotry, you’re very confused.

  • kenneth

    The humanists will get their way if they’re willing to invest the time and money to fight. I was part of the Wiccan effort to get the military (the VA, actually), to put the pentacle on grave markers. That took a decade plus and two lawsuits, but we ultimately won. 

  • Ruth

    I have this  little worry that if you were injured and someone read your dog tags that you might be treated better if they said Humanist rather than Atheist.  Maybe not a valid worry, but. .. 

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the privileged seldom can see the privilege. Noticing differences is not the same as labeling. Labeling helps create stereotypes. I imagine if we had fewer preconceived notions brought on by labeling, we might just get to know others and ourselves a little bit better.   

  • Brian Macker

    Atheism isn’t “a” religion just like theism isn’t a religion. There are however atheistic religions, ones without gods. Some are openly accepting of the term religion such as some Hindu sects (Mimasa & Samkhya, some Buddhist schools (ie. Theravada), schools of Confucianism and Taoism, Scientology, and Ethical Culture.

    There are also plenty of atheistic philosophies that look like a duck and quack like a duck. Not sure what would distinguish Marxist/Leninist communism, Objectivism, North Korean Dear Leaderism, Secular Humanism, and humanism from a religion. The same grounds one might use to disqualify them would also disqualify other philosophies that are categorized as religions. Being derogatory towards “religion” while behaving precisely as a religion doesn’t make it non religion.

  • Brian Macker

    Ethical Culturalists have a religion. The are also known as Ethical Humanists. What if the want to wear a tag that says humanist? You might argue that there is no one religion that is called Humanist and that it may include people who label themselves as such but claim no religion. However the same arguments could be made against having a tag that says Jew or Christian. There is no one religion called Christianity or Judaism. There are plenty of people who self identify as Christian or Jew who are atheists (including priests and rabbis).

  • Brian Macker

    A good reason is to have a quick way of communicating your beliefs so that you can judge how another will behave. Not perfect (and open to deceit like any other form of communication) but useful.

  • Brian Macker

    Most of them are asshole. Not sure how you are different than any other racist or bigot who ascribes the behavior of a few to the many. You think all black love Watermelon? I’m sure the percent who do is way larger in that community than the percent in the US military committing atrocities. You conveniently forget that they have trials for and jail US soldiers that commit atrocities. I think you are one of the bad guys.

  • Brian Macker

    I disagree 100%. Many atheists can be and are as irrational as any theist. Atheism is not equivalent to reason. Whether you like it or not atheists are divided on the grounds of ethics precisely because they are divided on world view.

    In my world view I share very little with your average atheist (which tilts communist worldwide in sheer numbers). Think about the size of the Chinese, Korean, and former USSR populations combined, and the among of indoctrination producing their kind of atheist.

    Your self avowed embarrassment itself is irrational. Your irrationality doesn’t embarrass me and shouldn’t. Why should I be embarrassed by your belief, or meeting you? Why you for meeting Humanists?

    You sounded like an objectivist so I looked up your name on google and it seems you might be. Do you find it embarrassing that Ayn Rand “parceled out “atheism” into one of those “various denominations”? Isn’t hypocrisy a form of irrationality?

    I hate to break this to you, but as much as I like Rand’s criticisms of religion, one cannot simply directly deduce an ethical system from “A=A”. The disproof in the case of Rand is her quite unethical treatment of her fellow objectivists and her husband, in a way that was quite consistent with her philosophy. The other is in the way her sanctioned philosophical heirs quite unethically incite the nuking of other populations when it is quite apparent that there is no such need. Don’t-cha think it’s ethically monstrous to commit genocide on others for beliefs ALL your ancestors committed at some point.

    Good thing the rightful heirs to objectivism don’t have time machines and atom bombs. We’d all be dead!

  • Brian Macker

    I got the same treatment, and had the same internal reaction. That and being forced to clean rifles while the other religious cadets when to church and had socials with girls got me motivated to quit West Point. I actually attended one of those sunday activities to see what they were doing, and I was quite pissed the special privileges the religious were getting. Social contact with support groups like local army families, access to girls, cookies and baked goods, free time outside, etc. The second I decide I wanted out I started acting up. I wouldn’t drop my pencil on command at the end of the test. I don’t like cherry pie and when force was made to get me to eat some at dinner and asked to justify why I shouted, “Because somebody has raped the Martha Washington cherry pie, Sir!”.

    I never did tell them the real reason I wanted to quit because I was convinced they would be to bigoted to let me out on those grounds. It actually made me emotionally upset to learn that my great supposedly secular and just country had at it’s core such double standards. So my plan was just to act out till they got fed up with me. Perhaps I was wrong but I was just a kid.

    They were actually fairly rational about letting me quit. Turns out it was my squad leader that was an unusually bigoted haze. A to be unnamed to protect the innocent, leader passed me in the hall after it was known I was quitting and said “I wish I quit three years ago”.

  • Brian Macker

    Like, “I’m a vegan” or “I’m an environmentalist”, etc.

  • Great comments and discussions!  If I could do it over, I wouldn’t have mentioned dog tags, though.  It really detracted from the core issue; changing my official record.  The pragmatic truth is that a Soldier with atheist in their record risks damaging their career.  That information appears on the Officer/Enlisted Record Brief for supervisors and boards to see.  This risk prevents many Soldiers from identifying as atheists and, since that is the only secular choice, non-theists are under-represented in the military.  Besides, the issue isn’t about whether Humanism is a religion.  It is about  Soldiers’ right to self- identify as they choose.  And, isn’t it ironic that I can have a Humanist headstone in a national cemetary, but I can’t claim to be a Humanist.

  • Kermanhigh2010

    On the modern dog tags it just says no religious prefrence or norelpref

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