Is Army’s New “Humanist” Designation Just Semantic Hooey?

Responding favorably to a February letter from the ACLU, the Department of Defense this week ended more than two years of stonewalling over a request from U.S. Army Major Ray Bradley to amend the approved list of religious preferences used on military records. Bradley and others may now identify as “Humanist” rather than “Agnostic,” “Atheist,” “no religious preference,” or “none”—the codes previously approved by the Army Chaplaincy for service members with non-religious beliefs and practices.

The new faith code is significant in a number of ways. First, for Bradley and Humanist service members, it means that their existential disposition and associated practices are designated in their military records with language not shaped primarily in opposition to traditional religious designations. “‘Atheist’ says only what I’m not,” Bradley explained. “‘Humanist is what I am. It is how I live my life. The principles of Humanism guide me through life’s challenges and provide me with a sense of purpose to experience life to its fullest. Atheism does neither.” 

Those who might think that Bradley’s insistence on claiming the designation is so much stridently irreligious, semantic quibbling might recall the significance of naming throughout religious traditions themselves. The power the god of the Hebrew Bible confers on Adam to name all the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:19-20) helps humans to understand their surroundings and their place in the newly created world. So, too, the renaming of Abram as Abraham (Gen. 17:1-14) expresses his new, covenantal relationship to God and marks the future trajectory of his lineage. 

Indeed, in many religions, choosing a name that expresses a close coherence between self-identity and religious identity and affiliation (or having one conferred) is a defining ritual feature, as in the Sikh Nam Karam ceremony for naming a child according to the first letter of a sacred hymn. Such a name is, as Roland Barthes put it, “the prince of signifiers; its connotations are rich, social and symbolic.”

While not personal names, the categorical designations the religiously unaffiliated take on, as well as the ones they refuse, are deeply personal components of social self-identity. As such, they participate in the cultural and spiritual traditions of naming.

But the addition of the Humanist designation to the list of approved faith codes has concrete implications as well. It gives Humanist service members access to Army Chaplaincy services, including spiritual counseling and gathering spaces for Humanist groups. It also means that the numbers and distribution of Humanists in the military can be tracked along with those of other religious groups, potentially inviting a reshaping of the military chaplaincy, which critics complain is inappropriately weighted in favor of Christian, and specifically Evangelical Christian, denominations. 

A study by the Military Association of Atheist and Freethinkers (MAAF)—the group that put Bradley in contact with the ACLU—reported that nearly 97% of military chaplains are Christian (63% Evangelical), while Christian service members make up 70% of the population. Currently no Humanist or Atheist chaplains approved for military service, though MAAF reports that there are a number of Atheist and Humanist chaplain assistants 

The DOD’s ruling this week may, thus, have a meaningful impact on the free expression of religious identity for the reported 3.6% of service members who are Humanists and allow more diverse access to resources for spiritual care and the development of communities of support. While the decision certainly reflects growth in the population of religiously unaffiliated in the wider culture, like other moves toward greater diversity in the military—as in the case of racial and LGBT quality—it will likely have significant impact on the American culture more broadly as service members move back and forth between military and civilian life.