Follow up with the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers

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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 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. 

Mr. Torpy:

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 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.

Mr. Torpy:

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.

Mr. Torpy:

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.

Posted in the burner | 18 comments
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If you don't believe in God, don't you refuse to use American money ? After all " In God We Trust " would defile you pay, wouldn't it ? The botom line here is WE , the United Staes , ARE a nation that was founded with a Divine Creator recognized by the Founding Fathers in our Declaration of Independence.

Don't want a religious identifier on your dogtags ? NO RELIGIOUS PREF is all you have to have on them !

Since it appears you believe in nothing to include an after life, what difference does it make? You want, want, want. Here's what I think since I've had this subject jamed down my throat as well as the LGBT issue shoved up my a$$. Why don't you all just leave. If life is so horrible that you have to make the entire military, to include us retireees, disabled, and all other categories of people who put country before themselves totally miserable, disgusted and quite frankly completly disinterested in your issues, just leave. Got to wherever whatever you are end up and stay there. You're issues are so important to you that they eclipse national defense at least as you've made it appear to me. Oh and the cra& about just wanting to serve...go serve at a fast food restaurant. Maybe they'll care. But then again, i doubt it. Your issues would get in the way of profits and you'd get canned in under two hours.

I don't want your final word nor do I care if you read this. I want peace and quiet in the ranks. Do the job, defend the country and keep you personal issues in the space between your ears. If you can't do that, GTFO.

For the life of me I do not understand why people do not see these things for what they are - forms of limiting my religious liberties. Things shuch as- being required to answer questions about their religion, participate in organized prayers, or having religious preference stamped on your papers etc.... In my eyes these things make it very difficult for any minority group to feel included or rather that they are not being singled out-thus limiting our liberty. There is only one way to have true freedom of religion and that is to keep it in our private lives and out of our government.

Our founding fathers had the advantage of their experiences to understand the need for secular government. And as our nations society continues to evolve their initial premise has never been more true.

It is always difficult for majority groups to see how they repress minority groups, religion is no different.

I'm an atheist, and a disabled veteran. My question to the sh*t disturbers is this, why do you care? You have turned your atheism into a belief/religion unto itself. The fact that I don't believe in God means that it, to me anyway, is not different than being at a memorial for a fallen soldier and being of a different religion than the soldier, or the chaplain. You don't see Catholics walking out of a service for a fallen Jew, Buddhist, Protestant or vice-versa. As a devout atheist, all I have to say on this is that these whining atheists do not speak for the majority of us. They want attention and want to infringe on others rights to worship or be who they want to be. The very things they claim to be offended by. I know many atheists that I've served with, and none of them gives a crap about this. Sorry Mr. Torpey, but you and your followers need to get a life. At least I've learned one thing out of this, I can get a cool atom bomb emblem on my stone at the State vet cemetery.

Amen to that Bro...

Just a shout out to MOTHAX for doing something that few manage to do anymore - he listens to people who take issue with him and actually makes an effort to see their side of the argument. This obviously does not always mean switching to their side of the argument but I think something is often lost on people in their eagerness to point fingers.

MOTHAX actually listens and considers what people say before firing back. I cannot stress enough how rare that is these days and how sad that makes me for the internet as a whole but how proud that makes me of MOTHAX as a person.

Caveat: I am an actual friend of MOTHAX, know him from deployment and continued friendship since then, but if a friend can't call out a friend for doing something good in the abyss that is internet discourse, it's worse than i thought.

That is why I continue to read The Burn Pit. I consider MOTHAX to be a fair and honest writer.

The "GTFO" people are the ones I don't care much for.

If you don't believe in God -- What do you believe ? After all -- Evolution is just another religion..... that can't be proven experientially, observationally, or scientifically. Louis Pasteur, Francesco Redi Lazzaro Spallanzani, and other scientists have proven that life cannot be generated from non life.
You can't pass science class if you don't know that spontaneous generation is impossible.
That being a fact ( a real fact) - Where do you believe that life came from ???
There are only two posssiblilties God and Spontaneous Generation and spontaneous generation is a fradulent theory. Peace Brother.......

Atheism is just a disbelief in a god due to the lack of evidence. Evolution (a scientific fact) has nothing to do with a disbelief in a god. Evolution in a nutshell is just change over time, nothing more. There are many Christians (for example) that understand and except evolution as a scientific theory. It has nothing to do with their belief.
With the case of life coming from non-life; that too has been proven true. The scientist that you state "disproved" life from non-life are from experiments 150-400 years ago. I would suggest looking up "Abiogenesis" on the web for further information.
Placing "god" in your creation only adds more questions to the mix. Where did this god come from? The question becomes a never-ending regression. This god made the universe out of nothing?

I choose to be an atheist and don't push my belief, or lack thereof, on anyone else. Why do others do that to atheists? Unfortunately, Art, your comment just gives fuel to the atheists out there who are stirring the pot. You wouldn't have a comment about confucious followers, hindus, buddhists, etc, why atheists? Why is it so important for people of faith to worry about those of us who have no specific belief? If I'm not worrying, relax, it's okay. I won't hold you blood guilty if I turn out to be wrong down the road. And if God is what most think He is, I suspect He won't hold you accountable for my dfiance either. Live and let live, unless it positively has to be destroyed on orders of our leadership.

While this comment does not address the core topic of the article, I wanted to mention that I think the author's repeated use of "sic" to denote the grammatical errors in quoted text is juvenile and detracts from the intellectutal force of his arguments. The quotations in this article are clearly delineated, the use of [sic] to denote grammatical or typographical errors in the text is unnecessary especially considering the author offers no parathetical correction of the errors along with the "sic." Does the author prefer that the reader be impressed with his juvenile copy editing skills or the force of his arguments?

I'd say both equally.  But to the main point, you'll note that I did that only in the portion with the guy calling me an idiot.  I thought it was important to note that saying I was an imbecile while simultaneously making grammatical errors was pertinent, no?


Point taken.

But, for the record, my editing abilities are abysmal.  I can't spell or do grammar to save my life generally, was just making the point that when folks insult me for my intelligence, they should probably make sure their own is fairly tight.  But yes, it was rather juvenile, and I will refrain from doing that anymore.  My emotions got the better of me.



No sweat. No sweat at all. Nobody likes to be belittled or talked down to. Your response is completely understandable.

Dave, I don't believe you have ever got the point. Overall I perceive your comments as "insulting and demeaning". Who are you to be going about correcting everone's grammer anyway? Maybe you should have a good look at your own attitude and consider the company you are in. I recently offered some advice and direction to another commentator doing pretty much the same thing. (or was his name DAVE?) Think about this: When your grandchildren ask:"and what did you do to change the world?", you can respond with confidence! "I was a excellant critic of what others did, and I corrected their spelling!" ...........a very high virtue, indeed......................V

I had a professor who fought hard in the courts to ban Christmas tree displays in school. I thought it made no sense to me as a Chinese immigrant. As a non-Christan, i wanted to experience others enjoyed in their religion. I wanted to learn as much as I could about their religion. Part of my incentive was that I had hoped others would be equally accepting of my religion, or non-religion, or whatever you want to call my own spiritual beliefs. To be accepted, I had to accept; to be united, I had to give before I take.

My personal belief is that the conversation here is a non-starter; if we are more tolerant from the start, more accepting of others and less willing to place our selfish needs before the others, we would have less bickering and more progress made in unified efforts...


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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.