The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/DoD/Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force

Defense Department expands its list of recognized religions

(RNS) Humanist? Deist? No religion?

No problem.

The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces.

The move, which came at the end of March but was made public this week, means servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups.

The move was lauded by humanist organizations, which have been pushing for full recognition, including their own chaplains, for 10 years.

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"Beyond Humanism, the new listing is a win for diversity in general," Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said in an announcement. "There have been prior declarations that the government or the military has recognized Humanism in one way or another. But this is different."

Previously, the U.S. military recognized just over 100 religions. The new list has grown to 221 to include the earth-based faiths, such as heathens and Asatru, and an additional eight Protestant groups, including the International Communion of the Charismatic Christian Church.

Jason Torpy speaks on a panel about the freethought movement during the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 28, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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Jewish servicemen and women may now choose among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform instead of just "Jewish."

Torpy, a West Point alumnus whose humanism was not recognized when he attended in 1998, offered thanks to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, which oversaw the new list.

"This is really good," he said. "But the still-to-do's include a statement from the chaplains in the services saying we encourage humanists to come to our chapels to get humanist materials and referrals."

Torpy said his organization is ready with "chaplain outreach" to help train military chaplains in humanist beliefs and needs.

Josh Heath, co-director of the Open Halls Project, which works to support heathens and other earth-based faiths in the military, said the newly recognized groups will now find it easier to get their holidays off, travel off-base to religious services, or keep special religious items in the barracks.

"If you run into any miscommunication about your religious needs you can say this is my official religious preference and be accommodated," he said.

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Heath hopes it will make it easier for military heathens to find each other and form on-base communities.

And there's another plus: The Department of Defense will now have more accurate counts of each recognized religious group, which varies widely depending on who's counting.

The Humanism Happy Human logo, left, and the Department of Defense seal. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

According to MAAF figures, more than 22 percent of service personnel identify as "no religious preference," and slightly more than 1 percent identify as "atheist" or "agnostic." In 2010, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute estimated humanists make up 3.6 percent of the U.S. military.

The new policy has its detractors. Writing for Reporter, the official newspaper of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Roger Drinnon said a "heavily secularized military culture, stemming from ongoing atheist activism and LGBT advocacy," has led to "an environment where restrictions and even punitive actions reportedly are being imposed on chaplains, commanders and lower ranks who seek to serve without compromising their religious faith."

Humanism was recognized by the Army in 2014, but this new order expands that to all branches of the military.


  1. an environment where restrictions and even punitive actions reportedly are being imposed on chaplains, commanders and lower ranks who seek to serve without compromising their religious faith.

    Read: be disparaging about things that are consistent with another soldier’s beliefs.

    Sorry a chaplain is there to serve all military members’ spiritual needs when necessarily. No they can’t be saying that those of different beliefs is going to hell, is a sinner or is really worshipping Satan. I’ve seen Christian chaplains holding the hands of atheist, muslim, jewish, satanists, and even gay people. They are there to comfort the soldier, not talk to them about religious beliefs they don’t share.

    If they can’t ‘compromise’ their religious beliefs in this way then being a military chaplain is the wrong career to pick.

  2. The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism….

    I was curious if the DoD categorized humanism as a “religion”, but the actual DoD memo uses terms like “faiths and beliefs” and “faith and belief systems”, which–though perhaps not perfect–are more inclusive than “religion”.

  3. I was talking to our hospital chaplains about de christianising our building, he said ‘if they don’t like praying in our christian chapel, they can go outside and pray’.

  4. If you are talking about the military sounds like they need a new job.

  5. atheists and agnostics are 2 from the bottom of the list. ZA code. the international religious freedom bill Obama passed last year give atheists the same status as christians.

  6. I’ve been trying to DE christianize our VA hospital for over a year, our directors have changed 3 times since. Our chaplains don’t want to change our baptist chapel, directors are christian and won’t change anything until they are forced. That’s the problem with inclusion, the military and chaplains are christians and won’t change easily. Our hospital chaplain said, ‘if they don’t like praying in here (baptist chapel) they can go outside and pray’. Saying it is one thing, enforcing it is another.

  7. except they still can’t fire anyone at the hospital. old white guys.

  8. Yes, they’ve expanded the wording in an effective way that will hopefully make it easier to add new codes down the road as well.

  9. That is when you file an IG complaint, or contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or Americans United to file a complaint (it can be done anonymously).

    By official policy government chapels are required to be neutral when not in use for a specific service.

  10. Oshtur, Have they read the great unifier in 1 Corinthians 6:11 – 6:14?

  11. I hope the Pastafarians made the list. They can adapt the army issue helmet by drilling holes in it to resemble a colander. The military appreciates efficiency.

  12. Are they going to hire atheist/agnostic chaplains?After all, the usual comforting (but well-meaning) lies chaplains tell won’t cut it with our guys. Maybe we meet in a bar, drink and get advice/comfort from the bartender.

  13. we would use science based or just kindness helps. someone from the psych dept or a social worker. I’ve got better advice from strippers than anyone else.

  14. Religion should have freedom of practice providing the following. No person suffers pain, injury or death.
    No person under 16 should be forced to have any kind of genital mutilation or physical marking. No person under 16 shall have religion or atheism forced upon them. No brainwashing or preaching or other pressures. No relationship pressures including marriage. No pressure to remain within your social group, caste or race. Freedom of movement in public places and to accept and offer employment to anyone regardless of race and background. Freedom of choice of dress and to drive cars.

  15. Mike Kano, I have now read them. No, not many intelligentia here. The apostle was right here.we’ll take the off-scourings of society, the ones that didn’t fit in.

  16. Well…hmmm…despite my objections to women being objectified (and being a Humanist, and a social worker), your comment was truly humorous (chuckle). I’ve always dreamed of having motivational speakers on science (particularly neuroscience), psychology, environmental awareness, and astronomy at weekly or monthly humanist meetings, and fun celebrations on the National Day of Reason, Earth Day, Pi Day (3/14), Darwin Day, Winter Solstice, and so on. It could be super-interesting like, Registering/Keeping a Beehive, Easy Composting, the Psychology of Groups, Strategies that work if you live with someone with PTSD, the list is endless, because science and allied subjects are endless. What is truly needed is time invested by individuals willing to take the lead, and that is a rare commodity. We are all so busy making a living, sometimes just barely surviving. I’ll be doing my biggest part after I retire so that I don’t have to worry so much about supporting myself, but hope others join and do their part–however small. Oh btw–there have always been atheists in foxholes, my father, husband, son and daughter (all Army) are living proof.

  17. I didn’t see them on the list, atheists and agnostics are LAST on the list, in the Z category. But the courts are not allowed to disagree with a person’s religion, the origin of it or the texts because we have freedom of conscience. If the colander is their god then the courts have to allow that. They have to be allowed to wear one at work.

    Maybe I should become a Mythrist. the identical story of a dying savior god as jesus, many think it the religion christians copied.

    We need to find ways to get our message out, get on TV or the media in general. We have a PR problem.

  18. I can say without any doubt that all of the Chaplains I have met in the Army have been there more for support and to help you with guidance than to condemn anyone. I went with a friend who was gay to confession and she was told by the Catholic Chaplain that everyone has their own relationship with god and that even though the official views of the church are to condemn her, he felt that love in any form could never be wrong.
    I always thought that was such a nice thing to say, it was encouraging for her and she struggled greatly with her lifestyle because she was treated very poorly by other Gay people because she socialized with heterosexual people more than gay. She always told me that she didnt like the Gay Lifestyle because she was a very private person and she thought that her sexual preference was private. I agreed with her and supported her. Unfortunately she couldnt take the pressure from them and took her own life after an argument with her girlfriend about it. I miss her so much and wish she were still here but the Chaplains were nothing but supportive to both of us. I am a Buddhist and have mostly Christian and a few Muslim friends, We all went to the same Chaplain and he was Very supportive. Even in my early career, they were all very supportive of the soldier, not real in your face type of characters who spit brimstone like you would think. I went to basic training in Alabama and AIT as well but all of the Chaplains were great guys, their assistants were pretty good people as well. I had one in AIT offer to drive 100 miles to get me to a Buddhist Temple and I remember he had ordered a van and driver to do it already when I declined. I have seen a ton of really lazy people in the Army, Chaplain’s are not among them.

  19. Yeah, they have scientology but its not about science, go figure. Should be a false advertising suit waiting to happen. I’m thinking they left the word fiction out.

  20. The Chapel is up to the discretion of the Chaplain, not the IG, there are guidelines that they are given but until the Chaplain is changed, it wont be. the only thing I heard that they cant do is turn people away because of their faith. The decorations are just that, if your Christian they mean something if not they dont. I have been through this at a small base before. The guidelines that they are given are broad for a reason, its because they dont want to have to pay for 200 Chaplains to speak there. I had a Buddhist Chaplain who I wanted to talk to us as a group one time and the Catholic Chaplain wouldnt allow it because he thought it would make his congregation mad at him. I wrote a bunch of letters and had a couple of other officers write as well but it was ultimately up to him because he was the chaplain assigned. We used the USO area instead and it worked out fine. Christianity requires more of a building, we did not. He ended up speaking and religion wasnt mentioned at all during the talk. Support, faith and sacrifice were all talked about as general items and the Catholic Chaplain’s assistant was even there.

  21. Not really, Dreadlocks are not allowed because they do not allow for the proper use of Protective equipment. Sikh’s have the same problem and Muslims do with beards. There are a lot of exceptions to the religious freedom thing in the military. They will however give you a discharge if you feel strongly about it. I have seen a Sikh discharged over it, was told conform or leave. I heard of a person who could not drive on Sunday because of their religion became more compliant when they were asked to drive or leave. They were a case study in one of my leadership courses. The religion cannot interfere with the duties of the soldier but some concessions are allowed. If it matters so much that you cant do your duty, you should look into a different career path. You dont have a constitutional right to serve your country as a soldier so they make concessions only as a courtesy.
    If your religion says you cant do something you probably shouldnt get a job where that is a remote possibility. You know common sense. Not discriminatory.

    I never understood contentious objectors joining the military, if you want to serve your country but cant fight, become a mailman or other employee and give back the excess pay. its the same thing almost. I never understood why people impersonated being in the military, its one of the most underpaid jobs and it barely requires any schooling ahead of time. I went in when I was in High School, was paid 25 cents an hour and everyone looked down on me most of my career.

  22. I was in from 68 to 72, I don’t remember religion ever coming up, prayers being said, or people wearing religious junk.

  23. ok now they can fire them, and they should.

  24. I’ve seen that but you’ll never convince a christian of it. It’s a specific kind of intelligence not intelligence in general. Being able to be skeptical, not accept the first info, dig deeper and have an open/flexible mind that changes with new info.

  25. No, it’s not. the chaplains are paid by tax dollars and have to do as they are told. I sat with 2 chaplains at my va hospital and they refused to budge on neutrality. 2 old white guys living in the 50’s.
    Regulations have to be followed, a govt building has to be religiously neutral, even the chapel has to be void of any one religion unless a service is going on.

  26. my hosp chaplains say they can talk to anyone of any faith or no faith. but an atheist like me doesn’t buy it, I would never ask for a christian chaplain. their beliefs are who they are, they can’t help themselves. patients should have a secular counselor available like someone from the psych clinic.

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