121. depone


deponeverb: To testify under oath; depose.

‘Atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
— Sam Harris

A few days ago there was a story circulating in the news about a U.S. Army soldier who has been petitioning to be classified as “Humanist” instead of “Atheist” on his official records and dog tags. The Army’s rationale? It’s the same difference as putting “Catholic” instead of “Christian.” And I can kind of see their point from an administrative angle. If they start to recognize one group as being unique then they’ll have to start recognizing all as unique. Then it starts to become a free-for-all, with everyone focusing on their differences instead of working on building unity and cohesion.

However, Maj. Jay Bradley also has a valid point. It would be one thing if the term atheist had as concrete a definition as Christian. But it doesn’t. In a post-9/11 world (especially in the military, from the stories I’ve read), if you hold a belief other than Christian, you may as well be a terrorist—or a child molester, or a serial rapist. You run the risk of being seen as anti-American. If you don’t believe in god, you’re turning your back on tradition, on all moral values, and on everything that is good and decent.

“Smoked newborn baby, anyone?”

As Sam Harris said, it’s unfortunate that we still need labels to differentiate ourselves from theists, or that anybody still cares—just as it’s unfortunate that anyone still cares that some of us love someone of the same sex and want to share a life with that person. But that is not the world that we live in.

Atheism by itself is not a philosophy. It is simply a non-belief in god(s). It doesn’t tell you anything about what a person believes, and that leaves much open to being misconstrued or misinterpreted (per above). Atheism can be expressed in a number of different ways, of which humanism is one, though probably the most prevalent.

“Humanism is a philosophy that guides a person,” Bradley said in an AP article. “It’s more than just a stamp of what you’re not.”

So why should anybody care about this? Certainly, no one forced any of us to become atheists or agnostics. You could argue that we’re all actually born atheists; that belief in gods is forced on us as children before we have the ability to choose for ourselves. And some of us are fortunate enough to be born into secular homes. For most of us though, it became our choice to leave our churches and communities of faith. But is that reason enough to compel organizations like the Army to recognize Humanists? Do atheists and other nontheists deserve secular “chaplains” (or whatever the equivalent might be).

To the latter question, I think that yes, secular soldiers and other personnel need a point person to be able to go to regarding personal matters, without danger of being proselyted to or even judged. When you’re at your neediest and most vulnerable emotionally, it’s imperative to have a safe place to go for help and advice. When an atheist soldier has just lost a friend in combat, can a religious chaplain be relied and called upon to speak to that soldier’s beliefs—that that friend is truly gone?

It’s not that I think that a religious chaplain would unscrupulously take advantage of a moment like that to try and convert anyone. However, at his/her core, that chaplain truly believes that another life awaits us after death. They want to offer and share the peace and comfort that they find in that belief. An atheist “chaplain” will see it differently.

But lest we think this a military issue, many Christians are overall wondering what the big deal is, or wonder why atheists object to any forms of religion being expressed in society. (Well, many Whites didn’t understand what all those Negros were raising a fuss about, having to sit in the back of the bus.) Many even feel attacked (oh, the irony) by the presence of atheists, and can’t see that what we want is a society where everyone is free to practice their beliefs without imposing them on others. I wish soldiers didn’t have to declare their religious beliefs on their dog tags, or that they have to decline to participate in platoon prayers (and no doubt get some grief over doing so, or are eyed warily afterward).

A friend of mine works in an industry that draws and employs many conservative (=religious) people, and doesn’t feel secure being “out” as an atheist there. I wish she weren’t afraid of retaliation.

In some ways, this is similar to the debate that’s going on over same-sex marriage; over whether gays are made second-class citizens by denying them the legal right to marry while offering alternatives like domestic partnerships or civil unions. In some ways. In other ways that’s a whole other discussion.


This is fundamentally a matter of affirming personhood, and of a rancorous and frightened majority desperate to hold onto the status quo attempting to silence a growingly vocal minority. It is about people standing up and declaring who they truly are and what they believe, without having to put up with the prejudice and proselyting of the “faithful,” or with radical Christians attempting to shove their fundamentalist religion down the throats of vulnerable children.

I wish we didn’t have to identify as atheists; but as long as we have powerful Christians like Pat Robertson, Rick Santorum, “Porno” Peter LaBarbera, Tony Perkins, the American Family Association, James Dobson, Rick Warren and David Barton, we have to.

And loudly.

2 thoughts on “121. depone

  1. Well written post. It is sad that we need to attach a religious to dog tags. I do not see why it should matter at all. I would say that leaving the term atheist as an option on the tag is probably in line with the other options—it states one’s views toward a deity. At least they have the atheist option on there.

    • David

      I’d imagine that the main reason why religion is listed on a dog tag at all is for the proper handling of a body should a soldier die in combat, and while it’s unfortunate that superstition still has a firm grip on many people and cultures, I can understand why it’s important right now. It would be one thing if the majority of the populace understood atheism, if they even understood the origins of their own moral code, or if atheism didn’t have a bit of a PR problem left over still from the Cold War. Wicca is probably just as misunderstood. The difference with the other worldviews (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islam, etc) is that it’s generally understood what the values of its adherents are, so with our non-belief in any deity comes the perceived lack of any moral guidance. For most people, atheism probably equates to Satanism, which is why for us I think it’s important to associate more with humanism than atheism, at least for the purposes of public outreach and education. I hope that in a few years atheists aren’t even having the debate of whether you can be good without god, and that it’ll be a non-issue.

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