Ten years ago, former NFL safety turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed by members of his own unit on a hill in Afghanistan. The idea of Pat Tillman that initially captured the public's imagination - the ultra-male, hyper-American hero - has since been tempered by revelatory books and films about his life and service. The reality of the man that existed is more complicated, and much more interesting than is widely known.
Coincidentally, this past week, which marked the ten-year anniversary of Pat's death, the Army announced that it would begin recognizing the secular moral philosophy of Humanism, as an official religious preference.
We may never know what Pat Tillman actually believed in terms of theology, but it is generally understood that he was not a religious person. That is not to say he wasn't interested in understanding the origins of man or questions of cosmic importance, just that he was not convinced that the answers could be found in a deity or the teachings of any established religion.
Tillman may not have believed in god but it is clear that he was deeply interested in understanding the nature of our being and figuring out what we were all here for - he just came to the conclusion that religion didn't have the answers he was looking for.
The decision to recognize Humanism as an official religious preference brings the Army in greater alignment with the soldiers who serve. The policy is catching up with reality. Humanists, whether they be soldiers who specifically identify with classical Humanist thought, or simply those whose secular belief system doesn't rely on supernatural interlocutors, now have the ability to identify themselves as such, officially.
While religious preference does not have any formal bearing on a soldier’s service (Chaplains are the one important exception), the ability for soldiers to publicly self-identify and affirm their own beliefs has important morale and social implications.
Besides the official "snapshot" of soldiers - the paperwork contained in the Enlisted Record Brief and Officer Record Brief – there is an intimate reminder of religious preference that daily beats against the chest of every soldier – it’s inscribed right on their dog tags.
The limited space on a military dog tag is reserved for the most critical information needed for identification. Name, social security number, blood type, and religious preference. While the first three are more or less pre-determined, religious preference is a matter of choice. Where blood type addresses a biological, scientific fact, that last line on a dog tag communicates in a word or two what the soldier believes as a matter of eternal importance.
When I joined the Army at 19, I was "between religions." I was raised Catholic, but wasn't so sure anymore. During my initial in-processing at Fort Benning, when a civilian clerk asked my religion, I shot back - "We'll, what are my options?"
My Drill Sergeant - ever present - interjected: "Private, do you believe in God? Are you an Atheist?"
"No, Drill Sergeant, I'm not religious, but I'm not saying I don't believe in God."
"Ok, got it. Listen, do you care who reads your last rites?"
"No, not really," I said sheepishly, thinking about it.
He looked at the clerk and said "No Religious Preference. You'll get whoever's available."
The change in policy to officially acknowledge Humanism is not merely a concession to the small group of soldiers who would readily identify as Humanists – it’s the Army’s acknowledgement that soldiers take heart from a variety of religious and secular experiences deserving of recognition and respect.
Time and again, I have served in close quarters with highly religious soldiers of different denominations, from Christian to Muslim to Wiccan, whose different religious persuasions were no obstacle to their ability to work together. The work of a democratic Army requires tolerance, and welcomes differences as a natural element of the society from which the Army comes.
What makes the addition of Humanism unique is that until now, there has never been a category that recognizes a secular belief system that exists outside of classic religious understanding. The unholy trinity of 'Atheism, Agnosticism, and No Religious Preference' doesn't quite capture the belief system of someone, like Tillman, who was spiritual without the aid of spirits, and deeply ethical without relying on a divine foundation for his own beliefs.
While I'm not quite ready to let go of my hedged bet of 'No Religious Preference,' I'm glad to serve in an Army that is willing to grow and acknowledge the belief systems of those in the ranks who hold strong secular beliefs. I don't know if Pat Tillman would have Humanist on his dog tags, but I think it's safe to assume he would have appreciated the option.
Don Gomez is a Tillman Military Scholar and Army officer. The views here are his own and do not represent the views of the United States Army or Department of Defense.