MAAF Misrepresents Data in Brief to White House

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers was one of several groups that recently met with White House staff members as part of a White House meeting with the Secular Coalition for America.

According to the MAAF web page on the meeting, president Jason Torpy presented a briefing at the meeting that claimed to explain the relative percentages of faiths represented in the military.  His briefing grossly misrepresented numeric government data, apparently in an attempt to strengthen the MAAF position and demands.

In what the MAAF called a “new MAAF demographics study,” which was actually an MAAF presentation of a study done by the Defense Manpower Data Center, the MAAF said

DoD data show nearly one-quarter of the military is nontheistic

Using the DMDC data, the MAAF claimed that 23.4% of the Department of Defense was “nontheistic.”  Based on this number, according to the MAAF, “nontheists constitute a significant portion of the military.”  Thus,

Military and Civilian leadership must recognize and support this significant demographic

Some might say numbers don’t lie, but the MAAF certainly demonstrated that one can misrepresent them to support untrue assertions.

As described in the briefing and confirmed with the data, the MAAF obtained the 23.4% number by adding three categories: Atheist, Agnostic, and No Religious Preference.  Without further data, only the first two of those categories can accurately be described as “nontheistic” (if “not knowing” if there is a God can be considered non-theism).  Using the same raw data as the MAAF (xls), “nontheists” therefore account for 0.5% of the military population, not the MAAF number of 23.4%.  The other 22.9% may, or may not, be “theists.”  The data does not say.

Unfortunately, the inaccurately large percentage was crucial to the MAAF argument; the alternative would have been a number 50 times smaller, which might not have been considered “significant.”  For example, Torpy used the claim that more than 20% of the DoD population (referring to non-theists) has “no chaplain support.”  However, since the theistic beliefs of the “no religious preference” segment are unknown, it is impossible to know whether or not they have “chaplain support.”

(The MAAF is not the first group to claim to know the theology of those who indicate “no religious preference;” Chris Rodda of the MRFF has done essentially the same thing.)

In short, Torpy’s MAAF brief was highly misleading and inaccurate, resulting in the incorrect perception that government data indicates “nontheists” make up “nearly a quarter” of the DoD population.  The truth is that no government data says any such thing.

When reached for comment, the MAAF defended their presentation of the data, saying they were “comfortable” with their analysis that most in the “no religious preference” category were non-theists.  They asserted that religious people with any “measurable faith” wouldn’t choose that category (though, apparently, non-theists with any ‘measurable faith’ in their ideology still would):

it is fair to conclude that those in majority faith categories (ie, Christian) with any measurable faith would choose their specific denomination

The MAAF may believe that, but the government data they used doesn’t support such a claim.  (There’s a certain irony in a group of atheists believing in something that the evidence does not support…)

It is not only intellectually dishonest to assume that those whose records indicate “no religious preference” are non-theists, it is also demonstrably false.  For example, it is common knowledge by now that Maj Nidal Malik Hasan had “no religious preference” in his records.  Thus Hasan, a devout Muslim, was one of the 23.4% that the MAAF cited as “nontheistic,” which is obviously untrue.

While there are some suggestions that “nontheists” may be a growing population in the US, the DMDC data that the MAAF used was unrelated to that topic.  Still, the MAAF did not need to misrepresent the data to request support for nonreligious personnel.

Contrary to some assertions, the US military actually supports the rights of those who categorize themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “freethinkers” to congregate freely, as has been shown several times here.  While personnel who describe themselves as atheists or agnostics may be a very small minority, the US military still provides them the same access to resources as it does for religious faith groups, whether they are large or small.

It is certainly possible that some of the “unknown” and “no religious preference” respondents were “nontheists,” but that is not the choice they communicated.  There is no ambiguity:  It is impossible to know the theistic beliefs of those who gave those responses in any way, shape, or form.  To claim otherwise is to claim a falsehood.

The MAAF gave a distorted and inaccurate presentation of DMDC data to the White House in an apparent effort to strengthen their position and justify their calls for action.  Instead of using the opportunity to present a legitimate plea, they undermined their own position by making it appear they need to play “fun with numbers” in order to make a viable case.

Though the DMDC data does not support a 23.4% assessment, there are atheists in the military, and there are atheists in foxholes.  They experience much of the same support, and grief, for their ideology as do many religious personnel, including Christians.  Military atheists are entitled to hold their beliefs, as are Christians.  

The US military does an admirable, if sometimes imperfect, job of allowing its members to exercise their rights of belief.