Heathens Continue Push for Military Recognition
Along with Sikhs, Humanists, homosexuals, and transgenders, another group seeking “official” US military recognition is heathens. Writing at Religion News Service, Kimberly Winston — normally RNS’s atheist hired writer — recounts the stories of self-described military heathens who want to put “heathen” on their dog tags:
Jeremiah McIntyre wants to be called a Heathen.
The 38-year-old Army sergeant follows the old Norse religion Asatru, in which the god Thor swings his hammer in the sky and Odin rules a heavenly place called Valhalla. Should McIntyre die, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would allow a hammer of Thor on his tombstone.
But the Army does not otherwise currently recognize the active-duty soldier’s faith…
That much is true, as has been previously discussed more than once. Winston then digresses into what she perceives as affronts to the unrecognized heathen masses:
He can’t organize or attend Heathen services on base without special permission, he can’t receive prayer or counseling from a Heathen chaplain, and if he were to die in the service he would probably end up with a nondenominational Christian burial.
Like every soldier of every religion, McIntyre can talk to a chaplain and organize and attend any kind of religious service he wants. He requires no special permission. A military chaplain can also refer him to a heathen faith leader for “prayer or counseling” — should one even exist or be known, which is a limitation beyond the military’s control. That’s the same response any other soldier would get if he requested such services and his local chaplains weren’t of that faith group. If a heathen soldier were to “die in the service,” he would “probably end up with” a burial service consistent with his family’s wishes (as in other cases); the military doesn’t perform administrative burials except in rare circumstances.
The one thing that might be affected is the one thing Winston fails to mention: Were a self-described heathen to die in a war zone, his local unit would likely perform a memorial service. It might be difficult for a unit chaplain to flavor a downrange memorial service with a heathen flair, though these memorial services have become increasingly areligious anyway. The absence of that particular issue from the article makes is questionable the soldiers involved thought of it, potentially because they haven’t experienced it themselves.
Former US Army Soldier Josh Heath, previously noted, continued the not-always-accurate story of persecution:
“If you have a (recognized) religious preference you can have a religious holiday,” Heath said. “At basic training, it would allow them to have a religious book — you are allowed only one. And if they had Heathen as a choice, they could have an actual Heathen ritual for their burial.”
That’s not precisely true. Having a “(recognized) religious preference” does not grant anyone a religious holiday. After all, “atheist” is already a recognized religious preference, and it is highly unlikely they’d be granted a religious holiday just for that reason. Nor does it have anything to do with books in basic training. (There are quite a few stories available about basic trainees having “interesting” books, including one self-described heathen and even once-infamous atheist Justin Griffith, who said he successfully took The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to basic.) And, again, the ritual one has at their burial has nothing to do with their declared belief system. The military performs ceremonies at the request of families. Besides, there are plenty of religious preference codes for which the US military has no internal support, anyway. (How does Heath think the military performs atheist burials, for example?)
Interestingly, Heath took a little umbrage at the special treatment given to humanists [emphasis added]:
The men say they felt frustrated last year when the Army added humanism to its list of recognized religions…
“That really riled me up,” Heath said. “The frustrating thing for me is we started this before the humanists were even on my radar. What spurred this most recent push to get Heathen added is that humanism got approved.”
In other words, they got it, so we want it, too. And since they used the media for attention… The fact this should again be a news story so soon after the one last month may be because a heathen soldier actually tried to make it a story [emphasis added]:
The group is redoubling its efforts for Army recognition with a petition and a letter-writing campaign. Some, like McIntyre, are reaching out to media to tell their stories.
In the end, Heath and McIntyre are somewhat making a mountain out of a molehill. It would seem the only thing a heathen lacks in the US Army is the ability to put the word “heathen” on his dog tags, which, at its worst, might influence the tone of a war zone memorial service. Still, there is little reason for the Army to resist such an administrative change, either, as the official faith group codes are little more than an administrative marker for personnel records. Arguably, both sides are making this a bigger deal than it is.
After all, as Winston notes, the Air Force has already permitted heathenism to be placed in administrative records, and that change has not suddenly created heathenist chapel services, chaplains, or military burial services — despite Heath’s apparent claims.
It is possible these increasing demands for new faith group codes inspired the moratorium on new ones earlier this year, meaning Heath and others might be victims of others’ success. Perhaps the outcome of the military’s review will be that anything can be put in the faith group code in a soldier’s record.
Ultimately, that would probably be the easiest and most equitable option, and it would apparently give Heath, McIntyre, and other heathens precisely what they’re asking for.
Given some of their complaints, though, it seems they may not even understand what they’re asking for.