Council for Secular Humanism

Get Active!

Sign up to receive CSH emails and Action Alerts

Donate online
to support CSH

Free Inquiry

Subscribe for the
Internet price of
only $19.97

Renew your

back issues

Visit our
online library

Shop Online

What's New?


Introduction to
Secular Humanism

Council for
Secular Humanism

CSH Organizations

The Center for Inquiry

Paul Kurtz

Speaker's Bureau

Humanist Hall of Fame

Web Columns
and Feedback

Find a Secular Humanist
Group Near You

Field Notes:
Council Activities
Around the Nation

Worldwide Index of
Humanist Groups

Humanism on TV

Freethought Alliance


for Humanism

International Academy
of Humanism

Secular Organizations
for Sobriety



Contact Info

Site Map




No Dog Tags for Atheists

Now, where’s my foxhole?

by Daniel O’Neal

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.

During my traditional spring cleaning of desk drawers, I happened upon a souvenir of my service in the U.S. military that brought forth a flood of memories. It was a set of dog tags, but not ordinary dog tags. In fact, as far as I know, they are the only ones of their kind in existence.

In 1996, at the height of hostilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I received a six-month assignment with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. I was to serve as the Air Operations Officer at the UN’s headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia. Having been given a list of required items to bring with me to Zagreb, I set about collecting them. One of the items was a set of dog tags. I could not recall what had happened to the first set, but I did recall the day I received them, shortly after entering the Air Force many years ago.

One of the questions I was asked by the young airman at the base personnel office was, “What is your religion?” When I replied that I was an atheist, he informed me that “atheist” was not on the list of approved religions and that he would have to put me down as having “no preference.” When I insisted that that would not be an accurate description of my belief—or nonbelief—he called for his boss, a crusty old major. I explained to the major that it was not a case of my not having a preference among the “approved” religions, but that I rejected them all. Judging by the major’s scowl, this argument was apparently less than persuasive, and I was issued a set with the phrase “no religious preference” stamped on them.

Many years later, seated in a base personnel office once again, and needing a new set of dog tags to take with me to Zagreb, I made the same argument. I naively thought that, as a crusty old major myself now, I might have a better chance at getting dog tags that accurately reflected my lack of belief in the supernatural. Moreover, this time it was not just an abstract argument for me. There was a possibility that my duties would require me to travel to Sarajevo and, therefore, a chance that I could find myself under fire. It’s sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of having to personally dispel that myth. But if the worst should happen, I thought, a funeral service held for me would be presided over by some generic chaplain because my dog tags indicated “no religious preference.” I didn’t want a religious service, because I’m an atheist! But I was trumped again, this time by a seasoned lieutenant colonel in the personnel office. I refused the dog tags, knowing that this might cause me problems.

Back in my own office, I noticed a fellow pilot thumbing through a catalogue catering to paramilitary types and military “wannabes.”  As providence would have it, the catalogue featured custom-made “authentic military-style dog tags.” That evening I placed a call to the company and ordered a set of dog tags. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line when I specified “atheist” as my religious preference, but no objection that it was not on the approved list. I received the dog tags just in time to proudly wear them as I boarded the flight to Zagreb.

Why do I believe that my dog tags are one of a kind? Even assuming that there’s another military atheist somewhere who took the trouble to go outside the official channels and custom order dog tags, it’s unlikely that there’s another set of dog tags with the word atheist misspelled as “athiest,” as it is on mine! I guess that was God’s revenge—or sense of humor—for my not sticking to the approved list. Nevertheless, my misspelled atheist dog tags are one of the most cherished mementos from my military career.

Daniel O’Neal is an adjunct professor of German at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and a member of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.

news.gif (359 bytes) Subscribe to Free Inquiry

books.gif (406 bytes) Order Free Inquiry Back Issues

back.gif (1144 bytes) Free Inquiry Home Page

back.gif (1144 bytes) Secular Humanism Online Library

house.gif (1274 bytes) Council for Secular Humanism Web Site


This page was last updated 02/13/2004

Copyright notice:  The copyright for the contents of this web site rests with the Council for Secular Humanism.  
You may download and read the documents.  Without permission, you may not alter this information, repost it, or sell it. 
If you use a document, you are encouraged to make a donation to the Council for Secular Humanism.