Military academy chaplain services extended to atheists

USNA Chaplain Brief for new trainees

Reinforcing positive trends in respect for atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nontheists, the Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, and West Point (Army) have provided weekly meetings for summer trainees.  Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, visited each of the Academies during the spring to request this service.  Air Force agreed to continue their programs while Navy and Army are starting new programs.

Current cadets and midshipmen, supported in part by the Secular Student Alliance, were requesting the service and those students were integral in showing that the demand existed for the new programs.  Local volunteers from Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Skeptics, and Maryland Freethinkers are  going to the Academy to ensure the programs are a success.  This combination of demand from military personnel, local community support, and national coordination from MAAF has led to measurable policy changes and openness from military leaders.

The Air Force Academy has had several sessions with about ten cadets per session.  The Naval Academy had over 50 Midshipmen show interest at the initial briefing.  The West Point program kicks off this Wednesday.

Each of the military academies are four-year colleges whose graduates are committed to military service.  The initial experience for new cadets (Army and Air Force) and Midshipmen (Navy) begins with a two-month basic training.  To provide for the free exercise of religion and to reduce stress, chaplains at the various academy provide down time during the week.  Chaplains or volunteers from the community organize recreational activities, food, and worship services where applicable.  All Academies set aside time on Sunday morning, Air Force provides for Friday evening as well, and West Point offers a Wednesday evening session.  A few years ago Air Force opened the door for a “Freethinker” group, and for the first time, Navy and Army chaplains have expanded their services for the first time to include nontheists.

At West Point, chaplains provide a Wednesday evening recreational time for stress reduction and social connection.  Many faith groups sponsor time for fun, food, and fellowship, and generally do not have organized worship, reserving that instead for their religion’s holy day (e.g., Protestants on Sunday morning).  COL Durham, head chaplain at West Point, met with Jason Torpy, faculty advisor Dr. Jen Kiesling, and several cadets to help develop the new humanist program.  One of the cadets reported that during his time in Cadet Basic Training the previous year, he was assigned work duties during Sunday morning.  Sunday morning is reserved for worship services.  COL Durham showed genuine concern, thanking the cadet for the report and assuring us that all cadets not desiring to attend Sunday worship services will be afforded free time in their rooms for personal tasks and relaxation without cadre interference.

MAAF table showing about 12 of over 50 interested Midshipmen trainees

The Naval Academy had their new Midshipmen introductions last Friday.  Their approach was to introduce the trainees to chaplains and chaplain services in a mass briefing (pictured above).  One innovative approach the Navy chaplains provide doughnuts and drinks from 9AM to 12PM in a no-stress, non-sectarian area.  Services are provided for those interested, but there is no need to opt into a belief system to socialize and relax.  During the briefing, the chaplains recognized several philosophical groups.  The Naval Academy Agnostics, Freethinkers, and Atheists (NAAFA) was listed on the slideshow for all of the trainees.  The assembled trainees were then asked to break out to their individual groups and over 50 Midshipmen mobbed the MAAF table.

NAAFA Summer trainees

In the first meeting last Sunday, Midshipmen arrived and told both inspiring and heartbreaking stories.  Jason Torpy, Cameron Thornberry, rising senior at USNA and leader of NAAFA, and Dr. Clifford Andrew, leader of Maryland Freethinkers and member of the local UU congregation, heard trainees talk about their journeys studying various beliefs and their current excitement about science, reason, and the community of humanists they’ve found at the Academy.  One Midshipmen spoke about coming out as an atheist to his fundamentalist parents.  They threatened to take him out of school and prevent him from attending the Academy.  He was forced to hide his beliefs, his relationships, and his activities in order to protect his opportunity to attend the Academy.  One Christian also visited.  He was quiet during most of the meeting but opened up towards the end.  He said, “I thought you atheists were all crazy, but you’re just normal people.”

USAFA Freethinkers in front of the USAFA Chapel

The USAFA Freethinkers have been operating for several years at the Air Force Academy.  Issues with the cadet group over the last year jeopardized the summer program, but ongoing discussions between MAAF, the Academy, and the cadets have made great strides in the last several months. Volunteers Professor Carlos Bertha, AF Civilian Jeff Lucas, recent graduate Sarah Mashburn, and retired Captain Bernie Proctor have stepped up to to host meetings.  The cadets (pictured at the left) have the opportunity to meet Fridays and Sundays.  They have had several meetings so far, talking about their values, science, reason, and their future at the Academy.

At USAFA, USNA, and USMA, chaplains have explicitly recognized atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and other nontheists.  Efforts of MAAF to communicate our positive values, eagerness to collaborate, local community support, and demand from the local population are bearing fruit.  Academy chaplains are leading the way to increase their diversity of support.  This is the kind of support MAAF is encouraging throughout the military.  The dedication of local volunteers and courage of Cadets and Midshipmen are the most important keys to success in these Academy programs.

  • Aguilfer

    I’m glad USAFA is finally changing. My own religious experiences as an Air Force cadet at the Academy were not so beneficial. The forced attendance at religious services despite the earlier ruling from the Supreme Court that Academies should be secular, the insistence by Chaplains that you could not be moral without a belief in some godhead, and the insistence of intolerant christian cadets and officers made my life there a constant hell-week. I remember being beatup during SERE summer exercises by cadets who insisted that I had to believe in a god and say so or they wouldn’t stop beating me (The Honor Code can be quite the double edged sword when that happens.). I kept saying “no” and they kept beating me with rubber clubs until an officer or upper classman told them to stop. Officers in some class were also intolerant and insisted on selling their idea of religion whether you wanted to listen or not. Christian cadets always insisting that you must believe or go to hell.

    The Academy can be a great experience and you can learn so much in such an institution, but when the military begins to accept only a single religious faith or personal philosophy of living, it can be the embodiment of the very thing that America was founded to protect its citizens against.

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