Military Academies Provide Alternatives to Church
Cadets and Midshipmen at the nation’s military academies have been provided the opportunity for humanist and secular alternatives during their summer training. At the beginning of July, thousands of young men and women reported for training. Within their first week, trainees were given the opportunity to attend religious services as a break from weekly training. Humanists and other nontheists had the opportunity to attend meetings as well.
At the Naval Academy, Clifford Andrew and the local Unitarian Universalist Humanists support Midshipmen trainees who are interested. Offering “Doughnuts, Downtime, and DVDs,” the group meets Sunday mornings. Forty trainees attended July 16th for support and fellowship and to enjoy Julia Sweeney’s inspiring monologue, Letting God of God. The Naval Academy is leading the way with programs to ensure maximum visibility and support for these programs equivalent to what theists receive. This is due in large part to the leadership of recently-retired Chaplain Buzz Phillips, who was a member of the Academy’s chaplain staff.
At West Point, the programs are not run on Sundays but rather along with other more secular chaplain support programs on Wednesdays. Faculty Advisor MAJ Nick Utzig reports 15 participants and support from the chaplain’s time administrators. This advertisement from the command helps to ensure cadets feel welcome to attend.
These programs are a continuation of programs supported by the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, the Secular Student Alliance, and local volunteers. Establishing these programs has not been easy, and has required local and national support. MAAF also advocated for alternatives to church during a visit to the West Point Diversity leaders conference. The first summer programs at West Point and the Naval Academy were established last year. Air Force Academy Freethinkers have had similar programs for several years alongside Academy chaplains, but have now had to move to Academy clubs after being rejected by the Air Force chaplains.
While exclusion from chaplain services is causing some issues for volunteers, the volunteers have still been able to provide support in ways similar to the past. Colonel France, head of Cadet Activities is personally participating to ease the transition. On Friday evenings and Sunday mornings, veteran volunteers including prior Air Force Captain Jeff Lucas host the Cadet “Freethinkers” group. There are also opportunities for counseling and downtime in their rooms for those that don’t want to opt into a meeting featuring a specific belief system.
Having summer programs available at each Academy for the second year in a row is a big step forward in creating a more welcoming command religious climate in the military. This is recognition of nontheists that we should expect from the Academies in the future. It is a credit to the senior cadets and local volunteers that this has happened, and it is encouraging and appropriate that the military leaders have recognized the atheists in their ranks after not having done so for so many decades.
The lack of official recognition during the academic year continues to be problematic, and we hope that in the upcoming year, the Academies will do the right thing and extend support to the USAFA Freethinkers, Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists, the West Point Secular Student Alliance, and the Coast Guard Academy Secular Student Alliance. The national Secular Student Alliance and MAAF have filled in to gives support, and Kate Donovan did a series of reports on the cadet and midshipmen activities and the need for official recognition.
Each of these groups of cadets deserves to have the opportunity to meet, have access to cadet funding and fundraising, and to have approved trip sections just as Christians, Jews, and even sports teams do. While club funding and options are limited, these nontheist clubs have no alternative in academics, military programs, sports, or the chaplaincy, so humanist groups should be at the top of the list if cadet clubs are to be limited. In just a few months, the cadets and midshipmen will return for the academic year to see if their Academies will give equal support to atheists, humanists, and other nontheists.