Military Academies Recognize Student Humanist Groups

For the first time, groups of atheists, humanists, and freethinkers have been given official recognition at the nation’s military academies. USAFA Freethinkers, Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists, and the West Point Secular Student Alliance all had tables at the Academy club nights. Between 40 and 60 cadets and midshipmen are participating in each group. Challenges continue at the Academies and throughout the military, but official recognition for cadet groups makes possible privileges, funding, and, for the first time, the simple comfort that Academy leadership will tolerate nontheistic beliefs.

MAAF needs your help to continue support at the Academies and throughout the military. Help us provide something better than cleaning the barracks for young atheists and humanists training at Ft Benning, Parris Island, Great Lakes, Lackland AFB, and other major training areas.

The USAFA Freethinkers started off quickly with a service event to clean up after the devastating Colorado wildfires in the USAFA back yard. This was a Fire Mitigation Event in the Mountain Shadows area. The Freethinkers were the largest non-squadron team and in the top 5 overall with 17 total volunteers. As our calls for equal support and acceptance are heard, we can refocus on community service and humanitarian support.

USAFA Freethinkers volunteering to clear brush after devastating forest fires.

At the Naval Academy, over 100 different cadet  participated in the unrecognized Naval Academy Freethinkers & Atheists events in the last academic year. This year started strong with the recent Family Weekend Sunday. Parents and plebes (freshmen), were treated to screenings of Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe and David Attenborough’s Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life. Then there were small group discussions of free inquiry, respect for others, and cultivating a sense of wonder and awe in our natural world.

At each Academy, cadets had the opportunity to staff a table for “club day” along with sports clubs, religious clubs, and academic clubs. There were also separate meeting to host new members and preparation for trips, speakers, and meetings throughout the year. At West Point, these positive club activities are in the context of a survey that measures leadership in terms of faith and the Crusader crest of the cadet 3rd regiment. While questionable command practices continue, the official acceptance of the secular and humanist groups lessens the appearance of discrimination and invites dialogue. The Academy may be able to address these issues at its September Diversity Leadership Conference, as it did in featuring MAAF at last year’s event.

Equal visibility for nontheists during West Point’s club day

Struggles also continue at the Air Force Academy where recognition as a cadet club has followed a house-cleaning by the USAFA chaplains of any association with any nontheistic activity. After a year of encouraging and close collaboration with the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, chaplains have cut off communication during 2012. The Freethinker representative has been kicked off the Interfaith council purely due to differing beliefs. And the USAFA Chaplain’s Office, which has authority for the President’s Interfaith Services and Community Challenge, has banned the USAFA Freethinker representative due to her lack of belief in a god. While we generally don’t identify with “faith”, we can put aside semantics in the interests of building stronger communities. The Academy Chaplains have the opportunity to re-commit to diversity of belief at the biennial USAFA Religious Respect Conference in November by re-inviting MAAF as it did in 2010. We hope the Academies will recommit their chaplains to including nontheists alongside those with theistic beliefs in the spirit of the President’s introduction to his Community Challenge:

Interfaith service involves people from different religious and non-religious backgrounds tackling community challenges together – for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers.

The recognition of cadet groups has resulted from courage by cadets and midshipmen as well as support from local volunteers, Academy faculty, and the national humanist community. The history below was brought up in a previous article covering Alternatives to church during Academy summer training:

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.

There may be a long way to go to tear down belief-based divisions and biases in the military, but official recognition for atheist and humanist groups is an encouraging step in the right direction.

  • Ch Brantingham

    Dear Mr Torpy:

    I’m sorry we didn’t
    have opportunity for you to not run your remarks on the Air Force Academy past
    me prior to posting your blog as we have done in the past. As far as I’m concerned the opportunity is still there. Please allow me to
    clarify. As you know and as we have discussed, the decision to transition
    USAFA’s Freethinkers out from under the Cadet Chaplain Corps and under the
    umbrella of USAFA’s club system was made at the Air Force Chaplain Corps level
    and not at the Air Force Academy Cadet Chaplain Corps’ level. Admittedly there
    was confusion regarding Freethinker participation with the President’s
    Challenge because this was being run by the Cadet Chaplain Corps’ Cadet
    Interfaith Council. This confusion was untangled on Mon 27 Aug 12. Cadet James
    will still be active in the President’s Challenge and attend the Cadet
    Interfaith Council meetings in this capacity. The USAFA Freethinkers however,
    will not have representation on the Council based on the direction of the Air
    Force Chaplain Corps. Hope this helps clear things up.

    As always, all the best,

    dan

    J. DANIEL BRANTINGHAM,
    Ch, Lt Col, USAF

    Air Force Academy Cadet Wing Chaplain

    • JasonTorpy

      Thank you for commenting. Maybe this will be an opportunity to re-open communications. I’ll follow up on email to you.