Academy Religious Respect Conference Not for Atheists
On October 30th and 31st, the US Air Force Academy will celebrate its bi-annual Religious Respect Conference to highlight progress since its 2010 conference. Major changes seem to be in two main areas. The first area is increased services for religious groups that are, according to the official Academy article regarding the Conference, “outside the Judeo-Christian Mainstream” like Hindus, Muslims, and Wiccans. The second change is the separation of the chaplains from support for any nontheistic groups or beliefs. That story was left out of the Academy’s article, but hopefully it will be addressed in future reports. Non-chaplain leaders at USAFA are now trying to fill the gap in services and to address the impact on the climate of respect at the Academy that have resulted from this new exclusion of nontheists from chaplain services.
Humanists and others without a faith-based or divine world view have no access to chaplain services, and Academy leaders are trying to compensate.
Respect for nontheists?
Chaplains will apparently still enjoy full funding, authority for training, and access to all service members, regardless of belief. Chaplains will be allowed to counsel all airmen, including nontheists, but they will not have any training on nontheistic beliefs nor will they be required to provide any services or advocacy for nontheists.
Non-chaplain leaders at the Academy are stepping in to try to replace some of these services for nontheist cadets and to ensure there are no negative effects on culture and climate. During the Academy’s summer basic trainings, there were alternatives to church for cadet Freethinkers. (Freethinkers is the collective name preferred by USAFA cadets to refer to atheists, humanists, and other nontheists). Instead of going to chaplains for meetings and events, cadets have worked through the regular cadet clubs route, just like study groups, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Cadets have had trips and meetings approved. Between the basic training events and approval of events, it is clear that many Academy leaders want to support the nontheists. Even with these several additional programs, there are still a number of unaddressed issues.
Support from Academy leaders has made all the difference for cadets. Colonel Pipan, Director of Training Support (and cadet clubs), stepped in to support the new Freethinkers club that was established after cadets lost chaplain (SPIRE) support. Colonel Renner, Vice Commandant for Climate and Culture, has helped to mitigate feelings of exclusion. Dr Carlos Bertha (Associate Professor of Philosophy) serves as Officer In Charge (faculty adviser) for the Freethinkers group and other senior officers have helped support the cadets informally.
Colonel Tamra Rank, Vice Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, spoke with Jason Torpy on Friday and agreed to discuss the issues of the Freethinkers in more detail. She reiterated her commitment to ensuring that the cadet Freethinkers (nontheists, etc) are treated equally. While this year’s Religious Respect Conference will have no nontheistic representation, discussions with Col Rank will provide an avenue to ensure Respect at USAFA does extend to all cadets regardless of belief.
This year’s conference
MAAF requested inclusion in the Religious Respect Conference, but Academy chaplains declined to send an invitation and even declined to mention the event despite several direct requests. According to the October 26th article published by the Academy, the event will focus on minority religious events as well as the Religious Respect Training that has been implemented since the 2010 Conference. Chaplains may rightfully celebrate major steps forward, including a Hindu celebration for Lord Ganesha, the building of the new Falcon Circle for Wiccan services, and the successful accommodation of Muslims when Ramadan occurred during rigorous cadet basic training.
The Academy has taken some criticism for building the $80,000 Falcon Circle facility. This is not just $80,000 for a few pagans at USAFA, it is a unique facility open and available for religious services for any cadets. MAAF has highlighted that this facility sets an encouraging new precedent for chapel facilities. Falcon Circle is one of the only if not the only government-funded, general-use chapel facility that is not built in the Christian tradition of pews and an altar. The military should use Falcon Circle as an example of how to draw from a greater diversity of religious traditions when building (or renovating) general-use “chapel” facilities.
At the 2010 Religious Respect Conference, the Academy made a giant leap forward by inviting Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers to participate. The USAFA event led to increased communication, including a visit to the Air Force Chaplains Corps College and direct participation, for over a year, in development of Religious Respect Training programs for cadets, staff, and faculty. Cadet Freethinkers were invited back into the SPIRE program and had a delegate on the Academy’s Interfaith council. Freethinkers at the Academy were moving ever closer to equal rights.
Earlier this year, the Air Force Chief of Chaplains sent a memorandum (in response to a request for Freethinker funding that would be equal to that received by other SPIRE groups). The memorandum indicated that USAFA chaplain support for nontheists should end. At this time, nontheists are excluded from the Interfaith Council, chaplain programs (SPIRE), Religious Respect training development, and the Religious Respect Conference program. The interpretation and response to the memorandum is under appeal but in the meantime, non-chaplain leaders at the Academy and Freethinkers are left with a number of unanswered questions.
One unanswered question relates to events like the Religious Respect Conference, MAAF hoped to be included in the conference this year. The event was chaplain-run but was clearly an event broadly concerned with command climate and policy. The inclusion of non-chaplain command representatives, secular civil rights leaders, and legal personnel in the discussions makes it clear this was not an event exclusively for traditional theistic clergy. Inclusion of MAAF as a nontheistic representative would have allowed for continuation of progress positive communication, in person. The Conference will primarily include Chaplain Endorsers who are senior clergy and often prior military officers who advocate for cadets who share their beliefs. MAAF could have provided a representative for the nontheists. The new Air Force Instruction 1-1 makes clear a place for “religion and other personal beliefs” which includes nontheists. A nontheist representative would have added diversity to the event while also allowing a platform for other leaders to address perceived disrespect by nontheists.
In the recent Academy-published article on the Conference, Chaplain Josh Narrowe, who was a close partner during the training development in early 2011, was quoted as saying: “I should be able to respect your faith group and your right to practice, just like you have a responsibility to respect my right to practice or not to practice.” This quote about respect is encouraging because it emphasizes that people have rights and those rights include the opportunity to honestly disagree about our beliefs. The quote however is something that readers should apply to the entire article — wherever ‘faith groups’ are mentioned the absence of nontheistic groups stands out. What about groups that live, grieve, love, and make meaning in life through modes other than faith, or supernatural divine religious practices? Will respect be afforded the atheists, humanists and other nontheists who happen to practice in ways different than chaplains are used to? Cadet Monique Pal, Interfaith Council President, said “What makes it unique is that we’re coming together because of our different faiths”, but conspicuously left out are the nontheists.
The Academy’s Head Chaplain, Robert Bruno said, “You can’t continue to graduate the future officer corps of the Air Force … with an inability or a fear of discussing anything religious” said Chaplain Bruno and added that after they graduate, cadets will become commanders, and they will command people of faith and their families. Chaplain Bruno’s logic should be applied equally to the atheists, humanists, and other nontheists that cadets will command. There needs to be no fear of discussing our nontheistic demographic, a demographic larger than all non-Christian denominations. Commanders need to have an understanding of those types of beliefs so that they can accommodate those needs, especially if chaplains are protected and the entire responsibility falls to other command staff.