Air Force Academy Freethinkers Seek Understanding
The latest gossip from the Air Force Academy is about “censorship of religious commentary” by erasing a whiteboard and “proselytizing for atheism” with an optional information booth. That’s what people hear about, but the Freethinkers Club, which is a recognized cadet club focusing on nontheist community and topics, has persevered through recurring controversies for years. These cadets often scratch their head (and sometimes tear their hair out) at all the fuss, but they also continue to meet, try to connect with others for personal resilience and growth, and seek some fellowship in the midst of stressful cadet life.
Note: Names are left out to avoid undue pressure on personnel at the Academy.
The lesson hopefully learned after years of wrangling at the Academy is that Separate But Equal is not working. The current situation is that chaplains have been allowed to wall themselves and their programs off, with theistic cadets on one side and nontheistic cadets on the other. So issues are being escalated to the media instead of being resolved at the lowest level. Only by including nontheist cadets in chaplain programs, equally, can dialogue start to wash away some of the misunderstandings and mistreatment that have become associated with the Air Force Academy.
Last week, a Bible quote on a cadet’s whiteboard garnered news as Mikey Weinstein, a watchdog for religious freedom, leapt in to denounce all concerned for this great assault by the ranks of Christian Dominionism. Christian Nation advocates, previously unaware of this innocuous message, gleefully pointed out the terrible victimhood of this poor Christian who merely posted a Bible quote. Members of the Freethinkers club suffered backlash from those angry about the incident, when in fact the group had nothing to do with the complaints. (See below for details.) In talking with cadets and local leaders, they would agree that the quote was inappropriate but it would be (and was) easily handled at the lowest level and was certainly not worthy of a public outcry.
From a Cadet Freethinkers service event to help clean after Colorado wildfires
Just yesterday and today, the Freethinkers held an Ask an Atheist Booth. (More details below.) We atheists feel we’re misunderstood, so the Freethinkers set up a booth so other cadets could come by to better understand. The intended outcome was for people to be less scared of and angry about atheists, not for them to become atheists. Mikey Weinstein, watching for all religious freedom, declared to the Colorado Springs Gazette, “They are proselytizing for atheism,” and “no faith is able to proselytize on the third floor of Fairchild Hall (where the event was held).” Weinstein has overlooked two important points. First, the event has no mission to convert others to atheism, i.e., proselytize (see below). Secondly, the USAFA chaplains have directly excluded the Freethinkers on the basis that they don’t qualify for chaplain programs due to an interpretation of the term ‘religion’. Equal privileges are not afforded the Freethinkers and so the same restrictions do not currently apply.
Chris Rodda, MRFF’s Research Director, characterized one Freethinker representative as saying the event was a “protest” due to the exclusion of nontheists from chaplain support. It is true that the Air Force Chief of Chaplains office directed USAFA chaplains to deny all support to the Freethinkers and other nontheists. This excluded them from the SPIRE program, chaplain-guided basic training support, the bi-annual Religious Respect conference, the Cadet Interfaith Council, weekend retreats, and other opportunities for equality. Cadets and others inside and outside the Academy have raised objections and followed proper procedures. They have not resorted to staging protest events on Academy time. The leadership of the Freethinkers group presented MAAF with a different picture in our discussion, and showed the frustration that arises from these controversies:
Ask an Atheist Day was NOT for a protest at all—in fact, we never considered that at all in our process of planning the event. The event was “to meet others, resolve misunderstandings, and build better relationships” as many people often confuse or misconstrue the cadets under the “Freethinker” umbrella. We liked to use the event to have a presence and to clarify any misunderstandings these other cadets might have had.
Contrary to what the religious right would have people believe, Mikey Weinstein does not run an atheist group. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers is the military atheist group, and the military atheist group should be the first national resource for military atheist issues. Come to the source to save a lot of angst and confusion. This incident is self-teaching and shows the best advice for a issues of atheism is to Ask an Atheist.
Rare and still-needed dialogue, click for more
The Ask An Atheist Booth was, as billed, an opportunity for others to learn more about the Freethinkers. It was not to convert others nor was it a protest, as has been alleged. Would an Ask A Christian Booth or an Ask A Muslim Booth be ok? Probably yes, but there’s no need to speculate. The Academy has plenty of such examples already. The chaplains sponsor the Interfaith Council to foster understanding and dialogue between the different belief communities at the Academy. They invite in outside leaders to a Religious Respect Conference every two years because such exchange of ideas is fundamental to teamwork in a pluralistic environment. Cadets and staff are within the system and cannot fully advocate for themselves; external diversity representatives are necessary for objectivity and candor. The cadet Freethinkers and related nontheist representatives aren’t included, so an unstructured event like the Ask An Atheist Booth is an alternative to foster understanding and dialogue with others. And until the Freethinkers are afforded the privileges of religion then it would not be appropriate to apply religious restrictions.
The obvious solution is to include nontheists equally alongside other belief systems. The label ‘religion’ may seem odd, but that is part of the process of understanding. The Academy will have to build relationships with local and national groups in the same way they have relationships with the Anti-Defamation League, the Military Archdiocese, and various local religious groups. Whatever the label, religious or not, they all operate within the sphere of core values and deeply-held beliefs, and need to be handled in the same manner. Such dialogue has gone very well in the past, in terms of understanding and cooperation. Including diversity helps leaders to understand the constituencies within their communities. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, the Humanist Society, and locally the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs are just a few good ready to help build relationships. Inclusion with other cadets gives equal resources for the benefit of the nontheist cadets but also gives equal oversight of their activities. The only alternative is to continue to move from one media firestorm to the next.
White Board quote:
This ‘white board’ in question is something on each cadets’ door. It is intended for leadership messages and official updates (I’m at the gym. Out on vacation. etc). So on the one hand, this is a personal board. On the other hand, it’s in a public space so it can be seen and used for official business. So there may be some confusion. The quote in question was Galatians 2:20, a strong statement of faith but not derogatory towards other beliefs or proselytizing, also not a quote that might be considered of general applicability (like Psalm 34:13 for example).
Ask an Atheist Booth:
The Booth is modeled after the Secular Student Alliance event of the same name. The table is staffed by cadets in their off time in a freely-available location and other cadets can visit in their off time. The event was advertised through approved channels. Advertising was approved by each class president, the cadet wing commander, and various other personnel. In addition, this event was also held last year. Official approvals and prior history don’t necessarily make the event ok. The content and context make the event justified. But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel with every new incident, we need open communication and constructive dialogue.