Secular Students of the Military: The Naval Academy

This is the first post in a series of interviews with secular students and leaders in the U.S. military, inspired by comments on this post. Different Academy students correctly pointed out that each branch of the military has a different culture and levels of religiosity, yet you will see here that all are fairly religious. Non-theistic student groups in the military do not have the same ease-of-formation or resources as found on civilian campuses. So, to get a handle on what secular students are experiencing in the military, I spoke with members of non-theistic groups at each academy.

The Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists (NAFA) formed two years ago, partially after then-midshipman Cameron Thornberry noticed the Noon Meal Prayer, a practice the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union have both protested.

From one student (emphasis mine):

The chaplain is different everyday but normally four Christian speakers and a Rabbi present throughout the week. Some use it as a moral ethical lesson for all (notably recently-retired Rabbi Phillips who was NAFA’s Officer Representative) and really don’t mention a specific deity while others will sing a prayer or say [one deity] specifically. Occasionally professors speak out against it.

While the Noon Meal Prayer still stands at the United States Naval Academy (though the Military and Air Force academies have both abandoned the practice), these and similar impositions of religion in official activities sparked Thornberry’s interest in groups for non-theists in the military academies and lead to the establishment of NAFA. Thornberry served as its first President.

I spoke with both the 2011-2012 executive board as well as leaders for the 2012-2013 school year:

Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists with PZ Myers (third from left)

Tell me about your group.

Our group is an open and welcome community for nontheists that focuses on science, philosophy, religious education and tolerance, and pertinent constitutional issues, while providing an open venue to fellow nontheists to express their opinions, beliefs, views, etc. We also enjoy each other’s company and love low key meetings as well – where we relax, eat pizza, and watch relevant movies/video clips. We currently have a member list of approximately 110 midshipmen but approximately 40 active and passionate members.

We came into being last spring, where I actually discovered comparable groups such as the USAFA Freethinkers and West Point SSA that were staunchly supported by Jason Torpy and MAAF. I knew then (February 2011) that Navy needed a nontheist group as well, and by the end of the semester I had coordinated an initial interest meeting and readied our group for the upcoming school year. During the summer, NAFA coordinated a plebe summer program with the local Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (UUCA), thanks to the hard work and support of Rabbi Phillips at USNA and Cliff Andrews at UUCA. Cliff and two other UU’s led Sunday morning meetings for all interested nontheist plebes and we saw an average attendance of about 10-15 plebes every Sunday.  These meetings were a place to relax, affirm nontheist identity (a bit intimidating when starting at a military academy), and discuss science, philosophy, etc., similar to NAFA’s school year meetings.

During the start of this past school year in the fall, we received lots of help through the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), the UUCA, and affiliated ourselves with Center For Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. The resources and support provided by these organizations truly helped launch NAFA into the academic year as an organized group. Since we weren’t officially recognized this past year (I’ll explain in the next question) we weren’t allowed higher profile speakers (e.g. Roy Speckhardt), but we did bring in local speakers like Brian Engler (CFI) and various Academy faculty such as Rabbi Phillips to discuss the Jewish faith or CAPT (retired) Talbot Manvel to discuss Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. We also went to several local CFI events in D.C. (e.g. a Q&A with Richard Dawkins) and, of course, the Reason Rally.

Are you recognized by the Academy? If so, how was that process? If not, why, and what has been your experience?

Not yet. We put in the paperwork in April and expect to hear back in the coming academic year, though the paperwork process is slow for all groups, regardless of whether people like our group or not. This past year and summer we operated under the auspices of the Jewish Midshipman Club (JMC) led by Rabbi Phillips. One quick word on the Rabbi — he was truly instrumental in supporting our organization and was entirely in favor of our rights as a “religious ECA” [extracurricular activity] and our right to assemble.  Although our group has not been “official” for this past year — it was due to the fact that all prospective ECA’s must submit paperwork for official review every year in April — no other opportunities are afforded, our group included. Our group will find out our status when the Brigade returns for school in the fall.

Are you able to post advertisements, host events, and travel with the same freedom as other groups of your size?

We can’t send out Brigade-wide emails because we aren’t officially recognized. As for advertisements, we haven’t had much to advertise as of late, though I think we could. We can host events, but just have to go through the same bureaucracy as everyone else on that. Finally, once we are recognized we should be able to travel as freely as everyone else. It’s just part of being at USNA.

What have been the best and worst experiences you’ve had as a secular group at the Academy?

The best experience was probably the Dawkins Q&A. It was an awesome experience to meet the people whose books you read, videos you watch on YouTube, and articles you see in the paper. It also should help provide us with great connections for events in the future.

Worst experience: Having Roy Speckhardt get denied to speak because we were not an officially recognized ECA. This is on track to change for the next academic year.

What are your goals?

Our goals are simple, really. NAFA seeks to provide and maintain an open community of nontheists that discusses relevant religious, philosophical, and constitutional topics.

We also seek to foster greater awareness of the nontheist community and visibly demonstrate that our nation’s military leaders can be good without god by committing to community service and attending outside events in the greater Annapolis-Baltimore-DC area.

So why have students joined NAFA? [This question was open to all members of NAFA]

“It’s important to continue to seek answers and share questions, and NAFA provides a forum for that discussion.”

“What do I get out of the group? A great feeling knowing that some of our leaders had the balls to make a group like this even though we’re a minority.”

“A disturbingly large number of people believe something I do not and I feel unwelcome whenever my views are found out.”

“The ability to laugh about those jokes that wouldn’t be kosher to many of our former monotheisms. And occasionally pizza.”

“The members of NAFA are the very few people who can understand what it is like to take that first leap of unfaith in the midst of our lives here at USNA.”

“It really makes me sad when people are intimidated to be out when we are all supposed to be morally sound leaders regardless of creed… I have also heard of a known atheist who was told “If I put a gun to your head right now I bet you wouldn’t say you were atheist.” Which is truly disturbing. But as a generalization the staff and faculty here are very accepting but the students are more hesitant.”

“I have found a group of midshipmen who take what the world presents them and make decisions based on the evidence at hand. I have found a place where intelligence trumps stalwart idealism. NAFA gives me hope for a time when our nation’s leaders will recognize the foolishness of taking advice from scripture written for a different time and a different place.”

Further interviews with secular students at the Naval Academy can be found on the MAAF website.

NOTE: Approximately ten midshipmen contributed to the production of this article, answering questions and proofreading, all the while getting ready for the end of their year, and in some cases, graduation. Further thanks are extended to Jason Torpy, MAAF President, for his assistance. These students commented on the condition of anonymity. They are not speaking in their official capacity. Statements are not intended to reflect official policy.

About Kate Donovan

Kate is a junior studying psychology and human development at Northwestern University. She is the president of Northwestern's Secular Student Alliance and a writer at Teen Skepchick, Heresy Club, and various other places around the internet. Sometimes she sleeps.

  • Elizabeth Thorowgood

    Thanks so much for highlighting this group. I’m a graduate of this school and I know an atheist or freethinker group would not have been welcome when I was there. I was a Christian when I attended the academy, and the hate speech that I heard at some of the school sanctioned religious organizations was one of the first things that led me to question my faith. I hope this group remains strong and gets official recognition.

  • Fsq

    Really well written and great entry here!

    Nothing really to add other than this was one of the better entries here and the info was fantastic.

    Keep this up Kate!!

  • Nordog6561

    If all the branches have some degree of religiosity then things have changed greatly since I served.

    I was in the USN from 79-91, during which time I was an atheist/agnostic.  Regarding my lack of faith I felt very much at home in the USN.

    Now, during these almost 13 years I saw many changes in Navy culture, but religiosity was not among the changes.

    Yet, I’ve been a civilian for over 20 years, so my experience cannot be taken as a reflection of what is happening now, or has been happening for some time.

    I don’t have time to read the posting here right now, but I look forward to doing so.  It will be interesting to learn where the military religiosity has come from.

    In any event, the active duty atheist/agnostics should feel as at home in the military as I did in my day.

  • http://twitter.com/nora_anne Nora

    Very cool. There was no group like this during my time (class of 09), despite the fact that it feels like there are about 100 religious ECAs. Ugh I hated the noon meal prayer. I would just stand at parade rest during it. At least the days of mandatory chapel attendance are over!

    Best of luck to this group, I know how annoying the bureaucracy can be there, so I hope it all gets figured out for next year.

    And I would say that the Naval Academy itself is MUCH more religious than the Navy in general, although the overuse of invocations and prayers at any official event makes me roll my eyes.


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