This is the second 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.
I corresponded with cadets at West Point (The United States Military Academy), involved in their Secular Student Alliance (SSA). They are, like the secular group at the Naval Academy, unofficial. They too, have encountered obstacles in group formation. The following is an interview with a member of the executive board:
Tell me about your group.
We’re affiliated with the SSA. We were established in the Fall semester of 2011. Last year we were fairly active, with about 4-5 members showing up to each meeting. We made one attempt at starting a reading list, but there wasn’t much interest (largely because not many cadets have the time to read a book a week). Other than that, we’ve had one public service trip, where three cadets spent a day at a food shelter. Each attempt to get another trip approved was shot down by USMA leadership.
We did have a lecture by Dave Silverman and Jason Torpy, which had great turnout (probably 30 or so people). A lot of the attendees were religious cadets who wanted to see “the other side” and ask questions. This year we’ve had much higher attendance at weekly meetings, but haven’t had any large events. We made requests for trips to Rock Beyond Belief and the Reason Rally, but weren’t able to do either.
Are you recognized by the Academy? If so, how was that process? If not, why, and what has been your experience?
We aren’t. Our first attempts at official recognition were shot down outright. The former director of cadet activities did not want to support any secular organization, and didn’t see the point of our existence. Our last club president described him as “blasé and a stalwart in his opposition to us forming.” This semester, we developed a formal request for recognition memorandum and sent it to the office of the Commandant. This memo outlined several of the ongoing instances of intolerance at the Academy, and the importance of being recognized. Afterwards we were directed to speak with the new director of cadet activities, who has been very helpful. Although he appears uncomfortable with us forming, he is a professional, and is not allowing his personal beliefs to get in the way of his duty. He has given us reason to believe that we will be recognized sometime in the near future. Currently, the Academy’s club program is being revised. After the revision process is completed this summer, we will know if our efforts were successful.
Are you able to post advertisements, host events, and travel with the same freedom as other groups of your size?
No. We aren’t allowed access to the same resources as other clubs. We have been denied many requests for trip sections, and are not able to take part in Club Night, where recognized clubs are able to recruit members by tabling. We have been denied use of the mess hall slides as a means to advertise for the SSA in the past. After some of our leadership met with the deputy Commandant, we were assured that we would be allowed to use the mess hall slides to advertise if we ever have another event to publish, but without resources or authorization to host large events, it’s not particularly useful.
What’s been the best and worst experiences you’ve had as a secular group at the Academy?
The best have been our weekly meetings and summer program. Those of us who have taken part in weekly meetings have had great times bonding with one another, sharing ideas, watching movies and videos, and just generally being a group. Our introduction of NTCT [Non-Theist Chaplains Time — see next question] last year provided cadets who would otherwise be required to choose between church and humiliating work details, with the opportunity to enjoy the same environment of camaraderie and relaxation as their theist peers. As far as I know, this is the first place that this has happened in the military.
The worst experiences we’ve had have been repeated denial of equal opportunities for travel and activity as other clubs. We have been denied the ability to take trips, and even had a policy written as a response to our desire to advertise, which effectively made it possible for us to be formally shut out from access to the mess hall slides. Most of our members have experienced some form of direct discrimination. The most common was harassment during Cadet Basic Training, although there have been other instances in the classroom, and in professional situations.
You mentioned NTCT, Non-Theist Chaplains Time. What is that?
Until last year, there was no alternative to religious services during Basic Training. [Kate says: Religious services provide some kind of snacks and dessert. This is the only time during basic training for sweets or snack food, and open to only those who attend have attended the services.] In regular [non-West Point] basic, I’ve never heard of any alternative, and we had some trouble getting one set up here. There was a decent amount of resistance from the chaplain’s office, but eventually they let us have it, as long as we had a chaplain’s assistant sit in on all of our meetings. They sent a VERY Christian staff sergeant, in uniform, to oversee and make sure that the religious voice was present, and we weren’t encouraging the new cadets to be atheists. Overall it was a good program, and this summer we’re trying to make it a permanent part of cadet basic. We have one chaplain that fully supports us, but one isn’t enough in a complex bureaucracy.
What are the West Point SSA’s goals?
Our goals are to be able to provide non-theist cadets of all sorts with a community of acceptance, while ensuring that the culture of the academy at large shifts away from its current state of religious exceptionalism.
So why have students joined West Point SSA? [This question was open to all members of the SSA]
“I feel like I’m constantly surrounded by fundamentalists. I know this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the feeling I get. I work to censor myself most of the time because I know being too vocal could be a detriment, even if it is minor.”
“I want to see it grow so that nontheists have a larger voice and so that they don’t feel like they can’t associate themselves with such an organization for fear of reprisal”
“To show a stereotypically conservative culture that atheists don’t have horns and dance around a flaming pentagram under the full moon. Also because I enjoy hearing different viewpoints and learning about why people think the way they do.”
More about religion at West Point can be found in this research by cadet Blake Page.
The interview with Naval Academy Atheists and Freethinkers is available here.
NOTE: A number of cadets contributed to this post, on condition of anonymity. They are not speaking in their official capacity. Statements are not intended to reflect official policy.