This is the third 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.
This time, I spoke with the U.S. Air Force Academy Freethinkers, the oldest secular group at the military academies. Unlike every other group, they have had experience with official recognition. Cadets at USAFA are in the process of leaving for summer or commissioning into the Air Force, but a few members found time to answer my questions:
Tell me about your group.
USAFA Freethinkers was originally on and off and unofficial since the early 2000s. Our club had official SPIRE (“Special Programs in Religious Education”) status at one point but left due to being denied the ability to bring in a guest speaker (purportedly Christopher Hitchens himself). SPIRE is a faith-based/religious club status that allows said clubs more privileges in respect to religious accommodation than a regular, official, recreational or social club. Basically, a SPIRE group can have better support (financial and otherwise) and the ability to have activities/events for religious accommodation into scheduling, since the Academy has a very strict schedule of mandatory events and commitments.
The group then tried to become just a club but was basically laughed out of the boardroom due to being a “faith-related” group. Being so, we were unofficial for another year (2010-2011) until a chaplain and former SPIRE-head welcomed us back to SPIRE status with open arms. He even said:
“I can assure you that we here on the USAFA Chaplain Corps team take seriously our oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution’. We will continue to do all that we can to stand-up for and defend the rights of EVERY American regardless of color, gender, or creed (theistic, poly-theistic, or non-theistic). We welcome you and the Free Thinker group back into the SPIRE program and will defend and support your rights to Free Exercise and Free Speech and hope that you will do the same for every other citizen pursuing the American dream here on this campus as well. I believe that SPIRE is a perfect example of the vision our Founding Fathers had for this nation, extremely diverse groups all working together side-by-side, agreeing to disagree agreeably. I hope that you will join us as we continue in this great American experiment that has been going on now for these 234+ years and look forward to continued dialogue with you on this topic.”
We then regained SPIRE status until we merely asked about financial funding and support (such as ways of fundraising for events, NOT actually taking money from the Christian tithers and collections), and the new chaplain leadership brought our status into question. After reviewing what the head of chaplains said in relation to definitions of religion and faith, we were told we could no longer be part of SPIRE. We were basically forced into either nothingness or club status (which does not afford the same privileges as a “faith-based” club or SPIRE would).
USAFA Freethinkers has volunteered for some community service (such as helping a nonprofit dog mill rescue establishment multiple times, Walk a Mile in Their Shoes), but our focus this year has primarily been attaining an official status. We have also attended unofficial group events such as CU-Boulder’s Darwin Day and Skepticamp. We plan on attending more events in the future with our newly reorganized inner-club structure (which includes a Social Events Officer and organizer).
Are you recognized by the Academy? If so, how was that process? If not, why, and what has been your experience.
At the moment, we are trying to gain just an extracurricular club status. We were in the past (as mentioned in the first question) recognized, which has vacillated from official to unofficial.
Are you able to post advertisements, host events, and travel with the same freedom as other groups of your size?
At the moment, not really publicly. We need to get official club status before being able to determinate ads and events. However, an interesting consideration is the fact that we are somewhat religiously (or better yet, irreligiously based), and that we are also part of a religiously sensitive military (meaning any dissemination of “religious” events without the proper channeling or permission is impossible).
Our Facebook page is a public hub for members and non-members of over 100 people. Our email [distribution list] contains approximately 15-20 (since we’re in limbo of seniors commissioning and incoming freshman [during] the upcoming semester). Regular attendance at the official club meetings is around 7-10.
What have been the best and worst experiences you’ve had as a secular group at the Academy?
The best is being able to coordinate unofficial (freethinking) events and spend time with each other… becoming a family… and even occasionally and civilly discussing our viewpoints with religious (usually theistic) guests.
The worst experience has been our inability to have funding or have official events and trips due to our lack of status as anything at the moment.
What are your goals?
We would like to:
- Get some sort of status (we are currently waiting on the status of paperwork to become an official club)
- Get financial support (for events such as field trips, going off campus to freethinking events, etc.)
- Utilize our newly established and military-based structure to provide a more effective group and experience for our family/members.
So why have students joined USAFA Freethinkers? [This question was open to all members of the group]
“This environment, as I am sure many are, is one in which there is no reason to go out of your way to identify yourself as an atheist. People have so many negative connotations associated with atheism and word getting out could block a promotion or high-quality assignment.”
“I’ve never had an outright bad encounter here (home is a different story being born/raised in the Bible Belt); the only issue I have had is the military chaplains not recognizing our Freethinker’s group along with other religious groups but as only merely a ‘club’ (which brings about different privileges and statuses).”
“Free pizza. And our freshman are absolutely adorable.”
“Because I needed a place to talk to people during basic instead of being talked at, and I also like the idea of a small group with close-knit members who are all pretty open, which is nice at the academy.. not saying people are close minded but we’re def the most open-minded.”
“Freethinkers at USAFA really keeps my spirit enlivened. Being able to gather around other skeptical minded people to hash out the universe’s wonders and problems and how we fit into them is a marvelous opportunity, and one I’ve looked forward to every Monday.”
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.