Secular Students of the Military: The Air Force Academy

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:

 

U.S. Air Force Academy Freethinkers

 

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:

  1. Get some sort of status (we are currently waiting on the status of paperwork to become an official club)
  2.  

  3. Get financial support (for events such as field trips, going off campus to freethinking events, etc.)
  4.  

  5. 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.”

Previous interviews in the series have included members of West Point SSA and Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists.

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.

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.

  • Fsq

    Kate,

    This series has been phenonomal. This is the best of them yet. I suspected the Air Force Academy would have had the most difficult time of the group, just based on where the officer training is held – Colorado Springs – one of the most fundamentalist enclaves in North America.

    Keep up the great reports Kate.

    • Stev84

      Yeah, the AFA is by far the most religious of the service academies. There were severe problems there that came to light a couple of years ago. Evangelical groups had basically a free run of the campus to convert people. Many people pretended to be fundamentalists just so they didn’t stick out. Not just the students, but also the faculty.

  • Ulyanov

    The air force kills a lot of people civilians with collateral damage.

    How will atheists oppose that?

    • Bryan Schear

       The only thing atheists oppose as a group is the idea of god. Stop trying to lump us all into one group that swallows the same pill of ideology.

      • Ulyanov

        Thanks for the admission that atheists will do nothing to stop the killing.

        So who gives a fuck what they do?  The will just be government hired killers like all the rest.

        • http://twitter.com/catdumpling Cat MacKinnon

          you seem to be trolling for comments, but despite my better judgement, i just can’t let this one go…

          you think atheists are simply “out for blood”, or have no moral compass?? you are gravely mistaken, my friend. as people who don’t believe in some kind of “divine punishment” (or “divine reward”), or being reincarnated or any of that sort of thing, we VERY much value human life…perhaps more than many religions, because we believe “this is it”, this life is the one shot we get. no afterlife, no second chances. game over.

          @google-877f197591fbb9b27c10a1f2163d4f51:disqus  gave a quick answer to one question, but you decided to use it as a catch-all answer to justify whatever beliefs you most likely already had about atheists…without taking the context into consideration. it’s a convenient way to argue, and many people wouldn’t even question it (which is disturbing), but we don’t take such things at face value like that here.

          yes, war is a bitch. it’s beyond unfortunate that “friendly fire” happens and that people die from it. but the stark truth is that war has been happening since the beginning of time. as ridiculous as it seems, there will ALWAYS be someone, or some group of people, that think they have the “perfect answer” (and that excuse is often historically based on religious beliefs.) there will also always be batshit-insane people who manage to weasel their way into political power and try to manipulate the populous…you cannot predict that, but only try to learn from the past (ie, Hitler, Mussolini, Kadaffi, etc) and do your best to make sure they don’t destroy society as a whole.

          you’re assuming there is a “perfect answer” to the question of war, but there really isn’t…we obviously have to mitigate the innocent lives that are lost during combat (and if you’ve studied history, we’ve done a pretty damn good job of it these days, all things considered), but there are basically two options: let the narcissistic dictators control everything (and the “peasants”, ie us, live terrible lives at the expensive of our leaders’ self-worth), or at least attempt to provide some kind of order to life, where people at least have a fighting chance at freedom.

    • wharrgarbl

      Of course anyone with respect for human life wants to minimize collateral damage.  This, in my experience, includes the vast majority of atheists.Atheists will mitigate collateral damage the same way anyone else does, by advocating proportionality of force.Judging from your reply to Bryan, though, what you take issue with isn’t exactly “collateral damage,” is it? Be up front about your complaints, and then we can see if we can actually have a productive discussion on the real issue.

  • B-Wit

    Also, just an unofficial add-in to the original interview above of our history (as told through the eyes of an former USAFA Freethinker… member… person…):

    Throughout the course of the 2008-2009 school year, my assistant Cadet in Charge (ACIC) was in personal contact with Mr. Hitchens 1) because we wanted him to come and 2) because he had written an article on USAFA a few years earlier about the mistreatment and persecution of minority faiths (specifically Mikey Wienstien’s kid being told, “Your people killed Jesus, you fucking Jew”). This lead to the creation of the Cadet Interfaith Council (CIFC) whose goal is to be a panel of the faiths and give minority faiths equal voice in cadet religious events.

    At this time we were officially a part of SPIRE (but we had no representation on the CIFC) with all the rights and priviledges of such a group. However, our request to have Hitchens speak was rejected on the grounds that he is not just A-theist, but Anti-theist and such a position is not something USAFA HX can support (to paraphrase: afterall, we wouldn’t want a satanist to speak at the Academy, either). I say “rejected” rather than “denied” because we were later scolded for claiming that the request had been denied. The truth is, the Chaplain Corp told us that if we sent up the request, they would not have endorsed it. The Vice Superintendent later told us that we should have sent it up anyway, because he believes in bringing in people and ideas that may be contrary to the general concensus. (but I still have a hard time believing it would have been approved against the recomendation of the highest ranking Chaplain on base).

    We ended up giving Mr. Hitchens an unofficial tour and hosting him at Old Chicago on a Monday night which meant only a few cadets could attend (~10).

    After that in the fall of 2009, we decided that perhaps SPIRE was not the umbrella under which we could foster our thirst for intellectual stimulation and withdrew. We then bid to be a regular, secular, club like the chess club or “Way of Life” club. We met opposition here, however because, “we already have a place for religious groups. if we let you in, we would have to let every religion have a club.” “But we are not a religion!” we replied, but to deaf ears (more like a 6 year old’s “lalalalalala I Can’t Hear You! lalalalala”). 

    And so we were lost. Lost in a sea of event ideas, outings, speaker requests and fundraisers without a chain of command to channel our ideas and in the Spring of 2010, we hosted a series of lectures for Darwin Day which caught some flack because Kirk Cameron thinks evolution says Crocoducks should exist (and saying that’s ridiculous is apparently offensive). By this time Kyle and I had positions on the CIFC (he was representing secular judaism, I represented the “nones”), so our people did have a voice among the religious.

    We were prominent members on the council and it was becoming apparent that we could not be shut up. We were outspoken but not obnoxious, and being a minority, and having been around the block a few times with the whole SPIRE thing, I believe we turned out to be invaluable resources for the CIFC.

    Our senior year, after floating in purgatory for almost 2 years, we decided to reconsider our withdrawal from SPIRE. We still had a major issue with their requirements, however: SPIRE groups were not allowed to speak critically of other groups or ideas and it’s kind of hard to have a group centered on critical thinking fit into that requirement. After a conference on the religious climate at USAFA centered on how to teach cadets about tolerance and respect, we convinced the Chaplians to change the wording of the SPIRE agreement documents and we became a SPIRE group once more.

    I think it’s important to note that throughout this process we had amazing help from Jason Torpy (MAAF) and Liz Liddel (SSA) without ever being allowed any official connection to either the SSA or MAAF. 

    • The Cockpit Atheist

       Thanks for the credit, B-Wit!

      • B-Wit

        no probs

  • Elise

    Wife of a USAFA grad, sister of a USAFA grad, and sister-in-law of 2 USAFA grads. Any of you being stationed at Kirtland AFB (where I am), or Cannon, please let me know. The more, the merrier!


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