This is the fourth 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, and now, Jason Torpy.
Jason Torpy is a graduate of West Point and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. MAAF provides a number of services for secular service members, including deployment assistance, coordination with other nontheist organizations, and (most importantly for this series) support for secular students in the military. He graciously answered a number of my questions at the beginning of this series, and offered to be interviewed about the role of MAAF and his perspective on the experiences of the nonreligious in the military.
What role do you and MAAF play in the formation and continuation of military secular groups?
MAAF brings an understanding of the culture and regulations related specifically to the U.S. military. We have members and leadership who are Academy graduates and military professionals and can speak from experience and training. Just as SSA brings a special attention and expertise to the student population, MAAF does the same to ensure special focus and attention in the military.
MAAF provides support for groups on military installations as part of the MAAF Network. This includes endorsement for leaders, which the military sometimes requires to access certain military activities, guides and advice on how to approach and access military facilities, and connection to other military personnel who may be in the area. We also offer resources for advertising, leafletting, and communication whenever possible.
What makes secular groups particularly important at the Academies?
The easy answer is that Cadets and Midshipmen seek community and want to talk with others who share their beliefs. The students themselves benefit with increased self-esteem from a supportive community and affirming command. They also have the opportunity to improve their resiliency to stress and their personal character by exploring and developing their life stance and ethical framework. This is not a social club, hobby, or even a sports team. These groups, secular in the humanistic and atheistic sense rather than the simple ‘not religious’ sense, are built around beliefs and community. These groups benefit nontheistic students in the same way that worship services, Bible study, or Wiccan circles might benefit students who hold those types of beliefs.
What Academy do you see as having the toughest battle to end religious exceptionalism?
I wouldn’t want to speculate in particular. I will say that each Academy has the opportunity during the summer to either allow or not allow alternatives to church during summer training. Last year, every Academy advertised and provided for nontheistic Cadets and Midshipmen to meet. This was separate from the simple ‘secular free time’ and was run by volunteers with coordination from MAAF, SSA, and local humanist groups. If these are continued this summer, that will be a good sign. Academies, if any, that choose to end those programs will be going wrong direction.
We’ve heard from the U.S. Air Force Academy Freethinkers, the SSA at West Point, and the Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists, and a continuing theme has been the uphill battle for recognition as a group and the privileges that come with that recognition. What can be done?
The Academies have had the opportunity to do the right thing here. USAFA had a program for official recognition, but have backtracked and reassigned Cadets after they asked for equal treatment with funding. The groups at West Point and the Naval Academy are newer and spent the last year in negotiations to gain recognition, but much of the delay has been included under the banner of underfunding of all groups, not just the humanist groups. I spoke at the West Point Diversity Leadership Conference in November, 2011 and advocated for funding of the club as outreach to an unsupported, unfunded, unrecognized diversity community. Many clubs seek recognition, but hopefully sports teams, hobbies, and redundant activities will not be funded ahead of critical shortages like humanist groups and the gay-straight alliance, which is also seeking support.
We’ve also heard a lot about recent development of non-theistic time for secular students when their religious peers are given time for religious services. Why is this so necessary?
When there is an option to receive relaxation, food, and fun in a low-stress environment, that can be attractive. When that is done in the context of a high-stress training environment like the Academy, then the encouragement goes up. When the alternative is returning to a lonely room with the threat of upper-class harassment or extra duties, then the push can be irresistible. When all of these incentives lead to impressionable young kids being exposed to sectarian religious messages, then the government is actively funding proselytizing. That is the case if there are no alternatives to religious services. The message is “Get God or Get Back to Work” and that is unconstitutional.
What can be done to continue this practice?
I would suggest writing to Congress and asking for, among other things, 1) humanistic (not just secular) alternatives to church services during Academy basic training, 2) full recognition and funding for humanistic student groups at the Academies, and 3) the inclusion of non-theistic groups like the Secular Student Alliance and MAAF in the development and staffing of these events. The Chaplains don’t have the qualifications, experience, or in some cases the willingness to put these programs together properly.
What can civilians or other secular groups do to support these students?
If you’re in the area, volunteer as a summer or academic year leader. Provide for food, study materials, videos, and other materials. Help fund trips outside the Academy (even with Academy funding, must clubs operate primarily from private funds). Contact Congress to ensure these groups are given proper recognition. Send donations to organizations like SSA, CFI, and MAAF who are doing so much to help these Cadets and Midshipmen through tough Academy life.