West Point Is Using Faith To Judge Cadets’ Leadership

West Point cadets scheduled to graduate in 2013 have been presented a survey of their leadership traits every year since 2009. That doesn’t sound bad… until you realize the survey includes promotion of spirituality, religion, and faith without accommodation for the nontheist perspective.

The Commandant of Cadets distributed the survey with these instructions:

“You have been part of a 4-year study to determine the effect of the West Point Experience on development as a Leader of Character… seeking your responses and insights in matters addressing values, moral reasoning, and knowledge of our Army Professional Ethic.”

While more than 90% of the questions were secular in nature, the following subset of character traits has set back more recent openness to Humanists and other nontheists at the Academy:

I am a spiritual person.

I practice my religion.

My faith never deserts me during hard times.

My faith makes me who I am.

In answering these questions, the options range from “Very much unlike me” to “Very much like me” and come with the encouragement to be “honest and accurate.” These questions are more extreme than the Army’s version (the “Soldier Fitness Tracker”), which didn’t directly reference religion or faith yet still led to widespread protests spearheaded by Justin Griffith of Rock Beyond Belief.

One cadet survey respondent posted this reaction to West Point’s faith/religion/spirituality survey on Facebook:

I wonder if I’m religious enough to be a good leader?

This sort of response is what the Academy should expect when it provides no recognition or accommodation for those who do not identify with spirituality, faith, or traditional religious terminology.

It is unconstitutional for the Academy to dictate that its cadets be spiritual, practice religion, or define themselves by their faith, as the survey suggests. The Academy should encourage cadets to explore their beliefs in order to build a strong foundation of personal values for the Army’s professional values. By promoting a faith-based approach, the Academy is impeding character development and driving a religious wedge in the military team.

As I said, this study was created in 2009. More recently, West Point and other Academies have expanded their recognition of atheists and humanists. With support from the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) and the Secular Student Alliance, student groups of Humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and other nontheists have come together. Alternatives to church have been provided at each Academy in each of the last two years. I was even invited to the 2011 West Point Diversity Conference and the 2010 US Air Force Academy Religious Respect Conference in my capacity as head of MAAF, and I visited the Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists in 2012. Each of the service academies is considering official recognition for nontheist student groups so that they can, for the first time, be recognized, funded, and provided with the privileges and support that other groups (religious, academic, and secular) have enjoyed for years.

Unfortunately, this survey is still in progress. But how will these data be used?

If more people say they are spiritual, religious, or faithful, will that be evidence that the Academy has a proselytizing atmosphere that pushes cadets into traditional religious views?

Will a declining number be used to justify extra funding for a chaplaincy that continues to stifle humanist identity and reject humanist leaders?

The survey includes the instruction that “all of the questions reflect statements that many people would find desirable,” which is true since most people are religious. But the survey does not account for those who disagree categorically with the questions — and that group is growing throughout the US. The problem now is that the survey’s results are useless because they provided no accounting for nontheist beliefs.

Translating traditional religious values and practices is a difficult activity, and Joseph Hammer, Ryan Cragun, and colleagues at the Center for Atheist Research are studying military efforts to promote and gauge spirituality. They are collecting data on the effects of questions and the ability of studies to gauge well-being. Outreach to the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Office by nontheist groups has been rejected. This trend of promoting spirituality without reference to the nontheist community has continued to spread throughout the military.

West Point, the Army, and the military as a whole should review studies like this and make efforts to account for their growing nontheist population. Values, character, meaning, and well-being also apply to atheists, humanists, and others with a naturalistic world view, even if we approach those topics differently.

The military would benefit from understanding the diversity of belief within the ranks.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • Marella

    So long as it doesn’t have to be faith in the supernatural I could honestly answer yes to most of these. My faith in myself doesn’t desert me during hard times. My faith is reason and reality makes me who I am, and etc. It’s all a matter of interpretation. There is more than faith in fairytales. 

    • Stev84

      Faith is belief without evidence. When people say they have faith in friends or family, I would rather call that trust. The difference is that there is some empirical evidence that they will be there for you when you need them. Same with believing in yourself. That doesn’t just come out of thin air.

    • JasonTorpy

      Faith can mean hope or trust, but the context hear clearly means faith in a higher power without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary.

    • Edmond

      The distinction is clearer when we specify that BLIND faith is the bad kind.

  • John of Indiana

    Like the Air Force, the Army wants to be sure they have leaders who will take Jeebus to the Heathen world when we jump the gun and start “Armageddon” on our own.
    Scary stuff, scary stuff…

  • Glasofruix

    My faith makes me who i am == i am a guillible idiot

  • http://twitter.com/ErnestValdemar Ernest Valdemar

     First of all, as any good skeptic knows, self-reported data is notoriously unreliable. A smart atheist candidate with no moral qualms could sail through this with flying colors. (Kind of ironic for a “leader of character” evaluation, since any good liar will get the best score.)

    On the other hand, how hard would it be include statements like:

    - I rely on the best evidence when making decisions.

    - I am a reasonable person.

    - When the facts change, I change my mind.

    Etc., etc.

    Surely these are all valuable traits for a officer in the U.S. Army. And none of them explicitly promote atheism, or discriminate against religious cadets who are otherwise rational in their conduct.

    • Nena

      There actually are questions like that on the survey. It ranks a different strength. You aren’t supposed to score high on all strengths, the point of the survey is to rank your strengths from highest to lowest.

      It was to no one’s surprise that faith and spirituality was my very lowest ranked strength (it’s on the list even if you score 0). :)

  • Anonymous Atheist

    I’m kind of surprised this escaped publicity (‘flew under the radar’ ;) ) for the past 3 years. Thanks to whoever came forward about it.

    • JasonTorpy

      True… but the fact that you’re posting as anonymous atheist is probably reason why people haven’t been reporting these things. It’s my hope that we build a community that provides protection and support to encourage people to report issues and stand up for their rights. Then these problems will happen less often.

  • GeorgeD

    Although the USCG is a little more liberal when it comes to this stuff…I did find that in basic training when discussing being held as a POW and the Geneva Convention they really harped on relying on your faith in a god to get your through being a prisoner. I’m pretty sure that is the only word of advice we were given about being a pow (likelihood of a Coastie becoming a POW…slim to none, but crazier things have happened). 

    • Stev84

      That probably comes from the experiences of past POWs who were predominantly religious

  • Luther

    Reminds me of a draft board chair in my hometown. He publicly said when someone put in a request for conscientious objector status, they would look into his background and see if he had been a Boy Scout. And hold that as evidence that he was not really a conscientious objector.

  • ArmyAtheist

    I believe this article is a little misleading, the Soldier Fitness Tracker, isn’t used to select leaders, (it’s not even looked at when deciding on a promotion) it’s used to keep an eye on people who might have a mental breakdown. Nevertheless I still thought such “spiritual/faith” questions were unfair to irreligious soldiers.

    • Kate Donovan

      This article isn’t about the Soldier Fitness Tracker. The SFT is only mentioned in passing, as another time when the Army refers to faith. Jason is writing about an actual leadership survey, administered at USMA.

      • ArmyAtheist

         Kate, you’re right. I suppose I should have read more carefully. I saw the familiar questions and assumed it was the fitness tracker.  The big question here is how are these leadership survey’s used. If someone with a higher “spiritual” rating has a systematic advantage over those with lower “spiritual” scores, that is something concerning.

  • Nena

    I had to take this survey at my place of employment for a Resiliency Training course. I’m not military, but we are a huge civilian contractor of the military. 

    The sergeant who gave the training knows me pretty well and was a little uncomfortable knowing that I am atheist and had to answer those questions. He tried to explain it away in a way similar to how AA claims that a “higher power” doesn’t have to mean a god, but he knew it was bullshit. 

    I didn’t cause a fuss, I just kind of joked about it (“I guess no one is surprised what my lowest ranked strength is!”), because it was just for a personal growth course and didn’t have anything to do with our jobs. The rest of the course was awesome, actually.

    Now had this had anything to do with my position or promotability, you can bet I would have raised hell. I can’t believe this survey is actually being used to evaluate leadership qualities. Yikes. 

  • Alex

    Wait, so if I’m an atheist, do I practice my religion or not? Which religion would that be?

    • ArmyAtheist

       The question assumes the survey taker has a religion.

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    You were a little to quick to play the persecuted atheist card.  As a few other people have acknowledged, this study content is directly from (non-religious, non-military) behavioral science surveys.

    The reason this has been a non-issue up to now is that most West Point cadets put on their big boy pants when they joined the Academy.

    By contrast, you are lending credence to the perception that some atheists are hypersensitive wilting flowers with a persecution complex.

    • Jmh3_cec

       And you are quick to play the “this isn’t really a problem in the Army” card.  I’ll tell you from personal experience, IT IS!