Blake Page, the president of the West Point Secular Student Alliance, has been making headlines this week after he wrote on Huffington Post that he was resigning from the famed military school six months prior to graduation because he “could no longer be part of a culture that promotes prayers and religious activities and disrespects nonreligious cadets.”
… I have been in a position to hear countless cadets recount their personal stories of frustration in dealing with the ongoing oppressive and unconstitutional bigotry they face for being non-religious. Cadets often come to me to seek assistance, guidance and reassurance in response to instances of debasing harassment. Many here are regularly told they do not deserve a place in the military. They are shown through policy that the Constitution guarantees their freedom of, but not from religion. Many are publically chastised for seeking out a community of likeminded people because it is such a common belief that Humanism and other non-religious philosophies are inherently immoral and worse.
It is pathetic that so many leaders in the military are comfortable with both subtly and brutally discriminating against non-religious members. Perhaps with enough external pressure brought to bear by continued civil rights activism, America’s military leadership will one day soon be forced to realize that non-religious soldiers are not enemies of the state to be shunned, ridiculed and marginalized, but rather patriotic, honorable Americans to be respected as equals.
Yesterday, Page appeared on CNN (alongside Mikey Weinstein) to talk about his article:
For what it’s worth, West Point has accepted Page’s resignation and given him an “honorable discharge,” which means he won’t have to pay the school for the cost of his education.
While I applaud Page for taking this strong stand — what a way to bring the issue into public discourse — keep in mind there may also be additional reasons for his leaving school. In the CNN interview, he explains that he went to West Point, not because he cared much for the school but because he wanted to become an officer. Unfortunately, he was recently told that his clinical depression and anxiety ruled out the possibility of ever becoming a second lieutenant.
There’s also pushback from other atheists at the school saying that the rampant religiosity that Page talks about at West Point isn’t as awful as he makes it out to be:
Maj. Nicholas Utzig, the faculty adviser to the [Secular Student Alliance] club, said he doesn’t doubt some of the moments Page described, but he doesn’t believe there is systematic discrimination against nonreligious cadets.
“I think it represents his own personal experience and perhaps it might not be as universal as he suggests,” said Utzig, who teaches English literature.
One of Page’s secularist classmates went further, calling his characterization of West Point unfair.
“I think it’s true that the majority of West Point cadets are of a very conservative, Christian orientation,” said senior cadet Andrew Houchin. “I don’t think that’s unique to West Point. But more broadly, I’ve never had that even be a problem with those of us who are secular.”
Examples of these policies include mandatory prayer, the maintenance of the 3rd Regiment Shield, awarding extra passes to Plebes who take part in religious retreats and chapel choirs, as well as informal policies such as the open disrespect of non-religious new cadets and incentivizing participation in religious activities through the chain of command.
Another student — a Christian — Charles Clymer, said that while he had seen instances of homophobia and sexism, he had never seen systematic anti-atheist bigotry:
I never, not even once, witnessed, heard about, or even thought it implied that non-religious cadets face discrimination of any kind at the Academy. I saw widespread homophobia and sexism but never any negative sentiment towards those cadets who identified as Athiest or Agnostic. In fact, the closest thing I ever observed that looked like a pro-Christian bias were the few cadets who believed Islam is evil, and that was a very small fraction of our class. The vast majority of Christian cadets treated non-Christian cadets with respect insofar as their beliefs are concerned.
Rock Beyond Belief founder Justin Griffith points out, though, that Clymer isn’t the expert he makes himself out to be:
Citing dubious and unnamed sources, Charles frames the story as if nobody ever had any complaints at the academy and Page is making it up. Charles left years ago due to health issues, but still weighed in as if he’s an expert.
Another Christian student, B.J. Garrison, added on his own Huffington Post piece that he, too, had never seen systematic discrimination on the basis of religion at the Academy:
Many faiths and denominations are openly welcomed at the Academy. For Cadets and officers alike, there is a Catholic chapel, a synagogue, and an interfaith center for Muslim and other religious services. But more to the point here, no one is forced to attend anything. This fact may seem surprising from a place that makes you eat no less than six meals a week in a family-style mess hall with people you make or may not like. This is not the hand of a draconian hierarchy at work.
I’m hard-pressed to fully trust the Christian students’ perceptions since we know atheists have been discriminated against by the military in many ways. That doesn’t mean every officer at the school is a bigot; it doesn’t mean the school intentionally has it out for atheists. But Page isn’t completely off the mark. There is pro-religion bias present in the military and West Point itself and we’ve seen it in play.
Page is doing everyone a service by bringing these issues to a wider audience.