Humanists Support Each Other at Naval Academy
Two midshipmen at the the United States Naval Academy are sharing their stories so others can understand the challenges atheists and humanists find in military service. Jack Morrow and Kyle Cregge have different stories, but both share an enlightenment that came through a combination of the pressures of military training, difficulty with a religious family, and their need for mentoring and support.
Kyle and Jack are two of over 50 members of the Naval Academy Freethinkers & Atheists, an informal group of Midshipmen who have come together at the Academy. Like the West Point Secular Student Alliance, they have yet to receive official recognition from Academy officials. the US Air Force Academy has extended official recognition to Academy Freethinkers, and each Academy offered nontheist alternatives for chaplain’s time during summer training. Kyle and Jack tell stories common to many Midshipmen and Cadets and show the need for a supportive community of like-minded individuals rather than simply mental health or social services. These stories represent personal experiences and don’t reflect official Academy opinion.
Jack Morrow struggled with his atheist beliefs throughout high school. He was raised staunchly conservative in a Presbyterian family, which would conduct daily devotions in the mornings before school, before every meal, all-day on Sunday. He even participated in a mission trip to China. Through it all though, he had doubts.
I attended a private Presbyterian Christian school through eighth grade. From an early age, I was taught that there was only one right way to live, and that was through belief in Christ. I had my doubts and continued to ask myself questions.
At a non-Christian boarding school his sophomore year, a roommate began personal study and reflection, soon rejecting his belief in god. Jack disagreed and even changed rooms, but his roommate’s self-conversion spurred Jack to his own study. The summer before his senior year, Jack’s own study and reflection had become irreconcilable with his upbringing. Being already under duress about his new girlfriend, a relationship prohibited by his conservative parents, he decided to come out about his atheism as well.
I was in the Seattle airport with my father, who was questioning me about the nature of my relationship with my girlfriend. I broke and told him that not only was I in “such-and-such” a relationship with this girl, I didn’t even believe in god. I hoped for a response of love and one seeking to understand. I was met with judgment, anger, and rejection, quickly to be replaced by a mission to fix me. My family brought in pastors from their church into our home. I was emotionally assaulted by my family, whom my father instructed to “treat me as a non-believer”.
Jack’s father presented the ultimatum that he must break off communications with his girlfriend or be pulled from boarding school. Leaving school would most certainly have also cancelled his appointment to the Naval Academy, which was a lifelong goal for Jack. Jack was left with no choice but to agree and keep the relationship and his beliefs a secret.
When I finally received my appointment to Navy, I knew I was “free” in a sense. I no longer would depend on my family’s support, and therein could be as outspoken about my views as I pleased, without fear of repercussion. I talked to my parents, and I made it clear that they now had a choice. They could either accept that I was an atheist, in a relationship they did not approve of, or they could say goodbye to me. They chose to stay in touch.
I now enjoy life as a Midshipman, and I am very open, when prompted, about my atheism to those who ask. Coming out was not easy, and caused the greatest heart ache I have experienced, yet I can still say I have no regrets.
Jack was put in a terrible position, but as he hopes for his family’s recovery, he at least has the support of others like him.
Kyle Cregge is another member of NAFA and shares his story. Kyle was raised Catholic, serving on the altar, as a lector, and as a Eucharistic minister. He enjoyed being part of the family and community and had no doubts. Then he left Alpharetta, Georgia. A thousand miles from home at the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island, he began to have doubts.
The pressure of military, physical, and academic training started to conflict with what he found to be uninspiring Catholic sermons. He chose to skip a few Catholic masses to examine his own beliefs privately.
I started to ask myself what I believed. Did God really help me through [training]? I felt a certain amount of pride for what I had done. I had felt no divine hand pushing me up the hills we ran at five in the morning. I had friends on either side of the religious debate, and they enjoyed arguing during the week. It was interesting to hear the other side. I hadn’t really heard anything other than the Catholic perspective my entire life.
One day in English class, Kyle saw the cover of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion with an atheist friend.
Whether for its shiny cover or the provocative title, I was determined to read it, and that I did. The ideas, while scary at the time to step so far from my roots, became like an itch on my brain I could never quite scratch away.
Kyle found a lot of scientific explanations, but more importantly, found even more questions to ask. Kyle learned of authors Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, PZ Myers, Epicurus and the paradox of evil, reddit, ancient religions, Russell’s teapot, and the flying spaghetti monster. After a semester of his own study, Kyle confided about his beliefs to his atheist friends. He now comfortably embraces agnostic atheism and secular humanism. That is to say that the existence of god cannot be proven, but that he personally has no belief. Of secular humanism, he says,
I want to do everything I can to make life for others better and yes, in a selfish way, hopefully gain some measure of immortality through those actions, but I would not change the order of importance on that.
Kyle struggled with the question of how to “come out” to his parents. Knowing that they were very religious, he did not want to seem disrespectful of their beliefs. The phone didn’t seem appropriate, but the holidays also seemed like the wrong time. He also didn’t want to lie to his family. Promising to pray or saying that he had been going to chapel were expected, so he couldn’t simply keep quiet. On the other hand, he also feared that he would be cast out. Kyle felt friends who won’t accept beliefs can be done without, but Kyle wished very much to remain close to his family. Naval Academy training is based upon Honor, and so he had to be true to his family despite the danger of a negative reaction. Finally, he told his parents over the phone early in his Naval Academy summer training:
I told my parents that I was no longer catholic and was an atheist. I tried to describe why as best I could but this was not something they could take easily. My mother started crying. I expected that. My dad was the x-factor. But luckily, he told me, “Kyle, I love you, and you’re a man and you can make your own decisions. We hope you’ll come back to what we raised you, but I respect you for telling us.” That meant the world to me. I felt an enormous weight come off my shoulders.
On his parents’ first visit to the Academy, they had an opportunity to talk more. They had assumed that Kyle read the God Delusion and rejected faith without really studying. It was difficult initially, with his parent’s still insisting on him attending church during the first Christmas home.
It is hard to describe the look that your parents give you when you know that they know that you don’t believe but they still want you to come to church. It is an amalgamation of pain, disappointment and hope.
Prior to returning home, Kyle also capitulated to his mother’s request that he see a priest when he returned home. The priest was only available for a phone call, and after about 45 minutes, the call ended with a simple recognition that Kyle was, in fact, atheist, and that a phone call wouldn’t change anything.
The next night after my talk, I told my parents that they couldn’t force me to come to church. My dad agreed. “You’re a grown man; I really can’t force you.” My mom, dad, and I talked more and more, but once they made it a choice, I was much more willing to attend church to respect their beliefs without having to censor my own beliefs.
Kyle and Jack both had difficult transitions, but their experiences are not uncommon. These stories and many others happen whenever children grow into beliefs different than those of their parents. Love and respect, as well as the good instruction our parents provide us inspire us to conform to the wishes of our parents. But in many cases, we may need to walk a different path. Young people feel a greater pressure, as Jack did, when parents still hold a controlling interest in their future. Fellow atheists and humanists can provide an extended family to provide comfort and support until one’s biological family can learn to respect their grown children, even if they are atheists.