Atheists at West Point band together despite religious culture

The West Point Secular Student Alliance (SSA), including more than 40 prospective members, are seeking official recognition from Academy officials. The Academy claims lack of funding for cadet clubs and is currently reviewing over 100 cadet clubs to find room for more. MAAF spoke at West Point’s November 2011 Diversity Leadership Conference to advocate for change and supports cadet and Midshipman groups in a similar situation at the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Naval Academies. Despite not yet receiving command support, nontheist future officers are coming together.

Blake Page is the prospective organizer of the cadet group and is seeking that official support. He and member Chuck Christensen are telling their story here to help increase visibility and encourage support.

Even as an eight-year-old in Sunday school, Blake was questioning the religious story. His parents accepted his skepticism, but they also felt pressure from the extended family to ensure he was in church. By 12, he had read the Bible “in totality” and was “fully convinced that Christianity was false.” He explains that he eventually returned to church to seek community:

When I was 15, a new church opened near my home which had regular shows by local bands, trips to amusement parks, and just a generally active social scene. I began going to that church after a friend of mine invited me. When I was 17 things in my life were going rather poorly. I’d been expelled from high school, I’d been arrested on false charges then released, but the courts waited six months before telling me they were dropped, and my family was having some very real financial challenges. I was still attending that church, as an atheist, and was ready to accept whatever help they could give me in dealing with those stressors. For a few years I tried my best to believe in Christianity. I had to stop reading the Bible because I knew if I saw the contradictions in print I would lose my “faith.” When I had doubts I would force myself to stop thinking about them, so that I could enjoy the emotional comfort that comes with religion. After I joined the Army at 18 though, things got much better for me, and with that stability I was able to finally realize how harmful it was for me to remain intentionally irrational.

Blake reports increasing responsibility and success as an enlisted soldier. His commander saw potential and endorsed his application to West Point. Blake was accepted and started in 2009. Things had been going well with academics and other requirements. But in 2011, tragedy struck when his father committed suicide.

After that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay here (at the Academy) or not, since making him proud and showing him that life is what we make of it were the main reasons I came to this place. Shortly after I returned to West Point from emergency leave I was encouraged to go speak to a chaplain. I have no qualms with speaking to chaplains; really I think they can be very helpful. Most of our conversations ended with prayer, and encouragement for me to find some source of divine help. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was a disappointment. Luckily I have a great group of friends here that I know I can rely on for support when I need it. We all come from different backgrounds and beliefs, but it doesn’t matter. Out of the cadets that I would call my best friends here, one is Jewish, one Mormon, one Catholic and one an atheist.

Blake provides an example of real problems that need customized solutions, not pressure from faculty to have a religious conversion. Blake has an informal community of like-minded people, but anyone with Christian or Jewish or other more “accepted” beliefs has official support through both chaplaincy and cadet clubs. Blake and other nontheists are essentially on their own.

Another member of the group, Chuck Christensen, provides a more positive outlook. He had a nonreligious upbringing, and was taught “reverence for the earth” and “love and the goodness of people.” He’s had no issues with his own beliefs so far.

A white Crusader cross on Infantry blue says Christian Jihad

While not all cadets have directly experienced issues, the Academy has systematic issues outside of cadet clubs. One quarter of cadets, including Blake, are assigned to the 3rd Regiment. The 3rd Regiment motto is “Strong Bodies, Strong Minds, Strong Faith” and is represented by a three-section crest that includes the cross of the Christian Crusades. Cadet Page wrote to his command to protest this senior-level endorsement of Christianity. A recent dinner also featured an invocation/benediction and a Bible set out to remember fallen comrades. The cadet in charge initially wanted a simple military program but eventually agreed to add religious components after pressure from others and advice from command representatives who are used to a religious military. The overt religiosity of the Academy is extra justification for supporting a secular student club. Freedoms for minority groups increase freedoms for all.

Cadet Page is hopeful for the future of atheists and humanists at West Point. Official recognition for the Secular Students club, nontheistic alternatives to church during summer training, and reforms of religious symbolism are all part of the solution. Cadets at West Point and the other Academies, local volunteers, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, and the Secular Student Alliance are eager and able to help, but Academy officials must take steps to be open to all beliefs.

Another source of hope for me here has been the Secular Student Alliance. Although it’s still a young organization, we’ve already been able to provide New Cadets in Cadet Basic Training with the opportunity to go to non-theist chaplain’s time. Our weekly meetings have created a place where non-religious cadets can get together to talk with one another openly without the fear of social repercussions or discouragement. Although we’ve seen some administrative road-blocks in the nearly two years that the SSA has been at West Point, they haven’t detracted from the value of the organization in the slightest. It’s my hope that the SSA continues to grow, and become accepted, so that in the future being irreligious won’t be stigmatized at the academy, and that we can continue to develop the community that will serve to support the emotional and social needs of an already significant demographic.

 

Disclaimer: Cadets are speaking from their personal experience and are not speaking in their official capacity and do not speak for any government agency.

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