When Courage Means Quitting: Why a Young Humanist Walked Away from West Point

Blake Page - West PointBlake Page, a 24 year old cadet in his 4th year at West Point, created a storm on November 19 when he announced he was leaving in protest over religious discrimination and church state boundary violations. In his letter of resignation he stated, “I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution which willfully disregards the Constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same.” In an op ed published at the Huffington Post on Monday, Page minced no words: “Countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution . . . through unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious and establishing formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation.”

Page is a Humanist and president of West Point’s Secular Student Alliance. He served as an enlisted soldier in Korea for two years before his commanding officer recommended him for West Point. His story shines a spotlight into a military culture that, despite repeated exposes and lawsuits, continues to suffer from the Evangelical zeal that ran amok under devout officers like General David Petraeus and fundamentalist chaplains like Gordon Klingenschmitt  (who attempted exorcism on a lesbian service member who requested his help after being raped).

Tell us the story.  How did you end up being the guy at the center of the storm?
Page: You know, when I was an enlisted soldier I didn’t really think much about this stuff. It was there from the beginning, but I just went along with it. In basic training I said I wasn’t going to church but I found out quickly that if you didn’t you were severely punished: You scrubbed floors for four hours or went on rock flipping detail so the rocks could get an even tan or you mowed the dirt…basically whatever they could find to keep you busy. At the time I was young and I just thought that was the way it is. So, I just went to a different church each week. I remember feeling a bit disrespectful because I was going into these organizations knowing I didn’t believe what they did. It felt intrusive.

Later on there were a handful of mandatory prayers, but it wasn’t a big deal.The only real frustration was dealing with the officers on a personal basis. One time during my tour in Korea, I had a problem with my family and had to fly home. When I notified my chain of command, they said I had to talk to chaplain. I thought it was maybe just a formality, but it went right away to you need to believe in God, you need to pray with me, God will guide you through hard times. There was no chaplain for non-theists, and with many chaplains, their personal mission was to encourage you to be religious. That personal mission often overcame the professional mission.

You say there were no Humanist chaplains?
Page: There are no Humanist chaplains. The army officially refuses to recognize Humanist chaplains and refuses to allow us to put Humanist on our dog tags. I have atheist on my dog tags even though atheism doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s not a philosophy. Humanism means something: We should be good for the sake of being good; we should care about other human beings. That means something, but I’m not allowed to say that on my tags, and we don’t have chaplains out there representing our worldview. But, that said, when I was a soldier I was focusing on what I could accomplish as a soldier and those things were peripheral.

West Point was different for you?
Page: West Point is different, true. Mandatory prayers are more common. The Chaplains’ interactions are much more common. In Cadet Basic Training they’ll come up to you in formation, “Hey, who wants a Bible?” Or during training events they’ll walk around in the field and say, “Does anyone want to come pray with me?” I understand that there are people who need those things, but many of us need something else. The lack of Humanist support throughout the military can be disappointing at times, but it was my experience setting up the Secular Student Alliance that really changed my attitude.

What exactly is the Secular Student Alliance?
Page:It’s a campus club.The biggest thing we do is weekly meetings. It gives cadets who are likeminded a place to meet. Also we organize nontheist chapel time. During basic training you have almost no free time except church, so, we just made an alternative to church. During summer training, one of the professors gets a room, brings in food, and mostly it’s just a time to connect and relax. During the academic year our weekly meeting is about personal development. We have topical discussions about things like the viability of marriage, ethics, how we define what is good.

When I heard of the Secular Student Alliance here I started going to meetings, not because it was revolutionary but because it was fun to meet people like me and have a good time. But finding out how much organizational resistance there was to that club existing–that was what did it. How much trouble we had getting recognized! How much trouble we had getting funded! That was it!

What kind of trouble did you have?
Page: West Point is a place where authority and formalities have a lot of power.  You have to be an approved part of the system to get trips authorized or organize any significant event. By not being recognized we could not exercise the privileges afforded to the thirteen religious clubs that already existed. The former Director of Cadet Activities admitted that he didn’t want a place for atheists here. We went through two or three appeals.

After being recognized, I thought that all of our problems would be solved. But from Day One they have been awful toward us. At West Point we have officers assigned to clubs. Ours was the only “Officer In Charge” not given an invitation to the briefing about club operations at the start of the semester.  Then there is a night when all of the clubs go to a large theater and set up tables for recruiting. This year was the first time we were official and could participate! But when we arrived the organizer said, “Sorry, never heard of you.” I explained that we were recognized and had every right to be there. She said, “I don’t know . . . ” and walked away. We set up anyways, and eventually she came around and said we were okay to stay.

Next we found out we had no budget. Some clubs, like athletic clubs, have tens of thousands of dollars. We sent up a request for a budget to support things like trips, guest speakers, and hopefully a conference, but got no response. Much later we learned that we were getting $1500, but nobody told us. It appeared that our request was misplaced. Was it a problem with disorganization or discrimination?

Another problem was the website. We weren’t listed as a recognized club. We had a meeting with one of the representatives. The guy in charge of the website said, “No problem.”  Then I told him the name of our club and what we are. Right after I said the word “atheist” he became visibly upset and started grumbling. We’re still not listed. They refused to acknowledge us publicly.

What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Why did you decide to make the big break rather than staying and working inside the system?
Page: It was just an accumulation, a realization. I realized that I didn’t have a lot of time left here and that there was still a big problem here. I wanted to start a conversation in a big way.

One factor is that I found out a while back that I’m not commissionable because of some health issues, so even if I stayed till graduation I would just be a West Point grad moving out into the civilian workforce. Some people have asked why I didn’t stay and work for change within the military. I would have preferred that. I didn’t come to West Point for the ring or reputation; I wanted to be in the military. But as it is, I would be a civilian in the end either way. I could stay and get a degree and be debt free, that is true. But then I realized that I had a now-or-never chance to effect change.

How have people at the academy responded since you broke the news?
Page:It’s mixed. I had one cadet pound on my door and demand to talk with me. She is a convicted Catholic, very strong in her beliefs. At the end of thirty minutes she had completely turned around and was asking how she could support me. Some other cadets have been disrespectful on Facebook, leading personal attacks. I have also gotten threatening comments and slurs from both cadets and officers along the lines of you are a waste of human flesh. Not surprisingly, there are many online comments to this effect.

Then again, I also have friends who have been very supportive of me.

I have gotten incredible supportive emails from officers: I got an email from a major who was an instructor here. It was very supportive and talked about his own experiences as a cadet. I got another from one who was surprised to hear that these things were still going on. The number of supportive messages I’ve received is easily in the hundreds.

How hopeful are you about real change?
Page: It takes patience and persistence. Most of the time people enter a conflict angry and not thinking. I wait until they are done yelling and then ask if they would like to have a conversation. “I’d be happy to talk with you if you’d be polite and calm.” Most people are willing to do that. If you talk to someone about these things and you get them to think about it in a calm manner they come around.

This summer during Cadet Leader Development Training we were given the opportunity to go to church (there is no non-theist chaplains time for any training events outside of basic yet). It’s not legal for them to assign work details to those who decline to go to church. I found out we were going to be put on a work detail if we didn’t go to church. I went up to those in charge and explained that having personal time to reflect is important to everyone, not just people who belong to an organized religion. They said quit complaining. But I said, you’re giving someone who is religious a break while taking it away from someone else. I told them it was illegal and where they could look up the regulations. At first it didn’t work. That day I ended up guarding an arms room for a few hours while several others went off to celebrate their beliefs and community. But at the next opportunity for religious services the chain of command gave a public acknowledgement and said that nobody would be put on work detail for declining chapel. I know the apology didn’t happen in other companies where I wasn’t there to advocate. All around the summer training camp people were having the same issue but it wasn’t being corrected. But the point is, change can happen without a lawsuit if people are willing.

Traditionally, it’s been accepted to push the needs of the non-religious to the side. Not anymore. The SSA has some great folks who will carry forward the mission that myself and others before me have started. From the talent pool we have, and the motivation I’ve seen in each of them, I am absolutely certain that the leaders left behind will fill my role and continue to develop the club and community it supports in a meaningful way.

Do you plan to stay involved?
Page:Yes, I will stay in contact through the Secular Student Alliance Facebook group. I hope to provide guidance to cadets here, perhaps as a representative of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, helping them communicate with command if they don’t know how to go about it effectively. I thought the things that happened to me were irritating. But the things that happen to other people are heartbreaking. Cadets have told me, “The chain of command doesn’t want me to go to SSA meetings because being an atheist is bad for you.” A group member quit a project because he said, “I can’t work with an atheist.” Cadets are being shown that they are not good enough. I think that is bullshit and I plan to continue to do whatever I can to see it resolved on a cultural level.

You can support the work of the Military Religous Freedom Foundation, which protects soldiers and cadets like Blake, here.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com

 

 

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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15 Responses to When Courage Means Quitting: Why a Young Humanist Walked Away from West Point

  1. Ferdi Businger says:

    What a brave young man. An what a disturbing state of affairs in the military – a theocratic dictatorship within a large government institution.

  2. Very disturbing that anyone could be treated that way for not believing in God. And then theists have the nerve to complain of persecution if you try to stop them behaving like this!

  3. irascibleexaminator says:

    Am I the only one that can see the irony here? i.e. you must be a Christian to kill? really?
    Adds new meaning to the WW2 British song “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” doesn’t it?
    personally I have issues with the change in the Nation’s motto in 1953(?) from “E Unibus Pluram” “from many to one” (even if it first appeared in a Roman recipe for salad dressing…. how appropriate, given the obesity pandemic in the Western world) to “In God we Trust” (only if god is the US$)
    On a practical level Militarism need unity, people who will follow orders/dictums without questioning. Which is something the theists tend to do with consummate ease. Their entire structure is built on blind obedience and conformity of motivational manipulation.

    • Yes. I appreciate that Obama has quoted the old motto (I think it’s E Pluribus Unum?), which adorns the great seal of the United States. The ascendance of the other is an artifact of the Cold War.

      • irascibleexaminator says:

        Oops, of course you are correct E Pluribus Unum …..I failed Latin in school, I found the language dead (boring) ;)
        For the life of me I can’t remember who or where but I read the argument that one of the major contributive factors to the USA predilection for fundamentalist religions/sects stems from the fact that many of it’s original white settlers were persecuted fundamentally inclined religious minorities. This same author puts it forward that the American ‘drawl’ came from their practice of reading long passages from the Bible and the mixture of accents from different parts of England. Up until recently some of the regional dialects were so varied as to be almost unintelligible to others but certainly mark the person’s region. Even today 200 miles from London and still in the UK there are 4 different languages spoken.
        From this eclectic foundation it’s not surprising that this sort of fundamental theism has
        infiltrated the very institutions of the USA . So much so that many in the forces view any military conflict in terms of extremes (Good V Evil).
        What is fascinating for me is their justifications for the obvious contradictions/hypocrisies.
        I would suggest that given the change in motto was artefact of the cold war was the nation ‘s burgeoning view that because they won the war was confirmation of their special relationship with God. and because of this relationship it was obvious( to the religiously inclined0 was proof of their ‘exceptionalism’ and all that flowed from it…..it justified hatred for the Godless USSR, and now manifesting itself in Islamophobia and all things ‘socialist’ (sic).
        The saddest thing is that this unrealistic bi poler view of the world presumes a Malthusian State in which there are no compromises only winner and losers.
        While I have no issue with those who have religious views I have issues when they are imposed on others as is their intention on the abortion issue.
        the Religious right don’t just oppose them for them selves but want to mandate against them.
        conversely the ‘left’ (sic) don’t want to mandate abortions merely allowing the choice.
        Simply put if you don’t want an abortion don’t have one!
        The same goes for same sex marriage I don’t see any humanist etc wanting to make them mandatory.
        Finally given the military by human nature (instincts) is a source of individual power/authority and even personal identity to some it is not surprising that it doesn’t play well with change particularly if they can’t feel they can’t rely on someone who thinks outside the box …..i.e. he/she may then have the temerity to question an order. Particularly if that order is to do something that may be wrong. In which case the orderer will FEEL his morality is questioned etc. The most grievous crime would be fear or not being committed to a war ….There are stories of soldiers who didn’t agree with the war in Iraq being bullied, victimised and even shot blue on blue.

  4. irascibleexaminator says:

    PS Somehow I have issues with theist hypocrisy of “love thy neighbor and then kill them.” For that reason I have more time for the Quakers they’re pacifists which actually the closest to Christian ethics .

  5. Peter says:

    What a brave young man who sacrificed his career because of his principles. Rare today. What I find most distressing is the infiltration of hard-core fundamentalists in the Chaplin Corps, and I consider them predators. The MRFF published a video documenting the level of Christian proselytizing and especially in combat zones. They target and try converting servicemen and women who are physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Perhaps the words of one, Maj. Jeff Struecker, Army Ranger School Chaplain will suffice. About his mission: “It puts the student in the absolute worst possible conditions. Most of them will go a couple of days with no food; some of them have gone three days without any sleep. My goal has been to meet them when they are at their absolute worst. When they’re the coldest, the most tired and hungry that they ever experienced. The more difficult the circumstances, the more receptive the average person becomes to issues of faith.”

    MRFF exposed two fundamentalist organizations active in every branch of the service. For officers, it is the Officers’ Christian Fellowship whose website claims it membership has about 15,000 ranking officers, including generals and admirals For the enlisted men and women it’s the Christian Military Fellowship. The Pentagon has nearly 1000 bases in 137 countries and Weinstein reports each has an Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF) and a Christian Military Fellowship (CMF).

    I’m Canadian and live about 10 miles from Canada’s largest military base, Borden. Both the OCF and CMF are active up here as well as having chapters for our troops serving in Afghanistan. And our Chaplain service is quietly becoming the Evangelical Corp. Few Americans know this but Canada carried the ball in Helmand province perhaps the most dangerous in the country where we suffered a disproportionate number of casualties. I can just imagine those Christian predators feasted on our traumatized young men and women. It doesn’t help matters that our Prime Minister belongs to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Dominionist sect that believes we are in the “end times.” Sorry I went on so long but this does bother me a great deal.

  6. truthsurge says:

    What does anyone expect? Military has a captive audience and they know it. It’s their desperate chance to spread the precious saving word of God throughout the world!

    Fuck the military. Tell ‘em I said so and if they don’t like it, they can go bomb some tiny country that has no chance of defending itself. They seem pretty good at that.

  7. Peter says:

    Is anyone old enough to remember “kill a commie for christ” or the from Eve of Destruction: “hate your next door neighbour but don’t forget to say grace.” That was during Viet Nam, but some things never change.

    • I don’t remember, but I’m not surprised. I first became troubled by the death cult aspect of Christianity by looking at its effect on believers and policies. More and more though it seems like a seamless fit with the theology and with the Bible itself.

  8. vitto says:

    weird stuff. I went to the Coast Guard Academy in the 1990s. There wasn’t any of this religious crap there. Although I remember during Swab Summer, there was an hour on Sunday, when you could either go to Mass (Protestant or Catholic) and basically have an hour to breathe freely, or you could stay in the barracks. If you stayed, they could not assign you any duties during that hour, but the upper-classmen could still come to your rooms or call you to the hall and haze you. So everybody went to Church on those Sundays:). No body wanted an extra hour of harassment. But other than that, there was never any pressure to believe or disbelieve or to pray or to attend any services. For me, no one seemed to care too much about religion at all. None of my classmates ever discussed it. I was an international cadet and found the atmosphere very secular even coming from Europe. I remember being very surprised by the fact that no one heard confessions at the Catholic Chapel (and that time I was a semi-devout Catholic), but they explained to me that confession was only optional and arranged only in special cases… Which I found very incredible as a Catholic.

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