At West Point, "you need to believe in God"

Cadet Blake Page, who founded the school's Secular Student Alliance, explains why he cut ties with the institution

Published December 10, 2012 4:22PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Blake 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.

At that point, I was still unsure as to whether it was a problem with disorganization or discrimination. 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 of $20k to support things like trips, guest speakers, hopefully a conference. We ended up getting $1500 because our request was misplaced.

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 publically.

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 opportunity 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.

By Valerie Tarico

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Alternet Army Atheism David Petraeus Religion West Point