On April 19, 2011, Rev. Fredric Muir, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (UUCA) received an e-mail from Military Association of Atheists andFreethinkers (MAAF) head Jason Torpy, asking whether a humanist contingent within the congregation might be interested in supporting humanist midshipmen atthe U.S. Naval Academy (USNA). Rev. Muir contacted me because I was founder and facilitator of the fledgling UUCA group Skeptics, Freethinkers, Agnostics,and Atheists (SFAA), then in its second year.
A meeting was arranged at UUCA that was attended by Cameron Thornberry, Midshipman Second Class (a junior), a Unitarian Universalist (UU) and humanist fromCalifornia; William Frazier Midshipman Third Class (a sophomore); Rev. Muir; Irene Norton from SFAA (an enthusiastic sponsor of midshipmen over the past two decades); and me. The two midshipmen were in the process of trying to set up a yet-to-be-named nontheist group at USNA. They had identified three others interested in the group from their own company of 140; an e-mail sent out to the entire brigade of thirty companies attending the Academy had located sixty midshipmen who expressed an interest in forming a group for those not defining themselves as religious. They wished to set up an initial summer program for first-year students that would begin in July of 2011 and run for seven weeks as an alternative to the traditional theistic worship programs offered during the summer training that precedes the start of formal classes. As there was no humanist or UU chaplain at USNA, the Jewish chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Seth Phillips, was kind enough to help foster the group.
On July 1, 2011, Midshipman Thornberry, Torpy, and I attended the chaplains’ introductions to new arrivals, the yearly assembly of all incoming midshipmen. After an announcement of the various religious groups represented, members were asked to stand as their religious group was called then go to a separate part of the large hall where tables had been set up for Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, and so on. In the past, nonbelievers had no place to go.
At this assembly, we expected that a mere handful of plebes might be brave enough to stand and—for the first time in USNA’s history—self-identify as“atheists” and “freethinkers.” We were first shocked, then overwhelmed, when more than forty enthusiastic nonbelievers mobbed our table.
Two days later, the first of seven sessions for nontheists was facilitated by Thornberry, Torpy, and me. Eleven plebes attended. During the meeting, they were able to decompress, relaxing with doughnuts and coffee. We watched Monty Python’s “Galaxy Song” from The Meaning of Life and a portion ofDavid Attenborough’s Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, but the midshipmen were most interested in simply connecting with others like themselves.
The sessions that followed were facilitated by Vanessa Curtis, a UUCA member and Department of Defense employee who had volunteered to assist with the summer program, and me. Curtis and I were struck by the heartbreaking stories several midshipmen told about negative parental attitudes toward their nonbelief. Our participants all displayed impressive inner strength, yet they were strongly gratified to discover support from a band of unbelieving brothers and sisters.
In the summer of 2012, the program was offered again. That time, sixty-seven plebes signed up at the chaplain introduction. Curtis brought fresh, homemade baked goods. Weekly attendance averaged more than fifty at each session over seven summer sessions. We watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe, Richard Dawkins’s Root of All Evil (the companion BBC television program to his book The God Delusion), Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora, and various clips from the March 2012 Reason Rally. Again,some of the most relevant sessions involved group discussions during which the plebes expressed their personal principles, beliefs, and struggles and told how this impacted their relationships both at home and “on the yard” (at USNA).
Midshipman: officer cadet; a student at the U.S. Naval Academy; male or female.
Plebe: first-year student at the Academy; equivalent to a freshman.
Some people ask how my Unitarian Universalist principles fit with my atheism, naturalism, and humanism. Some wonder why I decided to take such an active role in helping get the Naval Academy Freethinkers and Atheists (NAFA) off the ground. At UUCA, our UU Humanist group does not agree on what to call ourselves, for we are a mixed group of agnostics, atheists, brights, freethinkers, naturalists, nonbelievers, secular humanists, and skeptics. But we do share a set of common and strongly held principles and, yes, beliefs.
Rather than defining ourselves by what we don’t believe, we prefer to define ourselves by what we do believe: First and foremost, we believe in a naturalistic worldview free of mystical and supernatural elements. We believe in science and in the use of human logic and in reason as the basis for our understanding of what this universe is all about, who we are, and our place in it. We believe in compassion and respect for our fellow human beings, for life on our planet, and for the web of existence. We believe in community and cooperation in working toward social justice. We share a sense of wonder and awe for the entire cosmos.
We believe in having the courage to share our worldview with those with whom we disagree. We feel this should be done with a sense of mutual tolerance and respect. Many incoming midshipmen are humanists, freethinkers, and atheists. At NAFA, we hope to help them find their own set of well-founded beliefs and positive principles that they can share without fear of reprisal—a recognition of the importance of science and reason, wonder and respect, and compassion and community.