The Freethinkers Club at the Air Force Academy tables for "Ask an Atheist Day."

The Freethinkers Club at the Air Force Academy tables for “Ask an Atheist Day.” Photo courtesy of Jason Torpy and Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

Todd Starnes of Fox News is claiming that a “double-standard at the Air Force Academy” has created an atmosphere that “encourage[s] atheism [and] prosecute[s] Christianity.”

As evidence of this supposedly anti-Christian environment—one that leads Starnes to “wonder if those in charge of the Air Force Academy believe the only good cadets are godless cadets”—he points to an Air Force Academy cadet who recently removed a Bible verse posted outside his dorm room after a formal complaint was filed.

Starnes then contrasts that incident with an “Ask an Atheist Day” event sponsored by an officially recognized cadet group, the Freethinkers Club, suggesting this demonstrates a pro-atheist Academy agenda.

In Starnes’s eyes, the fact that the Freethinkers Club’s event was advertised over email and on bulletin screens indicates that the Academy is “[encouraging] atheism.”

To defend this point Starnes quotes Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who said, “They are proselytizing for atheism… What if this was ask a Muslim day or ask an Evangelical Christian Day?”

What if, indeed? Surely it would be unfair of the Academy to only allow atheists to hold informational events. And yet Starnes’s own piece quotes a statement from the Academy acknowledging that other groups do host such events:

“‘The Academy allows all cadet groups to host information fairs regardless of espoused religious beliefs or no beliefs at all,’ the statement read—noting there were also events scheduled for Christians and Muslims.”

In other words, the Academy is fostering an environment where both the religious and the nonreligious can share their beliefs with one another and promote events that raise awareness—making it easier for people to both locate their own community and become more knowledgeable about and less afraid of others.

“The intended outcome [of “Ask an Atheist Day”] was for people to be less scared of and angry about atheists, not for them to become atheists,” wrote the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) in a post about this event, citing a desire to build bridges of understanding between theists and atheists.

“Academy problems will continue so long as nontheistic beliefs are sequestered away from theistic beliefs,” said Jason Torpy, President of MAAF, in a recent interview.

Their work to bridge that gap is making an impact. Torpy notes that MAAF has been involved at the Academy for years and now maintains a close relationship. This relationship has so far led to a thriving local group, Humanist alternatives to worship services during basic training, and connections with fellow officers after graduation, says Torpy.

As for the cadet who voluntarily removed a Bible verse from outside his dorm room: he did so not because Christians aren’t allowed to share their beliefs at the Academy but rather because, according to Academy Superintendent Michelle Johnson, the verse’s location gave the wrong impression to subordinates about religious impartiality.

You can disagree with that without then claiming that this is an example of the Academy discriminating against Christians. The stated reason for removing the Bible verse—attempting to ensure that no person, perhaps particularly religious minorities, feels coerced or discriminated against—is a good one, whether or not you agree with the actions taken in this instance.

Thus, Starnes has the comparison between that incident and “Ask an Atheist Day” backwards: they were both attempts to encourage a more inclusive environment, not to encourage atheism or silence the voices of others.

Besides, what Starnes’s piece neglects to mention is that in fact the Academy doesn’t support theists and nontheists equally. Christians and other people of faith in the armed forces have access to supportive chaplains—while atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists still do not.

But while there is still work to be done, the Academy is making strides—for example, in October 2013 they announced that they were making the “so help me God” clause of the cadet Honor Oath optional.

Like the Bible verse incident or “Ask an Atheist Day,” the oath change was not an example of anti-Christian bias; it was a move toward greater inclusivity. As the Academy stated when announcing this change, they want to “build a culture of dignity and respect” for all—including nontheists.

Rather than making misleading arguments, Starnes and others should be leading the charge for a more inclusive Air Force—one where atheists, Christians, and all others can be open about what they believe, find supportive resources and likeminded community, and be in conversation with people who believe different things.

17 Comments

  1. Todd Starnes is famous for fabricating stories about Christians being allegedly persecuted when they clearly are not.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/02/06/todd-starnes-of-fox-news-lies-again-a-school-did-not-cancel-merica-monday-because-it-would-offend-non-americans/

    http://www.examiner.com/article/todd-starnes-caught-lying-about-school-christian-persecution-again

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/12/07/todd-starnes-of-fox-news-lies-again-a-texas-school-did-not-ban-christmas-trees-and-the-colors-red-green/

  2. Susan Humphreys

    When some folks are used to or demand special treatment, having that special status removed and finding themselves on equal footing with others sure causes problems! It is about time our military moved in this direction of free and open education about religion and secular philosophies. Not to mention allowing cadets to be free to follow their conscience in regards to religion or no religion.

  3. Starnes is a bigot. He doesn’t like Atheists.

    “Ask an Atheist Day” is a great thing. It is honest.
    Atheism isn’t a religion – it is a reaction to a claim that God exists.

    If people like Starnes cannot demonstrate that a God exists with some sort of evidence then the default position should be “I don’t know and therefore I can’t believe.” He has no business getting into the matter at all.

    Anything else is dishonest.

  4. You have to be kidding. The Air Force, at least at their Academy, is proselytizing Christianity more than it is training cadets for their work in the Force. They have gotten away with that through numerous presidencies. They thumb their noses at all proper complaints and demands that the Air Force get out of religion and stick to its own work. They have chaplains for religion. And a screeching halt should be made to their efforts to force-feed the cadets with the officers’ notions that evangelical Christianity is the main purpose of the Academy.

    Any opposition to the errors of the Force’s religiosity that had the appearance of countering that proselytizing of Christianity with atheism is the natural outcome of what has been going on at the Academy for years. Stick to the work of military air training and work and get out of the religion business altogether. Religion should be the free choice of each member to accept or reject. And no reaction of any kind from anyone!

      • Well, it’s not completely fabricated (there is in fact a place called the Air Force Academy), but he’s got a lot of honesty issues:
        – His headline claims the AF is “prosecuting Christianity,” in fact there have been no prosecutions or even documented Article 15s despite years of illegal pro-Christian discrimination against non-evangelicals
        – He says the academy is “bending over backwards” to push atheism when the atheist club has the exact same rights as the Christian clubs
        – He implies the academy canceled a christmas charity drive. In fact, it’s a missionary drive which uses donated toys as the thin end of the wedge to convert recipients to Christianity. Thus, the academy decided that using cadets to run it (and solicit donations for it from other cadets they outranked) was a bad idea; instead the chaplain’s office ran the project.

        So, yeah, pretty typically dishonest of Starnes, but that’s pretty par for the course from him.

  5. Starnes is doing what Fox (Fomenting Overt Xenophobia) offers as a business model. It caters to a closed minded subset of the cable news watching public. It feeds them what they want to believe. Everything else presented to them is received with fingers in ears loudly proclaiming “LA LA LA LA LA LA…”

    For years the Air Force Academy actively promoted christianity and is/was a hub for evangelical christianity. It was only after legal action that any changes were made to campus policies.

  6. Stedman is way off base here. Starnes is just one of a number of people who have reported on this as well as many other attempts over the last 3-4 years, led by Weinstein, to completely secularize the AF. And it’s not just happening at the Academy but at bases all over the world. The AF has historically been the ‘most religious’ of the armed forces so it is being targeted by Weinstein. The problem, as Starnes and many other are pointing out, is simple — Atheists are free to be Atheists and say what they want, but Christians are now being told to shut up because speaking of God or Jesus Christ is offensive to Atheists. That’s a double standard plain and simple.

    • The problem isn’t offensiveness, it’s command influence. Atheist proselytising is legally equal to Christian proselytising; both are unacceptable if used by superiors towards subordinates.

      • @Gus, @Don,

        You are both wrong. Atheists are not ‘proselytizing’.
        Atheism is not a religion or a position to sell.

        The Government must abide by the LAW – religion must not be preached by Government employees.

        Atheists are saying “Get your religious nonsense out of my face”.

        It is not only our right to say this, which is often denied to us, it is the LAW that the Government NOT promote Gods of any kind.

    • Can an atheist cadet put ‘God is dead’ on his whiteboard? No.

      Can Christian cadets have Christian outreach events. Yes.

      Atheists and Christians are (starting) to be treated the same at the Academy in the eyes of their superiors. However, since that is what secularism IS, you are correct that the goal is to completely secularize the AF as all government institutions in America are supposed to be secular.

  7. Priscilla Parker

    Here’s what I just can’t get my head around and why I just don’t get that involved in the foxhole atheist community. Why are you just mentioning Starnes approach to this and not Mikey Weinstein’s? It was his organization, as it most of the time usually is, that contacted the Gazette to blast this whole thing. I just don’t understand why he isn’t being called out for constantly running to his media connections to make more out of things then there is. He makes it worse and then it gives Starnes and others the leverage to claim religious persecution. You know why? Because instead of doing as the Freethinkers club rightly did without Weinstein’s assistance, it comes across to Christians as persecution. This wasn’t an issue, as the spokesman for the USAFA has stated three times now. Mikey made it one just to get him and his organization in the news again. He does absolutely nothing to foster or support local groups that are struggling to even get a hand full of active members involved. Why are you being so light on Weinstein and pointing the finger at Starnes when they are both doing the same thing? I wish MAAF would take a stand and condemn this type of behavior from Weinstein as well and continue to reach out to local groups and individuals. That’s the only way the Chaplaincy is going to even consider the notion of a Humanist chaplain. Until then, you’re going to continue to have splinter groups that are being overshadowed by national non-profits who use there talking points to get media coverage.

    BTW, kudos to Starnes for actually defending Mikey’s constitutional right to free speech and ending an interview over it. That’s taking a stand and he should be recognized for it.

    • Because Starnes is an out and out liar who fabricates stories to in service of people who want to undermine religious liberties. Starnes doesn’t need justification by other people. He just creates his own stories irregardless. He will claim persecution any time a Christian is not allowed to exert illegal authority to bully others.

      Weinstein is looking for the Air Force to uphold the Constitution it is designed to protect. Something you don’t really seem to have an interest in. Since Christians seem to benefit from blatantly violating the laws when it comes to Separation of Church and State.

  8. As an evangelical who enjoys evangelism, I would welcome anything which engages people. Does the Air Force promote or deny based on religious preference? I have no idea of course. But I imagine that like minded Christians there do tend to aggregate, and there probably is a Christian influence which can seem intimidating to non-Christians. However, genuine Christians would never promote themselves in any way which disenfranchises others, even atheists.

    • Or, you could actually read the article you are replying to.

      “‘The Academy allows all cadet groups to host information fairs regardless of espoused religious beliefs or no beliefs at all,’ the statement read—noting there were also events scheduled for Christians and Muslims.”

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