US Naval Academy Midshipman Laments Mealtime Prayers

A US Naval Academy midshipman (cadet) recently took to the internet to complain about Annapolis’ tradition of noon mealtime prayers. (This daily tradition has been under routine attack almost annually, often from the ACLU.)  With emphasis added:

Every day the entire brigade of midshipmen congregates in our massive dining hall for lunch, and every day one of the chaplains gets up in front of everyone and says a prayer before the meal. Most of the time it’s a Christian chaplain from some denomination or another, but usually once a week there’s a Jewish chaplain.

I guess there’s really nothing wrong with it, since I don’t have to pray if I don’t want to, but it is incredibly annoying when you just want to eat your lunch and get on with the day. It doesn’t help that some of the chaplains (especially the Jewish ones, for whatever reason) are incredibly long-winded.

Something occurred to me the other day during prayer. As usual, I wasn’t bowing my head, but was instead looking around at the rest of the midshipmen, the majority of whom are religious. It occurred to me that there’s just something incredibly servile about seeing 4000-odd otherwise intelligent people all bowing their heads in unison. To me, the act of bowing your head is saying in body language that you’re not good enough on your own and you can’t do anything without the help of whatever higher power you happen to believe in. I’m generally not an angry atheist; I like to live and let live, but every time I see that, I become an incredibly angry atheist for a brief moment.

Every cadet is allowed to grouse, of course. It’s practically required to survive four years at any of the US military’s service academies.

The disturbing thing here is this Midshipman says this religious exercise by his peers — something that has no other effect on him except a short delay to his meal — causes him to “become an incredibly angry atheist.” Remember, this is something he admits is permissible and in which he is not required to participate — yet it makes him angry that others are doing so.

This is not “righteous indignation,” the feeling of offense at injustice that inspires one to right a wrong.  Rather, this is selfish umbrage, the feeling of offense at someone else that drives a person to want to interfere or even stop that person — not for any greater purpose than one’s own self-gratification. That what another person is doing may be entirely permissible, protected by law or the Constitution, or even encouraged is not a deterrent to such offense.  In fact, it may goad it all the more.

Anger like that, if left internal and unresolved, may turn into gnawing cynicism that erodes a military officer’s effectiveness. That anger may also turn into action — when the “angry atheist” starts lodging complaints and filing other objections to end the practice that he believes is the source of his anger. An atheist like that believes, wrongly, that the cure to his ill is to force others to stop what they are doing.

The atheist’s “cure,” if there can be one, is actually internal. He needs to remind himself that the United States is a nation of religious liberty, and the exercise of that liberty includes not only his fellow Midshipmen praying, but also his ability to not pray. The same principles that protect them likewise protect him.

Atheists who have anger over things like that also need to evaluate their own maturity. Simply being exposed to public displays of religion “neither picks [his] pocket nor breaks [his] leg,” to quote Thomas Jefferson’s view on others’ religiosity. In particular, this senior service academy cadet will soon be commissioned an officer in the US military, and he will continue to be exposed to religious exercise — that of his peers, and potentially even that of host nations to which he is deployed.  “Incredible anger” will not be an acceptable response in most of those situations.

As a military officer, this atheist may even be called upon to enforce protections on exactly these kinds of religious exercise by his own troops.

Will he be able to overcome his “incredible anger” to support his troops’ rights?

There’s time yet. While the service academies are decent “leadership laboratories,” nothing says they are complete, nor are newly-minted Lieutenants/Ensigns inherently perfect. The experience, maturation, and character development that doesn’t occur before graduation at the end of May will almost certainly be learned, by faith or fire, while on active duty.

This atheist Midshipman can be an effective officer and work with his peers, subordinates, and superiors regardless of their religious beliefs. He just needs to want to do so.

The quote above is from user Steven_the_Horse on Reddit.


One comment

  • Carmine Wiggins

    I agree the lad is a bit immature and eventually “could” be an effective leader and work with everyone regardless of personal beliefs. Seems to me the he chose to be in the Naval academy and, as a minimum, expect to conform to the tradition of noon mealtime prayers.

    I wonder though if these young adults are advised (not assumed) that it is a tradition/practice to pray over their food before eating, and any other required supplication throughout their training, prior to signing the dotted-line?

    Unfortunately we cannot filter out every little uncomfortable “thing” that may bother us; the best we can do is try to respect each other and work together. I think atheists are viewed as lower-class citizens with no morals. Until we can all move past this, and also accept the fact that 98.1% of atheists are great americans that just don’t believe is god(s) (plain and simple), and with no agenda to stop those folks that do believe we will continue to have problems…not understanding.