A Thousand Air Force Trainees Attend Humanist Chapel…Sort of

Over the past couple of years a group of self-described atheists and humanists has been hosting an alternative Sunday service for trainees at Air Force basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX. The effort was largely led by Victoria Gettman, a former US Army Sergeant on whose behalf Michael “Mikey” Weinstein once promised (and, predictably, failed to deliver) an “aggressive” federal lawsuit.

Gettman and her cadre have been lauding the attendance numbers at their non-theistic weekly gathering — including the fact it has now reached 1,000, the maximum capacity of the venue granted by the Air Force, meaning they have to turn trainees away.  But Gettman’s explanation has an interesting caveat [emphasis added]:

The weekly meetings now attract 1,000 trainees or more, a major share of the roughly 3,800 who attend religious services each week…

Lackland trainees are free to attend any religious service, and many take the opportunity to learn about other people’s faiths. Roughly half of those who choose the two-hour secular humanist service say they’re Christian, Gettman said. Most of the rest are atheists and agnostics, with a sprinkling of Satanists, Scientologists, the Norse religions and others, she said.

In another part of the article, it notes an informal poll indicated — in contrast to Gettman’s claim — less than 1 in 4 of the attendees claimed either atheism, agnosticism, or humanism.

So, as previously noted, while the headlines and the humanists’ own statements seem to talk about the packed “humanist” services, the truth is that close to 75% of the attendees aren’t humanist, atheist, or even agnostic. A plurality, in fact, are Christians.

Why would these people be going to a “humanist” service? Simple.

It’s not a humanist service: It’s a social event.

The meetings are a refereed discussion of a range of topics — morality, mortality, ethics, grief, stress — but no worship of a deity or deference to a religious leader…

A recent service…opened with a dance competition

[The] trainees consider the meetings something of a diversion.

“Many religious people I know went there just for the laid-back atmosphere,” said Jeremy Wentworth, who trained in January. “I’m not a religious person, but it’s a good way to get out of the dorms on Sunday and have a few laughs. It also kept you up to date with news…”

To that last point, remember that basic trainees are in a closed environment for weeks — something not insignificant in this hyper-connected, digital age.  Further, some basic trainees have always gone to Sunday chapel services to eat the food, sleep in the back row, or to have their attention diverted by something — anything — besides their drill instructors.  The “humanist” service simply allows them to do the same thing without any potential “guilt” for racking out or tuning out during a religious sermon.

In other words, most trainees are going to the “humanist service” not because of any particular desire to do something associated with humanism, atheism, or anti-established religion, but rather to watch TV [emphasis added]:

Several said they came primarily for the last half-hour, what Gettman calls “nerd news.” Trainees don’t have much access to the outside world, and after she began sharing videos on the latest developments in science, some trainees asked for updates from the world of professional video gaming — which led to recaps of sports scores, news headlines and occasional trailers of upcoming movies.

That’s all well and good. There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun, or even enjoying something during training (Chris Rodda used to bemoan the Christian services and their doughnuts and ice cream used for “conversion by temptation“).

But it’s not a humanist service, or even a humanist “event.” It’s nothing like a gathering of likeminded dis-believers who are fellowshipping together for any remotely corporate purpose. It’s just an opportunity for trainees to have a social gathering and a little fun.

Let them have their fun. But don’t try to extrapolate the presence of trainees watching “nerd news” to a building tide of religious apathy — or antipathy — in the US military, or the need for an “atheist chaplain” for these largely Christian troops — as Tom Carpenter once did.

The fact the humanist “church” may be viewed as nothing more than a social club is a risk even the advocates recognize:

“If we become just a club, that fails to recognize that humanism occupies the same cultural and spiritual place that other religions do for troops,” countered [Taylor] Grin, now an airman in the 177th Cyber Aggressor Squadron in Wichita, Kansas.

If humanism “occupie[d] the same” place as religion, humanists would be gathering corporately to promote, share, and celebrate their ideology — not to watch headlines, video game updates, and upcoming movie trailers.  (With that in mind, it would be interesting to see what would happen to “humanist” attendance if Lackland started playing movies at the theater on Sundays instead.)

And to be clear, this isn’t a caricature of the humanist chapel — this “diversion” is how their own attendees portray these “services”.

Right now, the “humanist” weekly social gathering at Air Force basic training at Lackland proves exactly what Grin fears: “humanist” does not occupy the same “spiritual” place as religion.

But that’s obvious, because man cannot occupy the same place as God.  And even the humanists know that.

For He has put eternity into the hearts of men


One comment

  • Humanist movements are typically non-religious so it makes perfect sense for this information to be on point JD. I agree, a chaplain for humanism/atheist or other non-religious persons does seem to be a contradiction.

    I do get the point of your article, but, lets see…go listen to hellfire and brimstone (take a nap/tune out) or go to this not so humanist “club”, watch TV and do other nerd stuff? Well, I’m not surprised at all, because it’s what they wanted to do, because as Wiggins says they have the freedom to choose. What could be better?

    When I was in basic training in the late 70’s, you went to church or you cleaned the barracks. Still had to clean the barracks after church…darn it. Good to know there are more choices.