Sergeant Davis is a member of FFRF and the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, FFRF’s chapter in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
I’m originally from New York and have been in the military 16 years. My family was mainly secular. My parents never forced me to hold any of their personal philosophies while I was growing up. They left that for me to figure out on my own.
After college and entering the Air Force, I came to a balanced general understanding of everything theological but have since stopped wasting my time on theology. I focus more on a humanist and scientific approach to matters with practicality and reason. So I’ve been a freethinker for as long as I can remember, probably around when I found out Santa wasn’t real.
During my deployment in 2010, my oldest Air Force friend, Rick Hamelin, established the first “official” freethought group in the Middle East, the Southwest Asia Freethought Association. SWAFA (swafreethought.jimdo.com/) was recognized by the base as a private organization. When I arrived, I helped Rick run it.
To our surprise, it grew quite fast, from about five people to 30 or so, including freethinkers, Buddhists and a Wiccan, who had no support groups. We welcomed everyone. Our group was first met with some doubt and confusion, even some hostility. People took down our signs on the public boards and threw out business cards that we handed out.
We asked for space in the chapel to hold our meetings, but Rick had Pascal’s Wager pulled on him and was pretty much told “no.”
We were soon holding two meetings a week and a movie night every other Thursday. Our growth got the chapel’s attention. They even sent a chaplain’s assistant to one of our meetings. We wore PT [physical training] uniforms to remain anonymous. Rank would not be an issue for anyone, so we were free to speak our minds.
The chaplain’s assistant came in uniform. I asked her if she was on duty and attending by direction of her boss. My suspicions were correct. But, all in all, she was most likely proved wrong if they assumed we just sat around bashing religion. She left actually liking how our group discussions went and how respectful we were of others’ diverse opinions.
Religion didn’t come up much unless it was part of another topic. Otherwise, it was opinions on general and miscellaneous science news — unless we had a new member, who would typically unload on us. People were just coming out as nontheist or had endured years of frustration.
Speaking up for others
I went to the Equal Opportunity Office in September 2013 with a complaint about an inappropriate display of a religious symbol on government property (civilian office in the hospital). I showed them that it was incompatible with Air Force Culture/AFI 1-1 and actually won one for once. The head chaplain went over and told them the display was not allowed. They removed it.
I have been battling with the base over miscellaneous things for the past few years and have met several times with the base chaplain. We discussed and debated a bit back and forth about policy and a little philosophy, but mainly about what’s right in a government setting. Most of these things I did by myself, since many people here at Fairchild AFB who are Freethinkers choose to remain silent about many things. They have their reasons, so I ask them to tell me and I’ll do it for them.
I’ve never asked for help on these matters because I believe that most of them can be solved at the lowest level, with tactful dialogue and understanding gained throughout. Also, I guess I like the challenge. I have talked with one of the attorneys at FFRF for advice on a complaint and, for another case, I sought advice from Mikey Weinstein, head of MRFF.
As far as the Oath of Enlistment topic which came up while talking with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker in February, I have always thought that the little injected “God” word at the end of “So help me” was pointless. To me it’s ludicrous to have to swear an oath on behalf of myself and some “Cosmic Being,” so I decided to do things differently before others really started to publicly challenge it.
On one of my enlistments, I left “God” out of it. I had an officer staring at me with hand still raised because I left that word out, like he was waiting for me to say it. I didn’t and just gave a nod to signal I was done.
This last enlistment, I used “gods” plural, just to get a funny look. Most people at work know me well enough and so they expected it. However, it would have been neat to add a random “god” of my choice (Zeus, Thor) at the end of each of my enlistments. At one of them, I almost said “Odin,” but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Sgt. James Davis is on his sixth deployment and is headed to Afghanistan after completing combat adviser school. SWAFA membership is open to all personnel currently assigned to the base hosting the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, including military, DoD civilians and contractors.