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A little like purgatory 

AFA Freethinkers just want to be non-religious club

On Dec. 15, Vanity Fair published a Web story by Christopher Hitchens, in which the celebrated atheist described his near-visit to the Air Force Academy last May. He had come to talk to a campus Freethinkers group, and Hitchens cast the dozen-or-so cadets who showed up for an unpublicized off-campus meeting as warriors in a larger struggle against those who would use the military as a proselytizing tool.

"Let us be highly thankful," Hitchens concluded in his story, for members of the military "who, busy and devoted as they already are, show themselves brave enough to fight back on this front too."

The day after Hitchens' article appeared, the Associated Press released its own story about "dramatic" improvements in the Academy's religious climate in the five years since controversy flared over Christians evangelizing there. Academy leaders were quoted by the AP as saying they are reaching out to students of all backgrounds, including nonbelievers.

Strangely, as both stories were published, the Academy Freethinkers found themselves adrift. Their question: Where does a group inclined toward atheism belong at an institution where religion is so important to so many?

Hitchens' visit ("Secret celebrity guest," News, May 7) brought the issue into wider view. The Freethinkers, despite adherence to dispassionate opinion-making based on science, logic and reason, had been lumped together for several years with religious groups as part of the Academy's SPIRE, Special Programs in Religious Education.

When Hitchens agreed to visit last spring, the group wanted him to address others in SPIRE, or even the entire cadet wing. SPIRE leaders, however, considered Hitchens too inflammatory, and they instead helped the Freethinkers get permission to meet with him away from the Academy.

Afterward, cadets in Freethinkers started feeling SPIRE was not the place for them.

"I just feel there's such a huge misperception about what nonbelievers are," says one cadet, who asks to remain anonymous. "Maybe some nonbelievers consider themselves spiritual; I certainly would not."

The Freethinkers tried to become an extracurricular club, but were turned down.

"[Administrators] didn't want to form a club centered around an opinion," explains Carlos Bertha, an associate professor of philosophy and the group's faculty adviser.

Organizing under the philosophy department was a possibility, Bertha says, but that could have blurred lines between academic philosophy and a philosophical stance on religion.

So now the group of about 15 cadets is in limbo, united by an e-mail list and informal meetings at coffee shops.

Members say it's an uncomfortable state. If Christian athletes can advertise on campus about plans to worship together and eat free pizza, one asks, why shouldn't Freethinkers put up their own signs and hold similar events?

One option would be returning to SPIRE. William Ziegler, cadet wing chaplain, says they would be "welcomed back with open arms." But Bertha and Freethinker cadets hope that won't be necessary; they're meeting Jan. 14 with Academy leadership to revisit getting club status.

There may be reason for hope. Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, who took over as AFA superintendent in June, made it clear in a call to the Independent on Tuesday that the Freethinkers have a place at the Academy, perhaps outside of SPIRE.

Gould says he's also inviting Hitchens back to Colorado Springs, this time to talk personally.

'I would like to meet with him straight-up, because we need to find out where [the Freethinkers] fit in," Gould says. "The bottom line is, we are willing to help."

lane@csindy.com

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