10/19/2010 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
The Air Force Academy's Freethinkers group invited members of the Earth-Centered Spirituality SPIRE group to discuss their beliefs, views and experiences during a SPIRE meeting in Fairchild Hall Monday.
SPIRE is the Academy's Special Program in Religious Education that sets aside time Monday evenings for the religiously diverse cadet population, which includes Protestants and Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, agnostics and others, to meet and discuss religion, spirituality and philosophy.
Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier is the lay leader for the Academy's Earth-Centered Spirituality community, which includes Wiccans and Pagans from various traditions, as well as the facilitator for the Earth-Centered SPIRE group. He kicked off the discussion by familiarizing the Freethinker guests with some common beliefs but cautioned that many Pagans' beliefs vary -- sometimes widely.
"If you ask eight or 10 Pagans to define Paganism, you're going to get 10 or 12 different answers," he said. "We have a very individualized spirituality." That spiritual diversity can make it challenging to lead a group when no two members have exactly the same traditions, beliefs or practices.
One cadet with the Freethinkers group asked whether Wiccans or Pagans practiced "black magic," or spiritual work intended to bring harm to another person. In response, Sergeant Longcrier referenced the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do what ye will," a statement that sets the standard for moral behavior within most Pagan faiths.
"If you follow the Rede, you wouldn't do (black magic)," the NCO added.
"A majority of people in any faith are trying to do the right thing," one of the Pagan cadets said. "But not everyone -- you'll always have splinter groups of extremists or militants."
Situational ethics plays a role, too, however, Sergeant Longcrier said: while the Wiccan Rede would apply to most everyday settings, it would not apply to a battlefield.
Those who follow Earth-Centered religions believe in an afterlife, and many believe in more than one god or goddess. In contrast, many atheists either deny the existence of a deity or afterlife or simply acknowledge that some things are unknowable.
"Most of us non-believers aren't afraid to say, 'I don't know,'" said Jeff Lucas, a Freethinkers volunteer liaison and former Air Force officer. "We may never know the answers to some of these things, but just because you don't know doesn't mean you have to go out and make up some ... answer."
The Freethinkers didn't mince words, but the discussion remained civil and calm throughout. One of the atheist cadets pointed to multiple scientific studies that have concluded prayer has no healing effects on people with serious medical conditions. Two of the Pagan cadets offered counterpoints.
"If I put out a healing spell -- say, I wanted to heal you from pizza poisoning -- if it doesn't work for you, but it works for somebody else, does that mean it didn't work?" one cadet asked rhetorically as the Freethinker ate a piece of pizza that had been provided during the meeting.
"But also keep in mind that magic doesn't necessarily mean miracles," another said. "Say you have cancer, and someone does a healing spell for you. It doesn't mean the cancer disappears overnight. It could mean your doctor thinks up a different treatment."
Sometimes, though, there's no more fitting word than "miracle" to describe a person's recovery from a life-altering event, Sergeant Longcrier said.
"When a doctor says, 'You will not walk again. Your spine is done,' the patient is so determined," he said. "And when he does walk again, the doctor says, 'We cannot explain how his spine fused back together, but it did.'"
Differences in faith allow for good discussions in other settings as well, said one cadet who regularly talks about religion with his Christian roommate and friends.
"We respect each other; we get in good debates," he said, even though the discussions usually end with an agreement to disagree based on the cadets' differences in faith. But while the Earth-Centered and Freethinkers groups disagreed on spiritual matters, they found common ground in their disdain for politics and rigid adherence to doctrine.
"I grew up in a Lutheran church setting," said one Pagan cadet whose faith leaned toward pre-Christian Celtic beliefs. "What really pushed me out the door -- and pushed my entire family out of that particular church -- was the politics. Why do politics dictate that a pastor should leave because the church leadership doesn't like him and blames him for everything? Obviously something's wrong ... and it got on my nerves.
"I kind of like the fact that I can just show up to a public ritual, just a bunch of people getting together. It's much more generalized: 'So what do you believe? That's cool, and what do you believe?' And everyone's okay with it," he continued. "I like this type of settings where her beliefs are different from his, which are different from mine. Everyone is just a little bit different, and it's so interesting because everyone accepts everyone else."
Sergeant Longcrier said that while the two groups may not see eye-to-eye on matters of the spirit, the discussion was still a good one.
"I feel that we have a lot in common and that we all learned a little something from one another," he said.
Editor's Note: This article is the first in what will be an ongoing series of stories about religious expression and diversity at the Air Force Academy.