Politics & Media
Jun 09, 2010, 07:10AM

Foxhole Atheists

It's time to retire that old stereotype.

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In recent weeks, twice someone in the media has trotted out the tired phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes”.
Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, wrote about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's about-face on federal government interference:

As there are no atheists in foxholes, it turns out there are no small-government disciples in massive oil spills. No, with BP oil soaking the sands of his coastline, Jindal turned righteously to that big, sometimes bloated, often intrusive federal government, and asked for help.

Then, Chris Hayes, the Washington editor of The Nation, used it on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, saying, “There are no atheists in a foxhole and there are no libertarians in a crisis.”

First, let's dispel this notion that there are no atheists in the military. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few of them. A recent study by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) looked at the demographics of the Department of Defense and found that 23.percent of DoD employees identified their religion as atheist, agnostic or no preference. Even those that explicitly chose the term atheist (just .39 percent) outnumber the servicemen and women who identify as Buddhist (.34 percent), Muslim (.31 percent) and Jewish (.22 percent).

Yet despite the fact that non-theists are strongly represented in the military, they face a great deal of discrimination and a lack of recognition, of which these unthinking comments are just one part.

It begins from the moment they enter the service. They are required to state their religion for printing on their dog tags. Although the DoD has designations for atheist, agnostic, and humanist, among other non-theist terms, recruits may find that when they get to boot camp, their dog tags have been changed. This might seem like a small thing, but since it affects how a soldier's body is treated in the event of death, it can have serious consequences. Much as a Christian probably wouldn't want Islamic burial rites, many atheists feel that the generically religious bent of the no-preference service is inappropriate for them.

There have also been reports that military personnel have been force-fed Christianity. When news stories come out about rifle sights with coded Bible verses and cadets at the Air Force Academy being evangelized, it's hard to doubt that is the case. Even the DoD itself admits there are issues.

Indeed, it looks as if being an out non-theist could even damage your career. Former Army soldier Jeremy Hall was stopped from holding an atheist discussion group while on tour in Iraq. He also says his subsequent promotion to sergeant was barred on the basis of his beliefs. He claims his superior told him that he was not suited for the position because he wouldn't be able to put aside his atheism and pray with his men. The superior denied the allegations and the case was eventually dismissed on the grounds that Hall hadn't exhausted all the possible avenues of redress within the Army. Still, more and more service members have been coming forward with similar stories. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which represented Hall in the suit, says they represent more than 11,000 military personnel who feel they have been unfairly treated due to religious differences.

Both Pitts and Hayes used the “it's just a turn of phrase” defense when they were confronted with their faux pas, but that argument doesn't hold water. After all, "stingy as a Jew," "lazy as a Mexican" and "black as a nigger" are all turns of phrase that decent people don't use anymore because they are cruel and racist. Unfortunately the English language is full of expressions that, although seemingly harmless, violate a collective sense of fairness and decency.

It is about time that “no atheists in foxholes” joins their ranks. When people in the media and elsewhere use the stereotype, they are belittling the sacrifices non-theist soldiers make for all of us. By denying their existence, they are denying their service, and that is simply unacceptable.

  • christian zealotry in the military/government is nothing new. for better or for worse (mostly worse), the people who founded the USA laid the foundations for a christian nation (socially, at least - I'm not dismissing separation of church/state). religion is keeping the first world back.

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  • Well, it's not doing a hell of a lot for second and third and fourth world nations, either.

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  • Just another example of political correctness gone amok. 1st. What is discussed at an atheist discussion group? Who beleives in a higher power? No one? Meeting adjourned. 2. Why would an atheist care what other's religous views are? A true atheist should have no problem playing along to get along. We all do it every day on one subject or another. If saying you beleive in god is important for career advancement, suck it up or find another job. Although I disagree that an atheist is less fit to lead, I do see the point that an atheist leading a largly religous group has its downside. The problem here however, is that soldiers are required to wear their religion (or lack thereof) around their neck. Once again, what one person believes is no one else business. Finally 3. Eureka, re-read your history books. The majority of the "founding fathers" were deists not christian. It was the state and local governments that leaned towards social christianity, not the "founding fathers".

  • Funny comment, even if you spelled God with a small "g." Shame on you. And maybe I've read the same history books as Eureka, but Washington, Adams and Jefferson, for example, weren't Christians?

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  • I definitely agree with you that the fact that religious affiliation is required for filling out dog tags seems to be one of the more prevailing issues here. If dog tags can list your blood type and inoculation history, then they can inconspicuously note the soldier's religion/funeral preferences. But I don't think it's political correctness run amok, insomuch as Jeremy Hall's allegations -- if they pan out to be true -- speak to an unacceptable situation. Discrimination is discrimination, regardless of how fed up personally you are of the issue (also, your dismissiveness/condescension toward the idea of an atheist discussion group was in poor taste). I don't think you give religious people all that much credit when you say "I do see the point that an atheist leading a largly religous group has its downside." That logic is a near-cousin of the reasoning that deems homosexuals unfit to serve in the military (openly, that is, and even closeted, not so much). They'd disrupt the unit, fragment unity, or some such nonsense.

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  • Thank you for proving my point Andrew. For you to deny any potential downside of a non-believer leading believers is just not realistic and an excellant example of pc run amok. I did not say that it should not happen, just that it has a downside. (Just like black or asian officers leading white guys in WWII. Would I mind it, no, but the ethos of the time made the right course of action detrimental to the fighting force during wartime) Furthermore, it is not at all comprable to DADT. It is incredibly homophobic of you to suggest that sexual identity is a choice and not at all driven by genetics. I find your false equivelency to be in "poor taste". Additionally, this article did not say anything about an aetheists right/ability to serve which is the heart of the DADT issue. I agree that discrimination is unacceptable and if it is true that Hall was truly denied promotion based on religion, the U.S. already has laws that would address this one particular issue.

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  • Slow down, pardner. And take a breath. Sorry for getting your hackles up for calling out yet another condescending comment of yours. I didn't suggest that homosexuality was a choice. I said that the "non-religous officer probably shouldn't lead religious soldiers" line of reasoning is similar to DADT. I called it a near-cousin, not the same thing. I really, really hope you're not projecting the homophobia point, and simply just being the asinine curmudgeon you occasionally are.

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  • Andrew, I don't think condescending means what you think it means. Furthermore, your gross distortion of my comments"..probably shouldn't lead...: is worthy of Fox News. Something I thought you would be above. In fact, what I said was " I disagree that an aetheist is less able to lead" Perhaps it is you who are projecting your own intolerance for others views onto my comments.

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  • Sigh. You wrote: "What is discussed at an atheist discussion group? Who beleives in a higher power? No one? Meeting adjourned. A true atheist should have no problem playing along to get along. We all do it every day on one subject or another." If you don't see that as condescending, than you are delusional. (Condescension: the trait of displaying arrogance by patronizing those considered inferior.) Perhaps you were just trying to be funny. No dice. Now, you wrote: "Although I disagree that an atheist is less fit to lead, I do see the point that an atheist leading a largly religous group has its downside." This is some good ol' fashioned equivocation (you can look that one up yourself): YOU don't believe in such unseemly things, but you UNDERSTAND that, well, others do believe that. Well, my point that the supposed "downside" of the non-religious leading the religious -- a point you "see" -- is a "near-cousin" of the logic behind keeping gays from serving openly or, it many cases, at all. I guess you're right that I didn't recognize your precious balancing act, that I went and FOX Newsed you and everything. Must have riled you up enough to cover your eyes and shout "homophobic." And intolerance? I guess I don't harbor a particularly robust threshold for get-off-my-lawn-with-your-political-correctness cranks.

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  • You might want to tone down the condescension accusations when you have a little bit of that tone yourself, "pardner" Anyway... I somewhat understand your point, though it's certainly no where near as bad as "as black as a nigger." You said: "By denying their existence, they are denying their service, and that is simply unacceptable." Who denied their service? The expression denies their faith, not their service. You're issue with the statement should be that it's factually incorrect, not that it's politically incorrect. And if you are going to get upset over those two uses, why don't you get upset over people dragging "Libertarians" through the mud (they were used in the same sentence with the same meaning, ya know). In fact, I'd be willing to bet there's been more hateful (and incorrect) rhetoric targeted towards Libetarians than atheists.

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  • I'd be willing to bet the average American hasn't even heard the word libertarian.

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  • well, denies their lack of faith

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