Actually, there are atheists in foxholes

Portrait of Corporal Patrick TillmanThis is Corporal Patrick Tillman. The name might seem familiar to you. This man ranks up there in the list of modern American heroes. He was a football player and a successful student of marketing, graduating from Arizona State in three and a half years with a 3.84 GPA. He played for the Cardinals, but in the wake of September 11th, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million in order to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served in Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Pat Tillman was smart and had a wildly successful future in front of him, but he gave it up to defend the country. Like so many others before him, he deserves our respect and our gratitude.

I bring Pat Tillman up because there’s a pernicious claim that’s been going around for years, and I think it’s high time to raise awareness about it, to shed light on how wrong it is– and show why it’s important to take a stand against the stereotype it engenders.

See, Pat Tillman was an atheist. He was an atheist when he was in Afghanistan, he was an atheist right up to the moment of his unfortunate death.

And yet there are still people who claim, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

The “no atheists in foxholes” line is often used by religious apologists in a sort of perverse attack on the character of atheists. You’ve never known crisis, the thinking goes. If you did, you’d absolutely have to turn to God. It can also be spun as a sort of claim to supposed atheist immorality, suggesting that atheists simply don’t have the conviction or the moral character to defend their country. The claim is patently false.

Photograph of American troops around a sign that reads, "Atheists in Foxholes"First, for evidence of the presence of military atheists (not to be confused with so-called “militant atheists”), one need look no further than the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. This organization represents the scores of nonbelievers who serve and have served in the country’s armed forces. There are also numerous anecdotes around the web from individual atheists in the military. Furthermore, there are cases throughout history; Ernest Hemingway, for example, served in World War I and claimed to “know war as few other men now living know it,” and to quote Paul Johnson, Hemingway “not only did not believe in God but regarded organized religion as a menace to human happiness.” Atheists face fear and crisis in other capacities and still stay nonreligious, as the Freethought Firefighters demonstrate. And if that’s not enough, atheists around the world have faced crises, death, fear, and not suddenly turned to God. To insist otherwise is to be ignorant of the facts and, frankly, insulting.

But extreme fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who use the phrase. It’s also being used by moderate believers, who see it as an aphorism to be taken for granted. In the last week, progressive columnist Leonard Pitts used it as an off-hand remark, and shortly thereafter, Christopher Hayes, editor of The Nation, used it in almost the exact same context in an interview with Keith Olbermann, to Olbermann’s agreement. (Hayes later apologized for perpetuating the canard via his Twitter feed; Pitts issued a half-hearted response, suggesting “there are few atheists in foxholes” was a better choice of words.) Moderate, well-meaning people are repeating this phrase and perpetuating the myth, and when called upon it, their response tends to be the same: “Well, I didn’t mean to offend. It’s just a saying.”

No, it’s not just a saying. It’s a blatantly untrue stereotype that is insulting to the nonreligious people across the world who have gone through crisis without turning to a higher power.

If “there are no atheists in foxholes” is acceptable because it’s just a saying, these sayings should be acceptable as well:

  • There are no blacks when there is work to be done.
  • Where there’s money, there’s Jews.
  • Every Catholic priest is a pedophile.
  • All Mexicans are illegal immigrants and gang members.
  • No woman can think rationally.
  • Every Muslim is a terrorist.
  • Gays are all effeminate fashion designers or hairstylists.

None of the above are okay. They’re all ugly, untrue stereotypes, and nobody would dream of using them in casual, offhand conversation. Nobody would say, “Just like every Muslim is a terrorist, every so-called ‘libertarian’ wants big government when there’s an oil spill” (to modify the words of Leonard Pitts). Nobody would say, “Looks like BP executives are just as lazy as blacks.” Using stereotypes as literary devices doesn’t make them okay. As long as stereotypes are presented in a way that gives them any shred of credence, their use perpetuates hurtful myths and contributes to a climate of intolerance.

There are many people who see that atheists are offended by the “no atheists in foxholes line,” and counter it by appealing to insignificance. “There’s so much evil in the world right now,” they say. “People are getting killed for their beliefs, Uganda may make homosexuality punishable by death, and so on. There are so many things to be upset about– why be bothered by such an insignificant phrase?”

I recognize there are far greater evils in the world than prejudiced language. Believe me, I’m very aware and appreciative of the fact that I live in a country where I can write about atheism without fear that I’ll be stoned to death. I’m also aware that I lead a more fortunate life than millions of others. And I’d even agree that in the bigger picture, saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” pales in comparison to crimes like the murder of Matthew Shepard, or the vicious anti-transsexual violence that trans people face every day, to name a paltry couple of examples. I do however, still think it’s important to take a stand against stereotypes, however small an issue it may be, for a couple of reasons.

The first is simple: It’s something that I care about, and it’s easy to fix. It’s simply a matter of consciousness-raising. While we’d all like to believe otherwise, as one person, who has an established life here, it’s difficult for me to go provide sex education in Africa, or fight poverty across America. It’s hardly impossible, and the causes I mentioned are certainly worthy, but frankly, it’s inconvenient. Perhaps someday I will fight the bigger fights. But from where I am right now, fighting stereotypes and hurtful language is what I can do. And in my mind, it’s better to do something than to do nothing at all. After all, a person simply can’t stand for everything that needs standing for. We pick our battles, and this is one that right now, I can pick.

But secondly, and probably more importantly, we should take a stand against stereotypes because stereotypes contribute to a climate of intolerance. I’ll use a simple example: consider the use of “gay” as a pejorative. The word’s derogatory use is unfortunately ingrained in middle school and high school culture. Are the kids who call their lengthy homework assignments “gay” active homophobes? Are they the ones that victimize GLBTQ students? Not necessarily. But by using “gay” as an insult, they state, perhaps unintentionally, that having the quality of “gay” is bad. By doing so, they create an atmosphere that supports the marginalization of GLBTQ students, and give justification to the active homophobes who actually do think that being gay is bad. This is just one of the many, many factors in high school homophobia, but its presence is unmistakeable. And as a result of the discrimination GLBTQ students feel in high school, they suffer increased rates of depression, heightened general emotional distress, decreased school performance, increased rates of drug/alcohol abuse, and increased rates of suicide attempts.

Furthermore, the American social climate of intolerance toward GLBTQ individuals can actually have global implications. When powerful social institutions such as churches tell their members that being gay is sinful and wrong, some of these members will seek to “fix” themselves and change their sexuality. Journalist Ted Cox went undercover at a Christian “straight camp,” where attendees were told it was possible to change their sexuality. Cox documents how this can have influences outside the private sphere:

…next month, Caleb Lee Brundidge, the tattooed man whom I asked out for lunch, would travel to Uganda, where he would share his personal story about leaving homosexuality. He would speak at churches. He would appear on the radio and be interviewed by newspapers. He would address Parliament.

Then, the month after Brundidge’s visit, Ugandan legislators would begin drafting the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009.” If passed, the bill would execute HIV-positive men caught having sex, imprison people for three years for not reporting homosexual activity, and lock them up for seven years for supporting gay rights or providing services to gays and lesbians.

Would this have been avoided if “gay” wasn’t used as an insult? Probably not, but it was certainly made easier by the climate of intolerance that’s supported by stereotypes and hurtful language.

Persecuting others is one of the highest forms of intolerance, but it’s supported by the tiny things that “moderate” people take for granted– things like the words we speak. Just as any respectable person would never say “All blacks are lazy;” just as any respectable person would refuse to use “gay” or “retarded” in a derogatory manner; so should every respectable person refuse to perpetuate the “There are no atheists in foxholes” stereotype, and should correct others who use it anyway.




Jeff Merkley on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”


  1. Spencer

    Regarding Tillman’s jaw: Tell me about it. I couldn’t believe that picture was real when I first saw it. I thought it had to be Photoshopped– jaws like that don’t exist in nature!

  2. “no atheists in foxholes”? What a weird sentiment. Sometimes you gotta wonder who comes up with that stuff…I feel like it would take a certain lack of exposure to a diverse set of people.

    But really I’m just here to comment on that guy’s crazy-huge jaw. I mean, holy crap. Also, nice hat?

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