(Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist, 4:28, The Problem with the Phrase “There Are No Atheists in Foxholes”)
Mr. Mehta is in error on one point in his video that I would clear up here. He notes a humanist tried to become a chaplain in the US Navy and was rejected. Mr. Mehta’s presumption is that it was because he is an atheist. That is not precisely correct: The Chaplaincy Corps (in all branches of the Armed Forces and the Veterans Administration) requires you to be ordained. The American Humanist Association does not ordain people; that is the grounds on which the humanist was rejected. (The rules are such that an atheist cannot be a chaplain, because atheists do not have ordinations.)
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this as a disabled veteran. “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I continue to hear it today, even from people I know, who know I am an atheist.
That is of course patently untrue. Any national cemetery will show the symbols of the American Humanist Association or American Atheists on some stones. In addition, plenty of atheists who were not members of either of those groups will have a stone or brass plaque with no symbol. Presumably there are some with religious symbols on their markers because the surviving family wanted them there (atheists may be in foxholes, but in our society a lot are also in the closet from their families).
I was in the Navy, so we really didn’t do foxholes. I was “in harm’s way” (as seamen put it) four times: In the Yugoslavia Civil War intervention (where the US Navy intervened on behalf of Bosnian Muslim civilians who were being slaughtered by Serb-aligned forces, to prevent genocide), the aftermath of the Beirut Barracks bombing (for which we provided air cover), the Line of Death dustup with Libya (where the USA was asserting freedom of navigation under the Law of the Sea in the Gulf of Sidra and we came under air attack from Libya), and the Persian Gulf War. (In the last, I was stationed in Spain. There was an attempted and failed al-Qaida machine gun and grenade attack on the National Police station, about half a mile from the main gate of Rota Naval Station and about 1½ miles from my townhouse. That was suppressed by the Guardia Civil and the National Police, with assistance from the city police.)
During peacetime there was the usual games of “chicken” that the Soviet (later Russian) Navy or Air Force would play with us as well (which in theory could have escalated to an attack with a wrong move by either side, though both nations used to have protocols for maritime incidents until the present administration got rid of them).
At no time did I “cry out to God” for assistance. In the naval incidents, we were in danger of attack (and in the case of Libya came under direct attack). In the police station incident, I was not particularly in danger, but I was off work at the time, so I put my (ex-)wife and baby son in safety and hightailed it to the base.
In any one of the maritime patrols and combats I was involved in, anti-ship missiles, submarines, or aircraft attack could have very well killed me or sunk the ships I served aboard. I was much more interested in doing my job than thinking about some sort of god saving me. We would have to save ourselves, and God makes a poor flotation device.
The argument is a non-sequitur fallacy. Even if there were no atheists in any foxhole, that is not proof of any god. Moreover, foxholes have had religious people throughout history, of many different gods. During the Persian Gulf War, there were American and allies Christians and Muslims in foxholes, and Iraqi Christians and Muslims in foxholes. Whose side was God or Allah on, anyway?
Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) also puts it in a way that always bothered me about that phrase but I could never articulate properly. After seeing the clip above I now have a rejoinder; he puts it like this.
The phrase is trying to erase our contributions, as Mr. Mehta noted in his video clip. Claiming we don’t exist is the height of disrespect of atheists in foxholes. Yet, Christians (almost always not veterans) will toss that assertion around as if it is some sort of proof that (their particular) god exists.
Many people (military or no) are upset at the concept of stolen valour (the idea of claiming military service when you have none, or claiming awards or rank from the military you did not earn).
It is sort of a reverse form of stolen valour. Instead of upholding the valour of atheists who were killed in the line of duty, or veteran atheists who were “one and done,” wounded, or served an entire career, the phrase erases the existence of the atheist veteran entirely.
Just as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other faiths, atheists in the USA have served in every combat in every war (just or no) all the way back to the Revolutionary War, along with the periods of peace in between. To say there are no atheists in foxholes is extremely disrespectful of the millions who did serve in the nation’s Armed Forces over centuries.
In fact, it is an insult to every atheist combat veteran. What’s next, strip me of my Navy Expeditionary and National Defense Service Medals, and Letters of Commendation because I don’t exist?
The argument “there are no atheists in foxholes” is also sometimes used metaphorically, to refer to any life-threatening situation, particularly surgery.
This spring, when I underwent surgery at the Veterans Administration, the anaesthesiologist, when he completed his pre-surgery checks of me before I went to the operating room, offered up the following nugget: Before we go, I offer to pray with my patients that their outcome is successful. Would you like to pray with me?
I was dumbstruck. For one thing, the hospital chaplain had already by my bedside, with his clipboard of patients showing I am an atheist. His statement to me was “is there anything you’d like to talk about, or someone I can call for you?” That it seems is a lot more helpful to an atheist who might be legitimately anxious over a surgery in which he or she might not wake up. It also showed the chaplain cared enough to check to see I was in fact an atheist; he didn’t try to proselytise.
Second, proselytising is not the proper place of a physician in the VA; it is a violation of the law. If I’d asked him to pray with me that would be different, but him opening his introduction with that is not what’s supposed to happen in a government-run hospital.
As we’ve seen since Paul Weyrich (right-wing conservative political and religious activist who convinced Ronald Reagan to court the religious right into the Republican Party, and founder of the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation), Christian Reconstructionists (Dominionists) have been busy trying to subvert the foundations of secular governance, especially the military. That should be a concern to both religious people who are not hard-right Evangelicals, or anyone else who cares about a military that upholds the Constitution over the Bible and is subservient to the civilian government.
Hence, things like a doctor in a government hospital asking me if I wanted to pray is now the new normal, which would not have happened even twenty years ago. Preying on the fearful is a recruiting tactic of the religious right.
Though I’d already been given an injection to start the anaesthesia process, I was with enough wits to tell the doctor, “No thank you. I have trust in your and your staff’s training and expertise. That is all I need.”
The doc stumbled over that one for a few seconds, then mumbled a “thank you.”
Next time you hear the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes,” remember where that comes from. It is the religious trying to claim that everyone will succumb to their unprovable ideas of some sort of cosmic helper, and an attempt to erase the existence of veterans who have been in foxholes. If a military person doesn’t need a god to go through combat, then he or she stands against the idea that you must have a cosmic helper—like my last apologetics fail, that means the very idea of that veteran must be rejected, because he or she represents a refutation of the believer’s religion simply by existing. THAT is really stolen valour.
By the way, my last three apologetics fails were all numbered “six.” Okay, so a childish joke (6-6-6). There’s not a whole lot for me to do out here on the High Plains.