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Thursday, July 24, 2008

The foxhole doesn't work as well when you're taking fire from both directions

As an atheist I have been exposed to all manner of arguments as to why I should believe in one or another of the various deities worshipped by folks. Hell, I've even run into a Hindu missionary who tried to sell me on several deities at once so, really, I feel like I've had the full unwilling convert experience. As such I've been exposed to an awful lot of the arguments in favor of belief, many of which are- to put it delicately- inexecrably stupid. See, there may well be compelling arguments in favor of belief* but all too often I get arguments like "Aren't you afraid of hell?"** and "If you believe and there is no god you've lost some time, if you don't believe and there is a god then you've lost all eternity."*** One of my favorite such arguments is the "observation" that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hell, Conservapedia has a whole article on the claim. Near as I can figure, the argument is supposed to be that you may believe yourself to be an atheist but when the chips are down- as in combat- you will admit to yourself that your atheism is a sham as you cry out to god for help. Never having been a soldier I don't feel I'm in a strong moral position to argue this point but, really, I'm not sure there's anything more profound in such battlefield conversions than in latching onto a pair of lucky socks during a fierce battle.

Fortunately for me, however, I don't have to really contest the validity of this assertion because plain facts do it for me. Take, for example, this recent story about an atheist who was, more or less, in a foxhole:

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall was raised Baptist.

Like many Christians, he said grace before dinner and read the Bible before bed. Four years ago when he was deployed to Iraq, he packed his Bible so he would feel closer to God.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural.

Hall said he met some atheists who suggested he read the Bible again. After doing so, he said he had so many unanswered questions that he decided to become an atheist.

So, in this case, it wasn't so much that the foxhole destroyed an atheist as it created one. Now, granted, a single case does not prove an entire argument but, at the same time, it certainly shows that there are at least some atheists in foxholes. All by itself this case would be interesting, but it's what comes next in the article that should really get your attention:

His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety.

In March, Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, among others. In the suit, Hall claims his rights to religious freedom under the First Amendment were violated and suggests that the United States military has become a Christian organization.


Two years ago on Thanksgiving Day, after refusing to pray at his table, Hall said he was told to go sit somewhere else. In another incident, when he was nearly killed during an attack on his Humvee, he said another soldier asked him, "Do you believe in Jesus now?"

Hall isn't seeking compensation in his lawsuit -- just the guarantee of religious freedom in the military. Eventually, Hall was sent home early from Iraq and later returned to Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, to complete his tour of duty.

He also said he missed out on promotions because he is an atheist.

"I was told because I can't put my personal beliefs aside and pray with troops I wouldn't make a good leader," Hall said.

Michael Weinstein, a retired senior Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, is suing along with Hall. Weinstein said he's been contacted by more than 8,000 members of the military, almost all of them complaining of pressure to embrace evangelical Christianity.

And this is a horse of another color. See, it's one thing to claim that the experience of being in combat tends to make one "see the light" but it's an entirely different matter if the seeing is "facilitated" by threats to one's safety and promotion. Sadly, as well, this isn't the first time I've heard claims like this. While Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Carr claims that complaints of evangelizing are "relatively rare" we should recall the recent issues at the Air Force Academy, which were serious enough to provoke an investigation:

The U.S. Air Force said Tuesday it will appoint a task force to investigate allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy.

Among the items to be reviewed will be Air Force policy and guidance concerning religious respect and tolerance at the academy, said acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Dominguez.

Some 55 complaints of religious discrimination have been filed going back to 2001, prompting school officials to require that all 9,000 cadets and faculty and staff members take a 50-minute course on religious sensitivity, academy officials said.


Among the allegations are that cadets are frequently pressured to attend chapel and take religious instruction, particularly in the evangelical Christian faith; that prayer is a part of mandatory events at the academy; and that in at least one case a teacher ordered students to pray before beginning their final examination.

The report said it found that non-Christian cadets are subjected to "proselytization or religious harassment" by more senior cadets; and that cadets of other religions are subject to discrimination, such as being denied passes off-campus to attend religious services.


In another instance, the commandant of the academy, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, a born-again-Christian, drew fire from at least one student who said the general put God in front of the Constitution in a speech to students.

The student who filed the complaint noted that as a member of the military one first swears allegiance to the Constitution and then to God.

And it's that last bit that concerns me the most. Look, people, really and truly I don't care what your religious beliefs are. Believe in whatever god you want or don't believe in any of them. That's what it means to be in a religiously plural nation. But, that being said, the founding fathers understood what officially-sanctioned religious intolerance could do and tried to reach a compromise. Religion stays out of government, and if you put on the uniform then in your official duties you agree to serve your country before your god.

Is this an issue for atheists? Yeah, of course. Full participation in our society means that we have to be able to serve in war as well as in peace. Yet, this is also an issue for the religious. Is it really healthy for our country if a single religious sect dominates the military? Or, to be blunt, if all the really big weapons are operated by a single cultural sub-group? I'm going with no, and if you think about it, you probably will too.

There are, indeed, atheists in foxholes but the issue goes beyond them. Instead, this is about what it means to be American. The framers of the constitution gave us a lot to try to live up to.

I just hope they weren't mistaken.

* I have never personally encountered an argument for belief in god that I regard as compelling, but I keep watching and waiting.

** "No. Are you afraid of the tooth fairy?"

*** Gotta love Pascal's Wager. I think they teach that one in missionary boot camp but forget to explain how one is to select a god to believe in, much less trick god into thinking that belief is genuine rather than a calculated effort to avoid hypothetical punishment. Whoops.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

One claim you could draw from this discussion is that the causality on the claim "there are no atheists in foxholes" is now backwards - atheists are being forced out of combat, rather than combat forcing god into the atheists.

Thursday, July 24, 2008 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If you're a Christian in a foxhole, then you screwed up, because you're not supposed to be in a war zone murdering your brother human beings.

Seeing the horrors of war up close might just be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that we have a loving caring deity watching over us.

Friday, July 25, 2008 7:07:00 AM  

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