Atheists in Foxholes Respond January 16, 2009

Atheists in Foxholes Respond

You recently posed questions to foxhole atheists. What is it like to be an atheist serving our country? Do you face discrimination

One man, currently serving in Iraq, offered to answer your questions.

Our responder prefers to remain anonymous but says he serves in the Navy and is attached to a Marine infantry unit.

I’ll refer to him as Foxhole Atheist.

Hemant Mehta: How long have you been in the military? In Iraq?

Foxhole Atheist: I’ve been in the military nearly three years and I’m currently on my second seven-month-tour of Iraq.

HM: What do you think the religious makeup is of military personnel when compared to the American population? Is it more or less religious? More or less Christian?

FA: Based on nothing but my own experience, I’d say on the whole there is a greater percentage of Christians within the military, going along with the greater percentage of Republicans in the military. However, most people are not practicing. The military in general is not very religious.

HM: Are you now questioning your beliefs (or lack thereof) more, less, or the same as before?

FA: I was sure of my Atheism before I joined the military, and as time has gone by I’ve become increasingly sure, but that was only due to time and education, not due to the military.

HM: Are you open about your atheism?

FA: I am. I’ve never felt the need to hide or deny it.

HM: Have you faced any problems or awkwardness specifically because of your atheism?

FA: I’ve only encountered the normal awkwardness when talking to religious people, but nothing specifically due to the military.

HM: If your atheism is not problemic, how often do you discuss religion with your colleagues?

FA: I’ve discussed it on occasion, when it’s come up, but very rarely has it lead to in-depth conversations on the subject. Things like religion and politics rarely get discussed here, at least in my social group.

HM: How does your family feel about your military service, and how do they feel about your atheism?

FA: My family is proud of my service, but being Christians, I can’t say they are proud or supportive of my faith (or lack thereof). It’s not caused any major conflicts though.

HM: Have any of the locals in Iraq tried to share the Muslim teachings with you because they know you are atheist?

FA: It’s never come up. Most of my Iraqi contact has been with the Iraqi Army and Police forces, who don’t usually speak any English, and my Arabic is only good enough to complain about the weather and compliment their food.

HM: Would you advise other military atheists to keep their beliefs to themselves?

FA: Absolutely not. Be open with it. Yes, there have been isolated cases of Atheists in the military feeling discriminated against, but I do not feel that is the atmosphere everywhere. You’d be surprised at how many people are Atheists, and how many people say “me too” when you mention that you are. Not a notably high percentage, but at least as high as the national average.

HM: Is there also bias against atheists and/or pressure to participate in religious services?

FA: I have never seen or felt any pressure to participate in religious services. Services have always been clearly optional, and most Chaplains I’ve seen have actually taken steps to make it clear that services are optional (if for no other reason then the fear of potential lawsuits, but also, most Chaplains are intentionally not overly evangelistic. It’s just not typically appreciated by the troops or by the command)

HM: Has your atheism given you a perspective on religion’s role in the wars? That is, what are your views on the Christians (and others) that you work with fighting a war in a predominantly Muslim country?

FA: Throughout our history religion has always been one of the major causes of conflict and war. But I don’t feel that was in any way a cause for this war. I think that the difference in religion has contributed to the difference in culture which causes the lack of understanding between Americans and Iraqis, which has caused this conflict to go on for so long. So, indirectly, religion has been a factor, in my opinion, but at no point has this ever seemed like a “holy war” of any kind. At least, not to us, on this side of the fence.

Christianity and Islam are more similar then either side usually admits. Both value a lot of the same things, like helping those in need, and that common ground is leading to more understanding and trust between us and the locals.

HM: Is there anything those of us back home can do for you? What can we do to make your lives easier?

FA: For Atheists in the military, I’d say do what you can to encourage people coming out publicly as Atheists, and support the groups that defend those who have been unfortunately discriminated against.

For military members in general, if you want to help, there are some secular charities that you can donate time and money to. The USO (as far as I know) has no religious affiliation and has always helped us, by sending us food and games as well as every major airport has a USO to help traveling military (which has been a great help to me personally), and they are ran completely by volunteers.

Thanks to our Friendly Foxhole Atheist for answering those questions for us!

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  • Interesting topic/interview.

    “Based on nothing but my own experience, I’d say on the whole there is a greater percentage of Christians within the military, going along with the greater percentage of Republicans in the military.”

    Based on nothing but listening to soundbites from military personnel in the media, I’d say the same.

  • Jason

    I’m an atheist soon to be in a foxhole, I get deployed this weekend to an obviously predominately Muslim country. Woo!

  • Ross

    We’ll see how long I can avoid the foxhole, my job involves a lot of schooling, mostly to learn a language.

    I’m heading out to boot camp in 4 days.

    Thanks for the interview, Foxhole Atheist. It’s good to hear that things aren’t so bad!

  • Thank you for setting up this communication.

  • ubi dubius

    I was in the Army from 1984 to 1988. I can’t say how things are now, of course. When I was in, religion just didn’t come up very often. Our chaplain, a Catholic Priest, did not evangelize. He focused on keeping morale up, being a sort of coach to the officers and soldiers, and helping out where he could. He performed any services that were in demand. Another unit in my brigade had a fire and brimstone Pentecostal, but we just avoided him after one encounter. I don’t know what it was like to be an atheist in his battalion. Might have been interesting.

    In the field, I never went to services and never felt pressure to. When we were in garrison, I went only occasionally, mostly to check in on my soldiers (I was the equivalent of a platoon leader).

    The only religious argument I go into that involved the military was with a friend who eventually became a Methodist minister. She didn’t think I could be a Christian and a soldier. That actually helped push me towards atheism, just a little bit.

  • Rat Bastard

    OK, he’s a Corpsman who jumps with Marine Recon units. Pass along my thanks for his service to the US.

    me, USN 2nd Class MM Hoorah!

  • Great interview, thanks for posting that. It’s really changed my view on what it must be like to be an atheist in the military – I’d always viewed it as much harder but I guess that’s just confirmation bias it work, it’s only the extreme experiences which get reported. Seems like the attitude is much more relaxed and tolerant which is greatly reassuring.

  • SarahH

    Great interview, and thanks to FFA for sharing with us! I think many people who don’t know atheists personally wonder how we can live with the idea that there’s nothing after death. The effect is a new realization of how precious this life is – we get one chance, that’s it! And yet atheists are willing to risk their lives for causes that we hope can improve this world for other people and future generations.

    Bravo to atheists in foxholes!

  • Vincent

    Glad to hear another perspective.
    It makes me happy to hear Jeremy Hall was the victim of an asshole in a position of power and not of a systematic failing of our miltary.

  • Desert Son

    Great interview. Pass along my thanks for his service, and also to Jason posting above. Jason, thanks for serving.

    No kings,


  • Desert Son

    Also, thanks to ubi dubious, Ross, Rat Bastard for your service.

    No kings,


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