Responding to the Atheist in Foxholes Cliché August 2, 2010

Responding to the Atheist in Foxholes Cliché

Jay Jochnowitz is the editorial page editor of the Times Union newspaper in New York.

In a recent column, he used that awful canard:

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the ranks of the underdog state Senate Republicans are suddenly filled with the religion of reform. Well, bravo.

We would be even more delighted if they weren’t trying to rewrite history and portray themselves as having been reformers all along.

Who knows if he put any thought into that statement and believes it, or if he just considers it a familiar saying and is ignorant that it’s a harmful cliché.

In any case, Ben Dreidel — who served in the Navy — didn’t like it and he had a letter to the editor published in yesterday’s paper:

In the July 25 editorial, “All talk, no reform,” the atheism of some in the military is considered comparable to disingenuous talk of reform by politicians. This is flagrant, offensive and false stereotyping.

Atheists are generally sincere in our beliefs; we are not closet theists lying about our true opinions, as the comparison suggests.

If a person considers a character to be fictional, stressful situations will not change that opinion. This is true whether the character is Harry Potter, God or Spiderman.

The Times Union owes an apology to the military atheists you suggest are liars. The phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” is an insulting falsehood that should not be used.

Well put.

Jochnowitz wrote back to him personally to say he won’t use the phrase in the future:

We received a fair number of comments on our blog, too, expressing similar objections to our use of the phrase. I was unaware that it’s offensive to some people, and it was not my intent to use it to insult your belief system or that of atheists in general. I saw it as a rather lighthearted observation that actually pokes fun at those who “get religion” in hard times or for opportunistic reasons. But having read your comments, those from other readers, and various commentaries on this, I can certainly see how an atheist would see this as an insulting assertion that their belief (or non-belief, as the case may be) is insincere.

… Rest assured that unless there is a good reason to use this in the future (such as pointing out the trouble with aphorisms like this), I won’t be using it again.

Kudos to him for recognizing his mistake.

The phrase may seem pretty harmless, but that’s how those stereotypes develop. More power to anyone who calls out those who mischaracterize atheists this way.

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  • Liokae

    Someone making a remark insulting atheism unintenionally, and then giving a genuine apology when it’s pointed out? I’m…. shocked. Bravo to this guy for owning up to the mistake. I wish we had more like him.

    (Naturally, I also wish we had more people that wouldn’t make these kinds of mistakes in the first place, but if wishes were horses…)

  • Andrew Morgan

    I like the rebuttal, “‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.” (James Morrow)

  • Jesse

    “I was unaware that it’s offensive to some people”

    I just don’t understand that. You were unaware that there were atheists in the military or that people (not just atheists) might be offended?

    Anyways, at least he apologized.

  • Liokae

    “I was unaware that it’s offensive to some people”

    I just don’t understand that. You were unaware that there were atheists in the military or that people (not just atheists) might be offended?

    It means just what it says. It’s a phrase about a group that’s been so maligned for so long that the usage simply goes unnoticed. The offense goes unnoticed because to the person using it, it’s just part of the language.

    There’s been plenty of examples… just none which I’d be comfortable raising here because the language involved *is* recognized to be incredibly offensive these days.

  • Rich Wilson

    I just don’t understand that. You were unaware that there were atheists in the military or that people (not just atheists) might be offended?

    I doubt if most D.C. area football fans are trying to offend Native Americans. They’ve just never really thought about it. After it’s been brought to their attention is another matter though.

    Washington Blackskins anyone?

  • qwertyuiop

    Look at it this way, there aren’t atheists in foxholes because atheists don’t start wars.


    There aren’t atheists in foxholes… unless their Christian leaders start a war and send them there.

  • Rieux

    Agreed, Hemant. Both Dreidel and (because of his subsequent reply) Jochnowitz deserve to be congratulated over this episode.

    Jesse, I think what Jochnowitz was saying is that the cliché is so old and established that he didn’t even think about what it actually meant. Upon actual consideration, he recognized the problem, apologized, and pledged to do better. Good for him.

  • Andrew Morgan


    Eh, tenuous at best. Atheists don’t control the government. I’m not entirely willing to wager that we’d be any more or less militant than other groups.

  • Lauren

    Its a common expression, like trying to “jew someone down”…offensive of course, but at least his apology was sincere and eloquent! And it got people thinking about language choice.

  • Drew M

    The guy made an honest mistake and when it was pointed out, made a sincere apology. I commend him for it and as mentioned earlier, I wish there were more people like him.

  • fiddler

    I do applaud the man for apologising in a genuine fashion, but this shouldn’t have been done in a private letter. He publicly made a damaging and/or insulting statement and should publicly offer those exact words in an editorial that he wrote privately. At the least, it would cause people to rethink the issue and at the best it would cause people to actually explore the issue.
    I wonder if any of the complaints showed exactly how this is damaging. For instance: “Just as there are no honest editorialists…”

  • I know Ben; he’s a great guy. There was a lot of discussion of this article on our local freethinkers’ mailing list (seeing how it’s one of our local newspapers).

    What really strikes me is that people tend to miss that it’s offensive. It’s as though the aphorism has been so commonly used that people never consider what the words might imply – kind of like when you say you’ve been gypped out of a deal.

  • Rieux

    Good point, fiddler.

  • Dan W

    Glad to see a genuine apology from this guy for using such a ridiculous and stereotyping saying. I hope someday that the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” falls out of use entirely.

  • It was good of him to acknowledge it and apologize.

  • Consciousness raising! The apology was as good as we could hope for.

  • I think we should start casually asserting the old adage, “There are no Christians in foxholes.” For instance, when a Christian says something particularly cringe-worthy and there’s a group of people around, maybe respond by saying, “Well I guess I now know why they say there are no Christians in foxholes.” If commented on, insist that this is indeed an old and common expression.

  • This kind of thing has come up quite a bit and every time, I wonder what would the reaction be if the commentator said or wrote:

    It is often said that there are no atheists in foxholes…”

    Personally, I find the phrase stupid, but I’m certainly not offended.

  • VXbinaca

    No he was right there are no atheists in foxholes. This is because we’re busy outside of them fighting while the theists pray in them.

  • JustSayin’

    Good point, Arkonbey, but add-ons like “it is often said” are known as weasel words, clauses tacked onto a statement in an attempt to allow the speaker or writer to disingenuously make such an assertion without appearting to agree with it.

  • L.Long

    Actually ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’.
    The religious have to believe that because there is no way you can be brave or moral without g0d!!! Because if you can be welllll thennn maybeee my beliieefs couldd be wwronggg???(spoken in long drawn out syllables thoughtfully) NFW!!! there are no atheists in foxholes!!!!!! You all are all just in deNile!! (while clutching the buybull and tears in their eyes). The TV guys may not say it but it is there non the less.

  • Vincent

    I think we may have missed something here. A writer was using a cliche. Nothing more. Not only was there no intended offense, but no need for an apology. Nothing disparaging was said about Atheism, and while I am sure that throughout human history many atheists have occupied foxholes, I am also sure that many of them “found God” right about the time they realized the mortal danger they were in. In any case, this was far from flagrant stereotyping. Just as religion should be private, so should a lack thereof. It should not be taken so personally, and someone else’s remark about it should be taken in stride. People shouldn’t be so defensive about their theologies.

  • muggle

    Wow! The Times Union pays attention to what’s said on its blogs? I must keep posting on them. Oddly, they keep bashing state workers and refuse to do stories on how atrocious the city bus system is. Maybe I’ll e-mail this dude in the hopes he can do a story. I don’t think I ever read his blog (the paper has several dozen, no way one can read them all). I’m all over their blog page and never noticed his name. I’ll have to look for it.

    The saying ticks me off especially since I know people who have been just that. I think it’s great that he apologized because no matter how many vets stand up and assert I was an Atheist in a foxhole, it seems the stereotype prevails. I hope (though it’s probably wishful thinking) he does an editorial on Atheists in foxholes. A quick google will find him many.

  • Amelia

    Yay hometown paper! A real spology, complete with a pledge to stop using the offensive cliche – yes!

  • Well, after 21 years in the military and tours in Kuwait and Iraq, I’m afraid I’m still just an agnostic, so I don’t know if I can help you out…

  • Brian Macker

    “I was unaware that it’s offensive to some people, and it was not my intent to use it to insult your belief system or that of atheists in general.”

    As long as I’m being easily offended, I’ll take offense at this too. Who says that atheism is a belief system, or that insulting a belief system is a problem? This wasn’t about a belief system, it was about bigotry concerning people who don’t share a belief system.

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