Atheists in Foxholes

Here is an article written by an AgASA member for her journalism class. She interviewed a couple other members for the article.

Atheists in Foxholes
by Jennifer Bernstein

It was the only time he had a bullet fired at him that he was aware of. Aaron Sikes was part of the advanced recon unit, a team of U.S. snipers in Panama City during Operation Just Cause in December of 1989. His team was on top of a beer-bottling factory securing the area when they were fired at. Sikes’ squad leader, a devout Christian with Jesus fish decals on his headlights, was most likely praying to God to help him survive. As an eighteen year-old atheist, all Aaron could think was “I haven’t had sex yet.”

You better find something to believe in

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the old adage goes. The earliest known use of the common aphorism is in the writings of Ernie Pyle, a World War II journalist who wrote about life in the midst of combat. Pyle observed that in times of extreme stress or fear for one’s life, all people, religious or not, will look to a higher power for help. Austin Cline, writer of the Guide to Atheism, disagrees with the old adage. But in his article Atheism & Foxholes: There Are No Atheists in Foxholes, he attempts to explain it from a theistic point of view.

“Theistic religions teach that God is always there whenever circumstances are troubling or threatening. In Western monotheistic faiths, believers are taught that God is ultimately in control of the universe and will eventually make sure that everything turns out well,” Cline writes. “Because of this, it may be understandable for an adherent of such a tradition to assume that difficult circumstances will lead to theism for everyone.”

Aaron Sikes considers himself living proof that there are atheists in foxholes. He sat across from me in a study lounge on the UC Davis campus to tell me his story. Sikes has been an atheist from birth. His nonreligious parents never discouraged him from religion. But they never encouraged a religion either. He went into the military at age 17 because he was fascinated with firearms and weaponry. He was an avid builder of military dioramas and was interested in military history. Sikes said he had a lot of angst at that age. He glorified the thought of being a soldier.

Sikes’ military dog tag read “No Rel Pref,” short for no religious preference. He can remember one time when he felt singled out for his lack of religious beliefs. One sergeant on his squad asked if everyone believed in God. Aaron was the only person who said no. The sergeant pushed his way to the back of the line, looked Aaron in the eye and said, “You better find something to believe in.”

During the month Aaron was in Panama City, he never thought about God or felt the need to look to a higher power for help.

So help me God

Aaron says he may have never actually enlisted in the military. During his oath of enlistment, he skipped the last sentence, “So help me God.”

The oath has been revised several times since it was created in 1775. The phrase “So help me God” was not added until 1962. The phrase is, in essence, a request for help from a higher power. Federal law, according to Title 10, Section 502 of the United States Code, does not make any part of the oath optional. But Army regulation 601-210 states, “The words “So help me God” may be omitted for persons who desire to affirm rather than to swear to the oath.”

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Master Sgt Kathleen Johnson founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, a community support network organized to connect the atheist and freethinking military personnel with each other and other local organizations. She told Newsweek in August of 2006 that the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” is a denial of the contributions of atheist soldiers.

According to the general population data set produced by the Defense Manpower Data Center in 2009 and analyzed by the MAAF, atheists, agnostics and those with no preference make up 23.4% of the military. The MAAF spent six months gathering and reviewing the data on military religious preference with the intentions of addressing the misconception that there are no atheists in foxholes.

“A lot of people manage to serve without having to call on a higher power,” Johnson says. She claims the nonreligious military personnel face prejudice.

“Before I got to be the rank I am, I had to keep my head down and mouth shut,” she told Newsweek. “I had commanding officers who made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate atheism in their ranks.”

Eric Lowe, an Army Combat Medic, was sent to Iraq when he was 18 as part of the Surge of 2007. I was introduced to Lowe through the UC Davis Agnostic and Atheist Student Association where he regularly attends meetings and events. In an email he told me his deployment was the largest California deployment since Korea. Lowe did convoy medical support, riding in a Humvee to different bases in Iraq. He spent 11 months working in the one of the largest and busiest trauma centers in Baghdad. As of the 12th of May, Lowe has one more year of enlistment while also earning a Bachelor’s degree in Cell Biology from UC Davis.

“I can probably blame Iraq for my loss of faith,” Lowe explained, “both because my roommate and best friend was atheist and he gave me the evidence and arguments and convinced me to think, but also because of what I saw and how I realized that I didn’t need to run to a church or a chaplain to be comforted. It was really both the catalyst and the tipping point for me.”

Lowe was raised Christian and considered himself a fairly strong Christian until a few months after he left Iraq. But he still considered himself to have been an atheist in a foxhole.

“I didn’t believe in any real deity,” Lowe said, “at least not as most would think of a deity, and I didn’t affiliate with any religion.”

Eric Lowe is bothered by the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” because he feels it falsely invalidates atheist’s lack of faith. He knows a number of atheists in the military, and according to Lowe, none of them, himself included, had a moment where they prayed or asked for salvation while being shot at.

“The foxhole, for me, was getting ambushed in Iraq,” Lowe said. “It was late at night and we were shot at and mortars were fired at us from right off the road.”

Lowe remembers thinking “Is everyone ok?” and “Help the gunner shoot back.” He does not recall ever thinking “Oh God,” and added, “It’s honestly the last thing on your mind.”

As an atheist in the military, Lowe has felt discriminated against.

“The military is very bad when it comes to that,” he said. “I’ve gotten into arguments, had people try to ‘out me’ in a negative way, been looked at differently, and been made fun of.”

Lowe also explained that people have tried to insinuate that he could not do his job as a medic as an atheist. People claimed that being a medic he should “know better,” or “see that we were created.”

“The military is a very right wing and religious organization,” Lowe said, “and they don’t do well with people who aren’t of the same mindset.

Beware of dogma

In 2007 an Army specialist, Jeremy Hall, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense. Jeremy Hall told the New York Times that he was raised Baptist. He felt going to Iraq was the right thing to do because God was on his side. Similarly to Eric Lowe, Hall became friends with soldiers of atheist leanings whose questions he found intriguing. According to Hall, their questions inspired him to read the Bible more closely, which led to his rejection of it all together.

Hall had received permission from an Army chaplain to organize a meeting with soldiers who shared his worldview. Army Major Freddy Welborne had allegedly violated Hall’s First Amendments rights by breaking up the gathering and threatening to charge Hall with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Welborne had also vowed to block Hall’s reenlistment if the group continued to meet.

“People like you are not holding up the Constitution,” Welborne told Hall according to a sworn statement that described how Welborne berated him. According to the statement, Welborne also claimed the group of atheists was “going against what the Founding Fathers, who were Christains, wanted for America.”

He had also felt his First Amendment rights were violated during a Thanksgiving dinner, Hall told the New York Times. A staff sergeant told Hall he would have to sit at a different table after Hall declined to participate in a Christian prayer ceremony.

Hall, mistrustful of his superior officers, contacted Mikey Weinstein, the founder of Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a military watchdog organization, for help with his lawsuit. MRFF is focused on assuring that the military’s might is matched with America’s constitution. Hall never asked for compensation, he told CNN. He just wanted the guarantee of religious freedom in the military.

According to Hall, fellow soldiers had threatened to “beat his ass” and started a “lynch mob” in retaliation for the lawsuit. He was threatened with fragging, a term used by the military to describe a situation in which an unpopular soldier could be killed by intentional friendly fire during combat.

“Mikey, I hope I am not the victim of a hate crime while I sleep tonight,” Hall wrote in an email to Weinstein. “I do not want to die for my country this way.”

Though Weinstein was unable to verify the authenticity of the threats, Hall was so worried about being harmed he couldn’t sleep. He was eventually sent home early from Iraq because of the threats. A different sergeant has told Hall that he was not entitled to religious freedom because, as an atheist, he had no religion. Even in Hall’s foxhole, his atheist worldview remained unchanged.

Although the case was eventually dismissed, Hall does not regret his actions.

“I stood up,” Hall told the New York Times. “I don’t think it is futile.”

There are no atheists in loopholes

Humanist Network News (HNN) interviewed retired First Lieutenant Wayne Adkins in 2007 in an article titled Atheist Discrimination in the Army: A Firsthand Account. Adkins had filed a formal Equal Opportunity complaint against a superior officer in the National Guard for making degrading comments towards atheists, which eventually led to his resignation.

Lieutenant General Blum, Adkins said to HNN, had publically stated “There are no atheists in foxholes,” According to Army Regulation 600-20, it is unlawful discrimination to disparage soldiers on the basis of religion, and it is considered prejudiced to express negative feelings or dislike towards a group based upon a faulty or inflexible generalization. Adkins told HNN that the statement “There are no atheists in foxholes” is both a faulty and an inflexible generalization.

Adkins found out that his formal Equal Opportunity complaint had been dropped after six weeks. As it turns out, a general officer stating “There are no atheists in foxholes” is not considered discrimination because, according to the Equal Opportunity training binder, atheism is not a religion and therefore atheists are not protected by the regulation.

Upon learning how the army decided to handle his complaint, Adkins decided to resign. He told HNN that resigning was the only thing that would eventually make a difference. The Equal Opportunity system exists because Equal Opportunity issues affect military numbers. And the military does not want to lose quality soldiers. According to Adkins, atheists are quality soldiers.

“Atheists don’t need anything from the Army. We don’t have special dietary needs like some religions. We don’t need copies of “holy” books printed and distributed to us at taxpayer expense. We don’t need time off from work to attend services. We don’t need chaplains to visit us or perform ceremonies for us,” Adkins told HNN. “We would just really like it if our leaders wouldn’t publicly disparage us for not believing in the supernatural. That’s it. It’s not too much to ask for. In fact, it’s the law.”


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