God of fear

Newsweek has a short article on military atheists and the discrimination they face.

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the old saw goes. The line, attributed to a WWII chaplain, has since been uttered countless times by grunts, chaplains and news anchors. But an increasingly vocal group of activists and soldiers–atheist soldiers–disagrees. “It’s a denial of our contributions,” says Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, who founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and who will be deployed to Iraq this fall. “A lot of people manage to serve without having to call on a higher power.”

It has always seemed to me that that old myth is actually an admission: an admission that religion is driven by fear. Just crank up the terror on people, it’s saying, and we can get ’em to believe anything. There might be some truth to that, but if anything, it’s an adage that is damning to religion, saying that faith is an exploitation of human weakness.


  1. Azkyroth says

    It’s actually, I suspect, true in a sense that there are no atheists in foxholes–for the same reason that there are very few Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. People whose metaphysical positions are foremost in their minds in combat situations tend to have very short life expectancies, and since atheists usually hold theirs as the result of a rational and well-reasoned decision-making process, one would expect that they’d have more sense.

  2. Ian H Spedding says

    Seems to me that, metaphorically speaking, it’s only atheists in the ‘foxholes’ in the US.

    They’re keeping their heads down, trying to avoid the barrage of ‘kindness’, ‘compassion’ and ‘charitable concern’ hurled at them by some self-proclaimed followers of Christ’s teachings.

  3. says

    This is why religion and science come into conflict. Religion is an attempt to explain reality in a manner than is fundamentally not understandable, only believable; science is an attempt to explian reality in an understandable manner that does not resort to belief.

  4. says

    Fear has always been a tool used by those who either run out of other options (the frustrated parent with an unruly child) or those who perfect this tool to manipulate others. Of course we must make a distinction between ‘good’ fear (to a toddler, “Don’t touch the fire!”) and ‘bad’ fear (to the teen, “Read Pharyngula and you will go to hell!”) I think the point missed in “no atheists in foxholes” statements is that when one is alone and in a life-and-death situation, and if there is time to ponder the situation, one often must think of things that normally one can avoid. I would venture to guess that most humans do not ponder most of what is discussed and debated on Pharyngula, most humans are caught up in the current rush of their own life and all else is a blurr. But in that foxhole situation one is forced to confront those ‘blurr’ issues … and I would guess, at least from anecdotal reports, that more often than not, one experiences a sort of comfort in that foxhole when one thinks they are not alone in the universe. And you can argue that ‘thinks’ proves nothing, and right you are, for after all, that is the definition of faith.

  5. Apikoros says

    Somewheres on the internet, I ran into an organization for atheists in or formerly in the military, called (what else?) “Atheists in Foxholes”.

    One complaint those folks had was that military chaplains had so much power over who got leave, care packages, etc., and felt no compunction about denying these things to atheists.

  6. says

    My great uncle went off to World War I a pious Swedish-American Lutheran boy-man, but when he came back he refused to ever set foot in a church again, allegedly saying something like “After the horrors I saw in the Ardennes Forest I can’t believe there is a god. But if there is, I want nothing to do with him after what he let happen in his name.”

  7. Shyster says

    PZ, Surely the idea that religion is based on fear is not new to you. Fear is the only basis for religion. Ancient man needed but didn’t understand the sun so he worshiped it to make sure that it would come back and wouldn’t hurt him. Modern man has a better understanding of the sun, but they worship the son to address the one remaining major fear — death. I know that you know all of this so why did you sound so surprised that all religion is built on fear? Even Pastafarianism is based on fear — the fear of ignorance. Can I get a Ramen?

  8. quork says

    The Military Association of Atheists and Feethinkers

    They need a new name with better acronym potential. Maybe: Atheist and Secular Soldiers

  9. Snark7 says

    Well, this old saying has also a rather interesting meaning, most people who utter it -believers mostly- probably don’t think about too much:
    If there are no atheists in foxholes, then it logically follows that all war crimes (and wars as such) are committed by the believers.

  10. Sastra says

    PZ, thanks for pointing out the contradiction in what has always seemed a very strange defense of religion to me. The appeal here is presumably towards an innate belief in God which comes out under stress. But if you don’t already believe we were all “given” some sort of mysterious “inner knowledge,” the claim that There Are No Atheists in Foxholes turns into “when you can no longer think straight, when you have totally lost all reason and turned into a quivering lump of mindless infantile reactions — that’s when our religion will finally make a lot of sense to you!”

    It’s a bit like bragging that “there are no atheists in the Last-Stages-of-Alzheimer’s Ward.” Oh goody. Must be true then. Sign me up.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “I would venture to guess that most humans do not ponder most of what is discussed and debated on Pharyngula, most humans are caught up in the current rush of their own life and all else is a blurr. But in that foxhole situation one is forced to confront those ‘blurr’ issues”

    While it seems to me many atheists have confronted these issues when breaking away from a default culture with religious leanings. It isn’t uncommon to know much about parents religions and perhaps having participated, in addition to their own atheistic view.

    To assume lack of interest and a default religious outcome of being in a war situation could be construed as the usual patronizing, couldn’t it?

  12. harv says

    As an active duty Army trumpet player, I want to say that its not so much that atheists are being openly discriminated against, but that God belief is so openly supported. Army musicians support Chaplains functions such “Prayer Breakfasts” and “Spiritual Fitness Luncheons”. Prayers are incorporated into every military ceremony, with a Chaplain leading the troops. The “Religious Support Office” is a few doors down from our work area here on Ft Gordon (your tax dollars at work). These are just a few examples.

    There are plenty of atheists in foxholes who have and will serve, its good to see even a small article about us in a major publication. I look forward to the day when I will lead a Brass Quintet to perform at a “Day of Reason” ceremony, but as I retire in a year or so, I won’t hold my breath.

  13. says

    In Air Force Basic Training back in ’85, our Training Instructor (Air Force has TI’s, not DI’s) made it very clear to us that on Sunday morning, you could either go to church or you could clean and polish the barracks.

    “Atheist” was not an option offered for our dogtags back then either.

    And every official function that involved food included a prayer.

    I was religious back then, so didn’t think too hard about it – but I did hate going to the designated church in Basic, and would have rather spent the morning reading. Later, as I started learning about reason and exploring secularism, military religion started seeming unreasonable.

    I understand it’s a little better now than it was then. ‘Atheist’ is allowed on dogtags now, and church in basic is encouraged, but not punished if you don’t go.

  14. ajay says

    But what about all those filthy godless communists in the Red/Soviet Army, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the North Korean People’s Army and so on? They can’t all be closet Baptists. Or don’t communists dig foxholes?

  15. Greg Peterson says

    Saying that there are no atheists in foxholes is an argument against foxholes, not in favor of God.

  16. says

    As i usually say WRT communists: Anyone who has ever discussed politics with an orthodox communist will know that it is precisely as much a religion as the rest. Same s***, different wrapping.

    – JS

  17. SirCraig says


    I, too, went through AF Basic back in ’85, and I remember very well the “You will go to church or you will be cleaning.” Do you also recall the ‘morality training’ we had? When several of the flights had to go to the chapel and be divied up according to religious/superstitious preference? Even the JWs had a rep there, which I thought was very odd. 200 young airmen showed up, 199 went to meet with reps of their particular belief system. I remained sitting alone in the pews, with all these people staring at me wondering what religion, sect, or cult they had forgotten to include me in. Tired of the bullshit, I said quite loudly, “Fuck you all, I’m getting some sleep,” and stretched out on the pew to take a nap.

    It has always been thus; for years I have been singled out and taunted for my personal belief structure (one based on reason and rationality rather than fear and mindless obedience, though that may sound odd coming from someone in the military), but I believed in something more profound than anything a religion could ever offer: I believed in my country and the principles on which it was based. I could handle the taunts, and almost always those who would taunt me would be the ones who, in the end, didn’t have the mettle or the strength of character to last and make a difference.

    I am now more than 20 years in the service, and am due to retire shortly. I would stay in longer, but in the last 6 years I have seen the military of which I was so proud be turned into something ugly and unrecognizable by this farce of an administration, fighting wars against intangible nouns and invading countries without due provocation. I am tired of this country being held hostage by a government that is beholding to fundamentalist assholes, with a largely compliant media acting as their mouthpiece. So I will become a civilian and see what I can do outside the restrictions of the military to affect a positive change.

    In the meantime, keep up the good fight everyone.

  18. Carlie says

    That’s really sad – I’m sorry. The last time I flew this summer I sat next to a Marine who was getting ready to retire, after 18 years in the service. I was quite surprised, and asked if it was correct that retirement benefits shot up at the 20-year mark, so why go now with so little time left before the goodies? His reply was that he had done a year and a half in Iraq, it was the worst experience of his Marine career and all the other deployments he’d had, and he wasn’t about to risk getting called up again no matter what the financial incentive to stay, even though he had planned to make the Marines his lifelong job. Talk about messing with the military.

  19. says

    If one finds oneself in a foxhole and the bullets are flying, then one isn’t thinking much, one is reacting and frantically trying to remember and apply prior training. But if one finds oneself in a foxhole awaiting certain combat, and the wait is long, then thoughts of mortality creep into one’s mind, and with that perhaps one who hasn’t considered oneself ‘religious’ would ponder the religion one experienced in their youth, and if that were not a traumatic experience, then that would be where comfort would be sought. Of course some soldiers have already pondered these questions, be they atheist or believer, and would most likely follow their convictions, the Buddhist would be using beads counting matras, the Catholic likewise using beads reciting prayers, the Jew perhaps like Tevya, talking and debating with God about how exactly he ended up in a foxhole, and the Atheist more than likely working out an escape route while counting ammo.

  20. Flex says


    As another Air Force enlistee in 1985, I well remember confusing the clerk’s mind when I said “Agnostic” when the religion question arose for my dogtags. I then tried atheist, and got the standard ‘No Pref’ stamped on them.

    Always curious, I asked what the ‘No Pref’ meant, and was told that if I died in the course of duty, I had no preferance as to which religious service was used to send me to the great beyond. I still think that is kinda funny. Either the military was tacitly acknowledging that no service would help my soul get anywhere, or that the internment service was more for any survivors rather than myself because there is no such thing as a soul.

    BTW, I never went to church with my flight during basic. The TI’s made the threat of hard labor, but we called their bluff and they never enforced it. The three of us who didn’t go to church didn’t clean the barracks. We pretty much just polished our boots and read magazines in the day room. Oh, and we never mentioned to the godly that we didn’t do any work while they were gone.

    Good times.



  21. says

    I got out at the 10 year, 7 month mark (and still did 3 years IRR on top of that.)

    I got similar questions, “You’re half-way to retirement, why won’t you stay in?” But I’d looked at the ‘so called’ retirement benefits from a 1995 perspective and found out just how badly retirees were treated. Poor medical benefits (almost none if you didn’t live near a military hospital) and the existing benefits were in the process of being cut.

    I had an opportunity to spend a week with some retirees at the Nellis AFB campground. The retirees were camping there to save money while waiting for their appointments at the Nellis hospital. Some of them were from out of state, and put their life on hold to camp out and wait for their medical appointment. I got an earful.

    I decided that Kipling’s poem “Tommy” could very well be applied to me, I was only loved when I put my life on the line, and I could go whistle at any other time.

    By this time I was fast becoming an Atheist, and my religious, civilian ‘friends’ were already letting me know how un-American I was compared to them. That was probably the most hurtful – that someone could ignore my service to my country because I no longer shared their belief.

    I’m not anti-military, I’m pro-military. The military is a tool, and like any tool you have to take care of it or it will break. Put it in the hands of an incompetent Secretary of Defense and a monkey of a C in C, and beat it against a wall long enough, it will break.

    And it is breaking! I’ve pointed out how the Army has raised enlistment age to 42, and that they’ve dropped ASVAB entrance scores to well below failing.

    I hope we can find a graceful way out of Iraq, but I don’t think there is one. If we stay in Iraq, I’m all in favor of the Draft. Starting with all the eligible kids in the GOP.

  22. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “the Atheist more than likely working out an escape route while counting ammo.”

    Okay. And most likely thinking over “about how exactly he ended up in a foxhole”, what the meaning of war is, and why he/she didn’t kiss that special girl/boy more often. ;-)

  23. says


    I then tried atheist, and got the standard ‘No Pref’ stamped on them.

    In the Air Force Religious Demographics tables at MAAF I see that 30% of the officers and 19% of the enlisted have selected “No Religious Preference”.

    I would guess that those ‘No Prefs’ just didn’t bother to update their religious preference after Basic Training.

    I wonder how many of those were Atheist?

  24. Bruce says

    Sir Craig (and others): Thank you for your service to our country.
    Back in the late sixties, before being shipped to Nam, I claimed to have lost my dogtags. When asked for my religion, I said I was a Bokononist (any Vonnegut fans out there?). I told him it was an obscure Budhist sect. Seemed much more stylish than No Pref.

  25. BMurray says

    Superstition is a reflex reaction — a way to shortcut rational thought in order to arrive at “good enough” answers. Anyone with dogs will recognize superstition as their maximum level of logic (with the exception of your dog, whoever you are — of course your dog is smarter than average). Anyway, as an animal recourse reflexively used under extreme stress, it should be obvious that while evading enemy fire and under maximum effect of adrenaline, superstition figures highly in the toolbox.

  26. Fox1 says

    Back when I was going through Marine Corps bootcamp, our Drill Instructors told us the exact same thing. In fact, they went so far as to say that “everyone will be going to SOME kind of service on Sunday.” I’m ashamed to say that I caved to pressure (hey, extreme frigging circumstances) at the time and put R. Catholic on my first set of dogtags (my parents’ affiliation).

    I did draw the line at attending any services, and while the DIs were rather nasty about accepting my desire to not go to church, the fact that service times were staggered made it easy for me to slip through the cracks after a few weeks, and gave me time to read my smuggled copy of Ender’s Game.

    The next time I got tags, well after boot, I did switch to No Pref, and never got directly hassled about it. However, I did have keep my head down during a few group prayers and such, but, in all fairness, it was nothing I haven’t done to get along with the in-laws.

  27. Fox1 says

    Mildly amusing addendum:
    The DIs did not say “no athiests in foxholes” verbatim, because apparently at some point the Corps had decided not to call them “foxholes” but instead refer to them as “fighting holes.” The apparent rational is that foxes are “cowardly animals” and use their holes to hide, behavior obviously not befitting a Marine.

    Yeah… my username now was my nickname all through my enlistment (minus the 1), so I was on the wrong end of that bit of groupthink, too.

  28. Steve_C says

    I could see that the military has done studies and have found the religious follow orders more consistently and ask fewer questions of their commanders. They also probably behave more foolishly in combat thinking they get to heaven if they do die.

  29. Keanus says

    Like SirCraig and others, I encountered religious nonsense in the army back in 1962, but not much. I was in basic during Easter so on Friday morning, the training cadre lined us up for reveille out in the boonies of Ft. Dix. They told us that we were all going to chapel that afternoon for Good Friday services. I fell out, saying I wouldn’t go. Well, they went nearly ballistic. I was told in no uncertain terms that I’d go to chapel, or else. So I went, sitting in the back and reading a book I’d brought. Well, it turns out that the reason the cadre were so zealous about my going to chapel was that they wanted the afternoon off and if just one recruit stayed behind then someone would have to stay and supervise that one. They weren’t going to let that happen. For the remainder of my two years, I failed to see the inside of one chapel or even see a chaplain. But then I served most of that time at Redstone Arsenal which was over run with civilian employees and German ex pats who were then building and testing the Saturn rockets used in the Apollo program. I had the good fortune to work with them making my tour after basic decidedly un-military in style.

  30. says

    My Navy dogtags are stamped “OTHER”. I told them I was a Druid. Got some funny looks but they let it go (this was in 1992). Sundays in Basic were spent “meditating” in a quiet room. The Navy always seemd to be quite pragmatic with regard to religion when compared to the other branches, especially our brave USMC.

    PS I was an LCAC crew member, so I worked with the USMC all the time and have the deepest respect for their courage, not always their intelligence, but definately their courage. ;-)

  31. RedMolly says

    Not precisely on topic–but wanted to offer a sincere thank you to all the current or former military servicemembers here, along with an apology for how shamefully our country is treating/has treated you. Rather like an aging and unloved tool that we’re just going to use the hell out of ’til it breaks in our hands… very apt metaphor, Calladus.

  32. herdottiness says

    The idea of just being in the service gives me the shakes, and I send my respects to all of you. But I have a problem too–seeking professional counseling for deep depression, I have–more than once–been told to “look to a higher power” to combat the depression. So that the very profession I expect to help me also insists that the way to cope is through some spirit in the sky. So I’m wondering what the people who return from combat with PTSD get told about how to cope if they too are atheists.

    This culture is so damned nuts on religion.

  33. says

    Herdottiness, perhaps being “nuts on religion” will cure your depression, and being nutty isn’t so bad, really, especially when you are no longer haunted by depression, and who knows, in your new found empowerment by the “spirit in the sky” you’ll be able to make a final choice between theism and atheism. Our abbot was in combat in Korea, then on to Yale to teach philosophy, and then chucked it all and hit the road and ended his wandering here in the Mojave desert — he traded in his atheism for the “spirit in the sky”.

  34. Eric Paulsen says

    One complaint those folks had was that military chaplains had so much power over who got leave, care packages, etc., and felt no compunction about denying these things to atheists. – Apikoros

    When I was in Hospital Corpsman ‘A’ school there was a chief who was teaching us… something, I really can’t recall the specifics of the curicula, but that day we were discussing individual religious beliefs. When she asked if any of us were atheist I raised my hand and from that point on she got noticeably terse with me and extremely combative. She grilled me on what I believed happened after we died (among other theological questions) and I used the real world example of my grandfather who was at that time dying of cancer and I told her that when he died I would miss him but my tears would be for my grieving family, since he would free of his agonizing pain. Then I explained that he would be buried and decompose inside a concrete vault, end of story.

    A few weeks later while she was teaching us sub-Q injections a message was delivered by a runner to her and when she had read it she fixed her gaze on me and told me, almost smugly, that my grandfather had died then she paused… I can only assume to take the time to read my reaction. After about five seconds of this scrutiny she then said “but stay seated because you aren’t going anywhere since this doesn’t matter to you”. Needless to say I was shocked by her callous behavior but before I could even react many of the other student were, with the respect that you give to higher ranked individuals in the military, arguing that what she was doing was wrong. I still don’t know what it was she was waiting for from me, maybe tears, maybe some outward sign that my atheist world view had crumbled, I don’t know, but I know she didn’t get it. And she was visibly upset by that.

    After a few minutes of students urging her to reconsider and me just staring at her trying to decide what she was trying at she coldly told me to go. After the 2 or 3 days I was granted for the funeral I never saw her again, but I always wondered if she maybe had somekind of a breakdown that day. I can not express just how bizarre her behavior became toward me after the day she found out I was an atheist. Granted this was in 1988, but the military isn’t quick to change unless it is in a reactinary direction. I would HATE to be in under the reign of George the lesser!

  35. Ichthyic says

    The idea of just being in the service gives me the shakes, and I send my respects to all of you. But I have a problem too–seeking professional counseling for deep depression, I have–more than once–been told to “look to a higher power” to combat the depression. So that the very profession I expect to help me also insists that the way to cope is through some spirit in the sky. So I’m wondering what the people who return from combat with PTSD get told about how to cope if they too are atheists.

    the higher power reference is used to treat cases of alcoholism in a similar fashion.

    check out the AA handbook sometime.

    IIRC, Carl Jung actually pioneered some of the studies proving the usefulness of the “higher power” technique in treating alchoholism.

    It definetly comes under the “religion as crutch” category.

    It might work for you to alleviate your depression, and have no worries about the effects of the “higher power” on your future behavior, most I know who make it through AA eventually drop the need for the crutch as well.

    Do always seek professional advice in dealing with your depression however, and don’t rely on advice from some internet chatroom or your neighbor (er, unless your neighbor is a practicing mental health care professional).

  36. says

    I think these ideas need closer examination, mostly I have just seen it is “association with something that is bigger than oneself” that is what is required. Like science. Or the biosphere.

    The idea is to look out, not in all the time. Try it, maybe it will work for you.

  37. speedwell says

    Herdottiness, I have two cents more for the pot.

    I’ve struggled with depression so much I’m not sure I even know what “normal” is. I just know whether or not I’m basically functioning OK. But I notice my best days are when I’m especially busy. I don’t need anything “higher than yourself.” I just need to distract and entertain the part of me that wants to go off and mope.

    It’s better than it sounds. I’ve found a lot of things that provide me with “flow” experiences, and those are incredibly uplifting and rewarding. Better than any pill I’ve tried. Google a fellow named Csikszentmihalyi for the theory behind what a “flow” experience is and how and why it works. (Yeah, that’s actually his name–my Hungarian dad says it means “St. Michaelsburg.” Pronounced not unlike “chick sent ME high.”)

  38. joel says

    I am a veteran of Iraq, I do not consider myself religious. I also do not consider myself an athiest. I at one point, after several near death experiences and seeing my friends being blown up by IED’s, questioned my religous beliefs. I came to the the some what ambigious conclusion that I should stay in my own limbo of sorts and expand my own knowledge from various sources while being critical where the sources are from or to whom they are written too. “thats how I was raised” a passing of culture vs. an educated decision on your own beliefs…where does it end?

  39. Ron says

    A 1st sergeant friend, after he served in the Korean War, told me; “when men on the battle field were shot and badly hurt they cry for their mothers, not god.”

  40. Steve_C says


    Are you looking for a religion that gives you the right sense of spiritual insurance?

    What is it that your seeking from religion?

    Why not shed the need and look for meaning in yourself and the world we live in?

  41. says

    I did my (the stil compulsory) stint in the Dutch army, which has a more liberal outlook on religion than the US armed forces. The brigade I was assigned to had one “spiritual care provider” per battalion: one Catholic clergyman, one Protestant clergyman and one Humanist counselor, all of whom were pretty well versed in wearing each others’ hats (as in giving advice appropriate to the soldier’s religious beliefs). The army had Jewish, muslim and Hindu spiritual care providers as well, but they were so few in number (as were soldiers of those persuasions) that they were kept at GHQ.

    I was trained as a “shake ‘n’ bake” NCO, and we were strongly encouraged, though not forced, to attend at least one religious service during training because, as future squad leaders, we might have to field questions from the guys under our command who might be interested in attending one themselves.

  42. sue says

    If Christians would only read their Bibles! The book of James says that to fear is to insult God. If they are all afraid in their foxholes, then God is really being insulted, big time! No “real” Christian would ever be afraid.

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