"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's an ongoing battle. Just last month, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, praised the military's diversity by saying "Agnostics, atheists and bigots suddenly lose all that when their life is on the line." Atheist groups reacted swiftly, releasing a statement that "Nonbelievers are serving, and have served, in our nation's military with distinction!" The National Guard said they received about 20 letters objecting to Blum's statement, and said his comments were "intended to clearly illustrate the positive spirit of camaraderie, human understanding and inclusion of our fine men and women in the National Guard."
In the past several years, atheists have organized letter-writing campaigns against Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer (who issued a public apology) and other news anchors for repeating the "no atheists in foxholes" cliché on TV. And on Veteran's Day 2005, several dozen atheist veterans paraded down the National Mall bearing American flags and signs reading "Atheist Veteran-We Shared Your Foxholes!"
Master Sgt. Johnson says atheists in the military face prejudice. "Before I got to be the rank I am I had to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I had commanding officers who made it clear that they wouldn't tolerate atheism in their ranks." Military leaders deny any discrimination. "Service in the military is open to people of all creeds and religions," says Michael Milord, Lieutenant Colonel of the Air National Guard. Officially, the Department of Defense considers atheism a creed like other faiths. New recruits can choose Atheist, Agnostic, or No Religious Preference for their dog tag identifications. And an atheist symbol, which resembles an atom, is among the dozens of "approved emblems of belief" that can appear on the headstones of fallen soldiers in military cemeteries.
Would a soldier really die without faith? Says Bowling Green State University's Ken Pargament, a professor specializing in the psychology of religion and coping, "If someone is a committed atheist, they're likely to stay a committed atheist."