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Susan Jacoby In Praise Of Foxhole Atheists
Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, has a terrific essay in The Washington Post decrying the "Yahoo War!" aspect of Memorial Day, and the ridiculous and untrue notion, "There are no atheists in foxholes." She writes about her "disgust at the annual American celebration of a melding of patriotism and religion so often used to justify war":

I was at home working on Memorial Day and wanted to take a break to watch a movie on television. Fat chance. Nonstop movies glorifying war were the only movies being shown. Iwo Jima. Custer's last stand. The Civil War, including the "glorious" lost southern cause as well as the cause of ending slavery. Alvin York overcoming his pacifism. General George Patton, as certifiable a military lunatic as America has ever produced, quoting scripture and slapping a soldier with what would today be called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The endless references in these movies to the Bible, and to God keeping watch over soldiers, are as nauseating as the endless television news stories about the "miracle" of a slain U.S. soldier's family finding an Iraqi puppy who was, apparently, the last creature the doomed young soldier had a chance to cuddle.

The real face of war appears on the front page of the May 28 New York Times, in the form of a heartrending photograph of a young woman stretched out full length on the ground--a Pieta with no one to hold--in front of her fiance's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Empty arms, not answered prayers and warm puppies, are what war is about.

Make no mistake: the association of faith and sentimental "miracles" with war is not only tasteless but dangerous. Faith is used not only as consolation for the pointless deaths of young men and women but often as a rationalization for those deaths. We know that George W. Bush's consultation with a "Higher Father"--his sense of himself as the leader of his nation in a righteous, God-sanctioned mission--played an important role in his decision to launch the war.

The cliche about there being no atheists in foxholes is not entirely true, as evinced by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. What is true, as demonstrated by the annual parade of faith-based (in more ways than one) war movies, is that the American public and the media are addicted to the notion that God is on our side and watching out for our soldiers in any conflict.

This reflexive equation of patriotism with religion is a blot on our moral landscape, and it cannot be disentangled from the ubiquity of personal faith in America. Of course, there are many people whose faith moves them to oppose war. But they are still letting God off the hook in a way that requires the deepest form of denial--for individuals and for a society. Such people will argue, in circular fashion, that they are following God's will by working for peace. And why do innocent people have to be killed for the peacemakers to live out their faith and follow God's will? Don't ask, because there is no answer that makes sense.

There is nothing good to be said for keeping one's faith in the supernatural in the face of war--a man-made disaster that we are apparently doomed to repeat as long as our species endures. In time of war, we would be much better off if we lost our faith and hung on to our sense of reason.

Posted by aalkon at May 31, 2007 1:14 PM


This should be run as a guest editorial in every newspaper and on every radio and TV station in the country.

Posted by: Machida at May 31, 2007 3:10 AM

Just finished reading The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright. A good read, covering many aspects of religion in modern life and politics. Rather less extreme than Amy - but that's probably not saying much!

Posted by: Norman at May 31, 2007 3:53 AM

Religion, like everything else, is used to exploit people for a purpose. I suspect that most people, if they read the Torah and Gospel as they really are written, would be very unhappy with what they actually say rather than what they think is there. That cuts evenly between liberals and conservatives.

Personally, what I find so disgusting about most of the atheists I have met is their unadulterated collectivism. The majority of atheists I have known are statists through and through, and as such I can say with confidence that I would never risk my life for a truly secular **society** as they would envision it. A cold, illiberal, materialistic society.

Posted by: MikeT at May 31, 2007 4:44 AM

I emphasize society because it is one thing to create a secular, very limited state. It is quite another to create a secular society, in which religion has been all but purged from public life as though it were something monstrous. Ironically, there has never been a religion or theocracy more murderous and oppressive than many of the secular states of the 20th century. The Soviet Union alone, probably systematically murdered more people in the 20th than could ever be attributed to the catholic church and Islam put together.

Posted by: MikeT at May 31, 2007 4:48 AM

As somebody posted here recently, Mike, "the plural of anecdote is not data." And your notion that atheists are "cold" is just silly, and that religious motivation (which is often being good so you won't burn in hell) is anything more than self-interest. The truth is, we have built-in morality -- it's in our self-interest to be altruistic and community-spirited. Religion -- behavior based on the irrational belief in a big imaginary friend -- is, above all, a business. It's about money, and encouraging people to live without thinking and to have primitive fears keeps the collection plate full.

And Mike, silly Mike, search Roman Genn for the religion of the Soviet Union. Atheism is simply not believing in silly, unproven crap. There is no official religion of atheism, and atheists are not connected as a group except in that they have a naturalistic orientation to the world (meaning evidence-based beliefs). I don't believe in god for the same reason I don't believe that the potted plant across the room is going to hop over here and tell me a story.

If anything is responsible for the monstrosities of life -- from the Inquisition to the bringing down of the WTC, it's the irrational belief in god, and the business behind it. Heard of the Church's response to molestation cases, for example? Barbarians.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 31, 2007 5:19 AM

Irrational though it may be, there is a power in religous belief that I don't see atheism matching. The Japanese and SS soldiers of WWII had a religious fervor that gave them a strength beyond a rational measure of their manpower and resources. I don't see much rational about the current crop of jihaddists, but they are able to organize a warrior class beyond what atheists could manage.

Posted by: doombuggy at May 31, 2007 6:47 AM

I’ve seen the expression “There are no atheists in foxholes” many times in my life and from the first, it never occurred to me that it was meant to be a declaration of empirical fact. Rather, in times of great hardship, there is a human tendency to discover spiritual inclinations we had forgotten about in times of ease. If there are more atheists in modern foxholes, it might be because they have little in common with the foxholes of the Somme.
There is an arrogant aroma around atheism evidenced by the self-anointed term “freethinker.” Here is a wish from a person of faith that the avalanche of blessings you enjoy by the grace of your Creator and through the courage and ingenuity of your countrymen will continue through your days and that of your children.

Posted by: martin at May 31, 2007 7:36 AM

The "blessings" I enjoy are actually the results of the efforts and work of the rational people who do scientific and technical research, and those who apply the results of their work. Your wish for continuance is not relevant. The creators cannot take back their knowledge once it's published or otherwise distributed into the sum of human knowledge.

Posted by: Machida at May 31, 2007 8:43 AM

My wish for continued good fortune is no less relevant than the suggestion that a particular essay should be run in every newspaper, tv and radio station in the country.
Whether we realize it or not, we all believe in things bigger than ourselves, things that can’t be proven and don’t make sense. Those things might be football teams or political parties or a divine Being (or that running an essay in enough newspapers will change the world.)The human ingenuity in which some place their faith is as responsible for the horror of war as it is for the benefits of technology. And knowledge certainly can be "taken back" through the collapse or destruction of human institutions. Put your faith where you will but what seems solid in good times might turn out to be insubstantial.

Posted by: martin at May 31, 2007 9:46 AM

I didn't suggest running the essay in media sources because I thought it would change the world; I suggested running the essay because it contains excellent thought and information that could be presented to people for consideration. They may then accept the usefulness of the essay, partially accept it, or reject it. In any case they have a reasoned presentation of an alternative point of view to the platitudes typical of memorial day.

Your wish for your object of faith to exercise its goodwill only repeats well worn platitudes available in unfortunate abundance on memorial day.

Posted by: Machida at May 31, 2007 11:43 AM

"an Iraqi puppy who was, apparently, the last creature the doomed young soldier had a chance to cuddle"

I spent all of Friday with a marine who was telling me how the dogs in Iraq were huge (from eating all of the dead bodies) and that he had to spend a considerable amount of time shooting/killing them since they were a nuisance and a danger (sometimes the marines weren't able to tell whether the were seeing humans or dogs or simply werewolves).

Posted by: PurplePen at May 31, 2007 12:18 PM

The parents of the missing girl Madeleine McCann have just been to see the Pope. Why, exactly? He blessed a picture of Madeleine. Millions of people are praying for the child. Why, exactly?

Does God not know? Everyone else does. Does he not read the papers? Does it take the combined prayers of millions to get through to him? Didn't Jesus say something about little children? Is there going to be any sign that religion will have an effect not explainanble in natural terms?

Given that Maddy has an umistakable right eye, she will be very hard to pass on. If I was the kidnapper, I'd be thinking of disposal, not ransom or body parts or sex slave. It's a foul business and I hope they catch the man, before Maddy comes to harm - but don't expect any help from Big Daddy.

Posted by: Norman at May 31, 2007 1:06 PM

Killing someone is not wrong. Patton was a hero precisely because he was very effective in organizing and commanding a tremendous killing machine. His tenacity and competence is a worthy aspiration for all reasoned Americans. Where many who embrace Judeo-Christian ideology (especially atheists who hold onto Judeo-Christian ideology) get confused is equivocating the immoral practice of murder (illegal killing) with the right of self preservation. The two are not the same yet the article condemns Patton as though he were a murderer, that his life should somehow not be celebrated. He and those like him are the only reason we can freely exist today. Your life would not be your own today, but rather a cog in some fascist wheel. Tell me, how is that moral?

As for all the atheists who cling to Judeo-Christian philosophy, namely altruism and pacifism (i.e. non survivalism a.k.a. death), why haven't you come up with your own understanding of morality. You berate Christianity on one hand yet hijack its most repugnant ideas on the other, such as turning the other cheek. To treat those who are trying to kill you as equals is embracing death. We who embrace freedom and are repulsed by murder and who celebrate life through our efforts are superior to those who kill for Allah, control lives and destroy in the name of their beliefs, whether their beliefs came from Marx or Muhammad.

What truly innocent lives that are lost in any war are the responsibility and fault of those who initiated the violence (Iraq, Iran, the Taliban, etc...) We have not lost the right to our life, liberty, or property because someone has taken hostages. We can use care and humane efforts (something our enemies do not do) to mitigate the losses, but we can not embrace their culture of death because they have the innocent under their command.

I have no qualms with many religious people and a host of reservations with others. My criteria isn't whether I agree with their beliefs but rather do their beliefs agree with my individual rights (see John Locke). If Patton was motivated by his love of God and killed several million Nazi's because of that fervent belief, good for all of us! Respect or belief in God is up to you, respecting the individual rights of American citizens is the moral obligation of the government.

Posted by: Patton lover at May 31, 2007 1:42 PM

I remember reading a short story years ago by Mark Twain. I think it was "The War Prayer". In the story a church is filled the day before the troops are to march off to war. Everyone is praying for God to lead them to victory. In walks a stranger, an angel, if I recall. He asks them if he realizes what they are really asking for. If you pray for your side to win, you're asking for your God to kill, wound, maim other young men, to leave behind widows and orphans to starve, to drench the ground in the blood of your enemy. You're asking this of the God of Love.

Twenty years later and the sense of that story has never left me. I believe that war is, unfortunately, sometimes necessary, sometimes unavoidable. To add religion into that mix, though, strikes me as the antithesis of what religion is supposed to be.

Posted by: Kimberly at May 31, 2007 5:43 PM

MikeT you're obviously not using your brain. The USSR existed from 1922 to 1991 - a total of 69 yrs, do you actually think that one country in 69 yrs was responsible for more deaths then the combined 3500 yrs that Islam and Christianity have been around?

The inquisition, more than 10 crusades, the eradication of tens of millions of American Indians in the 1500s.

Do you even bother to think before you make such monumentally stupid claims??

Posted by: lujlp at May 31, 2007 11:56 PM

And whoever wrote that "The limits of utilitarianism" post on the board your name links to is an idiot.

Posted by: lujlp at June 1, 2007 12:04 AM

I don't see much rational about the current crop of jihaddists, but they are able to organize a warrior class beyond what atheists could manage.

Yes, if you're dumb enough to believe that the tooth fairy will give you a big piece of chocolate -- or 72 virgins -- if you off yourself in the name of a god there's no evidence exists, you will likely waste your life in the name of that god with abandon. Me? I see that it seems I have a few years on the planet to get a few things done, and then I'll be worms. Die for god? Yeah, right. No, I won't be in "a better place" when that happens. I'll be in the ground becoming dinner for thousands of maggots. Yum yum!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 1, 2007 4:37 AM

Yes, atheism and communism are relatively new constructs lujlp. But 100 million dead is a pretty quick start. Give it time.

If you believe in nothing, you'll belive in anything.

Posted by: mishu at June 1, 2007 8:57 AM

Mishu, did you mean, "If you believe in nothing, you'll fall for anything?"

Posted by: Flynne at June 1, 2007 10:19 AM


What exactly does your quote about belief mean? I've seen it before but it makes no sense to me. Is it a play on words like, "What's better, a ham sandwich or eternal bliss? A ham sandwich. Because nothing is better than eternal bliss, but a ham sandwich is better than nothing."

Is believing in nothing the same as not believing in anything? (Formally, for all X [it is not the case that {I believe in X}].) In which case, it seems to be the direct contradiction of the second part of the claim (for all X [it is the case that {I believe in X}]).

Or does it mean believing in the idea of nothingness? In which case, how does that lead to believing, say, that the universe has an almighty creator who kills a kitten every time I jack off?

Either way, I don't see how it applies to me. I certainly believe in some things, such as that I exist. Pretty hard not to believe that. Even if I am just a brain in a vat, I still exist as a brain in a vat. I don't know if I believe in nothingness because I'm not sure what it is ... a bit like believing in eternity, or perfect goodness. These are, I think, meaningless words, so, no, I don't firmly believe them. Do you?

So, do I believe in anything, or not? See, that quote has me all worked up, so I don't know where I stand.

Posted by: Norman at June 1, 2007 11:56 AM

The inquisition, more than 10 crusades, the eradication of tens of millions of American Indians in the 1500s.

1) The inquisition only killed a few thousand people in Spain.
2) If you actually look at the Crusades, you will see that they were almost entirely conducted by secular monarchs, not by the Roman Catholic Church itself. In fact, not all of them even had the backing of the Roman Catholic Church.
3) Most of the deaths of American Indians were due to disease. In some cases, such as the Aztecs and some of the North Eastern Indians it was by war and disease, but the wars were lead by secular colonial authorities, not by the church. In fact, in North America, they were entirely conducted by secular colonial governments.

Do you get your anti-religion arguments out of the standard, boilerplate crackerjack box of atheist arguments?

Posted by: MikeT at June 1, 2007 1:04 PM

Furthermore, the crusades were conducted as counter-jihad wars to reclaim non-European land that used to be Christian lands. You seem to be ignorant of your history. Either that, or you're a total hypocrite. The Muslims waged war on every religious group around them, and eradicated many religious groups ranging from the Manicheans to almost entirely wiping out the Zoroastrians. They took over half of the territories that were mostly Christian, and the remainder of the Christian territories eventually rallied and took the war back to the Muslims.

I fail to see why the Crusades are **any** worse than the Islamic imperialism that sparked them.

Posted by: MikeT at June 1, 2007 1:07 PM

"I fail to see why the Crusades are **any** worse than the Islamic imperialism that sparked them."

I'm not going to get into the whole argument, but this part of yours is a little flawed if you're trying to deny the influence of religion on the deaths during the Crusades. The argument wasn't that only the Crusaders were killers, but that many people died during the Crusades. The "Islamic imperialism" was, um, Islamic. Which, last time I checked was religious. So religion did lead to those deaths.

Posted by: Kimberly at June 1, 2007 2:13 PM

Amy, consider this from Wikipedia about religion in the Soviet Union: Although the Soviet Union was officially secular, supported atheist ideology and suppressed religion. I also never suggested that my experiences with atheists are universal truths. How you got that out of that is beyond me, since I tried to make it clear that I was only speaking my opinion based on my experiences.

If you cannot call the Soviet Union "officially atheist" then it is meaningless to attribute religion in any form to other governments such as the French, British, members of the Holy Roman Empire or the Hungarian government during the time of the crusades. Those monarchs supported religion no more or less than the leadership of the Soviet Union advanced atheism. You may not like the comparison because it's unflattering to atheists to learn that as a group they are at least as barbaric as any religion taken as a group, when they get power. Religious groups are every bit as diverse as atheists can be called.

Posted by: MikeT at June 1, 2007 2:23 PM

I am not trying to deny the influence of religion. I'm denying the fact that the Crusades were launched by a religion. Many people talk about the Crusades as though they were launched by the Roman Catholic Church itself. That is, of course, total rubbish as the papal armies never reached a level of power capable of doing more than defending the papal states in Italy. The Crusades were sometimes agitated for by a religious body, but executed by secular leaders. Not even all of them were even originally sought by the Roman Catholic Church either. What, then, do you make of those? Religion was a factor in the Crusades, but then anti-imperialism was at least as big of a factor as most Europeans didn't look fondly on the idea of falling under the sword of Islam. Given that religion was about the only thing they had in common as a culture, it was an easy point to identify with one another.

Posted by: MikeT at June 1, 2007 3:45 PM

MikeT in regards to the crusades - they were fought in order to advance a religious ideology - from both sides. The reasons for the crusades are immaterial - they were inspired by religion and therefore their death tolls are counted

An you have yet to provide and data that show one government killing more people in less that 7 decades compared to the combined total of 3.5 millennia of Christianity and Islam.

And your argument of "unadulterated collectivism" is crap. More theist are against the death penalty than Christians or Muslims

And nice job by the way it seems I can no longer post on your linked board, so please feel free to make character assassinations against me all you want

And since I cant respond to you claims on our board I’ll do it here, your original statement was the USSR killed more people in less than 7 decades then in the 2 millennia both Christianity and islam have been around.

Trying to divide probable mortality rates by number of years to give the USSR a higher death rate via statistics is an exercise in futility, why you ask, because that wasn’t your original assertion

Your original assertion was USSR killed more people than all of Islam and Catholicism combined, but if you cant even remember your own statements I can see why you aren’t mounting any sort of defense for your arguments either

Posted by: lujlp at June 3, 2007 2:55 AM

if anyone is around and cares...
Altruism is the root of both communism and religion. Maybe y'all should get together and commiserate on the evils of altruism.

Posted by: newjonny at June 3, 2007 2:41 PM

newjonny, altruism is an evolved adaptation in all humans -- as is what we think of as morality. When I get to it, I'll post a brilliant talk on "the prisoner's dilemma" by Martin Nowak from the evolution conference I just went to.

You don't need religion for people to not kill each other, and regarding that statement about the USSR killing people, again, atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in silly, unproven crap. The systems for morality are within all of us. We need each other and needed each other especially during the ancestral environment when the psychology that we have now evolved. We're still living with a very old operating system. Until you read about it enough to be able to debate it you should probably avoid going on about it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 4, 2007 5:45 AM

Morality is not a part of every human, in fact the very flawed nature of humanity is only too evident in history. Stalin didn't run his gulags by himself, Hitler didn't run his KZ system without assitance, and Mao didn't murder 100 million Chinese all by his lonesome. While the notion of Chattell slavery has been opposed by Jews and Christians (excluding some protestant sects) it was never a problem for the pagan Romans. Nor were centuries of warfare in the name of conquest. If people were so moral by nature you wouldn't see shoplifting cost the retail industry millions upon millions of dollars let alone truely horrific crimes like human trafficking. Morality is a religious concept, as is violation of morality (sin). Outside of those that sought the God of Abraham there was never any conception of sin. Social mores are certainly not what some would like to claim are part of human beings' nature. Pagans the world over placed little, if any, value on human life. In pagan soceity, like that of modern Japan, you still see this this devalued notion of life. It's culturally accepted, and even expected, that people should kill themselves if they fail in business or don't get into the right college. If morality was, as some claim, inborn then we would see a uniform moral standard across history and culture. The reality is quite different. No, people are sick and there is only one doctor that can offer any help there.

Posted by: Mark at June 9, 2007 2:06 AM

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