Military Atheists Miss the Mark with Chaplain “Humor”

US Army Sergeant Justin Griffith has recently been named the “military director” of American Atheists, the group founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair (the famous atheist who tried to take on NASA).

He proudly announced that his “first act” was to arm his “fellow foxhole atheists” with “humor” to fight the “condescending theist” statement “there are no atheists in foxholes.” To wit (formatting original):

Technically, there really are no Chaplains in foxholes (in the US military.) They are designated ‘non combatants’, are not assigned a weapon, and are not supposed to be on the front lines of a battlefield. If they somehow stumbled into a foxhole, it would cease being a fighting position. It would simply be a hole…

In the hopes of this becoming a meme that eventually kills the offensive statement altogether, I pass it on to you. I encourage all of my fellow service members to use it. Use it respectfully, but fearlessly. You are right. They are wrong.

Unfortunately, Griffith is wrong, and his attempt at wit falls flat.  A foxhole is not defined by whether or not a Chaplain is in it any more than a war is defined by the location of its front lines.  (Ask the Soldiers in Humvees and MRAPs with Chaplains onboard if they think their vehicle is still for “fighting.”)  He ignores the fact the US military does “[assign] a weapon” to Chaplains — it’s in the hands of the Chaplain’s assistant, standing right next to him, charged with protecting the Chaplain with lethal force.

Griffith also grossly misstates facts when he says Chaplains “are not supposed to be on the frontlines.”  Not only is there no such law of war or policy on where Chaplains are “supposed to be,” Chaplains have been “on the front lines” in the US military for centuries, serving US troops’ spiritual needs and protecting their rights to free exercise — wherever they go.

As an organization’s new “military director,” Griffith could avoid such basic errors by doing some reading before making similar pronouncements in the future.  As it stands, instead of a witty repartee about opinions and claimed beliefs, Griffith ends up “offending” a group of Soldiers solely by virtue of the military positions in which they serve.

As noted previously, the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” addresses a legitimate, if controversial, discussion on belief.  It is no more offensive than “there are no Christians in foxholes” — a phrase Griffith essentially promotes when he said it was “so true” that

maybe there are only atheists in foxholes.

While military atheists and military Christians have certainly fought — and died — for their country, it is also not uncommon for stories to be told about men and women in the US military “finding” or “losing” God due to their experiences in combat.  Likewise, just as people have questioned how a person could face their own mortality and not acknowledge God, others have questioned how one who did acknowledge God could fight in a war.  Thus, the conversation is valid.

Griffith, however, ends up not questioning troops’ beliefs, but their decision to serve their country in a specific military position.  He could just have easily said there “are no doctors in foxholes,” because medical professionals are also non-combatants.

Such a statement would no doubt be offensive to those doctors who have died in combat, despite the fact they weren’t combatants.  It is offensive because the criticism has nothing to do with their chosen ideology or opinion; it disparages them for the means by which they’ve chosen to serve their country.

Likewise, despite Griffith’s attempted humor, Chaplains who choose to serve in a position without a weapon are not any less in “combat” than the surgeon or Soldier standing next to them “in the foxhole.”  Just as it is offensive to doctors who have served and died in combat, the same is true for Chaplains who have given their lives in “foxholes” and on the “frontlines,” precisely where they’re supposed to be.  In fact, more than a dozen Chaplains have received the Medal of Honor and many more the Purple Heart.  When someone pointed this out to him, Griffith said those Chaplains were “in the distant past:”

Chaplains are NON-COMBATANTS these days. They are specifically banned from firing weapons, going in foxholes, being on the frontlines, etc. What you are talking about is from the distant past, and does not represent any current chaplains.

The family of Chaplain Dale Goetz is one of several who would likely disagree.

American Atheist military director Griffith would do well to share where one can find the “specific ban” preventing Chaplains from “going in foxholes, being on the frontlines, etc.” — especially in an era of warfare in which there are no clear frontlines.  As this site frequently notes, it seems US military Chaplains “violate” his “specific ban” every day.  While some degree of ignorance or naiveté is understandable, Griffith is still emphatic.  It’s as if he thinks belittling the Chaplains’ service gains atheists some form of credibility.

(For perspective, consider the World War II US Army video with “Chaplain” Ronald Reagan.  The fictional Chaplain occupies a “foxhole” with Soldiers and ultimately sacrifices himself…on the frontlines.)

Just as military Christians can respond without irrational offense when someone asks “I thought Christians were supposed to turn the other cheek…?” military atheists can likewise use the opportunity to share their beliefs.  As the American Atheists’ new “military director,” Griffith does not improve the situation by trying to make it “us” vs “them” — and it is certainly not an atheist vs Chaplain issue. 

Griffith’s “first act” as the “military director” of the atheist group was a flop, but it’s early yet.  There have been some prior positive happenings, so hopefully he’ll learn (read the regs) and improve, moving beyond clichés.  Maybe his second act will be something that celebrates “reason” and provides support for his fellow atheists — without having to denigrate religion, Chaplains, or Christians in the process.


  • I must disagree with you. As a former surgeon in the USAF, I volunteered for active duty and to deploy to Iraq during heavy battle, knowing the risk to my life. At the same time, I knew I would not see the actual fighting unless the enemy brought it onto base. I was not a combatant, not in the foxholes, and never, in any sort of way, ashamed of that fact. You, yourself, are just as protected in a jet. When you are face to face with the enemy, ground under your feet, nothing between you but clothing and hand weapons, then you can say otherwise. I respect those who fight close combat, in foxholes and out, as being a special breed. Each of us has, as you might call it, our own calling. Mine is to do all in my power to save their lives and their functional capacities, after battle. I bear no shame. I am proud to support our combat warriors. Any chaplain who feels any less needs to doff the religious protection, quit being a wannabe, and get in the fight. I’ll stitch him or her up after battle, too.

  • @Brain Logic
    Not quite sure where you’re getting the theme of “shame” or the idea that “Chaplains..feel any less.” In fact, the proud and honorable service of Americans in the positions of medical professionals and Chaplains is the point.

    If you traveled outside the wire your Humvee or MRAP did not cease to be a fighting position (unless it had a red cross painted on the side), nor could someone have legitimately questioned your credentials as a doctor. Your position in the service is not a relevant analogy to ideology, which is the point of the article above.

    chaplain who feels any less needs to doff the religious protection…

    What “religious protection?”

  • So, the writer of this article gets upset with the position that there aren’t chaplains in foxholes. To quote Bruce Willis from Die Hard, “welcome to the party.” Atheists have been diparaged for decades by saying they are cowards and turn to a god when in combat. It is a complete lie often furthered by those whose closet they have been in combat, is watching Saving Private Ryan. A good movie by the way. The author writes, “As noted previously, the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” addresses a legitimate, if controversial, discussion on belief.” Stating lies about atheist combat veterans who stated that yes, they were atheist combat vets even in combat, is a conversation? Maybe I should re-check the dictionary to see if conversation is a word that has been recently redefined. No, it is an insult stated of atheists, who because of their lack of voice in society have to suffer the insult. It is obviously not true and shows a lack of intellect or knowledge or basic common sense on the person saying it.

    There are obviously Christians, atheists, chaplains at times, Jews, Muslims in combat but only atheists are the one time and time again said to be cowards who in a time of war always (not sometimes but always) become theists. It is a stupid lie that needs to be discarded.

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