Atheists in Foxholes

Last week, Barry Saunders, a columnist for The News & Observer, wrote an article in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. Here’s how he began that article:

No atheists in foxholes? Maybe not, but there are probably no atheists anywhere when Americans hear that college students, studying to make the world and themselves better, have been massacred.

Was I the only person from whose throat escaped an involuntary “Oh, Lord” upon hearing of the campus carnage at Virginia Tech?

I didn’t think so.

Well, that was completely ignorant of him. And atheists (rightfully) got angry, called him up, and sent him emails explaining that we exist during massacres, in foxholes, and amidst any tragedy.

Saunders’ column today provides a response to the atheists. There’s no apology. He apparently doesn’t understand why atheists are upset. And even worse: how could we be upset in the midst of the Virginia Tech shootings?

I honestly thought it was a joke, a poor one, that anybody could take umbrage at a line about atheists in foxholes — especially in light of the national tragedy that was still unfolding in Blacksburg, Va.

Upon realizing that I had somehow stepped on atheists’ toes, I thoughtfully, patiently explained that I thought everybody calls on something when things get hairy.

“No, that is not true,” wrote an atheist named Valinda. “That is a bold face lie and an insult. You are incredibly ignorant and rude. Atheists do not pray. Which word of ‘atheists do not pray’ did you not understand?”

An atheist named Jason also responded to him:

Jason the atheist wrote to call me a bigot and said: “Your saying that I would pray is disrespectful of my conviction. … Again, there are atheists in the wake of this tragedy. We grieve and seek resolution in our own way, and your statements make the situation worse.”

Say what?

He continued: “I’ve been in combat with bombs dropping and I didn’t pray. I’ve seen others … in combat situations not praying. There are atheists in foxholes.”

Just in case I didn’t believe him, he sent me a link to a Web site called — swear to Darwin — Military Association of Atheists in Foxholes.

Actually, that group is called Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. How did Saunders screw that one up? All you have to do is click on the link to see the group’s name. Maybe going to a website whose name alone proves the foxhole statement wrong is too much to ask of a journalist.

He spends the rest of the column making jokes about atheists. You know, to redeem himself. And lest we get more upset over the foxholes comment, he adds this gem:

Wouldn’t you think that people who so strenuously profess to not believe in a god would be a lot less inhibited, less — hmmm, what’s the scientific word I’m looking for? — anal?

We’re not anal. In fact, I wish more atheists would get riled up when they hear these lies told about them. This incident does go to show, though, that if we respond to columnists like Saunders, they can’t ignore us.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Barry Saunders, The News & Observer, Virginia Tech, massacre, atheists in foxholes, God, Lord, Blacksburg, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers[/tags]

  • Mriana

    Oh brother! *rolling eyes* and even if we did exclaim “Oh god!” it means nothing. It’s just an exclaimation of surprise, just as “Oh my goodness is”. Geeze! I think even Dawkins commented on this lame idea before. Any other time when used like curses (God!, Jesus Christ!, etc), it would tick a theist off big time and they’d be accusing the person of taking “the Lord’s” name in vain. Of course, so what do we care? It’s a catch-22. Theist either want to accuse us of cursing or praying when we use such words, when they are just words and mean nothing. Good grief!

  • Susan

    Ugh. If I hear one more person use that stupid cliche…

    If I suddenly found myself in a foxhole I can assure you I wouldn’t be praying to God or converting to any religion. I’d be terrified out of my mind, certainly, but I wouldn’t be waiting and hoping for somebody else to save me (deity or human), I’d be attempting to figure out how to get myself out! And if I were there on purpose, I’d be doing my job to the best of my ability, and accepting the knowlege that I might not survive. What these people forget is that while it’s true that everyone feels fear, not everyone reacts to it in the same way.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Ugh. This guy makes me sick. The atheist responders had a respectable level of outrage and he responded with belittling rudeness. I’m having a hard time stopping myself from writing a profanity-laced hatemail right now. I hope other people out there can complain more constructively than I can.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    I just reread the first article and I think I see where he was coming from. He sounds like a theist who believes the “no atheists in foxholes” to be true, but he’s also someone who doesn’t take the statement as a real argument against atheism. His “no atheists” in the article is referring to the exclamations “My God” etc that typically eminate from all of us regardless of whether we actually believe in God. The linkage between the first couple of paragraphs and the body shows this: he says “Nor was I the only person who cussed out loud when the president’s spokeswoman preceded him to the microphone and assured gun makers their livelihoods weren’t in danger.” In his mind, he’s merely talking about the exclamation, not the belief. That’s probably why he’s so incredulous at the level of outrage he received, too.

    He should go reread the article and see why his first 4 sentences sound like an attack on atheists. The intro was completely unrelated to the rest of the column and really shows his casual disregard for atheists, intended or not.

    Unless it was a ploy just to bait atheists while still trying to act innocent, trying to show atheists as uppity cry babies etc. Do you think I’m getting a little too ‘conspiracy theory’ here?

  • Nostromo

    There is a story about comedian W.C. Fields, a renowned nonbeliever, being asked on his deathbed why he was reading the Bible.

    “Just looking for loopholes,” he replied.

    If I were an atheist, that’s what I’d be doing, too. You know, just to cover all the bases.

    So, this guy writes his wish list to Santa every year, just in case, right?

  • http://www.crablaw.com Bruce/Crablaw

    I think it’s acceptable to go hard-nosed on a columnist but perhaps unwise to take such a hard tack at the human level with friends and acquaintances. Hemant alluded to this principle in another post today. Even with reporters, it may be better to assume stupidity than ill motive or intent to deceive. Maybe something like “I know it’s a cliche, and you probably meant well, but it’s actually false. It might sound like a petty issue whether there are any atheists in the foxholes, but has your paper reported on the run-around that Pat Tillman’s family is getting because they are not Christians? Are you up-to-date on the shocking facts of that case?” Thus forcing the reporter to admit ignorance, but on something that’s not his core competence so he doesn’t get hyper defensive.

    Using colloquial English expressions like “Oh God” is no more evidence of worship than referring to the fifth day of the week as Th[o]r[']sday.

    My two cents – best to all.

  • Richard Wade

    Hey Bruce,
    Your two cents were very helpful stuff. Thank you.

  • bk

    I wonder (well I don’t really) what Saunders would think if we took his article and flipped it on its head – replacing atheist with Christian and Christian with atheist. No doubt he would find offense, there is only one reason he can be so flip – he is in a majority group.

  • Andrew

    I am an atheist in a foxhole (so to speak). I am writing this comment from a computer in Iraq. I am also a member of MAAF. I have been under fire and praying was the last thing on my mind.
    The page on the MAAF site that lists the members is called “Atheists in Foxholes”. Maybe that is where the confusion came from.