Miami Herald Columnist Uses “No Atheists in Foxholes” Phrase

Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote a decent article about how Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has frequently opposed big government but is now backtracking because of the BP disaster:

[Jindal] is singing a new song, starkly at odds with what he said last year in a speech before the Republican faithful. Now he’s begging for federal “interference.” He wants federal money, federal supplies, wants the feds to help create barrier islands to protect Louisiana wetlands from oil.

But if you read the article, one part stands out for obvious reasons:

As there are no atheists in foxholes, it turns out there are no small-government disciples in massive oil spills. No, with BP oil soaking the sands of his coastline, Jindal turned righteously to that big, sometimes bloated, often intrusive federal government, and asked for help. He said: Send money, send resources.

You will notice he never once said: Send less.

Obviously, there are many atheists in foxholes.

Look no further than the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers for evidence of that.

It doesn’t sound like Pitts was purposely being anti-atheist.

Rather, he was just ignorant about this issue and fell into a harmful cliché. It’s especially relevant considering it’s Memorial Day and atheists (like people of faith) have died in service for our country.

So let’s educate him. Send him an email letting him know there are indeed atheists who serve our country honorably.

Keep it polite and rational.

I personally want to see an apology from him, at the very least. A column about patriotic atheists would be nice, too…

***Update***: You can see Pitt’s response here.

(Thanks to Jeff for the link)

  • http://yetanotheratheist.net Yet Another Atheist

    If he had said anything like “As most Catholic priests are child-molesting perverts…” I’m sure he would’ve received a backlash like nothing else in history. But since the cliché is about atheists, it’s apparently just fine and dandy.

  • http://beerwithstrangers.com Tony Russo

    “The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes. I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterwards, and he said, ‘There’s a Chaplain who never visited the front.’ “[Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus, pg. 182]

  • Matt

    I’ve been a reader of Leonard’s columns for years. While he’s progressive on a lot of issues, he has the blindspot a lot of religious people have toward atheists. I think a gentle reminder with a link to resources would serve better to enlighten him than an inbox full of anger.

  • SpencerDub

    Matt’s exactly right. Pitts’ column is usually a treat to read; however, he benefits from religious privilege and that occasionally comes across in his writing, as seen here.

  • http://twitter.com/Heinlein_Fan Heinlein_Fan

    As far as using this worn-out phrase, this has to be one of the most innocuous examples I’ve seen. It’s pretty obvious to me that he just used it as a way to springboard into his topic using a somewhat common phrase. I don’t see any malice or even any evidence that this is something he really believes is true. I think an apology is a lot to ask for in this case. By all means drop him a polite email if you feel strongly about it and maybe he’ll gain a bit of education on the subject, but honestly this seems like a pretty minor issue.

  • Mel

    http://abstrusegoose.com/258

    There are in fact atheists in foxholes as these geniuses have clearly put it. Enjoy!!!

  • http://twitter.com/A_Naturalist A_Naturalist

    My open letter to Mr. Pitts

    Subject: No atheists in foxholes? I beg to differ.

    Dear Mr. Pitts,

    In your attempt to highlight Louisiana Governor Jindahl’s conversion on the issue of federal spending, you demonstrated ignorance about and disrespect for the men and women of the military who choose not to believe in a deity. And since it is Memorial Day, your comment could not have been more ill-timed.

    By invoking this tired cliche (“there are no atheist in foxholes”), you are perpetuating the myth that all people turn to the supernatural for intervention when faced with their own mortality. On the contrary, we atheist do not feel the need to invoke superstition and magic when faced with life’s uncertainties. Instead, we wish to serve humankind by valuing responsibility and trusting reason and our innate morality. If you would like more information, please visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at: http://www.maaf.info/

    Please help us spread the word that atheists, agnostics, and humanists are not lost souls who disingenuously invoke faith in dire circumstances. Instead, we are loving, moral people who are willing to serve your country not because a god told us to do it, but because we believe it is right.

    Regards,

    A_Naturalist

  • http://skeptigirl.wordpress.com Kimbo Jones

    Heinlein_Fan: The fact that this comment even happens and is seen as “not a big deal” is the whole problem. Atheists fly under the radar of religious privilege and, though subtle, this kind of thing continues to perpetuate 1) a stereotype of atheists and serving military personnel and 2) a “who cares” attitude about what atheists are about. This is exactly the kind of thing that *should* be corrected so this ignorance (purposeful or not) can be avoided in the future, hopefully contributing to a better atmosphere for all atheists.

  • http://supercheetah.livejournal.com supercheetah

    @Heinlein_Fan: It’s offensive when teenagers say, “That’s so gay!” (for something they think is stupid) even if they intend no malice. It contributes to hostile atmosphere for gays, and encourages those who would mean malice.

    The same goes for this statement. I don’t think he meant any malice by the phrase, but, again, it contributes to a hostile atmosphere for atheists, and encourages those who would be malicious.

  • Ken McKnight

    This is the email I sent:

    Mr. Pitts:

    “No atheists in foxholes”? Surely resorting to facile stereotypes isn’t an effective way to make your point. There are and have been many patriotic atheists in our country’s history who have not found it necessary to embrace a ridiculous myth in the face of danger. Pat Tillman is an easy example that leaps to mind.

    That you repeat such an inanity on Memorial Day only exacerbates the insult.

    If you have a shred of integrity you will publish an apology in your next column.

    Thank you,
    Ken McKnight

  • Grimalkin

    My open letter:

    Hello,

    I rather enjoyed your article posted recently in the Wichita Eagle. You’re certainly correct that the small government libertarian position is, for the most part, pretty ill-thought out (sort of a “I don’t want the government interfering with my desires, but I do want it protecting me from my fears!” kind of thing).

    Unfortunately, you pulled the “there are no Atheists in foxholes” cliche at the end. It’s a shame, because that’s a really bigoted statement and it completely ruins whatever else you might have said. A hundred years ago, it would have been acceptable to make a similar joke about Jews or African Americans, and I can only hope that, a hundred years from now, there will be a similar outcry to such statements being made about Atheists. It seems like we are one of the last groups that it is considered okay to dehumanise.

    The fact of the matter is that there are Atheists in foxholes – many of them, in fact. If you are interested in correcting your error, you could check out the website of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (http://www.maaf.info/) for starters.

    You seem like a good guy and I’m sure that you meant no harm by your statement. It’s one of those cultural things that, unfortunately, most people who aren’t Atheists and who aren’t the butt of these sorts of statements don’t have to deal with and, therefore, never think about. I hope that this has provided you with an opportunity to learn a little more about us and I look forward to seeing your apology.

    Cheers!

  • Roxane

    Anybody who doesn’t think there are atheists in foxholes obviously hasn’t heard about this guy:

    http://apps.facebook.com/blognetworks/blog/the_foxhole_atheist/?_fb_fromhash=bf2bf0bd3aee2a03f7fc145b4ae3ef80

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/gettingfreeftw gettingfree

    Here’s my email…

    Subject: Claim that there are “No atheists in foxholes” is false

    Mr Pitts,

    The claim that there are “No atheists in foxholes” is false. I know this is a saying that the general public likes to use, but a journalist – such as yourself – should not be so careless with this phrase as it is simply not true. There are many documented atheists in foxholes. For example, please see the website http://www.maaf.info/expaif.html, which maintains a list of atheists in foxholes and has reached nearly 200 members at this point. And I suspect the numbers are greater but often atheists feel compelled to keep their atheism to themselves because it is unpopular to be an atheist (for example, your slanderous use of the “no atheists in foxholes” myth in your article).

    You really owe the great men and women atheists who have served this country and helped to maintain YOUR freedom and safety an apology.

  • Allie

    Here’s my letter:

    Mr. Pitts,

    I greatly enjoy your columns and find myself agreeing with you most of the time. However, I found the phrase “As there are no atheists in foxholes…” from your Free-market religion article to be not only untrue but hurtful. We atheists face enough discrimination is today’s ultra-religious society without educated people like yourself denying the contributions we have made in the military during wartime. There are literally thousands of us serving in the US military right now, just as there are millions more atheists at home, holding down jobs and going about our daily lives–waiting for our loved ones to return home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only that, but to say that there are “no atheists in foxholes” impugns our honor and the honestly of our disbelief by implying that, if our lives were at stake, we would renounce atheism and pray for salvation.

    I’m sure that your intention was not to be hurtful. I beg you please to retract your words and to acknowledge the significant contributions that have been and are being made by atheist servicemen and women, both abroad and at home. And I beg you please to think before you print such a thing again. After all, if someone said, “there are no Jews in foxholes” you would no doubt find it as offensive as I found your casual discrimination.

  • fritzy

    That’s really unfortunate as I typically find myself agreeing with Mr. Pitts. I have found myself saying the same thing about Mr Jindal over the past week as I listen to him not just asking for the federal governments help but even chiding them for not acting quickly enough. What a shame that Mr Pitts would have to spoil an otherwise excellent article with bigotted nonsense.

    Heinlein_fan–I agree that Mr Pitts likely meant no malice by this comment, just as most people meant nothing particularly venemous when they said stingy Asian, greedy Jew or lazy black. But it’s wrong none the less and as previous commentors have pointed out, it is the very fact that this kind of phrase is thrown around so carelessly that it needs to be nipped in the bud everytime we hear someone saying it.

  • Richard Wade

    Here’s what I emailed to Mr. Pitts:

    Dear Mr. Pitts,

    From what my friends who are more familiar with your work tell me, I think it is likely that you meant no particular malice or offense when in your recent column you used the simile about there not being any atheists in foxholes.

    There are many atheists in foxholes who are just as patriotic and brave as their comrades. They are willing to risk their one and only life without any comforting belief that they will have an afterlife.

    This tired, false, unkind cliché is perpetuated by two kinds of people: Vicious, demagogic, religious bigots, and not-so-bad folks who just aren’t thinking about it carefully. I’m assuming that you are in the second category.

    Your remark was,
    “As there are no atheists in foxholes, it turns out there are no small-government disciples in massive oil spills.”

    I agree with the point you’re trying to make about the feet of clay of small government disciples when it’s their home state that is being destroyed, but if you were to substitute any of the following similes at the beginning of that sentence, you might be able to see how ugly it is:

    As there are no Jews at a charity function,…
    As there are no blacks where there’s hard work to do,…
    As there are no women where rationality is needed,…
    As there are no blonds at a Mensa meeting,…
    As there are no gays where the going gets tough,…

    If just one of the above similes is embarrassing or distasteful to you, and you wouldn’t even consider using it, then ask yourself why the bigoted lie about atheists is one that your sense of decency missed, or why you felt it was acceptable.

    Please look into yourself and cleanse yourself of this limited but still hurtful insensitivity that discredits you more than it illustrates your point. I’m sure that you can find similes and metaphors that would work much better without inadvertently insulting the many atheists who otherwise enjoy your column and agree with much of what you have to say.

    Thank you,
    Richard Wade

  • brent

    meh.

    calm down.

    “no atheists in a foxhole” is a meaningful comment – implying that rationalism goes out the window when the trees are exploding. I get that.

    Even if it’s not strictly True – maybe those frantically praying Bastogne soldiers are only praying because the ^&(*ing trees are exploding, not because they love a magnificent god………. even then, you know what they mean.

    And when he then says “No small govt advocates in an emergency” you know what he means.

    Calm down.

  • http://laughinginpurgatory.blogspot.com/ Andrew Hall

    This is a good post because not only does it illustrate a common problem, but your recommended response is designed to gently tell Mr. Pitts that he is wrong.

  • Joe_No_Halo

    My letter to Leonard Pitts:

    Dear Mr. Pitts,

    Thank you for casting light on the hypocracy of Governor Jindal. Let’s hope the crow he will have to eat does not come in a BP oil sauce.

    But I mainly write to tsk-tsk you for writing in your column a tired cliche’. “As there are no atheists in foxholes…”? Surely, you must be kidding. As someone who regularly stands with you on your published viewpoints, I would have bet my American freedoms that you had met atheists that serve in the Armed Forces. In case you haven’t and need proof that they do in fact serve, please visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (www.maaf.info).

    As your column was printed on Memorial Day, I believe you may owe atheist soldiers an apology.

    Joe Mercado Jr.

  • Gabriel

    Here is a copy of my email.

    Dear Mr. Pitts,

    I am writing about your column in the Miami Herald where you write about Governor Jindal. You used the phrase “no atheists in foxholes”. I don’t think you meant to be offensive but you were. I served 8 years in the Navy reserve including a deployment to Kuwait in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Noble Eagle. I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal along with several other decorations. My dog tags always listed me as an atheist. I am not the only atheist who has ever served. I want you to know we are there. Many of us have died in defense of our country.

    Sincerely,

    Gabriel Brawley

  • SpencerDub

    @brent:

    meh.

    calm down.

    “no atheists in a foxhole” is a meaningful comment – implying that rationalism goes out the window when the trees are exploding. I get that.

    I don’t think anyone here is acting in a way that would necessitate being told to “calm down.” We’re not rallying for our pitchforks, we’re not screaming at Pitts that he’s wrong and should be beheaded. To be honest, this is one of the most level-headed, sane set of responses I’ve seen to an issue like this.

    “Calm down” in this case seems to translate to, “Don’t take issue with this.”

    But that’s ridiculous. That’s exactly what we’re talking about here. Valid points have been made in this thread already regarding this, but an obvious parallel is the pejorative use of the word “gay.” Not all high school kids who use “gay” as an insult actually think that being gay is bad. But by using it in a pejorative manner, they contribute further to a climate of intolerance, making actual homophobia acceptable.

    As long as the phrase is treated as if it has any value, intent doesn’t matter. Discriminatory language supports a climate of intolerance, and Mr. Pitts’ use of the “no atheists in foxholes” canard perpetuates a pernicious stereotype. So what if he actually meant to make a more vague point about rationality in times of crisis, like you suggest? We as readers can only read his text, not his mind, and his text relies upon an untrue stereotype.

    (What’s more, some vestige of rational thought may get scrambled during times of crisis, but given the existence of atheists and freethinkers in the military, nonreligious firefighters, and other nonreligious people who have survived stressful, chaotic experiences, there’s no reason to believe that all rationality vanishes in those circumstances.)

  • http://www.limetwists.com Cole

    Speaking of the “No atheists in foxholes” line.. I was playing through DICE’s Bad Company 2 game, and the helicopter pilot Ghost Rider is supposedly an atheistic buddhist who has a “change of heart” of sorts (spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t played the game and wants to) after being held hostage in a Russian torture camp. I was so shocked that I went back and played that chapter a second time with subtitles on to be sure I’d heard it right.

  • Luther

    “no atheists in a foxhole” is a meaningful comment – implying that rationalism goes out the window when the trees are exploding. I get that.

    How about if he substituted “there are no Christians in a foxhole.”?

    I suppose some lightly rational atheists might change their mind and hedge their bets under stress, yet for every one, there are likely several believers in the same situation that would suddenly believe God was an evil, nonexistent, or helpless myth for not preventing war or tripping up the other side.

  • Jenea

    Did anyone get a response? Mine came down to, “I didn’t mean anything by it, but there are some atheists who find God in a foxhole.” It was reasonable and polite, but ultimately dismissive.

  • Vas

    “I didn’t mean anything by it, but there are some atheists who find God in a foxhole.”
    Name one.

  • fritzy

    Jenea;

    Yeah, that is regretably dismissive. So what if there are atheists that find God in a foxhole? There’s a number of xtians that have also written about how they left their faith in a foxhole as well. That’s not the point. He’s not only being dismissive with that response, he’s being evasive and skirting the real issue. And he certainly is not providing anything approximating an apology. And yes, he did mean “something” by it–after all; he used the phrase, so it must have had some meaning to him.

    Sad–I typically have a lot of respect for Mr. Pitts. Religion really does poison everything.

  • Laura

    First: Yep, it’s a bad cliche, and it does smack of religious privilege.

    Second: He’s not making a claim, he’s using a literary device. All the comments to the tune of, “You shouldn’t have printed that, because there ARE atheists in foxholes! For real!” are tone-deaf and kind of miss the point. Rather than being about whether this statement is true or false, the issue here is that he casually threw out this well-known phrase without thinking about whether it displayed prejudice toward a marginalized social group.

    Third: The phrase is problematic because it entirely erases the contributions of non-religious soldiers; however, we can also look at it under a slightly different light. It suggests that quite a few people see religion not as a set of absolute truths but as an occasionally comforting system of beliefs that can be adopted or discarded depending on how much distress one happens to be in. Doesn’t viewing religion in that way ultimately vindicate the atheist viewpoint?

  • JohnCW

    OM[nonexistent]G – Why are atheists such babies? I know religion is evil, but this type of whining detracts from real issues.

    His response IS regrettably dismissive and I love Fritzy’s rebuttal, but is this really a cause you want to champion? do you really want to make Atheism as annoying as every other group that is personally offended by every sideways comment?

  • Heidi

    “no atheists in a foxhole” is a meaningful comment – implying that rationalism goes out the window when the trees are exploding. I get that.

    Yeah, um, that’s not what it means. It’s saying that when it comes down to life or death, silly atheists will realize that we really do believe in the sky fairy after all.

    is this really a cause you want to champion?

    Given the above responses, obviously it is. There are no accommodationists on the front lines. Oh, wait. Was that a dismissive generalization?

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/gettingfreeftw gettingfree

    do you really want to make Atheism as annoying as every other group that is personally offended by every sideways comment?

    In my email to him, my focus was on reporters being accountable for using factual information and not myths. If he stated a factual, even semi-factual, “sideways comment” about atheists we wouldn’t be emailing him.

    When reporters have a factual error in their articles, people should hold them accountable, no matter what the topic. It’s their job to be accurate. I merely pointed out his mistake to him, and tried to educate him for the future. That’s a large part of what everyone was doing here as well. Educating this guy on the facts.

    By the way, you said…

    …and I love Fritzy’s rebuttal…

    Fritzy also wrote…

    But it’s wrong none the less and as previous commentors have pointed out, it is the very fact that this kind of phrase is thrown around so carelessly that it needs to be nipped in the bud everytime we hear someone saying it.

    (Emphasis is mine.)

  • cypressgreen

    Free-market religion gets lost in the oil spill

    Dear Mr. Pitts,
    Your article was brought to my attention by Hemant Mehta, author of The Friendly Atheist blog.
    http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/05/31/miami-herald-columnist-uses-no-atheists-in-foxholes-phrase/

    I read it twice…in fact I’m going to link it to my Facebook page ;) I think it’s well written and sums up how I feel about the issue so well!
    But, of course you have probably already received emails from other atheists who object to your use of the phrase, “atheists in foxholes.” I’m sure you didn’t mean it in a bad way, but the use of that phrase really bothers many atheists. It perpetuates a myth. There are lots of believers who use this phrase to denigrate our lack of belief. The implication is, of course, is that everyone is a ‘secret’ believer. They get smug and superior, which makes it hard to have real discourse with them. It would be best to let this phrase fade into obsolescence.
    BTW, I hit my first foxhole when my mom died unexpectedly …I remember standing at her grave, yearning for comfort. I had the epiphany that now was my moment…I could go back to the church again just so I could believe she was in a ‘better place’, or stick with my newfound disbelief and just accept that she was gone forever. (Not that you can force yourself to believe., but I thought I could.) I think you can guess the outcome.
    Anyway, I did love the article and am glad it was brought to my attention – even in this manner! All the best to you. I’ll read your stuff again!

    Sincerely,
    (me)

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/gettingfreeftw gettingfree

    Here is a reply from Leonard Pitts…

    from Pitts, Leonard – Miami
    date Wed, Jun 2, 2010 at 10:39 AM
    subject RE: Claim that there are “No atheists in foxholes” is false

    I think you’re reading a little more into that offhand comment than I ever intended to pack.

    While I have no doubt there are many principled atheists who stick to their non-belief even in the face of great trial and danger, I also know there are those who do not. Maybe I should’ve said, “there are few atheists in foxholes.” Maybe that’s what I’ll do in the future. But again, I was only using a familiar old saying to draw what I regarded as a useful parallel and intended no deeper meaning. I apologize to you and any other offended atheists.

    Yours Truly,

    Leonard Pitts, Jr.

  • Grimalkin

    Awe man, how come I didn’t get a reply?

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