The Military Was Right to Take Down ‘No Atheists in Foxholes’ Column

Chaplain Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes, who works at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, wrote an article for his “Chaplain’s Corner” column recently in which he talked about the origin of the phrase “no atheist in foxholes.” While the column has since been removed from the website, the text is still around:

Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes

Many have heard the familiar phrase, “There is no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole.”

Where did this come from?

Research I verified in an interview with former World War II prisoner of war Roy Bodine (my friend) indicates the phrase has been credited to Father William Cummings.

With the pending surrender of allied forces to the Japanese, Cummings uttered the famous phrase “There is no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole.”

Everyone expresses some form of faith every day, whether it is religious or secular.

Some express faith by believing when they get up in the morning they will arrive at work in one piece, thankful they have been given another opportunity to enjoy the majesty of the day; or express relief the doctor’s results were negative.

While I have no issue with Reyes trying to find the origins of that phrase, the fact is: that statement is just untrue. And to perpetuate it by saying everyone has faith in something just reinforces a harmful myth. Of course there are atheists in foxholes, and when they’re under attack in a war, they don’t start looking to God for help. To argue otherwise, or to redefine “faith” to mean faith in yourself or fellow soldiers, is disingenuous.

I don’t think Reyes intentionally set out to denigrate atheists, but that’s what he ended up doing.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, on behalf of its members, felt the column made a pro-religion, anti-atheist argument, which military personnel shouldn’t be doing in their professional capacities, so they sent an email on Tuesday to Air Force Col. Brian Duffy, who quickly removed the column from the JBER website.

“I am required to ensure information published is balanced,” Duffy said. “In this case between constitutional protections for free exercise of religion with the constitutional prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.

“There was no valid purpose in including ‘No Atheists In Fox Holes’ as part of that story,” MRFF’s Blake Page claimed. “This is a saying used for decades now to [denigrate] and disrespect nonreligious service members.”

Page’s letter to Duffy made very clear how this was not an indictment of Reyes’ faith but a call for respect:

The most basic level of respect we can afford to others is to call them by their chosen name and identify them as they choose to be identified. I do not have faith. Several of the 42 clients currently assigned to JBER who requested the MRFF intercede in this instance do not have faith, and they still proudly defend their country in uniform. Lt. Col. Reyes has both violated that fundamental level of respect and current Air Force regulation. As the current commander of JBER, as the officer appointed to care for the 42 service members who have reached out to us, it is your duty to see to it that this behavior is corrected. Lt. Col. Reyes must be appropriately reprimanded, and his ‘No atheists in foxholes’ article must be removed from the post website.

After the column was removed, all hell broke loose. Mostly because conservatives argued that there were forces discriminating against Christians:

“We have religious liberty as one of our key foundational issues,” [the Alaska Family Council's Jim] Minnery said. “This is a direct assault on that in our view.”

[Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty executive director Ron] Crews said the incident is yet another example of chaplains facing attacks for expressing their religious beliefs.

“Chaplains have religious liberty as well to speak to issues,” he told Fox News. “[MRFF's Mikey] Weinstein appears to want to silence any speech of faith in the military. It is a sad day for the Air Force and for our country when officers obey every command from Weinstein to silence even chaplains from talking about their faith.

Gen. Jerry Boykin (Ret.) told Fox News the action taken by the Air Force is “discrimination against Christians.”

The issue isn’t that chaplains can’t express their faith. The issue is that Reyes perpetuated a lie about atheist soldiers. His column was uncalled for and inadvertently inflammatory.

Page noted in his letter that it was as offensive as saying there’s “no such thing as a mentally fit homosexual” or “no such thing as an American Muslim, or a combat effective female.”

You know what might have fixed this situation? If Reyes had simply acknowledged that there are atheists in foxholes — and they don’t have faith in a higher power. But he didn’t do that.

One MRFF member, writing a sample letter to Reyes, made this exact point:

I fully respect your faith and your right to worship and believe as you do, I also support your right to your own opinions on religion and morality, and I definitely understand your role as a chaplain. However, I do ask that you be more careful in the future not to denigrate those with different opinions and beliefs through official Air Force channels; instead, use a non-military, non-government website where you make it abundantly clear that you are not expressing the opinions of the Air Force and are not speaking in an official capacity as an Air Force officer.

That’s all this is about: Treating all soldiers with respect, no matter what they believe. It wasn’t wrong for the chaplain to write about the offending phrase, nor was it wrong for the chaplain to acknowledge his own faith. This wasn’t about atheists being “offended” or the military trying to be “politically correct,” no matter how conservatives try to spin this.

Reyes crossed the line when he tried to argue that there are indeed “no atheists in foxholes” because we all have faith. We don’t. He was wrong.

Unlike Page, I don’t believe Reyes should be reprimanded because I don’t think he purposely set out to hurt atheists. He wasn’t espousing “faith based hate.” Rather, it was just ignorance at play.

I do think, however, that Reyes owes atheist soldiers an apology.

For what it’s worth, atheists make up a little less than 1% of the military, while 23% are categorized as having “no religious preference.” No matter how you slice it, there are atheists in foxholes, and there are more of them than any other non-Christian denomination.

(From left) Sgt. Mike Aguilar, SPC Christopher Carr, SPC Jeremy Hall, SPC Tony Hernandez, and SPC Dustin Chalker

(Thanks to Jen for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.