The Army’s evangelical atheists?

Speaking of GetReligion guilt files …

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating feature from Afghanistan last September headlined “A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War.” The top of the story:

SANGIN, Afghanistan — They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There’s one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn’t thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain’s back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It’s a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

“He trusts God to keep him safe,” says RP2 Chute. “And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”

Why am I bringing up this piece — buried until now with 1,453 other messages in my GetReligion story possibilities folder — seven months after its publication? Let’s just say that the guilt over not taking time to mention this feature last year finally became too much for me to bear.

OK, I’m kidding …

The real reason is that The Associated Press published a story late last week that reminded me of the Journal feature.

The top of the AP story by religion beat writer Tom Breen:

RALEIGH, N.C. – The cliche notwithstanding, there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other assorted skeptics from the Army’s Fort Bragg have formed an organization in a pioneering effort to win recognition and ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.

“We exist, we’re here, we’re normal,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, chief organizer of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH. “We’re also in foxholes. That’s a big one, right there.”

For now, the group meets regularly in homes and bars outside of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases in the country. But it is going through the long bureaucratic process to win official recognition from the Army as a distinct “faith” group.

The Army atheists received coverage, too, from the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. Veteran religion writer Yonat Shimron included the military voices in a story on area atheists and agnostics starting a billboard campaign:

Taking a cue from the gay rights movement, Triangle atheists are coming out of the closet with a new billboard campaign that attempts to project a friendly, wholesome image of a group long stigmatized for its unconventional beliefs.

Plastered on billboards in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Smithfield are the smiling faces of real Triangle atheists and agnostics, accompanied by pithy statements such as “I’m saved from religion” and “Another happy, humanist family.”

The “Out of the Closet” campaign is just one of several ways the growing nonbeliever movement is flexing its muscles and elevating its profile amid a competitive religious marketplace in the Triangle and nationwide.

Both written by Godbeat pros, the AP and News & Observer stories are pretty nicely done with excellent context and details.

Nonetheless, a GetReligion reader who shared the News & Observer story link complained that the piece lacked depth:

I sense that this could have been a fascinating piece: the skeleton of a great narrative is in the details. Where are these people coming from? How has religious adherence changed in recent years? What is this ‘movement’ in response to, particularly? What does a meeting of atheists look like, sound like? Is “friendly” really the right word to describe a movement with luminaries like Richard Dawkins? Where’s the depth?

After reading both the AP and the News & Observer stories, I came away with a sense that the tactics employed by the North Carolina atheists are sort of evangelical in nature. In fact, I wondered if — except for the lack of belief in God — these groups could be described as “religious.” I wished that one of the reporters had posed that question to a theologian.

In both stories, the non-believers are portrayed as victims of society’s wider belief in God. However, not much evidence is provided to back up that notion. For instance, we have non-believers in the lede of the AP story trying to “ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.” But we have no feedback from Christians in the military to give an idea how they relate to atheist comrades.

Since I am far from an expert on atheists, I’ll be interested in GR readers’ feedback on the two recent stories and even the guilt-laden WSJ piece from way back when. Remember, we’re concerned about journalism and media coverage, not that bigger question, if you know what I mean.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    There have been many stories about how religion is dying in a number of countries and speculation about the US. This particular story should be tied into that larger question.

  • Will

    Yes, but have any of them been in FOXHOLES?

    When Bergen Evans covered efforts to disprove the adage, he noted that the AAAA had found one avowed atheist soldier who had once dived into a latrine to keep from being run over by a tank, “but, alas, he had never been in a foxhole and so didn’t qualify.”

  • Dave

    A few helpful links suggesting why atheists are speaking up:

    Fort Bragg holds evangelical rock concert

    Atheist arranges alternative with equal offer from Ft. Bragg, but command rescinds their pledge, their exhange:

    Religious bias demonstrable with “spirituality fitness test”

    When faced with inequality and church permation of state matters, opposing voices desire to be recognized and heard.

  • Ray Ingles

    Will, it’s not that hard –

    Oh, you don’t just mean hazardous duty and being under fire?

  • Don

    A group of people with a similar rejection of religion does not constitute a religion. Just like a group of people who reject the idea that Star Trek is a true story does not constitute a religion. How could it? Atheists make no assertions about god, they only reject the existing ones.
    I don’t really get why religious people tend to make the claim that atheism is a religion. There is no assertion, no ceremony, and no holy or sacred works. Of course atheists attempt to share their point of view with those they consider to be trapped in or blinded by religion, but this does not constitute a religion itself. By suggesting that it does, do religious people somehow want to level the playing field and offer tax-free status to atheist groups?
    Also, it’s pretty rare to find anyone, even front line combat troops, who have spent much time (outside of training) actually IN a foxhole. Modern non-linear combat just doesn’t rely on the foxhole the way combat used to.
    More to the point; there are plenty of combat veterans who do not believe in a god. I myself received a purple heart for my wounds received from a roadside bomb in Baghdad and reject the entire concept of god.

  • Kunoichi

    “There is no assertion, no ceremony, and no holy or sacred works. ”

    On the contrary, I have found an increasing number of what I’ve come to call proselytizing athiests. They use every opportunity they can to disparage religious beliefs and promote atheism or secular humanism, tout “studies” that claim religious beliefs are a mental disorder, quote Dawkins and Hitchens (less frequently, Marx and Neitzche) the way some Christians quote the Bible, and even go out of their way to have offensive “ceremonies” mocking religious beliefs. I know one person who is even going as far as creating her own “religion” that’s a complete mockery of everything Christians hold sacred. She calls it a joke and when people are offended by it, she rails on them for not having a sense of humour.

    I would have liked to read more about how the athiests. etc. interviewed for the article felt they’d been victimized for their beliefs, and why the felt the need to respond as they have.

  • Ray Ingles

    Judaism is not evangelical; indeed, traditionally potential converts are ‘turned away’ a few times. Yet there are efforts made to demystify the religion and to raise awareness.

    Efforts to demystify atheism and dispell myths about it don’t have to be ‘evangelical’, either.

  • Maureen

    “Efforts to demystify atheism and dispel myths about it don’t have to be ‘evangelical’, either.”

    No, and they didn’t use to be. Somewhere in the last twenty years, the atheists who were all about sweet reason have been supplanted by atheists who love screaming more than syllogisms. It’s very embarrassing for the old-school atheists. They often don’t want to be associated with the evangelical, faith-based atheists with their lip-service fetishizing of science and their own supposedly high IQ’s. Perhaps one could call the new atheists “olignostic”, since they also fetishize being one of the Few who Know.

  • JD

    The links provided in #3 and #4 seem to support the question raised in the main article above: where are the facts of the case? Virtually every article recites the quotations of the atheists and, at most, gives a one-liner saying “the Army disputes that characterization.”

    Where is the curiousity into whether or not the accusations are even legitimate? Why is the Army’s position, which has been fairly well supported with facts in their statements, been dismissed so easily? There seems to be an underlying assumption in the media articles that the claims of discrimination are true; or, at least, that the presumption they’re true is more interesting than the truth.

  • Ray Ingles

    They use every opportunity they can to disparage religious beliefs and promote atheism or secular humanism, tout “studies” that claim religious beliefs are a mental disorder, quote Dawkins and Hitchens (less frequently, Marx and Neitzche) the way some Christians quote the Bible, and even go out of their way to have offensive “ceremonies” mocking religious beliefs.

    How are you hearing about them? Are you actually seeking out viewpoints that differ from your own, or are you getting reports from channels you normally frequent?

    I’ve found that in many venues reports of, say, Dawkins’ rudeness are greatly exaggerated. And in any case, it’s worth pointing out that, as Larry Niven put it, “There is no cause so noble it will not attract some kooks.”

    What if people were to judge Christianity by the most noisy and frequently-covered representatives lately, Fred Phelps and Terry Jones?

  • Ray Ingles

    Maureen – “They” isn’t very specific. Can you point out some examples, and what they’ve said?

    In any case, as the Muslim cartoon controversy shows, just because someone takes offense doesn’t mean anyone was being offensive. For example:

    In Iowa, atheists took out ads on buses that said, “Don’t Believe In God? You’re Not Alone.” Lots of people took offense and the governor of Iowa said the ads were ‘disturbing’. One bus driver refused to operate a bus with the ads.

    The message was, basically, ‘atheists exist’. If that causes offense, what could atheists possibly say that wouldn’t offend?

    (And in terms of ‘screaming more than syllogisms’, I’ve never noticed a decrease in people quoting Psalm 14:1 or Romans 1:20 at atheists…)

  • Dillinger

    I’m pretty sure everyone in a foxhole is an atheist at that point. I don’t know anyone ( I am in the military) who has been under fire and was thinking “well at least if I die I’m going to heaven, so no big deal.” When your life is in danger, those stories (myths) about eternal happiness mean nothing~ you are fighting to stay alive, not feeling reassured that you are about to be whisked away to bliss.

    Btw, when you are in the military and the only “counsel” you have on emotional matters of family or conscience has a fundamentally different world view than you (and often considers you some mild kind of evil) you can feel very alone and disenfranchised. Chaplains are an integral part of the soldier support structure~ (and in taking it to the absurd for effect) and if you had to talk out your problems with someone who believed fairies and goblins cause the good and bad in your life, you might feel the same.

  • Dave

    Before I was Pagan I was one of those old-school “kinder, gentler” atheists. The new generation of “in your face” atheists arouse out of a need to get the attention of believers to the fact that someone was talking to them from outside their paradigm. (Don’s comment above, and the people who clicked “like” on it, are examples.)

  • Jake

    I thought both articles were well balanced. The AP story did a good job of establishing the fact that no actual discrimination had occurred. The “raised eyebrows” line suggested the level of alienation barely approached quizzical indifference. It was a good line to include in a story that began with the group’s fight for “fair treatment.”

    What I’d like to know is why this group is seeking recognition through religious channels. The articles indicate that the non-religious want the comfort of a like-minded community more than any other type of concession so why make it explicitly religious? Surely there are easier ways to form base-acknowledged and supported groups. How would their gatherings differ from a book club? The cynic in me wonders if they just want equal access to the tithes of other religious groups on post.


  • stanisloski101

    If atheism is a religion, then NOT collecting stamps is a hobby. It’s small wonder that the author does not see any bias since he and those like him are the beneficiaries of such. Fort Bragg supported financially a Christian concert/crusade and denied that to atheists. This is a matter of record. Report after report of non-Christians being coerced to engage in Christian events, and complaints falling on deaf ears, fill the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It doesn’t make us “evangelical” to not just lie down and take it. I’m reminded of the cartoon of a Christian hitting an atheist over the head with a cross. The atheist takes it and is about to break it over his leg when the Christian says “Hey, respect!”

  • Kira

    “Is “friendly” really the right word to describe a movement with luminaries like Richard Dawkins? ”

    That’s like suggesting all of Christianity should be judged by people like Pat Robertson.

    “What is this ‘movement’ in response to, particularly? ”

    The constant portrayal of atheists (by believers) as untrustworthy, nasty, hateful, unlikeable, abnormal, and otherwise deviant. We’re trying to reach out to others like us and say “You’re not alone”. We’re also trying to change the negative images society has of us.

    “In both stories, the non-believers are portrayed as victims of society’s wider belief in God”

    Wear a T-shirt that indicates you’re an atheist for just one week. You’ll have all the evidence you need.

  • Kunoichi

    “How are you hearing about them?”

    Personal interactions. One-on-one experiences I have had with these “new” athiests. I’ve been rather stunned by them, as their behaviour is so different from atheists I have known throughout my life. I have no idea what Dawkins’ might be like in person, but to these proselytizing athiests, Darwin is their Messiah and Hitchens and Dawkins are their prophets. I wish it were hyperbole, but they are completely genuine in their beliefs and go out of their way to degrade religion in general, Christianity in particular. The most disturbing encounters I’ve had include what I can only describe as an obsession with sexual deviance, frequently violent, projected onto Christian beliefs (God raping Mary, God as a pedophile, three ways between God, Joseph and Mary, etc.) often in pornographic detail. They are quite blunt that their aim is to insult and degrade people of faith, especially targeting Christians. It’s remarkable, the amount of time and energy they devote to this.

    Aside from my personal experiences, I’m seeing an increase of these proselytizing athiests trolling the comments sections of news articles dealing with religion. What originally caught my attention about them was that so much of what they were saying seemed scripted. Completely different people in completely different circumstances repeating the same things, almost verbatim. It wasn’t until much later that I encountered some of Dawkins’ work and realized that they were quoting him, and in other cases quoting Hitchens.

    Then there are the blogs, website and forums.

  • Marie

    “If atheism is a religion, then NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.”

    Only if you define religion as belief in deity/deities. All religions are a representation of the believers understanding of existence. For some that existence includes deity/deities for others it does not include deity/deities. That does not mean that the defining characteristic of their understanding of existence is the absence of a god but rather the presence of some other defining characteristic, be it something intangible such as harmony or suffering or a tangible characteristic like science. Buddhism is a major religion without a deity. It sounds as if these atheist are looking for recognition and support within the military (and without) of their belief system. Just because they do not believe in a god does not mean that they don’t have beliefs in the same areas that we traditionally think of as religious. Each atheist has a belief of how the universe and world was created; they each have a belief regarding what happens to individuals when they die; they each have a belief in what principles and ideas should govern the moral/ethical behavior of individuals. They may not agree with each other or have a central leader but neither do all accepted religions within the world or even individuals within the same religion.

  • Jerry

    This is a bit of a digression from the actual blog posting, but I think it bears on it because it underlies the beliefs of atheists.

    A group of people with a similar rejection of religion does not constitute a religion. Just like a group of people who reject the idea that Star Trek is a true story does not constitute a religion. How could it? Atheists make no assertions about god, they only reject the existing ones.

    The problem this discussion raises is part of the difficulty. Buddhism makes no statements about God and is a religion. Even Jedi has been recognized as a religion in the UK. The Wikipedia entry on religion starts Religion is a cultural system that creates powerful and long-lasting meaning, by establishing symbols that relate humanity to beliefs and values.

    So while atheism per se would not be a religion, secular humanism could be considered a religion at least by some.

  • Ray Ingles

    Marie, Jerry – There’s a “Definition of Religion” thread in the coffehouse

  • Ray Ingles

    The press created the term “new atheists”, and came up with the “Four Horsemen” appellation for Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. The general narrative is that these ‘new atheists’ aren’t like the ‘old’ atheists, who were at least polite.

    I’d be curious to know what differences people see between the “Four Horsemen” and this quintissential “old” atheist:

    Seriously, what do they say that’s different?

  • Ray Ingles

    Arthur – That’s not a comment on journalism. If you want to talk about it further, start a thread on the coffehouse, but I warn you… I’ll be making reference to this.

  • Mollie


    I deleted a couple of comments that were way, way off track. But many of these comments would be better made — as Ray Ingles points out — over at the Coffeehouse.

    Keep this thread for journalism-focused comments.

    Have fun debating evangelicals, atheists and atheist evangelicals over at the coffeehouse.



  • Nate

    Stumbled onto this site. Thought perhaps I could add some hopefully fully respectful commentary.

    I am atheist, and I do work in the “field” which this article discusses. Not supposed to get more specific than that.

    But this fort bragg thing. We typically have a great deal of religion in our daily work, training, and lives. We are offered time away from standard duty to go to the churches on station. We get leave to go to the national prayer breakfast. There are christian concerts, dinners, and all manner of events. I have no problem with these. A great deal of my “co-workers” are religious, and these events help to provide them a sense of comfort and community in what is an extremely stressful and isolating field.

    We atheists just want the same. We want to have some recognition that we are a community as well. We aren’t trying to isolate ourselves from the religious, but trying to reach out to other atheists and inform them that they have a place to go and be with people of a similar mindset.

    In all honesty, I get tired of being bombarded by people questioning why I am atheist, and trying to convince me to believe something else. More so than any other group (I would hypothesize), Atheists are viewed as open targets for religious conversion. We are viewed with hostility by many folk. For some reason, our beliefs are not protected or accepted in the same way that other religions are.

    Why is it we are not respected in the same manner?

    I write this to address the last question in the linked article. The real question is why do you feel the majority Christians need to be asked how they cope with us? I am terribly sorry that our presence in the military inconveniences the majority, but we aren’t here to piss you off. We are here to make a living, and serve in the defense of our country. That is all.

  • Michael O.

    Ray, whether the media came up with the term “Four Horsemen” or not, they sure have embraced it:

  • John

    Speaking as a Catholic living in a very liberal part of the Northeast, I’ve known quite a few who qualify as atheists or at least irreligious, and for the most part they’re ordinary people who merely want to live their lives and don’t push their beliefs in anyone else’s faces…certainly not among the brigade that desecrate Churches with used tampons and the like or go about calling believers idiots…

    Truth be told, they’re not that different from most religious types…they mind their own business as best they can and ask others to do the same. It’s only the obnoxious minority who give the rest a bad name (try reading the comments in the HuffPo religion section for ignorance at it’s most bilious….)

    Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the New Atheists are merely the fluoride of the Westboro Baptist Church…a bunch of publicity-hungry malcontents. A plague on them both!

  • John

    Sorry…meant flipside, not fluoride! Bloody iPhones…