Kurt Vonnegut on Atheists in Foxholes

Kurt Vonnegut quote about Atheists in Foxholes

A friend left this quote on my facebook wall.

“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

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors of all time. Some people don’t realize that he was an atheist. Many people are familiar with his military service. Vonnegut was a soldier during World War II, a POW, Fire-bombing of Dresden survivor, and a Purple Heart recipient.

His writing never portrayed war in a glorified manner, and even his most realistic descriptions of war usually involved genuinely odd plot devices. Shrinking Chinese people, being ‘unstuck’ in time, gravity being as unpredictable as the weather, dogs that could talk but simply chose not to speak… But I think these strokes of slanted and enchanted science fiction made the underpinning emotional journey more visceral and more memorable.

I rarely read fiction anymore. Every once in a while I’ll curl up with some Vonnegut novel that I somehow missed (or had an urge to re-read). His writing is just timeless.

I’m all about shattering that old canard about atheists in foxholes. I think the person who shared the quote with me was alluding to some similarities with my ‘famous’ attempt. Every once in a while, this picture makes the rounds again:

Justin Griffith, Military Director for American Atheists

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  • jufulu

    One of the best things that happened to me in high school was that I started reading Vonnegut. The world started making sense then.

    • Justin Griffith

      I had a similar experience 🙂

      Finding Bill Hicks (comedy), Kurt Vonnegut (literature), Velvet Underground / Spacemen 3 (music) pretty much had a permanent effect on me.

  • rex graves

    Maybe there are no chaplains in foxholes now, but they have been in them. You should know about the Father Waters Library there on Ft Bragg. I am a retired US Army First Sergrant, and never was a fan of Army Chaplains, but have to give credit where it is due. Please advise your readers of the conditions under which Fr Waters was awarded the Medal Of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Dak To, RVN. If you don’t know, tell me. I will advise them. AIRBORNE!!!

    • Justin Griffith

      I am a retired US Army First Sergrant, and never was a fan of Army Chaplains, but have to give credit where it is due.

      Then stop giving credit to modern chaplains who have repeatedly attacked atheists with the idiotic “No atheists in foxholes” canard.

      My readers are well aware that this is a *reply* to the chaplains (not all, but one is too many, and we’re talking a lot more than one), and other evangelicals who incessently hound us with that BS.

      The point of that sign is that they instantly lose whatever mental chess game they thought they were setting up. Plus, it’s ‘much more true’ than the other saying.

      • Malruhn

        And you base your understanding of combat on what, exactly?

        As a combat vet that has served in three different campaigns (Panama, Gulf War I and Gulf War II), and serving with folks of all faiths and lack of faith, I can say that in my experience of actually BEING THERE, that while there may well be atheists in foxholes, their numbers are statistically insignificant. The HUGE majority of them are very happy to call out for an allegedly non-existent deity when bullets start flying – or fates forbid – they actually get WOUNDED.

        When the dust clears, the majority of them then revert back to the standard atheist trope… calmly ignoring their recent please to an unprovable entity to save their collective skins.

        Sorry, canard or no, it is verifiable… as long as the observer is ACTUALLY THERE.

        • TheGreatestApe

          Malruhn, first I’d like to say thank you for your service. That’s something I feel can’t be said enough to those who have served. However, as someone who has 3 combat tours under my belt with plenty of experience in firefights, I can tell you that your observations are vastly different than mine. In particular, I worked with a heathen SF team (I’m an AF Combat Controller JTAC) a couple of years back (there were two religious guys and the rest were atheists, and we all got along great) who in the middle of gunfire would yell out things like “Praise Zeus!” just to keep things light and fun while we were getting shot at. It was great! I’ve also worked with plenty of religious guys as well. But you know what has never happened? No one that I’ve ever worked with has stopped doing their job in the middle of the firefight in order to pray. Why? Because as soon as they bow their head and close their eyes to talk to whoever they’re talking to, they’re not protecting their buddy, and they fail the team. Belief in a god or not, what matters is training and a positive attitude.

      • rex graves

        Thank you for your response to my reply. I did not, and will not give any credit to current chaplains. I was not one of the very best young men, but I was at Dak To during that battle, and it means very much to me and many others I suspect. FYI, it was a 500 lb bomb dropped from a Marine Corp aircraft that killed Fr Waters.

        • TheGreatestApe

          Hey Rex, thank you also for your service! Another point that (I believe) Sgt Griffith has made before is that since a Chaplain is a noncombatant, as soon as said chaplain enters a fighting position (foxhole), it is automatically no longer a fighting position until the noncombatant leaves. Therefore, there are no chaplains in foxholes. Not to downplay people like Father Waters, but I just wanted to comment on that nuance. Thanks, and have a great week!

          • rex graves

            Just to make things clear, I am on SGT Griffith’s side.

  • Kurt Vonnegut was a great writer, a clever man, and I am pleased to discover he was an atheist as well. However, he was very wrong about Dresden.

    His novel Slaughterhouse Five perpetuates the myth that Dresden was a safe haven with no defences just full of peace loving Germans and refugees and was not a legitimate military target, as it had no war industry or value. This lie was comprehensively exposed by Frederick Taylor in Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945 (Published by Bloomsbury 2004).

    The brave men of RAF Bomber Command suffered for this (for some reason more than those of the USAAF) as they were treated as if they had acted dishonourably almost shamefully. Bomber Command were treated badly at the conclusion of the Second World War by the very people who cheered them on as they flew overhead to strike back.

    They were the only unit of any size denied a place in the post war victory parade and on a percentage basis they suffered casualties more than any other unit. Most soldiers had a good chance of coming home. Most RAF bomber crewmen had little hope of completing a tour. And yet they went. Time and time again, the very best of our young men went out knowing that this night could be the night when their number came up.

    So why does this matter now? Imagine the response of the public if a great novel had been written about ‘Desert Storm’ or ‘Enduring Freedom’ which implied that all the Americans, British, Aussies and other allies were practically war criminals. Would we stand back and let it go unanswered.

    No, but that’s what was done to these men.

  • PB

    I appreciate your service and your efforts to unite unbelievers to stand up for their rights. Its like herding cats!

    As an AD Navy Nurse, I am almost constantly in the presence of chaplains. Despite the fact that I like many of them as people, I would like the entire corps de-funded. It irks me that chaplains draw taxpayer funded paychecks for perpetuating religiosity. Indeed, given that they have repeatedly proven that they cannot police themselves to keep radical evangelical preachers on a short chain – the whole “profession” (if one can call it that) should be de-funded. I say this with perfect understanding that someone will reply stating that the chaplain corps has a tradition of serving with the military…flogging was a harmful tradition too – we rid ourselves of it’s destructive effects. We should do away with taxpayer subsidized support for religious practice as well. If anything – I’d rather see a psychologist in each unit watching for signs of PTSD and depression.

    For the record: I have no problem with keeping enlisted rates/MOS’s dealing with “fellowship coordination” (i.e. enlisted folks who ensure that every unit’s troops have access to non-punitive assembly periods for decompression/discussion/prayer). Fellowship and group reflection is beneficial to a unit’s effective functioning.

    As my statements are rather political in nature, rather than giving my full name, I will sign this…


    Anonymous Atheist

    ER/Critical Care Navy Nurse

    Desert Storm/OIF/OEF

    • Mocha

      I agree with you for the most part; however, I am in no way against the government providing facilities where people can express themselves spiritually or religiously. If a group from religion X, Y, or Z want to get togeather and form regular meetings at a place of worship, I think the military should encourage that as much as they should encourage any other benign gathering for the purpose of personal or community fufillment. Something like civic centers, you know? I spent a lot of time in those as a kid for chess club, community theater, and yes, even religion – thohgh I’m an atheist now.

    • LJ

      PB, as an enlisted person currently serving on Active Duty in the Air Force, and having the Chaplain corps be a constant presence if not working with them directly, I can say that I have definitely felt the same way.

      I say that in past tense, “felt”, for two reasons. First of all, I realize the complete and utter unlikelihood that this will EVER happen in the American military, so I have stopped wasting my energy and emotions on entertaining the thought. Chaplains perform the “necessary” function of “spiritual combat readiness”, for everyone and anyone of any faith that requires it. If a Wiccan or a Mormon needs spiritual guidance on their deployment and none is available, they fly a chaplain out there…how noble of them, right? Well, this brings me to the second reason that I say that I used to feel the same way…and that is that if they can fly out a Zoroastrian or Hindu (not to mention Baptist or Catholic) chaplain to those in a desperate spiritual crisis, why not at the very least have a home station fellowship-type support for a secular humanist, agnostic, or atheist?

      This may sound like a very strange assertion to some of you. Why would we need something like that? Why not just abolish the chaplain corps, save tax dollars, and create an all-faiths fellowship center manned exclusively by enlisted persons? Well, like I said before, I think that trying to take down the chaplain corps would be fighting a very uphill, losing battle – it just ain’t happening, folks. I think that adding a fellowship for atheists/humanists/agnostics would be a lesser stretch of the imagination: slightly, yes, but still lesser.

      I bring this up not because I feel like we need the same “spiritual readiness” for combat like our religious counterparts need. Or maybe some of us do need a secular equivalent. I don’t know. Why I bring this up is because of something entirely unrelated to combat in its origins: the incredible, unyielding isolation that comes with holding a secular viewpoint as an enlisted person in the American military. Basically, while prayers to the Christian God are uttered before every single military ceremony and official function, an Atheist Airman is faced with the choice of either submitting to a religious practice that they don’t believe in and are against, or risk facing ridicule from peers and superiors. Christian Airmen freely talk about their God at the workplace, both in general statements about their religion and deep offense at any secular, alternative-theory, or accidental statement perceived as contrary to their belief. Atheist Airmen are forced into complete silence out of fear of offending, of getting in trouble, or most of all: fear of that awful ridicule and hatred from religious people.

      It is extremely isolating, needless to say. I wear my belief on my dogtags just like everybody else does, but an outward admission would be the equivalent of social suicide in the deeply Christian enlisted majority. I have to stay silent because I am bound to the military’s official legal stance of religious tolerance and neutrality (although there are prayers before everything…); yet, my Christian coworker can freely compare Atheists to the devil with no consequences, because everybody else generally agrees.

      I think that a fellowship for Freethinkers of all kinds within the chapel, as ironic as that idea sounds, would at least bring us together and remove the isolation. I have only been in for a few years and haven’t personally seen combat so I realize that this post juxtaposed next to the valiant stories before seems terribly petty. Call it a first-world problem. But maybe, if something like what I’m proposing were to happen, the real Atheists currently in foxholes as well as those in home-station would benefit from the social, emotional, and intellectual support just like religious folks benefit from “spiritual support”.