BBC interviews Justin Griffith, foxhole atheist

BBC interviews Justin Griffith, foxhole atheist February 3, 2012

First off, Kate Dailey at the BBC wrote a great article. When she first approached me, I was envisioning a segment to be aired right before Doctor Who (naturally), but it turns out this was for a print + radio segment. Still, it was a refreshing conversation and I’m grateful for the exposure it generated (plenty!)

This is one of the best representations of our public plea for respect in the military community. She covered the upcoming atheist festival on Fort Bragg. We discussed the offensive mandatory Spiritual Fitness testing and training. I explained why it is important that military atheists gain a place of respect in the chaplaincy, and also why we need to fight so hard to get our records / dogtags changed to say “ATHEIST”. She even touched on the far-right hatchet job on me at Fox News that resulted in death threats and much more drama that I haven’t even made public yet.

I really only had one thing to nitpick here:

BBCIn a land of faith and flag, Justin Griffith is challenging the US military to abandon its religious ties.

When he was a child growing up in Plano, Texas – a place he describes as the “oversized, goofy buckle on the Bible belt” – he would bring his bible to science class and debate his teachers on the finer points of evolution.

“In my head, I won every time,” says Mr Griffith, now 29.

But somewhere along the way, his penchant for picking ideological fights with the non-religious got him in trouble. He found it harder and harder to argue with the points they were making. At 13, he suffered a crisis of faith.

“It was so painful. I lost my religion before I lost my first girlfriend. Nothing that big had ever happened to me, and I didn’t have any coping skills,” he says.

Right here. When I tell this story, it’s only to make a point – and the point is lost without the ending!

Ending: I learned to turn this lesson in humiliation into a lesson in being humble. I learned to embrace being wrong, and not to fear even potentially painful introspection. If you can’t ever ‘be wrong’, then you can’t ever learn or change in meaningful ways.

A pleasant surprise

Ben Abel, the Public Affairs guru at Fort Bragg, said some nice things about our plight. Readers may remember my anger at him stoking the flames of the Fox News non-story, by falsely claiming to be launching an investigation into the decency of our festival. The readers at Fox News were convinced that President Obama sent me to burn down churches on military bases.

I am naturally keeping a skeptical eye, but this seemed like a very positive step forward from there:

Though the general public is not always receptive to atheism, the military itself offers a promise of acceptance.

“The army really is a microcosm of the entirety of our nation,” says Benjamin Abel, a spokesman for Fort Bragg. “We serve the people, and we have an incredibly diverse population of people in the United States.”

He notes that there are steps religious groups can go through to gain more visibility on base.

The fight by atheists, he says, reminds him of the struggle the base’s Wiccan members endured years ago.

“Through history, the military has generally been out in front of a lot of social issues. We integrated the military first, we just had the recent change of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’, [and] women have been integrated in the military for a long time.

“We’re not out there as a force for social change, but we certainly don’t shy from it,” says Mr Abel.

I’ve made this same comparison many times before. I totally agree with Ben Abel. I’ve told countless reporters about the struggle Wiccans went through for over a decade (beginning in the mid/late 1990’s). I usually frame it like this:

“The Wiccans used to be looked at as blood thirsty puppy-stabbers sent by Satan. Now they are simply looked at as ‘World of Warcraft nerds’. Atheists want a similar upgrade – instead of baby-eaters, perhaps bookworms?”

While I’ve got no respect for the beliefs and religious concepts of any religion, I do respect the people who hold them. It is important for all of us to stand up for the constitution – and for both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The chaplain’s regulations specifically urge ‘striking a balance’ between the two. So I’m proud of my Wiccan service-members, they fought a rough uphill battle – and won. Me next.

I’m sure they forgive me if I dismiss them for having +5 fire damage (the jab is meant as lighthearted.) Because at the same time, I’m ready to vociferously defend their rights to have ceremonies and congregate together. Just like I recently helped one of my soldiers hold his first Bible study (ironically, on the same day that I received a death threat from an extremist fundie.)

I urge you to please read the rest of the excellent article, and spread it!

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  • Cuttlefish

    Excellent article–even if, yes, the opening story is much better with the full ending!

  • Justin;

    I am rooting for you and for all who stand for the preservation and protection of the right to exercise personal conscience.

    I find your language use refreshing. I hear and read so much name calling and hype from people taking any angle from any side of any issue that involves belief or non belief. The key word is belief. None of us can approach belief debates with fact because that would turn the debate into a scientific argument. It is wise, as you are, to debate with humility about the yet unknowable.

    Atheism can be presented as a religion. Would that help us win more respect and consideration by the military?

  • Justin Griffith

    “Atheism can be presented as a religion. Would that help us win more respect and consideration by the military?”

    I don’t really think this is helpful, or even necessary.

    extremely short way to say it: “Stop the US Military’s climate of ‘Don’t pray?…Don’t say!'”

    Short way to say it: Atheism is without a doubt a religious preference. That’s a military term, and it’s what they ask for when we enlist. We should be treated with equal respect and support, no matter the answer.

    Long-winded answer: “The chaplaincy’s own regulations stress striking a balance between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

    As you may know, Supreme Court has long ruled that not only can the Government not ‘favor one religion over another’ the Government can’t ‘favor religion over non-religion’ [Establishment Clause].

    It stands to reason that the chaplaincy’s continued denial of atheists right to meet on post violates their own regulations.”

  • Good to go, Justin! And I agree, much better with the last paragraph of your story. I’ve felt the same way, in my life, that your last paragraph spoke of, and I think it was a shame they left that off because it was really profound in its direct simplicity.

  • It’s disappointing you had to be interviewed by a foreign media agency to get “fair and balanced” coverage.

  • F

    Awesome, man.

  • Hats off to you good man.

  • Hey Justin,

    Just found out about you through BBC – keep up the great and important work!

    I’ve made a video that stresses the importance of religious/non-religious equality in the military, currently an entrant in the Richard Dawkins Foundation contest for secularism-themed videos: It’s called “Do You Believe in a Secular America?” I thought you and possibly your readers/followers might be interested, and it might help your cause, which I feel strongly about too.

    You can check all of the finalists out here: Must be registered (via in order to vote for your favorite at

    I’d love to include military personnel in future commercials like this, so shoot me an email! Good luck with Rock Beyond Belief!

    All the best,