On this Veterans Day let’s come together to put to bed one of the last horrible myths still lingering in this country that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”
The notion that “there are no atheists in foxholes” not only unfairly dismisses the sacrifices made by brave atheists and nonbelievers that have proudly answered our country’s call but it also suggests that their sacrifices are somehow less than that of others.
As you attend Veterans Day events this year, it may be difficult to spot who the atheist veterans are. Most of them don’t wear atheist necklaces or other jewelry the way some religious Americans do. And because of societal pressures as well as those in the military itself, they’re most likely not going to come out and admit their atheism to you, to the general public and in many cases, not even to their military unit.
Rest assured however, that atheist veterans are out there — as are a growing number of active duty atheist soldiers — and as our country becomes less religious and more secular, future generations of our veterans will be predominantly nonreligious, if not specifically atheist.
And that’s OK.
Atheist veterans are not seeking any special kind of treatment or recognition for this, just your respect in what you do and say, along with what you don’t do and don’t say at both Veterans Day events as well as in day-to-day discussions about the military. To those either organizing or helping out with Veterans Day events this year, please consider the following to demonstrate to the atheist veteran that their sacrifice is worth recognizing just as much as any other veteran’s:
• Make the event as inviting and inclusive as possible by telling local religious leaders that they can take part in the event as a member of the audience but not as a speaker. As an atheist I know firsthand how uncomfortable it can feel attending an event that feels more like a church service or revival than an event focused on celebrating others (for example, a Catholic wedding where a priest rails against gay marriage instead of focusing on the couple getting married). Religion deserves no special place at events designed to recognize the service of veterans that defended of a country with a secular government and secular military, regardless if this has been the recent tradition.
• If religious leaders are to be invited to the event, please show atheist veterans your concern for their worldviews by inviting an atheist speaker or humanist celebrant. For what it’s worth, I would be more than happy to deliver remarks on behalf of the atheist community if any event organizer is interested.
• Try your best to refrain from an overabundance of religious readings and songs, or as in the previous paragraph, try to include a wider collection of material so that it’s not heavily influenced by one specific religion or worldview. I would also suggest that organizers, if at all possible, keep prayers for the next church service. While some local religious leaders may decide to do it anyway, at least it’s not being done by event organizers, which reinforces the myth that all veterans are religious and that everything related to military has to have a touch of religion involved.
• Keep the kneeling soldier at the Christian cross at home. Atheist and non-Christian veterans deserve to know that their sacrifices are worth recognizing as well. This statue, while well intentioned, makes the statement that only the sacrifices of Christian soldiers are valued at the event.
• Keep in mind that statements like “God bless our veterans,” “God bless the USA/Iowa” or that our veterans fought “for God and country” are divisive and immediately marginalize atheist veterans. Atheist veterans fought for your freedom of religion, but not so they can be thanked for their service by being asked to take part in your religious ritual. This is a celebration of their service, not church.
As our country becomes less religious and more secular, organizers of Veterans Day events are going to have to be cognizant of the ever changing demographics of the military and the veterans it produces. Because of this attention to inclusivity, future Veterans Day celebrations will become even more welcoming, as soldiers with varied religious upbringings and worldviews will feel valued and welcomed.
Especially all of the atheists in foxholes.