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Should we Encourage Atheists to get into Foxholes?

‘There are no atheists in foxholes’, as the saying goes. This is of course an exaggeration. There have always been some atheists in foxholes. With millions of military personnel representing this or that country around the world it seems inconceivable that no atheists whatsoever would be occupying foxholes. The Richard Dawkins Foundation appears to like the idea of atheists in foxholes. So much so that they have been providing care packages to members of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) who request them. So far they have sent out over 150 care packages. These contain food items, supplies such as gloves, Dawkins Foundation pins and stickers and the occasional book. See Perhaps enough to encourage an atheist to remain in a foxhole for a while longer.

But should the Dawkins foundation be encouraging atheists into foxholes? One reason to be wary of sending atheists into foxholes is that, as the MAAF notes, atheists face widespread discrimination in most military organisations, particularly in the US armed forces. The MAAF Watch List recounts many ways in which atheists are discriminated against. See It is difficult to remain an atheist in a foxhole when one is subject to mandatory prayer, proselytising from senior military leaders, religiously oriented counseling, and when one is constantly being told that one’s lack of faith is detrimental to one’s ability to do one’s job. The US armed forces have policies in place to prevent discrimination against atheists but it seems that these are often not enforced. It is understandable that the Dawkins Foundation wishes to combat discrimination but it is worth asking whether encouraging atheist military personnel to remain in the field is really an appropriate way to do so. Unless military organizations change their ways atheists in the field will be faced with ongoing persecution.

In any case, there may be good reasons for the military to try to keep atheists out of foxholes In a paper entitled ‘The Virtues of Intolerance: Is Religion an Adaptation for War?’, which is forthcoming in a book that I am co-editing with Russell Powell, and Julian Savulescu (Religion, Intolerance and Conflict: a Scientific and Conceptual Investigation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming), Dominic Johnson and Zoey Reeve from the University of Edinburgh argue that it is no accident that atheists are discriminated against in military organizations. Like many other recent scholars, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, Johnson and Reeve hold that human religion is an evolutionary adaptation. What is distinctive about their view is that they stress the dark side of adaptation, arguing that human religion evolved because, inter alia, religion better enabled us to fight effectively. This is not the place to go into the details of their views. However, they do appear to me to make a strong case. Religion promotes a number of qualities, including confidence, heroism and self-sacrifice, a propensity to cooperate, and the conviction that you doing the right thing; all qualities that help make a good soldier.

Military forces that cease to discriminate against atheists may have to pay a heavy price, which is that they cease to be as effective as they were when they did discriminate. Of course this price is also paid by the societies that the military protect. In free Western societies this price might be paid by the many atheists who are able to avoid religious indoctrination because they live in free societies that are protected by religious forces – protected from other religions forces representing societies that are not free and which might try to compel atheists to accept religion. The military is unlikely to stop discriminating against atheists when it has such good reasons to do so. For the above reasons it seems to me that it is unwise of the Dawkins foundation to encourage atheists to remain in foxholes.


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8 Comment on this post

  1. It's sometimes suggested that public service is a right, as well as a duty; for example, in the case of blood donation, where so many people are prevented from making a laudable sacrifice as a matter of policy. If that's correct, you might think that by limiting military service to the religious, you'd be putting an unreasonable barrier between atheists and their own moral standing in the community.

    Personally, I'm happy to leave that particular plaudit to the religious and to have people view me as morally flawed in this regard… but it seems like a reasonable objection for people who are happier about shooting a gun than I am.

    (p.s. Steve, I can't quite shake the suspicion that you've misunderstood the meaning of that widespread phrase about atheists and foxholes)

  2. In one respect, religion can be used as a way to create domination or we might even say discipline amongst a group–a nice tool for military masters to use and of course because it pre-exists and is so culturally embedded it is a low-cost one. But extend the idea a bit about aethiests in foxholes/military to other organisations like large businesses. While many have a legal requirement to not discriminate (sometimes enhanced by 'our business code of conduct') on religion etc the more subtle 'boys club' and similar modes of creating in-group exclusivity link back to an argument on whether using tools of discrimination is right if they help the organisation (or military, nation or other group) achieve its objectives.

  3. I don't see how supporting those who already have made their choice to enlist and serve their country is an any way "encouraging" them into "foxholes".

    And while some valid criticisms of the military are made here, as an atheist with atheist friends and family in the military, I view my support of them as support for changing the military culture. It is albeit rigid, but if you consider the role of women and gays in today's military, it's easy to understand that it's not entirely inflexible. A nation's military exists to defend ALL its people, and all who wish to (and qualified to) enlist should be able to, and then to serve in a non-discriminatory environment.

  4. Your "argument" appears to be made out of whole cloth, with no basis in fact. If your book is just a restating of your prejudices, it's worse than useless.

  5. That certain religious beliefs improve our fighting skills is evident enough, but I do not think they are enough to give a palpable advantage. Cesar (De bello Gallico VI.13-14) mentioned that Celtic Gauls had certain fighting advantages which nowadays we could call “morale”, due to their druidic religion. However, in the end they were conquered all the same by the better trained, better equipped and better commanded Roman legion.
    Another relevant fact concerns the Japanese bushido doctrine. It is not a religious belief, but rather a set of social and moral virtues that results in a highly disciplined and motivated soldier. I would even bet that a bushido-follower has greater fighting efficiency than a fundamentalist Christian.

    Thus my suggestion that effective training and adoption of secular military virtues (say, an US equivalent of Prussian virtues) would greatly reduce the negative effects you ascribe to the atheists.

    But then again, this does not seem to be the problem. The problem, as my experience with US military personnel in Europe shows, is that the military consists mostly of very conservative people, and conservative people love god. They are therefore unsympathetic towards atheists, and “military efficiency” is just an excuse for their attempt of making the army a more religiously comfortable (or homogeneous) place.

  6. Just a minor point, but so far as I recall Boyer and Barrett do not say that religious belief is an adaptation: they believe that it is a by-product of various mental sub-systems, such as the Theory of Mind Module. But I could be wrong…

  7. Thanks for the constructive comments. Bennett, you are of course right that the ordinary meaning of the phrase 'there are no athiests in foxholes' is not the one in play here. Ordinarily the phrase is, of course, taken to mean that when put in a combat situation and facing imminent death, people are inclined to become religious. If this is true then there is yet another reason for the Dawkins foundation not to encourage atheists to get into foxholes – which is that they may well cease to be atheists. Re the public service point. Maybe atheists could provide service to their countries by performing activities that they are better suited to? The claim that people have a right to serve their country is plausible enough but I'm not seeing that people have a right to serve their country each and every possible way.

    Andreas, you are right. Atran, Boyer and Barrett all claim that religion have evolved but has done so as a byproduct of cognitive adaptations. Johnson and Reeve are more like Jon Haidt and David Sloan Wilson in seeing religion as something that has evolved because it is an adaptation.

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