This Veterans Day, let’s make sure we show respect to all veterans. We must acknowledge that soldiers in the United States who take an oath to defend this country come from all backgrounds and of all beliefs — even atheists.
“There are no atheists in foxholes” is a common phrase and couldn’t be any more fundamentally wrong. Not only that, it’s disrespectful to any soldier who may be a nonbeliever on the front lines.
Many veterans know the value of selfless service and most likely will not seek reward or acknowledgment for their sacrifices. Even if a stranger hugs a veteran and says something thoughtful like, “God bless our soldiers,” the soldier most likely knows that the intent of the comment was in the right direction.
But the ignorance is no excuse. Atheist vets may bite their lips and say “thank you” but the comment is undermined and it still stings.
People who say they are atheists or non-religious are on the rise in the United States. Which means those in service, closeted atheists or firebrands, are also on the rise. Which is OK. Anyone willing to take a pledge and don a uniform often has earned our respect, political beliefs aside. Atheist veterans aren’t seeking extra acknowledgment — just equal acknowledgment.
This weekend, if you are running a booth at a Veteran’s Day celebration or shaking hands with someone in uniform, try to keep in mind that you may know nothing of this solider other than the fact that this person signed up and joined. To demonstrate that their services are respected and worthy of recognition like any other veteran, keep these things in mind:
▪ Make any Veterans Day event as inclusive as possible. Try not to host an event at a religious location. Keep in mind that in 2012 there were 88 different religious preferences in the U.S. military. This year, those of Christian faith made up only 52 percent of the current military. The event should remain secular like the military strives to be. No favorites should be made when honoring any person willing to fight for this country.
▪ If there is going to be a religious speaker involved or an invocation given, try to have many worldviews represented. Oftentimes the local Universal Unitarian Church can find representatives from many beliefs.
▪ Aim to use few to no religious readings, songs or music. Prayer can be divisive and undermining to any soldier who isn’t amongst the majority praying. In addition, it reinforces the idea that all soldiers are religious and religious ceremonies should be the status quo.
▪ When it comes to symbols, remember to keep it focused on the veterans. Crosses, large “God Bless Our Soldiers” signs and praying-soldiers silhouettes leave out so many soldiers and their sacrifices. Atheist veterans should be valued just as much as any other soldier.
The United States, the melting pot, is becoming more diverse, with secular values and beliefs on the rise. Organizations are going to need to become more self-aware of these changes. Minority groups aren’t wanting special privileges, just equality and inclusiveness. So this Veterans Day, be sure to celebrate all of those who’ve made sacrifices — even the atheists in the foxholes.
Johnny Pike of Lexington is an Army veteran and assistant state director of American Atheists.