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Austin Cline

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff: Atheists in Foxholes are Our Worst Enemy?

By January 8, 2009

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It is interesting to note how casually some people will attack atheists and atheism, associating them with the worst crimes imaginable without a second thought even while ignoring the fact that those crimes are more commonly committed by theists and religious believers. This would be surprising if such people formed their beliefs rationally, on the basis of evidence and reason. Because they live in a faith-based world, though, there is little difficulty in scapegoating others.

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, a member of the Board of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and former military chaplain, provides a very good example of this sort of casual bigotry. He writes about the relationship between ethics and war in the Christian Science Monitor:

War can numb our sense of good and feed the beast within. The problem isn't that we don't have good people in uniform. The problem is that war can turn even the best into different people. "There are no atheists in foxholes," goes the saying, but foxholes can breed atheists, when those who see war's nightmares lose all faith in dreams - and fight fire with fire and dog eat dog are the only values that survive.

None of the Abu Ghraib abuse reports I've seen mention chaplains, who normally serve with prison and intelligence units to help us all remember human values we share, regardless of faith. If leaders didn't make use of chaplains, that may be one more failure - of the leaders, or the chaplains. Using all the tools at their command, leaders must prepare their forces to withstand threats to judgment, ethics, and morale.

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff is quite correct that foxholes can breed atheists, a fact ignored by most who quote that old myth, but Resnicoff can’t help but get in a dig against atheists by complaining that there is something fundamentally wrong with people questioning and rejecting belief in his god because of their experiences in war. Notice also how Resnicoff treats such doubters and atheists as though they "lose faith in dreams" as though believing in a god were the same thing as having dreams.

Rabbi Resnicoff is absolutely and completely wrong in suggesting that becoming an atheist is somehow associated with losing “faith in dreams” and with no greater values then “fight fire with fire” or “dog eat dog.” Resnicoff might not personally have enough respect for atheists to think that their values and dreams might be something like his, but I wonder why the Christian Science Monitor thought his bigotry fit to publish. I also wonder why the U.S. government ever employed as a chaplain someone who bigoted towards nonbelievers, a growing segment of the American population.

As for Abu Ghraib, I find it curious that Resnicoff thinks the presence of chaplains would have prevented anything at all. How much evidence is there of military chaplains doing anything to prevent atrocities, torture, and murder? How much evidence is there that those responsible not only for Abu Ghraib, but torture in American detention centers around the world are not devoutly religious and theistic? I’m not aware of any and if Resnicoff know of some, surely he would have included a brief mention of at least one incident or example.

When General Eisenhower visited Ordruf, a World War II concentration camp in Germany, he directed that atrocities be publicized for the sake of American soldiers. GIs don't always understand what they fight for, he said, so let them understand what they fight against. And, I would add, what they fight against becoming. ... Reasonable men and women must debate where to draw the lines. But setting limits is the beginning, not the end. Good leaders must train their forces to recognize, understand, and fight all the enemies they will face.

Here we have a subtle but nonetheless obvious attempt to connect atheism with the Holocaust. Earlier Resnicoff wrote about soldiers becoming atheists, here he writes about what soldiers must “fight against becoming.” Atheists and mass murderers... what’s the difference? Both, apparently, lack the gentle guidance of military chaplains and a belief in some God that Resnicoff happens to believe in. Maybe Rabbi Resnicoff has forgotten the fact that the belt buckles of German soldiers were inscribed with "Gott Mit Uns" (God is With Us) and that most Germans at the time were devout Christians.

Since when has anyone needed to believe in a god, much less Resnicoff‘s god, in order to be a good person? Resnicoff believes in a God and after reading his bigoted screed in which he slams atheists for absolutely no good reason (it doesn’t serve any apparent purpose in his piece), I’m not at all convinced that he is a good person. A rabbi scapegoating atheists is uncomfortably close to how Christians have historically scapegoated Jews, and Resnicoff happened to point out just what the Christian scapegoating of Jews in Europe ultimately led to.

Comments
January 8, 2009 at 10:49 pm
(1) marc says:

Assuming that Rabbi Resnicoff wrote this piece specifically for the Christian Science Monitor, it is my opinion that he purposely put down atheists as a way to find common ground with his intended audience, who, though religious, don’t believe in the same fairy tales.

January 9, 2009 at 4:14 am
(2) Mark Barratt says:

I don’t get how chaplins are supposed to prevent torture.

After all, if they’re happy to worship a being who tortures people FOREVER in the next world for not loving it in the right way, if they present this being as the ultimate example of righteousness, why should they object to torture in this world?

Surely it’d be better to have people who object to torture in principle trying to stop torture, not people who are happy to worship a torturer if he’s powerful enough.

January 9, 2009 at 5:27 am
(3) Mark Barratt says:

I meant chaplains.

Ironically, chaplins may well prevent torture. Can’t we all just laugh together?

January 9, 2009 at 6:11 am
(4) Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff says:

For the record, as soon as someone who considered himself an atheist pointed out to me that my words had the unintended consequence of putting down all atheists…I apologized, and now I apologize again. My goal–in the limited space of an op-ed–was to say it is not true that everyone in a foxhole starts to pray to God (the original meaning of the phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes” — with the idea that, when the bombs fall or bullets fly, we all do pray). Now, when I tell the story, I try to say that foxholes do breed atheists, as those who believe in God sometimes lose that faith in war, as they question how such brutality and inhumanity could exist in a world if there were a God. (This was my intent in the original op-ed.) But then I add and foxholes destroy the faith of others who do not claim a belief in God, such as atheists, or those who do not claim any specific religious faith, as war makes them question any basic goodness — or hope — within our human hearts. Anyway, I served for years, even decades, alongside men and women of all faiths, and those who claimed no religious faith — and I do hope that those who know me personally know how hard I tried to fight for the rights of every man or woman in uniform (plus their family members), whether religious or non-religiou; “believer,”
atheist, or agnostic; gay or straight. I used to use the term “interfaith foxhole” to describe the need for us, despite our differences, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against greater enemies, within those foxholes…but now I say, as well, that when I speak about “interfaith foxholes,” I mean not only those of different “religious” faiths, but also those who do not believe in God or religion, but find faith in other ways, whether it be a faith in humanity, in our nation’s dreams, or simply, faith in the future. It has been many, many years since my op-ed, and I hope that I, like everyone else who cares about words, continues to learn how to say things differently. But the bottom line is that, when I insulted some atheists in that op-ed, I did it out of clumsiness, not maliciousness — and I apologize again…and I salute every man or woman who has served our nation, whether or not he or she claims a faith that includes a belief in God.

January 9, 2009 at 9:39 am
(5) Mark Barratt says:

Great response, Rabbi!

As Matt Dillahunty would say, you’re “atheist friendly”.

January 9, 2009 at 10:28 am
(6) Dean says:

What a class act! Thanks, Rabbi Resnicoff. Very gracious, and very appreciated.

January 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm
(7) Jon says:

As a retired Marine Corps infantry officer of 27 years with 2 ground combat tours in Vietnam,I appreciate the Rabbi’s clarification and accept it at face value, especially in the light that I am one of those “foxhole atheists”. I’ve not lost my dream of helping to make life better for Humanity – it’s a good dream and I’m still working it as I turn 69 years old today.

January 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm
(8) Drew says:

Here’s the letter I sent to the publisher of this piece:

I am disappointed that the CSM published work as intolerant as that provided by Arnold Resnicoff, even in an opinion piece (On becoming our own worst enemy).

Resnicoff talks about the spiritual values of Native Americans in a positive light, which suggests that those values, which developed without input from Judaism or Christianity, have some merit. He does not disparage those of other religious backgrounds. No, like a lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Mr Resnicoff either does not have bigotry towards rival monotheisms, or knows that public opinion no longer tolerates open bigotry towards other religious groups.

So why does Mr Resnicoff, and seemingly the majority of Americans, still think it is acceptable to show bigotry and intolerance towards those who have no religion at all?

The claim that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is not true. So why do people repeat it? Out of bigotry. It is a claim that the convictions of atheists are weak, and it is meant to unjustly, and without evidence, disparage others. But it is not a true claim, as even Resnicoff acknowledges when he points out that the experience of war also causes previously religious people to discard their faith. Therefore this statement is made for bigoted reasons alone.

Mr Resnicoff equates religious faith with dreams, and claims that therefore atheists do not have dreams. What a dehumanising suggestion. Would he make such claims of a Buddhist?

This article says a lot about Mr Resnicoff’s personal bigotry, his lack of humanity, and the type of intolerance which his religious community either provides or condones. It is precisely because of bigots like Resnicoff that the non-use of chaplains is not only a good move, but a necessary one if all soldiers are to be treated with equal respect and dignity.

As an atheist humanist, I have several human values, none of which require any faith, because I have found that faith is not a virtue. Reason is a virtue. Using it, and evidence to form your values is the reason why the non-religious constitute 15-18% of the US population, but only 0.2% of the US prison population. Far from extolling the value of religious moral virtue, theists like Mr Resnicoff should be examining why humanists are the least criminal and most ethical members of US society.

If “American values are our strength”, then perhaps adding tolerance to those values, and removing bigotry from them, would go a long way towards convincing others that those values are positive, rather than negative. Perhaps Americans genuinely interested in changing the perception others have of their country should listen to those outside, rather than those inside who are contributing to the problem.

If the Board of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs is named after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, then perhaps Mr Resnicoff should be informed that Andrew Carnegie, noted philanthropist, was an atheist. Current American philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are as well.

Name
Location
serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces
proud and unwavering atheist in a foxhole.

January 9, 2009 at 3:47 pm
(9) Drew says:

We do not need anything that is “interfaith”. We need things that are faith free. Secular. So that everyone can meet as equals. We need counselling services that are professional, not run by those trying to sneak false and harmful religious systems into social programs.

It’s encouraging that Mr Resnicoff appears to be committing to being atheist friendly in the future, but there’s no need to fawn all over him. If you read his entire article in the link it’s quite evident that the article perpetuates both the negative stereotypes which Austin has broken down.

If the military is truly interested in providing emotional and mental counselling, then provide counselling professionals.

I’m an Army reservist, and have personally “liked” all the chaplains my unit has had over the last 2 decades, but there is no way I would talk to any of them about personal matters. Military chaplains are a complete waste of public funds, and exist only to provide state-endorsed legitimisation of religious belief.

Ethically, this is an institution which a secular state should NOT be providing, because religion should not be promoted by state bodies. Fiscally, all military theists are part of a like-minded congregation off base, so tax payers are being ripped off.

January 9, 2009 at 3:56 pm
(10) John Hanks says:

Wars are rackets dreamed up by criminals. The current Israel war is really about politics and ethnic cleansing.

January 10, 2009 at 4:24 pm
(11) Rasna says:

It is with quite a bit of largess that a chaplain who has been on the dole most of his life dare to be bigoted. But his god afterall told his people to kill the Cananites and take over their land. So much for no killing and coveting your neighbors property (including slaves)

January 12, 2009 at 3:10 pm
(12) r.l.baron says:

Very well worded rabbi. I’m sure this clarified a lot of misunderstandings. It is clear that you can see and appreciate different viewponts. And HAPPY BIRTHDAY JON on your 69th year.

August 30, 2009 at 10:46 am
(13) len says:

athiests dont have the intelegnce to understand god or inteligent design.

August 30, 2009 at 11:03 am
(14) Austin Cline says:

athiests dont have the intelegnce to understand god or inteligent design.

Funny, but if a god exists then it would be able to make itself known to everyone regardless of “intelegnce.” It would probably also try to ensure that its adherents could spell.

September 8, 2009 at 3:56 pm
(15) bondgrrl says:

“athiests dont have the intelegnce”

Irony rules.

September 8, 2009 at 4:51 pm
(16) Todd says:

The emperor’s new IQ?

September 8, 2009 at 4:54 pm
(17) MrMarkAZ says:

Len @ #13: “athiests dont have the intelegnce to understand god or inteligent design.”

Clearly, concepts of God or Intelligent Design do not require any intelligence to comprehend, much less an education.

However, they do seem to require vast amounts of ignorance and a rather questionable grip on reality.

September 8, 2009 at 8:14 pm
(18) AtheistGeophysicistBob says:

len (13). I certainly do not have the “intelegnce” to understand “inteligent” design. I will give you an example. I became completely blind as a result of glaucoma in 2003. I was blind for more than a year. To restore and keep some of my vision, I am working with 3 Ophthalmologists/Ophthalmologist Surgeons here in Baton Rouge, 1 at the Univ. of Tenn. Medical School, 1 at MERSI (Mass. Eye Research and Surgery Institute), and 1 at The Johns Hopkins Univ. Medical School. I have glaucoma drain valves in both eyes, had a cornea transplant in my right eye 6 weeks ago, have a 2-hour infusion for iritis/uveitis on a 2-month basis, a shot im my left eye, when needed, about every 2 months, an intramuscular shot each month for macular edema in my left eye, and several types of eye drops used daily. My eyes are intelligently designed; I am happy that they aren’t unintelligently designed.

September 8, 2009 at 10:09 pm
(19) Irene says:

len says:
“athiests dont have the intelegnce to understand god or inteligent design.”

Congratulations, Len, on your presumed ability to understand “god.” Now, how about working on your ability to understand how to use a dictionary? Also, is your keyboard missing its apostrophe? Not to worry, we atheists are a tolerant and forgiving lot. You’re still welcome to share your wisdom with us. :)

September 9, 2009 at 8:22 am
(20) MAS2009 says:

Mocking the theistic mind loses some of its appeal when they torpedo themselves so effectively.

September 9, 2009 at 9:13 am
(21) AtheistGeophysicistBob says:

I suspect that len (13) preached his sermon and ran.

September 9, 2009 at 9:45 am
(22) AtheistGeophysicistBob says:

len (13). Alfred North Whitehead made a comment that you might find applicable “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.”

September 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm
(23) seathanaich says:

Mr Resnicoff claims:

“If leaders didn’t make use of chaplains, that may be one more failure – of the leaders, or the chaplains. Using all the tools at their command, leaders must prepare their forces to withstand threats to judgment, ethics, and morale.”

As a Canadian infantry officer, I consider the imposition of religion upon soldiers a gross misuse of authority. I also consider the inability of our Army and government to eliminate the Chaplain branch to be a failure of command. The Dutch have Humanist chaplains. We should follow their lead, if we can’t make the break in one step. Where soldiers require professional counselling, we should give them trained experts, not religious preachers.

But Canada is well ahead of the United States Army in this area. The Canadian Army has, since the 1990s and the killing of a Somali civilian, done a lot of, dare I say it, soul-searching, and come out with a steady flow of writings and guidelines on ethics for all levels of commanders. The small library of these items I have is quite impressive, and shows just how easy it is for a committed organisation to compile completely secular doctrine and training in regards to morals and ethics.

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