The Freedom From Religion Foundation on Veterans Day encourages Americans to honor all veterans — including “atheists in foxholes” and other freethinkers who have served our country with valor and distinction, even though a religious cliché insists they don’t exist.
More than 20 percent of FFRF’s 39,000 membership are veterans, and a quarter of active duty military identify as nonreligious or “no religious preference.” Yet members of the military are not acknowledged and often are subject to overt proselytization by religious superiors and tax-paid chaplains.
Ever too frequently, a Christian cross is put up on governmental property and dubbed a “war memorial.” A Christian cross on public land establishes Christianity as a state religion, giving it preferred status and endorsement. But when such an unconstitutional cross is excused as a war memorial, it sends an ugly and discriminatory message of exclusion, signaling that only Christian veterans are worthy of being honored.
Journalist Ernie Pyle during World War II unfortunately promoted the myth that “there are no atheists in foxholes” — a falsehood that endures through this day.
The genesis of FFRF’s unique monument (pictured above) was the decades-long court challenge to remove a 43-foot Christian cross from atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif. It was only claimed after-the-fact to be a veterans memorial. In fact it was known as the Easter cross and stemmed from a tradition dating to the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses there.
A lawsuit, the longest state/church court battle ever, was begun in 1989 by veteran Phil Paulson, who received FFRF’s first Atheist in Foxhole Award. After Paulson died, FFRF member and veteran Steve Trunk took up the cudgel. Steve also was named an Atheist in a Foxhole. That case finally ended in 2016. Following numerous interventions by religionists and Congress, it was resolved rather unsatisfactorily, with the land and cross being sold to a group established to "save the cross."
At one point in the long and convoluted court battle, officials offered to put the land under the cross up for bid. FFRF’s feisty founder Anne Nicol Gaylor immediately proposed replacing the sectarian symbol with a monument to “Atheists in Foxholes.” Needless to say, FFRF’s bid was not accepted. But Patricia Cleveland, the “veteran” leader of the FFRF chapter the Alabama Freethought Association invited Anne and FFRF to create and place the first monument in the world honoring nonbelieving veterans at the Lake Hypatia Freethought Advance (“not retreat”). And so a little freethought history was made. Lake Hypatia Advance is no longer in operation, but the monument remains tended and honored on Cleveland family land near Talledega.
FFRF erected a second “Atheists in Foxholes” monument at its national headquarters in 2015 during its building expansion. Made of the same granite as Mount Rushmore, the monument resides in FFRF’s Rose Zerwick Memorial Courtyard and Patio outside Freethought Hall, FFRF’s bustling office building in downtown Madison, Wis. (World War II veteran Joseph Cunningham, a longtime FFRF member and activist, is pictured in front of the monument.)
Veterans, their families and active duty freethinkers are most cordially invited to visit and contemplate FFRF’s “Atheists in Foxholes” monument, which honors freethinking veterans and their service.
The words, penned by Gaylor, read:
In Memory of
Atheists in Foxholes
And the countless freethinkers who have served this country with honor and distinction.
Presented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation with hope that in the future humankind may learn to avoid all war.