Atheist in a foxhole: Why would an Atheist join the military?

You know I’m not religious…” – Corporal Pat Tillman (1976-2004), in reaction to an Army chaplain who came to talk to him about returning to the NFL (link here)


At the beginning of my freshman year in high school, military service was literally something I never considered as an option. Anyone who knows me in person would say that my life mostly seems to revolve around school, doing things that are mostly academic in nature. So when I said that I wanted to earn a commission as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, people were surprised; why a spindly nerd like myself would want to join a branch of the Armed Forces was beyond them. Moreover, why an atheist like myself would desire joining a predominantly Christian military was even more of an irregularity. After thinking long and hard about my desire to join the military, and a recent discussion with fellow members of the Berkeley Atheists and Skeptics Society, I think it would be interesting to discuss my reasons for wanting to join the US Armed Forces from the perspective of an atheist.

I’ve spent most of my life in the public school system, meaning I’ve become used to the regimented life of tests, books, and teachers. It’s not necessarily a boring life. I enjoy reading philosophy in my spare time or learning about current events and their place in history. But there’s something beyond the library that I yearn to do, something unique, something special, something that many can’t say they’ve done. After doing four years in my high school’s Navy JROTC program, the military struck me as an institution where I would be able to do something unique for a few years of my life.

Within the military, there’s a whole new culture with its own traditions. Things like selflessness, honor, integrity, service before the self, etc., are fundamental roots of the military as a national institution. Things like this drew me to the military in the first place. As someone who values things like the aforementioned, the military to me is a place where these traits are still held in high accord. These qualities are, in principle, the things servicemen and servicewomen are supposed to embody, but of course, in practice, it is contingent on the actions of the individual. Moreover, the military would be a place where I would be able to serve my country for a few years as an intelligence specialist before moving on to pursue a career as a teacher.

But then there’s the dilemma of being an atheist in a military dominated by mostly Christian servicemen and women. In America, specifically coming from the right-wing conservatives, there’s this strange belief that believing in God is necessary to being a “true American”, that being an atheist is “un-American” and “un-patriotic”. Even within the military, there is a strong trend towards conservatism which bolsters this preposterous idea. I think this is a narrow definition of what it means to be an American. Something arbitrary like believing in God shouldn’t determine what makes me an American. Rather, believing in the principles upheld in the Constitution like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. should be what characterize me as an American. I believe strongly in these principles, and if that doesn’t make me an American, it at least makes me a decent human being who believes in basic human rights and freedoms.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there is someone reading this who is disagreeing outright with everything I’ve said. They might raise things like:

“The military is nothing but a pawn for corporate interests!”

“There is no honor in killing other human beings!”

I’ve certainly wrestled with the moral dilemmas of the military’s role. But the fact is, the military exists for the purpose of national defense, and consequently, that does mean killing. It’s because of this that I want to carry out a non-infantry role within the military, doing something like intelligence where I would be much more useful. I will admit that there is something rather unsettling about the concept of killing, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t make me squeamish sometimes, but the purpose of my post is merely to explain my rationale for joining the Armed Forces, not a critique of the military and it’s role or of US foreign policy. You are free to disagree as you see fit, and I won’t enact the labor of convincing you out of your opinions.  Though I have admiration for the military, I still do not hold it immune to criticism, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Above all else, I want to show that, religious or not, I’m still very much an American, and as an American, I can still serve my country. It’s time to break the stigma and show that atheists can be in foxholes…

atheist military

Below is a list of links to secular military organizations:

Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers

Military Religious Freedom Foundation

Interesting blog by an atheist Marine Corps Veteran:

Rock Beyond Belief


About Jonathan Morales

I'm currently a second-year history and philosophy undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. Born and raised in Southern California in a community of Mexican-Americans, I've been an atheist since age 16 and have been on the search for answers to life's biggest questions from a secular perspective. My historical interests primarily deal with US international relations in the 20th and 21st century, while my philosophical interests primarily deal with meta-ethics and normative ethics. I am also an Officer Candidate in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class, heading to Officer Candidates School this summer.
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