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Saturday, November 19, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Atheist Veterans Liken God to an 'Imaginary Friend'

By Monisha Bansal

Among the many thousands of American veterans who served in conflicts from World War II to the Iraq War and marched in the nation's capital on Friday was a group of atheists seeking to debunk the familiar slogan, "there are no atheists in foxholes."

"What better day than Veterans Day to show that we served our country, too," said Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director of American Atheists, who also served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

"People deny our existence, and that's just bigoted, ignorant, puerile and childish," Wingrove told Cybercast News Service.

Many people believe that when confronted with the horrors of war, soldiers -- even those with no previous religious experience -- turn to religion as a coping mechanism. But some of the atheist veterans at the march Friday carried signs reading, "Do adults really need an imaginary friend?"

The atheists said they were motivated to march in Washington after seeing a naval chaplain, who was speaking on CNN on Veterans Day last year, contend that there was "no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole."

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, organized Friday's march and said members of her group would "not bow under threat of hellfire or gunfire."

Bill Russell of Connecticut said he would travel to Washington every year if the march became an annual event. "This nation was founded as a secular state, not one where we go to war in the name of God. God isn't in the Constitution." Russell served in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard during the Vietnam War. More recently, he said he was fired from Matrix Investment Corporation for being an atheist.

Larry Carter Center said he has been an atheist since he was a child and that seeing John Kerry testify before Congress inspired him to enlist in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

"As a veteran, I swore to defend the Constitution, not God," Carter Center told Cybercast News Service. "Is this the United States of Jesus Christ, or the United States of America?"

But William J. Murray, president of the Religious Freedom Coalition, said the atheist veterans were trying to silence the vast majority who showed up in Washington Friday.

"I am sure that a small fraction of those men and women who have served do not have any particular religious beliefs. That does not mean we should not celebrate the faith of the vast majority that does. What they're doing is they want to force everyone to keep their mouths shut about their faith," Murray told Cybercast News Service.

"Veterans Day is the time for us to celebrate the sacrifice of every single veteran who has assisted in defending this nation, whether they are Christian, or Jew, or of any other belief," he added.