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Sunday, November 13, 2005                                                                                       View Comments

Event to show support for atheists in military

Photo by Matt Edwards
National group plans first parade, rally of its kind in nation's capital


It's an old canard: "There are no atheists in foxholes."

But it's not true for thousands of current and former military personnel such as 80-year-old Donald Peterson, an atheist who flew in 39 combat missions during World War II.

Service members of no faith deserve the same respect as those espousing one, he said.

In America, religious overtones surround patriotism, said Chris Lugo, an organizer for Nashville Atheist Meetup, which meets every other week.

He is nonmilitary but honors his religious father's military service.

"Service, no matter the form — military, the Peace Corps or volunteerism — is about serving the greater good of the people of the United States, not of a particular religion," said the 35-year-old man who has visited the Atheists in Foxholes memorial in Fearn Park, Ala.

"For those who choose to believe, it can help them, and for those who choose to not believe, it is not a barrier for their service."

That is why today, thousands of people are expected to gather in Washington, D.C., for a first-ever parade and rally honoring atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists and others who served in the nation's military or are on active duty.

Organized by American Atheists Inc., a national advocacy for nontheists, the event on the National Mall coincides with Veterans Day to draw attention to the role that nontheistic people play in the nation's armed forces.

The definition of a nontheistic can be fuzzy. They might include atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists, humanists, brights or others who hold a naturalistic, rather than a supernatural, world view.

"We want to show support for the foxhole atheists," Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said Wednesday during a telephone interview from New Jersey. "If someone maligns them, they are really maligning all of us. We want to assemble to say thank you because they have done so much for us, and now it's our turn to do something for them."

Those convening in D.C. today want to pay homage to retired and active duty military and "acknowledge that atheists have served in the military as long as there has been a military," said Larry Darby, general counsel for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Atheist Law Center. "There shouldn't be this automatic assumption that one has to have religion in order to be patriotic or in order to be a good citizen or in order to be an ethical person."

And those who believe in God and country don't necessarily disagree.

"As long as they served their country and helped keep our country free, their choice of religion does not affect me," said Harold "Alex" Alexander, 64, quartermaster of the West Nashville VFW Post 1970.

Alexander, a Baptist, served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

"The main thing to me is that they were there to defend their country. As long as they chose to defend our country, so be it."

After all, Lugo said, the United States was founded on principles that protect freedom of — or freedom from — religion.

"When immigrants come to this country and become citizens, their religious beliefs are not a question," Lugo said. "We live in a country that values the separation of church and state, and the same is true for people who serve their country."

Shaiya Baer, president of newly formed Nashville Humanistic Community, said his organization supports the intent behind the parade and rally.

"We certainly support the right of the atheists to take a stand just as we would support any religious organization to do it as well," said Baer, who calls himself a freethinker. "I strongly believe that everybody has that right to express themselves whether they are humanist or deeply religious."

Johnson said the event is not to diminish the contributions of religious military but to salute nonbelievers who "stepped up" in the midst of war or other crises.

"We are here to support them and to say we are going to speak out for them," she said.