Atheist in a Foxhole (Or Rather, an Unarmored Toyota)

Doug Traversa

Leaving my faith required a long, painful, convoluted journey that culminated in my becoming an atheist minister—quite the trip indeed!

Although I came out of fundamentalist Christianity, this sort of faith was not a part of my early years. True, my mother took my sister, brother, and me to church sporadically, but my father rarely went. We attended various mainline churches and military chapels (my father was a U.S. Air Force officer), but since we moved many times, I never developed an attachment to any particular denomination. However, even in those early years, I was already taking the long view of spiritual things. I believed in heaven and hell (as I was taught) and worried that I might not get into heaven. The qualifications one needed were somewhat vague, which was disturbing considering the eternal ramifications. I grew increasingly concerned about my prospects (not that I was particularly bad, but only an idiot wouldn’t worry about the possibility of everlasting damnation and torture).

When I was twelve, I decided to get serious about my eternal destiny. My family was attending a liberal Lutheran church at the time, and I decided that the first step was to get baptized. Surely that would help. But meeting with the minister proved to be massively disappointing. Not only could he not assure me that baptism would save my soul, he couldn’t actually state definitively why I should even get baptized. He offered several arguments, but his words fell on deaf ears. I did not want possibilities; I wanted clear, authoritative answers, and I wasn’t getting them (ironically, I now consider him the most honest in a long stream of ministers I would meet over the coming years). Still, I agreed to attend confirmation classes before getting baptized, even though the minister had offered to baptize me right then. I declined, as the sheer wishy-washiness of the entire conversation had turned me off. It would be better to study this matter further, because apparently baptism wasn’t the key to heaven I had hoped for. At least, it didn’t seem to be. Things were still pretty unclear.

Confirmation class turned out to be a tortuous affair, with a couple of kids who teamed up to be as nasty as possible to me. This and the fact that I finally put my foot down and refused to go back after one snide remark too many is about all I remember of the classes. At this point I wanted nothing more to do with church, and since my father wasn’t interested either, we were finally free to stay home on Sundays. However, my mother was growing sadder at our lack of church-going, and I knew things could not remain this way for long.

A few months later, two men came to our home to speak to us about the Gospel. I believe my mother had invited them. Even though they were speaking to my parents, I came into the room and listened unobtrusively. They were from an independent Bible church, and they could (and did) tell us exactly how we could get to heaven when we died. All we needed to do was ask Jesus to save us from our sins and to be our Lord and Savior. We were saved by grace, not by works, and needed only to repent and accept the free gift of salvation to be assured of residing in heaven once we died.

Now this was more like it! These men spoke with certitude and authority. More important, this was the way I could finally know with absolute certainty that my soul was saved. So at the age of thirteen, in the privacy of my room, I did indeed repent and asked Jesus to save me.

From that point on, I was very serious about my Christianity. I dragged my friends to church, witnessed to many people, and undoubtedly annoyed more than a few along the way. In high school, I determined that I would go to a Christian college and probably become a missionary. In college, I decided that I could use my love of literature to serve the Lord by becoming an English teacher in a Christian school, and that’s exactly what I did for four years after I graduated.

 

Unfortunately, serving the Lord was not paying the bills, and I had a wife and two young children to take care of. The financial pressures were too much for me to keep teaching at poverty wages. I did some job-searching and soon discovered that having a degree in English education did not open up many doors. Fortunately, the Air Force would take me, since they just wanted a college degree. So for the next twenty years, I served Uncle Sam.

I never encountered any Christian favoritism from any commanders while I served. We did have a group called Officer’s Christian Fellowship that I regularly participated in, and it helped my faith remain strong for another six years. However, doubts started creeping in. The critical foundation of my faith—an inerrant, inspired Bible—no longer seemed reasonable. My regular reading of the Bible continually revealed things that simply made no sense. It was my study of the Old Testament and its endless array of idiotic laws allegedly given by a loving god that finally did it. The detailed instructions on how to establish slavery, the endless slaughter of animals for sacrifice, and the degradation of women all proved too much to bear. This simply could not have come from God! Add to this the equally abhorrent notion that billions of people would be tortured for all eternity, and I finally quit. The Bible was neither inerrant nor inspired; I had wasted a huge part of my life believing a lie.

Now came the hard part. I had to explain to my wife that I had grave doubts about Christianity. She, my children, our families, our friends, and everyone else who mattered to us were Christians. Leaving the faith would have serious repercussions, and it was not something to be done without a great deal of thought and study. Fortunately, she understood my doubts and even shared some of them. She suggested I start asking tough questions of our pastor, teachers, and friends before I decided to pack it all in. We could even visit other more liberal churches. We would go on this journey together.

So I began asking harder questions at church, and I soon encountered a pattern I would see again and again as we visited different churches. Once my questions became too difficult (or too annoying), I was told I just had to have faith. Christianity was always presented initially as logical and reasonable, easily defended in a debate. But after asking some challenging questions, I was always advised that it was a matter of faith rather than reason. This was unsatisfactory, and after about a year, we stopped going to church altogether.

 

Once freed from the conservative Christian mind-set, I found myself much more accepting of people. I no longer looked at the unsaved as rebellious sinners deserving of hell. I found myself happier than I had been in a long time, because I no longer worshipped a god of wrath, one who would send the majority of humans to eternal torment to appease his sense of justice. I did not look at every relationship as an opportunity to proselytize. I could simply accept people on their own terms. It was liberating! Looking back on it, I am embarrassed to have ever believed the things I did, but at least I moved on. I left God behind—at least the version taught in the Bible. I would now be unapologetically atheistic.

About eight years after embracing my atheism, I went on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. Even though I was in the Air Force, I was tagged to fill a U.S. Army position, embedded with the Afghan National Army, helping to support a transportation unit. We were not safely ensconced on an American base. We traveled through war-torn Kabul every day in unarmored Toyota SUVs while suicide bombers were attacking NATO troops regularly. After a few weeks of fear, most of us learned to accept the risks with a grim stoicism. I chose not to fear death—I had to, or I would go crazy with worry. But before I got to that point, I had to go through my “atheist in a foxhole” moment.

There are few phrases I detest more than “there are no atheists in foxholes,” mainly because it is born of arrogance and is completely false. I know this from personal experience. On September 10, 2006, the day before the anniversary of September 11, 2001, we received word that suicide attacks on vehicles were likely the next day. Since we were a logistics unit, if there was a high threat-level, we did not normally travel from our base to the Afghan base. After all, we were driving around in civilian vehicles, and an improvised explosive device or suicide bomb would kill us very easily. Yet, on that day, our commander decided that the rules would change, and thereafter we went out pretty much no matter what. We never understood why on this day, of all days, the policy changed. The rumor was that the commander had decided we needed to do our job, no matter what the risk.

This sudden death-defying stance came as a surprise to all of us, and our spirits sank pretty low. I was absolutely convinced that I would die the next day. It was not logical, but it was very real to me. I had one day to live.

I am happy to report that I was wrong; we all survived that day and indeed the rest of our tour. No one in our unit was targeted that day. The risk was assessed as high virtually every day after that, so maybe the commander knew what was coming. Our replacements were not so lucky, losing one man to a shooting shortly after we got back to the United States.

Despite the mistaken certainty that I was about to die, I did not revert back to my former beliefs. I am an atheist to this day, even after facing what I was sure would be my last day on Earth. I felt no need to fall on my knees and pray. There are indeed atheists in foxholes (and unarmored Toyotas).

The final irony of all this is that I am now a minister: an atheist minister—an open, unapologetically atheistic minister. I found a home in the Unitarian Universalist Church, which welcomed me as an atheist to be a full participant in all activities and ministries. It’s another story for another time, but it is the conclusion to this tale. Having left behind a church that demanded faith, I unexpectedly found a church that reveres rational thought and welcomes atheists. Amazing. Having sworn to never set foot in a church again, I find that the universe loves to throw curveballs. To quote Douglas Adams, “In an infinite universe, anything is possible.”

Doug Traversa

Doug Traversa is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tullahoma, Tennessee. He is also a practicing Zen Buddhist and a retired Air Force officer.


What a journey—from Lutheran to fundamentalist to atheist . . . to atheist minister!

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