The Army's evangelical atheists?

Speaking of GetReligion guilt files ...

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating feature from Afghanistan last September headlined "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War." The top of the story:

SANGIN, Afghanistan -- They say there are no atheists in foxholes. There's one on the front lines here, though, and the chaplain isn't thrilled about it.

Navy Chaplain Terry Moran is steeped in the Bible and believes all of it. His assistant, Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, is steeped in the Bible and having none of it.

Together they roam this town in Taliban country, comforting the grunts while crossing swords with each other over everything from the power of angels to the wisdom of standing in clear view of enemy snipers. Lt. Moran, 48 years old, preaches about divine protection while 25-year-old RP2 Chute covers the chaplain's back and wishes he were more attentive to the dangers of the here and now.

It's a match made in, well, the Pentagon.

"He trusts God to keep him safe," says RP2 Chute. "And I'm here just in case that doesn't work out."

Why am I bringing up this piece -- buried until now with 1,453 other messages in my GetReligion story possibilities folder -- seven months after its publication? Let's just say that the guilt over not taking time to mention this feature last year finally became too much for me to bear.

OK, I'm kidding ...

The real reason is that The Associated Press published a story late last week that reminded me of the Journal feature.

The top of the AP story by religion beat writer Tom Breen:

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The cliche notwithstanding, there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other assorted skeptics from the Army's Fort Bragg have formed an organization in a pioneering effort to win recognition and ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.

"We exist, we're here, we're normal," said Sgt. Justin Griffith, chief organizer of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH. "We're also in foxholes. That's a big one, right there."

For now, the group meets regularly in homes and bars outside of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases in the country. But it is going through the long bureaucratic process to win official recognition from the Army as a distinct "faith" group.

The Army atheists received coverage, too, from the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh. Veteran religion writer Yonat Shimron included the military voices in a story on area atheists and agnostics starting a billboard campaign:

Taking a cue from the gay rights movement, Triangle atheists are coming out of the closet with a new billboard campaign that attempts to project a friendly, wholesome image of a group long stigmatized for its unconventional beliefs.

Plastered on billboards in Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro and Smithfield are the smiling faces of real Triangle atheists and agnostics, accompanied by pithy statements such as "I'm saved from religion" and "Another happy, humanist family."

The "Out of the Closet" campaign is just one of several ways the growing nonbeliever movement is flexing its muscles and elevating its profile amid a competitive religious marketplace in the Triangle and nationwide.

Both written by Godbeat pros, the AP and News & Observer stories are pretty nicely done with excellent context and details.

Nonetheless, a GetReligion reader who shared the News & Observer story link complained that the piece lacked depth:

I sense that this could have been a fascinating piece: the skeleton of a great narrative is in the details. Where are these people coming from? How has religious adherence changed in recent years? What is this 'movement' in response to, particularly? What does a meeting of atheists look like, sound like? Is "friendly" really the right word to describe a movement with luminaries like Richard Dawkins? Where's the depth?

After reading both the AP and the News & Observer stories, I came away with a sense that the tactics employed by the North Carolina atheists are sort of evangelical in nature. In fact, I wondered if -- except for the lack of belief in God -- these groups could be described as "religious." I wished that one of the reporters had posed that question to a theologian.

In both stories, the non-believers are portrayed as victims of society's wider belief in God. However, not much evidence is provided to back up that notion. For instance, we have non-believers in the lede of the AP story trying to "ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military." But we have no feedback from Christians in the military to give an idea how they relate to atheist comrades.

Since I am far from an expert on atheists, I'll be interested in GR readers' feedback on the two recent stories and even the guilt-laden WSJ piece from way back when. Remember, we're concerned about journalism and media coverage, not that bigger question, if you know what I mean.

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