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While serving in Afghanistan, Petty Officer Chris Holden has attended numerous memorials to honour the dead. This is what they look like to an atheist

People tend to reject the primitive religions, but sun worship seems to me an entirely rational theology. This occurred to me, ironically, as I struggled into full body armour, beneath a sun as merciless as the Old Testament God, in the Main Operating Base (MOB) Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.

As I shouldered my rifle, an amplified wail erupted beyond the sandbags and wire and over the MOB’s monolithic walls. In Helmand Province, the Islamic call-to-prayer resolutely punctuates the pattern of life, and while it fails to emancipate Afghans from the “tyranny of cousins”, liberal alternatives are crushed with great success.

But the Adhan was competing today with an infidel chant. ISAF Christians had congregated in a canvas chapel and their hymn was melodic to be sure. Yet in this harsh environment, the Islamic lament retains an atavistic authenticity. One imagines the nomads of antiquity, hunkered around flickering camp fires, swathed against the desert dust, mesmerised by the verses of the great mystic poets, or perhaps just ranting in the Abrahamic tradition.

I reached the canvas chapel and glanced inside. The Anglican flock were dressed like me in crumpled deserts and scuffed boots. They had worked, slept and eaten beside me constantly for months. Nevertheless, as they projected their voices in unified praise, I knew I had no business with them here, so I turned away and trudged on through the dust alone.

Written By: Chris Holden
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  1. It is a truism that Pinker, and Dawkins, has said: when being chased by a tiger, it may console you to think that it is a rabbit, but the truth will eventually sink in, when the tiger’s claws catch up with you. Religion may be consoling, but that does not make it true. People often confuse that which is consoling with that which is true. These are very different things.

    Having said that, it is understandable that when in extremis, say in a war, some people would rather accept a consoling falsehood than a cold truth. I’m not one of them. I find truth, or that which best approximates to it, most consoling.

  2. I am glad he pointed out that “this is solipsism”, because Chris Holden does not speak for all serving Atheists, not by a long way.

    Whilst we don’t hold with the Christian tone of Remembrance services, in no way do we begrudge attending them, our heads are bowed out of respect for the fallen, not in Reverence to a bearded sky fairy and I’ll think he wouldn’t be alone in not saying the Lord’s Prayer.

    The whole tone of this piece seems more disillusioned with Military life, than with Religion, he begrudges waiting on parade and talks of the “futility of it all”… well get out mate. You volunteered to join, to have made Petty Officer you’ve obviously been in a while, (or you’re a clerk), so you can leave when you like

    There were also a couple of things that caused me concern. Maybe it’s different in the Navy, (in which PO Holden serves), but British Forces “Fall Out”, there is no drill command “Dismiss”, we turn 90 degrees to the right and march THREE steps, not two and this would usually be done after marching away from the parade, not immediately after it, in front of a Brigadier. He also used the term “Honking” completely out of context. It is something dirty/minging/disgusting, or in military circles, it is complaining/moaning… the article is a perfect example of honking

  3. I find the article very respectful. Even as he finds the religious language false, he finds the application to a dead comrade moving, and i suspect I would have felt the same.

    And Johnny-O, get off your high horse. Holden was at all times respectful of the deceased and even of the ceremony. Your gung-ho comment amounts to “America, love it or leave it,” and I would expect a bit more sophistication from RD commentators.

  4. I find it so odd when a Christian says “I am sure I will live forever, because I cannot bear it to think that I will die.” In other words you decide what is true by which you prefer. By that reasoning, everyone always wins the lottery. Every time you go fishing, you catch a 15+ kg fish. It is Keats’ silliness — Beauty is truth and truth beauty.

    The other strangeness is why someone would want to pick grapes in heaven for 100+ billion years with no possibility of escape. Star Trek NG explored this when a member of Q’s continuum wished to die and asked permission of the others. He was totally bored with his hugely long god-like life.

  5. In reply to #4 by justinesaracen:

    And Johnny-O, get off your high horse. Holden was at all times respectful of the deceased and even of the ceremony.

    Roger that!

  6. Good writing.

    An evocative piece with well observed descriptions of the environment in which they all have to operate and live together, expressing the writer’s feelings and world view without a hint of disrespect for his comrades who clearly don’t share his ideas.

    I take it you’ve served Johnny_O!?

  7. RDfan # 2.

    The “cold truth” as you put it certainly keeps you on your toes, and I can’t see anything wrong in that.

    S G

  8. justinesaracen – It’s anything but “love it or leave it”, I’m talking about a job he has chosen to do, not a country. I see people that are just doing their time, to get their pension in the Army, every day and they are a liability. They don’t want to be there, so they don’t put in the required effort, which effects the morale of the people around them and can cause caualties.

    I agree he was respectful of the deceased and the actual ceremony, at no stage did I say otherwise. I commented on him “honking” about standing around waiting… well standing around, waiting, is unfortantely a big part of the military

    Maybe I’m looking at it from a military perspective that is difficult to communicate, but the language he uses, is the sort I have heard from the people I describe above. If there was someone at your place of work that disliked it and had a negative effect on the output, would you not suggest they look for employment elsewhere?

    Yes, Stafford Gordon, I have served, as an Atheist, along with most of the people I served with, so I just do not recognise Holden’s experience at all… maybe I just couldn’t see it from my high horse

  9. “…but sun worship seems to me an entirely rational theology.” Actually, no, it’s not.

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