“There are no atheists in foxholes”

I couldn’t believe someone was actually saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” the first time someone said it to me in conversation. It was a few years back now, I had shown up early for my sociology of death and grief class and decided to strike up conversation with a few of the other early comers. I now forget what led me to share it, but for whatever reason the conversation reminded me of something my paternal grandma said around the time of my grandpa’s funeral. I explained that she was an atheist and I thought it was beautiful when she said that her only concern for her death was that she be cremated and spread in a flowerbed to help them grow. She used to stop by the side of the road whenever she saw a great big field of wild flowers and pick some; I loved doing that with her. I occasionally miss the black-eyed-Susans that grow all over the upper peninsula of Michigan. So it really struck me as beautiful when she said that because she didn’t care about an afterlife, she cared about helping life that she loved to continue after she was gone, and in a way she would still be here because she would become something new. I explained this to my fellow students excitedly, thinking that they would also see what I thought was beautiful about my grandma’s sentiment, but then I was sadly disappointed. The response I got was along the lines of “well maybe she’ll change her mind when she’s closer to dying, you know, there’s no atheists in foxholes”.

As I said before, I was a bit thrown for a loop that was actually said. Best thing I could come up with to say before the professor walked in was that I was sure plenty of people throughout civilization have died not believing in god.

Since then I’ve thought a bit more about that silly phrase. Personally the word “foxhole” brings to mind the trench warfare of WWI and WWII and how terrifying that must have been. Besides the constant fear of an attack from the enemy there were things like trench foot, running out of rations, and various diseases to contend with. It’s very strange to me that many think it’s rational for people to see the horrifying conditions of war and come out of it believing there’s a loving god out there. I think for those who see the horrors of war and still believe there’s a god, out of that often comes a selfish nationalistic way of thinking. That god is on our side and our enemy is a product of Satan. So god is loving, just loves us and not that other tribe. But I digress slightly, the main point of the phrase is a more boiled down Pascal’s Wager. The idea that one will convince themselves they believe in a god and afterlife right before they die out of fear . It’s a bit funny to me that believers will proudly use “there are no atheists in foxholes” as an argument because they are admitting they think it’s fine to believe something simply out of fear and to comfort. A belief based on simply emotions does not have a solid basis in reality. Flashback to that classroom years ago, I remember once class started I couldn’t get what was said to me by another middle class white girl out of my mind and it hit me that it’s so arrogant for white Americans to assume that people will turn to their myth before they die. The fact that she also seemed completely fine with the idea that it made sense to believe out of fear and to comfort rubbed me the wrong way, it was so illogical. She was a fellow sociology major, I’d hoped her arrogance came out of not touching upon the subject of religion in her studies thus far, was mostly trying to give the benefit of the doubt. It was definitely a moment that reminded me to be a bit more skeptical of how logical those around me may be.

Another thing that strikes me about the phrase is I would think I wouldn’t want people in the military being very comfortable with the thought of dying. It is our fear of dying that makes us want to fight to survive and keep going on. The belief in heaven makes people less fearful of dying because it means they’ll just continue on and be in a better place. I’ve often wondered why Christians don’t seem to embrace dying a bit more if they believe in heaven like they say they do since heaven is often referred to as a better place. Since atheists don’t believe there’s an afterlife, many of us feel it’s best to make the most of the here and now and attempt to extend that time for as long as circumstances will allow us. I also feel that I’d like to leave a positive impact on those around me in some way before I leave this mortal coil, and I think other atheists could relate to that sentiment as well. I would go as far to argue that life is more precious to atheists than it is to believers. We could be wrong, but we’re pretty sure this is it, so we’ll fight as hard as we can to keep it but also accept that it will end someday. So to any believers that read this, stop using the silly phrase, you’re not helping yourself.

vonnegutFoxhole