“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

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36 thoughts on ““There are no atheists in foxholes”

  1. I like your juxtaposition of the ‘foxholes’ in the war, and how if an atheist who believes God is evil and unjust, was in a situation where the world’s evils are apparent would suddenly believe that He was the right choice for an afterlife. I also think this whole concept of ‘security and comfort’ etc is precisely why people turn to faith and belief in the first place, and if when in a foxhole atheists turn to God, doesn’t that back up what atheists have always claimed about religion? It does to me.

  2. Lovely post!

    I thought your grandmother’s wish was beautiful. I loved that.

    Sometimes religious people act as if we are atheists because we’ve never had any problems, or someone close to us dying, or any traumatic events in our lives. If I was going to believe in God because of fear, that would have happened at any number of scary moments in my life. In fact, I’d wager that I, and most atheists I know, would be even more concerned for someone ELSE and that would make them more likely to reach out to God when, say, a family member is dying of cancer rather than waiting for my own death.

    This argument can actually be turned against them. Countries that are more wealthy and have higher standard of living etc are usually less religious (with the exception of the US, of course). So if one is going to think we are atheists because we don’t need comfort and security, then the inverse is true – poorer countries are more religious because they need comfort and security. Not exactly a good argument for why someone should believe.

  3. Surely it is the fear of death that motivates us to do anything to in any way make the world or own lives better. The concept of an afterlife for me seems counterproductive to this end and makes me think of a quote from Punch Magazine.

  4. Hey there Alyssa, I really enjoyed this post. But I was wondering, do you plan on writing about things that do not have to do with religion? I mean, I get that its your thing, but I would like to hear your take on other issues as well. Either way, keep up the good boo… I mean work… keep up the good work 🙂

    • I haven’t read Al’s response to your post yet, if indeed She has made one, but on reading your post it immediately strikes me as grossly inappropriate to state “Hey, I love your work, BUT can you do something a little different!”. Bordering on the downright rude, to be perfectly Honest! Would you go to a Pearl Jam gig and midway through, shout out “Do you know any Eminem!?” You chose to follow. You chose to read. If you don’t like what you read, don’t read it any more.

  5. I honestly think it’s a myth that people miraculously find religion in times of duress, stress, and danger.

    I read once of a study done, possibly by the NTSB, of radio traffic and flight data recorders from a large number of downed flights, both military and civilian. They found that, regardless of country or language, the last spoken words of crashing pilots and flight crews were not religious. Very few called out to a “higher power” just before they hit the ground. Rather, the most common thing was some variation of “Oh, shit.”

    Food for thought.

  6. Hello and thank you for the wonderful post. I love the beauty and wonder your grandmother showed you. A nice tribute to her. As a member of two different branches of the military , Army and Navy, I can tell you there are plenty of atheist in the military. Sadly there is a large number of fanatical religious people, who try their best to spread and enforce their particular view of their faith. I have had many problems with them. Sadly that problem has gotten worse as the fanatics are encouraged to act out and act on their beliefs without honoring others feelings by the ones they see on TV and the groups like AFA and others. I wish you the best. Hugs

  7. Indeed Scottie, the fanatics make things hard, where as we seek to improve them by removing magical beliefs from our process of reaching conclusions.
    As my friend and fellow Western Australian skeptic, Andrew, assured me,
    “There are a number of atheists in foxholes, but you won’t find many in prisons.”

    All the best,
    Woody

  8. First, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” is an observation of human nature. It is valid to the extent that it is true of people. So you should look to some kind of data for its validity. Second, the saying is certainly not prescriptive; no one is saying it should be the case or that they are fine with it. It is a statement about what is, not what should be. Third, (to your comments of the horror of war and its implications) people in foxholes do not have time to run philosophical arguments; they are concerned for their existence from moment to moment. They might rail against God, but that proves the saying. A lot of people may lose their faith as a result of wars — true — but the question is what happens in the “foxhole”. Forth, as for your statements as to the willingness of theists to die…they are generally more willing (1) to die for their beliefs and (2) to accept (natural) death.

    Not saying the statement is true, just that your arguments don’t affect its use.

  9. I cannot express enough how growing up in a minority faith in this country and being surrounded with folks like your classmate made me want explore all faiths.
    Ultimately, I (like many others before and after me) determined that had a “real diety” or Lord existed, he/she/it would not have let millions live and give their lives to the “wrong” belief. People of faith are just as foolish to believe they are the only “saved” or righteous as the humans who believe we are the only ones who exist in any Galaxy, or that animals,etc are only here to serve us.

  10. Your Sociologist friend off-handed blaise repetition of that moldy chestnut belies the truth of the last 30 or so years (especially the last 15) in the military. It’s not Ike’s Anti-Commie USofA anymore. I’ve known plenty of “atheists in foxholes” besides being one myself.

  11. There are actually still people who say this unironically? They were joking about people who said this on M*A*S*H back in the seventies.

  12. Great as usual. Precisely, when I am in a foxhole is when the most I think intelligence, reason and no superstition is needed

  13. I agree that the rejoinder “there are no atheists in foxholes” is an absurdity. Even if that were true (and I doubt it is, but having not been in a foxhole, can’t say for sure), it doesn’t say anything about the existence of god, just about the nature of the superstitions that drive people to believe in him/she/it. Just by making such a claim believers are acknowledging the rickety scaffolding of their own beliefs.

  14. Nice post. Former army aviation atheist here. Unfortunately, open discrimination was the norm and it meant a lot of hardship.
    However, nowadays I see that, even though religion is institutionalized, more people is see the person behind the believe.

  15. Inquiry: What would a Christian need a foxhole for? If you believe your God can save you, why not just walk into the path of that incoming grenade, and call for His aid?

  16. Thank you for pointing out so clearly that religion is motivated by fear of death, and that religionists are just fine with exploiting that fear to indoctrinate and manipulate the growth of their cult of fearful “believers.”

  17. Hello Alyssa. I’m late discovering your blog and youtube channel. I can actually comment on this post since I have “been there” in combat. I was a conscript in 86 and 87 in the South African defense force. In US lingo I served as a “combat engineer”, so it was my job to check the dirt roads that we drove on for landmines and deal with unexploded ordinance every time our unit was shelled. I also set out 12 claymores every evening around the base and took them down in the morning. Even though my unit was considered a “non combat” unit (we didn’t go on patrol to seek and destroy the enemy, were were there to serve certain needs while other people did that job), the fatality rate of my unit was 10% and probably 30-50% got treated for combat related injuries during my active service of 1 year in 87.

    The psycological aspect of the war was quite extreme. We walked in the road in front of the convoys and about 200-300 yards ahead of the vehicles and you know full well that if there is an ambush, you will be walking through the killing zone fully exposed, on your feet with your rifle slung over your shoulder, your mine detector in one hand and earphones on your head… And in fact we did walk through 2 ambush sites and for whatever reason, the enemy chose to hold fire until the armoured vehicles reached their position. You mind can dwell on the knowledge that you walked literally under dozens of gun barrels, fully exposed, which then were unleashed on the people further back in the column.

    I can assure you that I had no thoughts regarding divine intervention either then, nor while lying on the ground with mortars going off less than 20 yards away during the times the base was shelled. Myself and my men carried dozens of critically injured people into the sick bay bunker/surgery and I can vividly recall what the doctor, chaplain and medic looked like after attending to the dead and dying after treating more than 150 wounded one night. I had to get a tetanus shot for a shrapnel wound which was otherwise not treated, and I was the last person for the night.

  18. Hi Alyssa, This reminds me of one of my favorite books “A Fortunate Life” by A b Facey a survivor of the Galipoli campaign in WW1. He said it was hard to believe in a god after the ferocity of the hand to hand fighting when the ANZACs raided the Turkish trenches and vice versa.

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