Are there atheists in foxholes? (Or were the dead all believers?)

8 Feb 2008

I'm not (yet) too familar with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, though from the start I like the cut of its jib. In any case, I happened to notice its efforts to erect a monument commemorating the role of non-believers in the US military.

That reminds me of a peeve. "There are no atheists in foxholes" has always irked me as a particularly inane claim. There is of course, the blatant falseness of it, which the Foundation above is attempting to set right. But beyond that: what's the point of the retort?

Is it to say that, when faced with death, all humans call for supernatural aid? If so, there's again the falseness of the claim. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that it's essentially correct: I think we can agree that under immediate danger of death, most people start praying. (After all, most people – the non-secular majority – pray even when safe, right?) And I would hardly be surprised to find some fence-sitting agnostics, and even a few atheists, giving prayer a shot when the shells come whistling in; what else is there for them to try? In that grave situation, it literally can't hurt to try anything...

So in foxholes, most people pray... and so what? That scenario offers zero support for the truth of the beliefs behind the prayers, no more than a billion praying Muslims or a billion praying Hindus prove the truth of their respective beliefs. All it suggests instead is that, in ghastly situations that would turn the hardiest of us into quivering lumps of terror, the religious will pray (gee, you think?), and even some non-religious will turn to unrational thoughts that they might not entertain when safely removed from the bombs and mustard gas. What does that prove, other than the hideousness of war, and the fierceness of our survival mechanism (shared with our animal cousins) that will claw at any straw in the attempt to stay alive?

"There are no atheists in foxholes." What that claim suggests to me is two things:

1) When faced with death, all claims to belief in a heavenly seat at the right hand of the Lord fly out the window, and the religious beg for life instead.

2) No atheists in foxholes? Then every man blown to bits in a foxhole was a praying believer – whose prayer was most clearly and most gruesomely not answered.

"There are no atheists in foxholes" means every corpse in a foxhole was a praying believer.

"There are no atheists in foxholes" is the most effective argument I know of for the utter uselessness of prayer.

Why any "believer" would ever quote that anti-faith phrase is completely beyond me!

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