"No atheists in foxholes" – what's it mean?

19 Feb 2008

As I mentioned earlier, the folks fighting the oft-heard claim "there are no atheists in foxholes" are doing good work in denouncing a stupid statement. But by playing up the contributions of atheist soldiers, they're addressing a misperception of the stupid statement's meaning, not its original meaning.

The Natural History of Nonsense, p 265, notes:

The power of this tendency to create myths has recently been demonstrated in the famous assurance that "there are no atheists in foxholes." As nearly as the origin of the formula can be traced, it "was first uttered by Lieutenant-Colonel Warren J. Clear in a story of Bataan's final weeks, delivered during the "Army Hour" program over the NBC Red Network in 1942. Colonel Clear attributed the immortal observation to an unnamed sergeant who had shared a foxhole with him during a Japanese bombing raid. No pretense was made that there had been an official catechism of every man or that the sergeant was a trained theologian. It was simply meant to be an emphatic way of saying that all men in the moment of peril seek the support of religion. (emphasis mine)

That's what I had always assumed: the statement attempts to claim that everyone facing death suddenly finds religion, not that atheists don't join the military.

Either reading of the claim is equally false, of course, so if the Freedom from Religion Foundation chooses the latter lie – that atheists won't fight in battle – as their target to combat, good for the Foundation! No argument from me.

As for the former, original meaning of the foxhole claim – that people in mortal peril will always turn to God for aid: That's as ridiculously untrue as the other reading, and it's a viciously anti-religious statement as well! Please see my post on why "no atheists in foxholes" is the last thing a believer should want to say.

(While a couple of posts on this site have picked up many readers, according to my logs, that post has been pretty well ignored. But I think it's a good one; please read!)

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