No atheists in foxholes

ausyoyo Says:
September 30th, 2007 at 8:48 pmI’d like your take on the no atheists in fox holes clap trap.

Ah, a good one, and timely too. Perhaps I should start by agreeing that there are no atheists in foxholes. Why not? Because the Christians among their fellow soldiers are willing to abuse them and even murder them for their non-belief.

Hall [an atheist soldier who is suing for the right to meet with other atheists and freethinkers in the military] wrote in a series of e-mails to Weinstein that he feared for his safety after being “hallchecked” — being shoved against the wall in a hallway — by fellow soldiers who objected to his lawsuit. Bloggers on the Internet have also referred to “fragging” Hall, or killing him by friendly fire.

On the other hand, how can you “frag” a fellow-soldier for being an atheist if there are no atheists in foxholes? I guess we should look at this a little more deeply.

In classic Christian mythology, every atheist has a direct, personal, and inescapable hotline to God, continually reminding him that God is real and is Lord. Normally, the atheist simply ignores this continuous witness of the Spirit because he knows that giving his life to Jesus will mean he’s no longer allowed to lie and cheat and steal and fornicate and do all those other irresistably tempting things that evil nasty atheists get to do. But when he suddenly finds his life in danger (in a foxhole on a “hot” battlefield, for instance), he realizes that, if he placates the God he’s been ignoring up to now, that God might possibly decide to help him survive the danger of the moment. Thus, a new Christian is born, thanks to the former atheist’s preoccupation with his own self-interests.

Like most myths, there’s a grain of truth behind this one. Obviously, atheists don’t have a direct hotline to God. If they did, they wouldn’t be atheists. They might be Satan-worshippers, if they didn’t want to obey God. After all, according to Christian mythology, Satan opposes God, and he’s not an atheist. So you can’t blame atheism on a rebellion against God. Plus think how jealous Christians would be if atheists had a better connection to God than they did.

No, the grain of truth behind the “no atheists in foxholes” myth is that people do sometimes panic in stressful situations, and panic means turning from a rational response to a desperate and unreasoning response. If a soldier in a foxhole is so scared that he expects to die momentarily, it’s only human for him to perhaps give in to the temptation to panic, and latch on to whatever irrational superstitions he was exposed to in his prior experience. If he survives, he goes on to tell everyone how God saved him. If he does not survive, he never tells anyone how God let him down, because he’s dead.

The “no atheists in foxholes” myth, then, is an instance of Rigged Scorekeeping. A certain number of irreligious soldiers panic under fire, and appeal to God for help. Of those that appeal to God, some survive, and some don’t. The stories of the survivors are told and re-told, while the stories of the casualties go untold due to the death of the would-be narrator. So we get a biased account from the battlefield, and people spread the myth that battlefield stress leads people to Jesus.

The other side of the “no atheists in foxholes” story is the fact that, for real atheists, there is no conversion story to tell. They didn’t believe in God when they went into the foxhole, and they didn’t believe in God when they came out. If they have any story to tell at all, they’ve got a war story: how the attack happened, who had near-misses, who got hit, who was brave, who was scared, and so on. But it’s a war story, not a religious experience story, so it never gets compared to the “foxhole conversion” stories of those who appealed to God during battle, and survived. Once again, Rigged Scorekeeping works to promote the Christian conversion stories, and to ignore/bury the experiences of genuine atheists in battle.

There’s one more side to this story, and it’s also a myth, but one with a growing grain of truth: “there are no Christians at Walter Reed.” Obviously, there are plenty of Christians at Walter Reed Army Hospital, but one of the side-effects of the Christian-inspired war on Iraq is that a number of soldiers are experiencing the reverse of the foxhole conversion: after seeing the horrors of a war motivated largely by our Christian president’s faith in Jesus, a number of erstwhile Christian soldiers are starting to have second thoughts about the validity of Christianity. In the past, Christian dominance of Western society has kept stories like these from spreading, but it’s a fact that wartime experiences sometimes lead believers away from faith in God instead of bringing unbelievers to faith.

I like to think that the tide is turning against ignorance and superstition and unreason. I like to think that the “no Christians at Walter Reed” myth is getting stronger while the “no atheists in foxholes” myth is getting weaker. But what I’d like even better is for people to realize that truth is better than myth, even when it’s a “good” myth.

3 Responses to “No atheists in foxholes”

  1. rburgess Says:

    My response to that quip is short, to the point, and brutally honest:

    There are no atheist suicide bombers either.

  2. “Why no atheist suicide bombers?” — Some remarks on atheist morality « Evangelical Realism Says:

    [...] Comments rburgess on No atheists in foxholesThe Professor on Updated: Unapologetic Encyclop…No atheists in foxho… on Updated: Unapologetic [...]

  3. ausyoyo Says:

    Thanks for a good piece, I like rburgess response too. One terribly minor quibble
    ‘If a soldier in a foxhole is so scared that he expects to die momentarily’
    I think you meant “in a moment” although if a soldier did die for a moment you could have the whole going to the light crap as well. Anyway thanks again.


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