JR'S Free Thought Pages
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On “There are no Atheists in Foxholes”

By JR, May 2019

Men create gods after their own image - Aristotle

Faith in the supernatural is a desperate wager made by man at the lowest ebb of his fortunes – George Santayana

There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. The time was called the Dark Ages – Richard Lederer

Arguments, valid and fallacious

There’s ostensibly an argument for pretty much anything. Unfortunately most arguments and the cases they promote are bogus, seriously flawed and plagued by fallacies and conceptual difficulties. This is especially the case with theologians, politicians and marketers - all trying to sell you something. Many are not arguments at all in the sense of presenting evidence and dispassionate, rational, coherent and cogent argumentation.

Nevertheless, throughout recent history there have been people who have argued against democracy (despite the fact it has never really existed), freedom, empathy and compassion and, like Ayn Rand, who made the case for selfishness in her book with the oxymoronic title The Virtue of Selfishness. Politicians, religious leaders and others in positions of power have argued for racism, slavery, torture, war, capitalists, denying the holocaust, touting the meritocracy and self-made man myths who make billions of dollars on the backs of workers and stomping on the rights of others, dropping atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ideological imperialist wars including the one in Vietnam in which the United States  (the same country that deployed nuclear weapons on innocent Japanese people, murdered over 5 million Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodians in the name of anti-communism. Our own government in Canada (in collusion with their big business masters) has made decisions that resulted in ecological disasters and violation of indigenous people’s rights such as dams, pipelines and the horrific fossil fuel calamity in the Alberta Tar Sands. Then in 2008 following a global financial collapse resulting from financial crimes of epic proportions, people accepted the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailouts of bandit banks and other corporate criminals and believed in the “too big to fail” ruse that handed the crooks get out of jail free cards.

Atheists in Foxholes

The expression "There are no atheists in foxholes" is a vague slogan and not an argument for anything. This aphorism is erroneously invoked, typically with no supporting premises, argument or evidence, to convince a religious skeptic that in times of extreme duress, stress or fear, such as the threat of death on the battlefield, he will suspend his rational faculties and appeal to some amorphous deity. This is despite the fact that we will all die eventually, sooner, if not later, as existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger convincingly argued in his book Being and Time. [1]

The assumption is that during immediate threats to one’s life such as on a battlefield that all people will believe in, or hope for, a deity or some higher power to save them from the threat.

The context and source for this facile expression is unknown. The American military chaplain William Thomas Cummings is alleged to have said it in a field sermon during the Battle of Bataan in 1942. What anyone would mean by such an assertion is perplexing? But such an utterance from the mouth of a Christian cleric, it’s quite obvious that it is meant to imply that all soldiers in combat are instantaneously converted to embracing the Christian sky daddy with the assumption all people seek divine intervention when they are confronted with an extreme threat to serious injury or death. Ironically, the quote is also referenced when discussing the opposite effect, that the horrors of warfare cause some soldiers to question their existing belief in God due to the gratuitous death, destruction and violence around them.

To my mind “There are no atheists in foxholes” it is meaningless and if anything, more likely to suggest that atheists are not in foxholes because they don’t believe in the lies and propaganda of war and needlessly dying for a rich man’s greed and lust for power. The first casualty of war, as was once brilliantly expressed by some wise person, is the truth. As one who has been actively engaged in sports, I can vaguely recall during the news coverage of his death and subsequent cryonic suspension, Hall of Fame baseball player and World War II and Korean War fighter pilot Ted Williams was apparently an atheist according to one of his former teammates, whose name I cannot recall. Williams was one of the great hitters of all time and wrote a book called The Science of Hitting. As a pilot in the air force the atheist Williams at least didn’t have to worry about being in a foxhole to test the silly Christian hypothesis.

Today, with so many professional baseball players coming from Latin American countries for which Catholicism is drummed into their heads from birth, one commonly witnesses the absurdity of players pointing to the sky as if some cosmic wizard was responsible for a home run or successful sacrifice bunt.

This is the sort of idiotic bullshit heavy hitter Ted Williams quite clearly did not engage in. If God is responsible for all things, including sports performances, why is this behavior absent when a player strikes out or fumbles an infield ground ball? And why would an athlete bother practicing and working out if everything is that happens is grounded in the will of someone’s god? There’s a tacit assumption that, as Aristotle [2} once believed, most people are capable of rational thought. I think not.

Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, raises a related issue in the film adaptation of his nearly fatal ascent up the Siula Grande Mountain. Referring to the period while he was laying helplessly a deep crevasse, dehydrated, hungry and alone, and with a broken leg, he states: '"I was totally convinced I was on my own, that no one was coming to get me. I was brought up as a devout Catholic but I’d long ceased believing in God. I always wondered if the shit really hit the fan, whether I would, under extreme duress, resort to a few “Hail Mother Mary” invocations and plead for someone to get me the hell out of here. It never once occurred to me. Perhaps it meant that I subconsciously really don't believe and I really do think that when you die, you die, that's it, there's no afterlife.

Most people, even the religious in their darker moments of doubt in the dead of night realize that there is no dualistic spiritual realm of existence beyond the material. What most people, even the empiricist, realists and irreligious find it difficult to think of their own personal non-existence. The stark reality is that our existence is a random event - a contingent fact - and that if Sammy the Sperm arrived at the ovary before Herman or your parents had decided not to engage in the “wild thing” on a particular evening, you would not be here.

Let’s face a simple fact most religious people refuse to accept; we are all born atheists. Religious faith such as accepting an invisible all powerful omniscient metaphysical entity is an outgrowth of inculcation and indoctrination. Most children are not credulous; in fact they are born curious and skeptical, questioning everything. Sadly, these valuable intellectual predispositions are soon beaten out of them. Belief in the supernatural is not an innate predisposition. If you now claim to be Christian or any one of the literally thousands of other fantasies and fool’s paradises, you still remain an atheist when it comes to gods that are no longer believed in such as Zeus, Thor and Odin. And you don’t accept Allah or the literally millions of Hindu gods such as Vishnu.

Atheism is a simple idea of non-belief in the same sense as someone who claims to not believe in ghosts, goblins, fairies or the invisible flying pink unicorn. The evidence for such supernatural entities such as these is zero, zilch, nada, rien, nichts - exactly the same as the evidence for the existence of the Christian or any other of the thousands of gods dreamt up by credulous homo saps. Deal with it folks - and do something else far more interesting on Sunday morning.

One other obvious observation with regard to conceptual clarity: Atheism (or its natural offshoots science and humanism) is not a religion anymore than not collecting stamps is a hobby or that bald is a hair colour.

 A few years ago the well-known scientist Frank Close wrote a very informative introductory volume on particle physics. Like 95% of all scientists, he’s an atheist and a dedicated materialist, as throughout the book he comments on his philosophical stance as a research scientist. For Close, the material world is all that exists (atoms, neutrinos and their internal structures). Frank Close would likely agree with Peggy Lee in the wonderful existentialist song by Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is”? For Peggy and Frank (and John Lennon in his inspirational anarchistic freedom song “Imagine”), no realm of the immaterial or supernatural exist in such a scientific world view; no gods, no demons, no souls, no heaven and no hell - just atoms having a fling and doing their thing. Perhaps even free will is a delusion, as some audacious philosophers have quite convincingly argued. However, despite our Freudian subconscious desires and those who have argued for determinism, to reject free will runs counter to our intuitive and seemingly innate sense that we could have decided otherwise. [3]

Faith in any proposition (i.e., belief without evidence) is a self-deceptive crap shoot which can only be true by some highly improbable random event. The same claim can be made for the idea of “hope”. Hope is a delusion that makes it possible to get through the day to day vagaries of life, and so it is immensely valuable. Perhaps by the unpredictable quantum oscillations of the physical universe and the unknowable future emergent variants of genetic progression, hope will percolate through the obstacles of our degrading of moral, economic, social and political decay and the stark realities of psychopathic degenerates like Donald Trump and decisively put a halt to the callous bigotries and culture of fear and greed that collectively imprison us. Perhaps we’ll be visited by an alien culture such as described in the 1951 Cold War, McCarthyism era movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, and to miraculously deliver us from our morbid states by demanding peace, compassion and solidarity - or face or oblivion. It’s difficult in a world such as ours that faces an oppressive capitalist and imperialist global oligarchy deeply ensconced in moral decline. That anything less than something like alien intervention will not deliver us to a humane form of advanced peaceful cooperative civilization of a real democracy we’ve never had throughout history is hard to fathom. Last night my wife and I watched the movie Peterloo (2018) a dramatized commemoration of a horrific event in Manchester following the economic and social fallout in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. I urge you to watch the movie, depicting all-too-typical horrors of destitute working classes contending with a corrupt decadent monarchical theocratic feudalistic and emergent ruthless capitalist bankers and factory owners of the ruling classes. The movie graphically depicted the dreadful fate of a peaceful demonstration of progressive reformers and their impoverished followers who were mercilessly butchered by the military. You may want to read the Wikpedia piece on this historical event and a recent thoughtful article on the movie here.  My immediate thought after watching the movie was “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”.

I conclude with a quote from one of my favorite writers, the late Kurt Vonnegut, who said “People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes”.


[1] When the great economist John Maynard Keynes responded to a query about the future of the stock market in the long run, he responded with “In the long run, we are all dead”. This reminds me of David Hume’s famous statement that “The life of man is of no greater importance to the Universe than that of an oyster”.

Martin Heidegger had long since pointed out that no person goes forwards forever, including the stock market which is, more or less, a product of human emotional instability, including stupidity, greed and fear. In Being and Time, he depicted existence (dasien) as searching for authenticity that he referred to as “being-towards-death”’, that is, in affirming mortality and limits (one of the requirements of all ethical behaviour – something our capitalist oligarchs have not yet discovered. He set out to demonstrate that existence or being itself is not to be found on some eternal, ethereal dimension; rather it emerges through time and history. Thus, both on the cosmic level and in the lives of each one of us, all things are temporal and finite.

This idea of human existence as having a predetermined expiry date was a source of agitation for another remarkable atheist existentialist thinker Jean Paul Sartre, a philosopher that has greatly influenced my own thinking. He accepted mortality as scientific fact but everything in his character and intellect rebelled against being encumbered by anything, least of all death. As he wrote in Being and Nothingness, death is a scandalous outrage that comes to me externally, erasing my passions and intellectual projects. One cannot prepare for death or internalize the event in any rational manner. It’s not something about which to be resolute - or even accepted - nor is it something to be incorporated and conquered. It cannot be reasonably accepted as one of my contingencies; it is not one of my possibilities but “the possibility that there are for me no longer any possibilities”’. Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s life-long equally brilliant intellectual partner, wrote a novel, the central message of which was that immortality would be unbearable (All Men Are Mortal), but she too considered death an alien intruder. In A Very Easy Death, her 1964 account of her mother’s final illness, she described how death came to her mother “from elsewhere, strange and inhuman”. For Beauvoir, one cannot have a relationship with death, only with the only life we will ever know.

[2] One of Aristotle’s famous assertions is “man is a rational animal”. Ari was a smart cookie but he was surely wrong on this one.

[3] I concur with Jean Paul Sartre that “existence precedes essence” and that “we are condemned to be free”. Free will and the responsibility for our decisions and acts and their consequences on others is the hallmark of what it means to be moral.  As existentialists such as Sartre have convincingly claimed, even not deciding and simply allowing yourself to be subject to the whims of others is a decision, is an act of free will. Many events are outside our control, but to simply allow things to happen to you without at least attempting to exercise your free will is surely the quintessence of stupidity. All authoritarians and tyrants like to inform those over whom they wield power that they have your interests at heart (for conservative and liberal politicians alike it’s the infamous “national interest”) and that you must accept your fate. The fact many people believe this bullshit may explain why real democracy has never existed and likely never will.


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