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There ARE No Atheists in Foxholes

One of my favorite arguments against atheism is, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Well, duh. Of course there are no atheists in foxholes!* That doesn’t mean that atheism is wrong. It just illustrates that, even with the best of intentions, we are all occasional victims of our own fears and insecurities.

I myself have fallen prey to the foxhole phenomenon. I can remember one particular night of heavy mixed drinking at my sister’s house when I found myself quite horribly ill and trapped in the bathroom knelt before the shrine of the porcelain deity. I was willing to entertain any notion if it would just make the nausea stop. So I naturally found myself appealing to Him, “God… if you exist, I could really use your help right now. Please, just get me out of this and I promise I’ll be good from now on.”

I eventually did feel better. I realized that it wasn’t because a higher power had intervened, but because my body had simply purged all of the toxins I had dumped into it. Looking back, I feel quite sheepish for having “prayed”. To me, it was a moment of weakness, but it serves to illustrate how powerful the fear of suffering, death, or loss of a loved one can be. It motivates us to try any solution and appeal to any power for salvation, regardless of how small the chance of success actually is.

Consider the snake-oil salesman. Most of us rational beings know that his tinctures will do nothing more than cost money and taste horrible. But what if a man’s young daughter has malaria and the local doctor has already told him that there’s no hope for her survival? Who wouldn’t give their last dollar to the smarmy snake-oil salesman** for the chance, no matter how infinitesimally small, that it might save a dying daughter’s life?

The phenomenon is still alive and well today. There’s a chapel in every hospital and an aisle dedicated to unproven homeopathic and herbal remedies in every drugstore. I understand that it is human nature in a time of crisis, to cling to any hope – no matter how far-fetched it is. Rationality has little to do with what one is willing to believe in this situation.

However, the fact that one might chose to abandon rationality in a high-stress situation, does not constitute a valid argument against atheism as a whole. If anything, the argument serves to illustrate how difficult it is for the human mind to maintain rationality in times of high-stress and resist the temptation of giving into comforting (but irrational) fantasy.

*Actually, this is not true. There are documented incidents of atheist soldiers facing life or death situations in foxholes. I was being sarcastic. I in no way meant to disparage the strength or conviction of atheist soldiers past and present who have put their lives on the line in service of their country.

**No, I’m not saying God is a smarmy snake-oil salesman. I don’t believe in God, remember?

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