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ARGUMENTS AGAINST ATHEISM - "THERE ARE NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES"

The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

The phrase, usually attributed to American journalist Ernie Pyle in 1942 (but also sometimes attributed to Douglas MacArthur or William Cummings), is often used to suggest that, in times of extreme stress or fear or when faced with possible impending death, such as in a foxhole during a war, people turn to religion. In the same way, many people of previously uncertain religious convictions embrace religion on their death-beds

The Refutation Back to Top

To some extent it is probably true that people, however misguidedly, use religion as a crutch to get through rough times, but the kind of overnight conversion implied by the aphorism appears unlikely, and is not convincingly documented.

The proportion of atheists in uniform tends to be broadly similar to that in the general populartion (or slightly more), and there have been many atheist soldiers who have gone through wars without becoming religious. There is even an online registry of proud atheists in foxholes at the Military Association of Atheists and Freehinkers.
"There are no atheists in foxholes" isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes.
- James Morrow (1994)

In fact, the opposite may be just as true, that foxholes breed atheists. The horrors of war, and the pious platitudes which often attend them, often have the effect of shaking a soldier out of his complacency and cause him to question the wisdom and compassion of a god who allows such things to happen.

Several high-profile supposed death-bed conversions to religion have been showed to be spurious, either deliberately falsified (e.g. Charles Darwin), or highly suspect, disputed or exaggerated (e.g. Oscar Wilde, Jean-Paul Sartre). Several others may have been for social or political reasons, to save stigma or embarrassment for surviving family members, etc.

Arguably, a death-bed conversion is not something for a religion to be very proud of anyway, as it suggests a rather desperate, pragmatic reflex in the hopes of last-minute salvation (see the section on Pascal’s Wager), rather than a heart-felt change of philosophical outlook.

 
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