John H Williams

(Investigator 121, 2008 July)

"I thought combat would change them, because there's a saying that there aren't any atheists in foxholes, and I find that's not true. Even in a battle zone there's still a fairly large number that's not practicing a faith."
Army Chaplain Joe Angotti, Tikrit, Iraq.

"If someone is a committed atheist, they're likely to stay a committed atheist."
 Ken Pargament, Professor of the Psychology of Religion.

There are - and always have been - atheists in foxholes. An oft-repeated aphorism has, since World War 2, annoyed and insulted non-believers everywhere, particularly veterans and those currently on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The line originated during America's Pacific campaign, created by a journalist, Ernie Pyle, who was shortly to be killed by sniper fire near Okinawa in April, 1945. (Pyle also promoted the notion that those on active duty deserved what became known as "fight pay" on top of their basic wage, and this became law, resulting in a 50% bonus while in action).

In my opinion it's as untrue and as mythical as is theistic belief: it implies that humans are innately dependent children of a particular fatherly god, some of whom develop a superficial disbelief until faced with a life-threatening event when they'll 'revert' and call for divine help. As Mormon leader, Gordon Hinckly expressed it, "In times of extremity, we plead for and put our trust in a power mightier than ourselves."

Millions have gone to their deaths pleading for rescue by that "mightier power", and it's highly likely that not one prayer or cri de coeur has been answered, unless fortuitously. Veteran soldiers have observed that it's far more common to hear the wounded and dying call out more often for their mothers than for supernatural aid.

As a corollary, it's undeniable that life in a foxhole may well cause a profound sense of disbelief, since it's self-evident that a mortar round kills indiscriminately, and prayer, while perhaps providing solace, has demonstrably no practical value.

Veterans of religious disposition who believe that they'd been 'saved' need only to ask why others (including those known to have strong religious beliefs) perished and not themselves, to realise that chance was at work when bullets and shrapnel 'sought targets' elsewhere.

Though the USA is known for its strong Christian tradition, in which an estimated 226 million (73%) of its 304 million (2008) have been assessed as Christians, there's been no census question on religious beliefs for fifty years, and estimates are based on surveys and reports.

The following groups comprise an estimated 14%: non-religious/secular (41 million), agnostic (1.6m) and atheist (1.5 m), a total of 14%. Normally the ratio of agnostics to atheists is 5 or 6:1, so these numbers are aberrant. The Barna Group, a religious polling firm, found (June, 2007) that one in four American adults in the 18-22 age group had no faith, so the percentage of atheists in its military could well be higher.

Given that so many Americans are non-believes, one would expect an antipathy to the religious anodynes of the dominant culture in their armed forces. Having a 'born-again' commander-in-chief who is prone to prayer breakfasts with those who helped perpetrate the unwinnable Iraq morass, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, is unlikely to enhance belief and faith.

President Bush Senior once asserted (1987) that atheists shouldn't be considered citizens of the USA, nor were they patriotic. A Gallup poll (2007) showed that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist President than for a woman, a Jew, an African American or a homosexual; however, 49% said they'd support an atheist, the highest since Gallup began asking that question over fifty years ago.

Organisations like the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and American Atheists, who sponsor Atheists in Foxholes, stridently counter the fallacious 'foxhole conversion' axiom as "misleading, unfair and a denial of the role of past and current atheists". While disbelief is increasingly marginalized in America, they are active in debunking, insisting on the separation of state from religion, and in demanding and receiving retractions over religiously influenced media statements.

Just after Cyclone Katrina in 2005, Bill Weir on Good Morning Australia said, "There are no atheists in foxholes or hurricane zones." This was contested in court by American Atheists, who forced an apology and a retraction from the station.

Making even a small dent in the prevailing religious ethos is a struggle, but in 1999 a coalition of the above-named groups, in conjunction with Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Alabama Freethought Association, co-sponsored an Atheist-in-Foxholes Monument at Lake Hypatia, Alabama. The monument's inscription reads:
"In memory of atheists in foxholes and countless freethinkers who have served this country with honor and distinction, presented by the National Freedom From Religion Foundation with hope that in future mankind may learn to avoid all war." 

Foxhole atheists, some say that they're myths,
Creations of minds, but we know they exist.

They answered their country's call with pride,
With reason their watchword, they bled and they died.

Bombed at Pearl Harbor, fought on to Berlin,
Freethinking women served along with the men.

Still war keeps erupting -- Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo:
Where is the peace that eludes people so?

It's broken by tyrants bearing crosses and creeds
That o'ershadow reason with hate and cruel deeds.

So atheists, prevail 'till your work is complete;
Mothers mourn, children cry, bigots plan your defeat.

By air, land and sea you'll answer freedom's call:
Without god or a faith, seek liberty for all.

(Poem written by Alice Shiver to celebrate the
dedication of the Foxhole Atheists Monument,
abbreviated and modified by J Williams).


In Memory of Atheists in Foxholes

Flynn T, The nonreligious may be America's largest minority, Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol 21, Number 1

Wikipedia: "There are no atheists in foxholes"

Williams JH, Demography of Religions, Investigator #114