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Religion in the NY Times Letters to the Editor

The New York Times recently published a piece by Tracy Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, entitled Conjuring Up Our Own Gods and it’s sparked some controversy, at least partly because she repeats the tired old “there are no atheists in foxholes” nonsense. Grant Hicks hammers her for it in a letter to the editor:

How nonchalantly T. M. Luhrmann tosses off the old canard about “no atheists in foxholes” as if it were both self-evident and unexceptionable. In fact, it is a slur on every atheist, not just (although particularly) on the many who have served their country honorably in battle.

The implication — that atheists are all really theists at heart, our convictions casually and shallowly held and easily abandoned in the face of adversity — is simply untrue. I’ve never been in a foxhole, but I did once sit in a hospital waiting room while a surgeon explained that my young son had a life-threatening and possibly inoperable brain tumor.

I did not pray then, or since.

And thousands and thousands of others have been in a foxhole without crying out for god to save them. Atheists face death every day without falling back on religious wishful thinking. And frankly, it should be more than a bit embarrassing for a serious academic to repeat this inane platitude as if it were legitimate.

Comments

  1. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    There are no atheists flying airplanes into buildings.

    Well, not in the name of Ungod…

  2. says

    @ #1: Perhaps atheists don’t fly airplanes into buildings,or haven’t yet, but suicide for a cause in battle is not uncommon. That’s how you get a posthumus CMH.

  3. John Pieret says

    I’ve always wondered at how people fail to recognized the illogic in that trope. If someone is a believer in the providence of God — that not a sparrow falls — then they should be confident that no bullet can hurt them, if God has not yet decreed that their time on Earth is closed. Conversely, if a provident God calls their name, not the deepest bunker can save them. In short, there are no true believers in foxholes, since foxholes are superfluous to the will of God.

  4. raven says

    for a serious academic

    You were doing fine until you got to this point.

    Tracy Luhrmann isn’t a serious academic, Stanford or not.

    She gets a huge amount of Templeton money to find things out that agree with the Templeton Foundation. It’s more academicly disguised propaganda than academic research.

  5. cottonnero says

    A theist saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” is fundamentally saying “our position seems like a better idea under times of stress”.

  6. Alverant says

    She got it wrong, it’s “There are no chaplains in a foxhole and no Atheists in the KKK.”

  7. Randomfactor says

    Atheists were specifically forbidden to join Hitler’s SS…not that we’d want to. I think Luhrmann would have agreed with Himmler’s reasons on the matter. Yeah, Godwin and all that.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    And frankly, it should be more than a bit embarrassing for a serious academic to repeat this inane platitude as if it were legitimate.

    No atheists in foxholes: WWII vets remain religious
    In which two brothers, a professor of marketing and a chair of religious studies, get together and do a study which supports their belief that marketing religion to veterans would be a good thing.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    BTW, that’s my go-to example when someone tries to claim that “idea X and idea Y must be compatible because one person subscribes to both.

  10. timberwoof says

    I would imagine that any soldier who stopped to pray while under fire instead of laying down a crossfire barrage to cover the enemy’s flank (or whatever it is you’re supposed to do in a foxhole) is not going to win many friends in his unit.

  11. eric says

    A theist saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” is fundamentally saying “our position seems like a better idea under times of stress

    Yup. Its insulting to both atheists and theists. Its like saying: when your brain isn’t functioning at peak effectiveness, you become theist. That’s not exactly a winning endorsement.

  12. Sandy Small says

    A theist saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” is fundamentally saying “our position seems like a better idea under times of stress

    Agreed, although I’ve always interpreted the foxholes line as an admission that the person’s faith is shallow and self-serving, and furthermore that they’re somehow under the impression that wishful thinking is a viable course of action in any avenue of life, let alone war. Or maybe just that piss-drenched, mortal terror is the foundation of their belief. Either way, it reflects a lot worse on the person trotting out that hoary cliche than the person it’s directed at.

  13. grumpyoldfart says

    The chance that I will call on god during an emergency is exactly the same as the chance that a Christian will call on the Tooth Fairy. It just won’t happen, no matter how dire the situation.

  14. twincats says

    Democommie @13

    Well, speaking only for myself, I’d much rather be a foxhole atheist than an A-hole Fox Theist. Just sayin’.

    If that doesn’t win the entire internets, I don’t know what does!

  15. says

    As a regular reader of the NYTimes, I’ve followed with interest — akin to rubbernecking at a traffic accident — the monthly columns by T.H. Luhrmann. They are a flagrant waste of pixels and the energy required to transmit them. I also have read with interest, the many comments appended to her columns by other readers, most of whom have disagreed with her and call her out for what she is – an apologist for religiosity, specifically Christian religiosity. I also have posted comments to her columns, criticizing not only Luhrmann’s weak arguments, but also criticizing the editors at the NYT for their poor judgement in publishing her columns at all, and also for failing to cast a more editorially-critical eye on their contents. Luhrmann’s columns are poorly-reasoned, her assumptions are too often based on anecdotes, and her analysis is underlaid by the gross assumption that religious faith is a default for all people, when actually the reverse is true: people are born without religion and gain it only through indoctrination and manipulation.

    The NYT chose not to publish my most recent comment, but I published it on my blog* anyway. (nyah nyah NYT)

    I find it fascinating that the NYT no longer accepts comments on ANY of her columns.

    * http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/2013/08/cotton-candy.html

  16. Sastra says

    cottonnero #9 wrote:

    A theist saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” is fundamentally saying “our position seems like a better idea under times of stress”.

    Yes. Christopher Hitchen once mentioned the absurdity of this, since you’d think it undermines religion instead of supporting it.

    “It’s part of a phenomenon that I’ve always thought of as very disgusting, which is the belief of the religious — which they keep expressing — that surely now you’re dying, your fears will overcome your reason. I hope I don’t have to underline what’s horrible about that. There’s an element of blackmail to it. And an element of tremendous insecurity on their part; I mean they don’t seem to feel they’d win the argument so easily with someone who’s mentally and physically strong. By the way, I think they’re right.”(Christopher Hitchens)

    When I’ve pointed out the problem to religious people, they usually pull one of two defenses. Either they argue that reason corrupts our instincts and intuitions, which are MORE reliable than what we learn through introspection and the world — or they reframe the issue as being like someone who is knowingly perverse and forced to admit the truth when their bluff is called. These defenses work from the same root assumption.

    Bottom line, if it’s going to take brain damage for a person to believe in God, then the brain damage was the only way the “real” person can come out.

  17. beezlebubby says

    Yes, it IS insulting, and smacks of a presuppositional viewpoint, which I will always find obnoxious. I lost my bride to suicide 11 months ago, and not ONCE did I pray or think on god. Except, of course, that for the first month I wished that I *could* once again be a theist, just so I could take comfort in knowing I would see my precious love again in the afterlife. But there isn’t one, it’ll never come to pass, and I had to face the reality and get on with life, despite the pain.

  18. says

    beezlebubby:

    Sorry for your loss. I have lost 3 siblings in the last 15 years and I still “see” them in my heart, every time I think about them. I am content with that–which is a good thing considering that death is death.

  19. says

    A Christian and an atheist give their lives to protect the life of another.

    The Christian gives their life firmly believing that they will instantly be transported to Heaven where they will live an eternity of bliss in God’s reflective glory. All they are giving up is a few more years/decades of an uncertain, and often painful life here on Earth, and they receive the ultimate reward in exchange.

    The atheist gives their life firmly believing that death is the final word. They are giving up their one and only chance of life — they are giving up everything.

    Which is the greater sacrifice?

    (From the perspective of the believer, it’s even worse, since they believe that the atheist will end up in Hell for eternity into the bargain, which makes the atheist’s sacrifice all the greater.)

  20. lofgren says

    A few others have touched upon this but I have to peep up as well.

    Because obviously any conclusion about the nature of the universe arrived at while dodging bullets is bound to be accurate, right?

    Even if there were no atheists in foxholes, it wouldn’t really matter much. Foxholes are pretty much the worst place to do any deep thinking about the nature of the universe. Any conclusions drawn in a foxhole should be rigorously reexamined later, when you have the time and safety to be dispassionate about it.

    I’m an atheist and I’ve said a few prayers in my life. Even had a few of them answered. I never prayed as much as I have in the past year while my wife was enduring a high risk pregnancy. That doesn’t mean that I’m a theist, it just means I was raised in a culture where asking favors of imaginary friends is taught as a healthy method for mitigating stress and fear over the unknown and uncontrollable.

  21. John Allman says

    “Atheists face death every day without falling back on religious wishful thinking.”

    Surely, what would amount to “wishful thinking” on the part of an atheist facing death, would be more atheism, not any sort of thinking one might describe as “religious”.

    That’s the point. If faith and atheism alike were not wishful thinking, then it be a non-sequitur for faith to be considered virtuous, even in a universe made by God, and unbelief wouldn’t be a vice. It is because what we believe is what we wish to be true, faith is a reflection of wanting God to exist, whilst atheism is a reflection of wishing God not to exist. It is predictable that God, if He exists, would tend to frown upon the latter wish, and to approve the former.

  22. cswella says

    But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what’s hard.

    Of course it’s hard keeping god real, anytime you try to believe against the reality, it’s hard.

  23. raven says

    faith is a reflection of wanting God to exist, whilst atheism is a reflection of wishing God not to exist.

    No!!!

    False equivalence or false dichotomy.

    I’m personally dismayed that Athena, Aphrodite, and Estre don’t exist. I sort of miss Thor, Odin, and Freya as well. After all, who else is going to keep the Ice Giants from coming back?

    Or that the mainline Protestant benign god doesn’t exist. If he did, every fundie death cult leader, Dick Cheney, and Ted Cruz would have been vaporized long ago.

    Atheism is a lot of things but most of the time it is a consideration of the available evidence. The universe looks exactly like it would if the gods didn’t exist.

  24. raven says

    I’ll add here that I/we don’t much care whether the gods exist.

    We get along really well with them. It couldn’t be better. They’ve been so quiet for centuries that it is almost like…they don’t exist.

    What we really don’t like and could do without is their followers, in the USA that is mostly the xians. On a good day they are horrifying, on a bad day they will try and might well destroy us. We saw that a few days ago when their political arm tried to destroy the USA.

  25. Sastra says

    John Allman #31 wrote:

    Surely, what would amount to “wishful thinking” on the part of an atheist facing death, would be more atheism, not any sort of thinking one might describe as “religious”.

    I don’t see how this follows. Most people who are afraid naturally love the idea of being protected by magic or some other unexpected and completely unlikely circumstance. But we can wish for unrealistic help without actually thinking that it’s available. If you are hurrying somewhere, does wishing you could fly mean that deep down you believe you are a bird?

    If faith and atheism alike were not wishful thinking, then it be a non-sequitur for faith to be considered virtuous, even in a universe made by God, and unbelief wouldn’t be a vice.

    Yes. The fact that atheism is often NOT “wishful thinking” but the result of honest reflection and inquiry is good reason to reject the idea that faith is a virtue

    It is because what we believe is what we wish to be true, faith is a reflection of wanting God to exist, whilst atheism is a reflection of wishing God not to exist.

    But we ought to strive against an inclination to believe only what we wish to be true, if we value honesty and understanding — and not just cite it as a Guiding Principle from which we can’t escape (nor should we.)

    Beside: keep in mind that there are many versions of God and many religions. Some of these gods and religions are simple-minded, happy-clappy, nothing-but-nice no-rules-to-follow assurance of eternal spiritual bliss and paranormal powers, with tenets which proclaim the believers to all be gods or elements of God. If atheists were guided ONLY by what we WANT to be true — what explanation could there be for atheists not believing in this variety of God, either?

    This argument fails on many levels.

  26. raven says

    is good reason to reject the idea that faith is a virtue

    Faith isn’t a virtue for a lot of reasons.

    It flies jets into skyscrapers, kills young girls to keep them from learning to read, burns people at the stake, convinces people they are sick because of demons, encourages them to vote for the Tea Party, to hate and fear science, and so on.

  27. paulg says

    It’s because they piss their pants and start praying to Daddy when faced with adversity, so they can’t imagine that we don’t do the same thing. Pathetic.

  28. Nick Gotts says

    John Allman@31,
    That really is the most ludicrous drivel. If I believed what I wished to be true, I’d believe with Ray Kurzweil that “The Singularity is Near”: that it’s feasible (I’m a little younger than Kurzweil) that I’ll be able to “upload” my consciousness to a computer before I die, and thereafter live an indefinitely long and greatly enhanced existence. But it’s obvious to me that this is not the case, so I don’t believe it. As for God, while I don’t claim any logical proof that there is no such being, psychologically I am unable to take the notion seriously enough to wish that it was either true or false, any more than I can with regard to leprechauns or werewolves.

  29. imthegenieicandoanything says

    Short of death bed conversions, the “no foxhole atheists” is the weakest possible argument against atheism – and anyone using it must know this to be true. It doesn’t make “god” any more real, that’s certain, and speaks entirely about the credulity of many human beings when in a state of fear.
    But, then, felling ANY vague “sense of wonder” to these people somehow translates as proof of the divinity of Jesus Christ or the miracles of Allah,etc., etc., etc.

    Because they’re dishonest, bullying shits.

    And how tiresome… and utterly unsurprising… of the NYT to decide to offer such swill w/o any perceptible reason (who gives a shit what this particular “Stanford anthropologist” thinks about religion when I personally know and am related to anthropologists elsewhere who would laugh themselves silly and point at her if she said such a thing.)

  30. exdrone says

    So I take it that theists in foxholes are praying for god to say, “Oh, all right. He’s had enough. Let him live … this time.” If theists believe so powerfully in prayer, then they seem to admitting that they are procrastinators. Surely they should have been praying for better conditions before they were forced to hunker down.

  31. eric says

    Surely they should have been praying for better conditions before they were forced to hunker down.

    Surely they should’ve been praying that the international disagreement got solved without any need for foxholes at all. I doubt anyone in a foxhole has the luxury of thinking about the surrealness of what they’re requesting, but its an incredible juxtaposition: you’re praying to the guy who chose to let the war occur to intervene to stop the action he obviously didn’t want to stop.

    Having said that, I think Lofgren @30 has probably the most insightful comment on the thread; wish fulfillment fantasies (mini daydreams?) are common because they are a socially acceptable way to deal with stress, and using them does not necessarily mean we take the metaphysics of our fantasy seriously. I”m sitting at the bottom of a cold-ass ski slope, in a loooong line for the lift. Yeah, I’m going to think about how nice it would be if I could just teleport up to the top. That doesn’t make me religious, it makes me normal.

  32. says

    @OP:

    I’ve never been in a foxhole, but I did once sit in a hospital waiting room while a surgeon explained that my young son had a life-threatening and possibly inoperable brain tumor.

    I did not pray then, or since.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t yet have called myself an atheist at the time, but it never occurred to me to pray while my 10 yo daughter was battling brain cancer. Admittedly, I wasn’t facing my own death, but I can’t imagine that’s any more… er, motivating… than contemplating the death of one’s own child.

  33. redluc says

    The argument is very easy to counter. Why do religious people when someone dies, or at funerals ? There are no religious people at funerals.

  34. dingojack says

    John Allman – Dingo’s Rule of Thumb on Religions: If it postulates a supernatural being (or beings) it’s a religion.
    Atheism specifically denies the existence of gods (hence a-theism). They tend to reject gods because of a lack of positive evidence of supernatural beings [Agnostics, on the other hand tend to place 'gods' in the 'unknown' basket because of a lack of any evidence either way].
    ‘Belief’ or ‘faith’ is not a sufficient indicator,per se, of if something is a ‘religion’ or not (‘Believing,’ or having faith that’ that one sports team is better than another doesn’t in itself make following that team ‘a religion’ , does it?)

    Hope that helps to clear up your evident confusion.

    Dingo

  35. says

    Even if it were true that there were no atheists in foxholes, what does that say about religious belief? That people who are scared shitless suddenly believe in a god and afterlife out of sheer desperation? I can understand that, actually. But it does not improve the likelihood of religion being true by one iota. It just shows that terrified people reach for any source of comfort they can get.

  36. dingojack says

    Perhaps there is some truth to that old meme: ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’.
    Atheists don’t have as intense a need for fear, dominance (and submission) of (or to) others, hatred and etc. that theists do, therefore we tend to avoid creating or participating in wars unnecessarily and so are less likely to be found cowering in a foxhole.
    (Well it’s a kind of theory anyway).
    Dingo

  37. martinc says

    Re Democommie @ 13′s:

    I’d much rather be a foxhole atheist than an A-hole Fox Theist.

    Zing! I plan to steal that … was it original?

  38. The Beautiful Void says

    @19 timgueguen:

    I wonder how many people go into their first foxhole religious, and come out of their last foxhole atheist.

    This is precisely what happened to my father. It would be interesting to do a survey on countries which have conscription but whose army is secular… if you can find any countries that match that description.

  39. Moggie says

    Randomfactor:

    Atheists were specifically forbidden to join Hitler’s SS…not that we’d want to.

    Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to join, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either, but I’m done assuming that atheists are automatically ethically superior just because we’re atheist. Plenty of us are authoritarian, violent, xenophobic etc. A state building a modern SS probably wouldn’t lack for atheist recruits.

  40. says

    “Zing! I plan to steal that … was it original?”

    It was, afaia, original. They say that as one ages, memory is the first thing to go. There are other things that “go” but I cannot recall, at the moment, what they might be.

    You cannot “steal” it. I have given it to the world. If you would, however, like to donate some money to keep the SPOW Initiative* going, please consider a check in whatever amount over $1,000 dollars suits you.

    * Snarky Plays On Words Initiative, but one of the many much maligned multifarious, multi-faceted initiatives championed by Team democommie at democommie ministries and media, LLC, LSD & PCP.

  41. says

    Atheists don’t have as intense a need for fear, dominance (and submission) of (or to) others, hatred and etc. that theists do

    As others have said, the assumption that atheists are ipso facto somehow morally superior to theists is wrong. There are authoritarian atheists and there are fearful atheists; for example, there isn’t a 1:1 correlation between religiosity and conspiracy theory acceptance. They just don’t use “God” as a proxy for their needs.

  42. dingojack says

    ArtK – Red-green colour blindness occurs in about 2% of males and 0.5% of females.
    Males tend to be more likely to be red-green colour blind than females.

    Comparing two populations – how does it work?

    @@
    Dingo

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