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Feb 01 2010

Why Atheists Don’t Turn to Religion When Faced with Death or Disaster

Atheists in foxholes memorial “Sure, you deny God now. But when you’re looking death in the face — when you’re sick or in an accident or staring down the barrel of a gun — you’ll change your mind. You’ll beg for God then. There are no atheists in foxholes.”

This is one of the most common accusations that gets leveled against atheists. The idea seems to be that our atheism isn’t sincere. It’s naive at best, shallow at worst. We haven’t really thought through what atheism means; it’s somehow never occurred to us that atheism — and its philosophical companion, naturalism — means that death is forever. As soon as the harsh reality of what atheism means gets shoved in our faces, we’ll drop it like a hot potato.

Now, the most common atheist response to this accusation is to point out that it’s simply and flatly not true. And it’s one of the arguments I’m going to make myself, right now, here in this piece. This accusation is simply and flatly not true.

If you go to an atheist blog or forum, and you make this accusation, you’ll be inundated with stories of atheists who have faced death: their own, and that of people they love. You’ll hear stories of people who have been mugged, people who have been in terrible accidents, people who have faced life-threatening illnesses. You’ll hear stories of people who have suffered the illness and death of dearly beloved friends and family members. I’m one of those people.

And we didn’t stop being atheists.

*

Thus begins my new piece for AlterNet, Why Atheists Don’t Turn to Religion When Faced with Death or Disaster. To read more about this “no atheists in foxholes” trope — and why it’s not only mistaken, but bigoted and ugly, a denial of atheists’ humanity and the reality of our experience with death — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Kyorosuke

    Lovely article, Greta, but I hope you don’t read the comments over there. They always seem pretty, well, dumb (with a few exceptions, of course). Anyway, another job well done despite that!

  2. 2
    Derek K. Miller

    I’ve had stage 4 metastatic cancer for three years now. I’ve been facing death in my cancer foxhole every day, and if anything, my situation has reinforced my naturalistic view of the world, since it forced me to think about it more.

  3. 3
    Jack Rawlinson

    Touching The Void is a marvellous film. And this section is relevant to the topic.

  4. 4
    themann1086

    I agree with Kyorosuke: I can’t bring myself to click over to alternet, the comments make my brain hurt.

  5. 5
    ToppHogg

    I understand the atheistic objection to the concept of an anthropomorphic being raised on a pedestal to be treated by dim-witted supplicants as if superior and all powerful. History is replete with examples of religious dominance of populations which I won’t list here.
    For thinking persons, only two outcomes to the extensive examination of religion are possible: creating obtuse and illogical arguments to justify the unverifiable, or coming to a complete rejection of the mindless mysticism.
    Religion is all about preventing thinking as a means of enabling totalitarian control by a small group of a larger population, and thinking persons cannot remain mentally idle until instructed by the self-appointed mystics on what ritual to recite. Empirical observation blows the myths that the religions all must maintain to keep their followers right out of the sky, provided one uses one’s brain for thinking and not for out-of-control emotionalism. Most thinking persons who are secure in themselves as to their place in the universe cannot abide such external domination and will discard it at the first opportunity.

  6. 6
    efrique

    Amen.
    This is one of many symptoms of a common attitude among many theists (not all, of course) – that they know what’s really in my mind (and I don’t).
    Some of them manage to pull off this amazing feat from thousands of miles away, without ever having met me.
    “Knowing” how I will respond in a situation they’ve never observed me responding to (but which I have observed myself responding to) is just one of them.
    Yet apparently I’m the arrogant one…

  7. 7
    John H.

    When my father was dying of cancer four years ago, my mother expressed her own non-belief. (It was a surprise.) I’ve been a non-believer for quite a while, now. None of us turned to any kind of god for “relief” in our hours of need. We were, and have always been, on our own, and as hard as that seems to bear, sometimes, that’s actually a relief in itself.

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