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Feb 09 2010

Atheists in Foxholes

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

No atheists in foxholes “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.

Atheists in foxholesThis is even true of people who face death professionally, on a regular basis. Contrary to the common canard, there are, in fact, atheists in foxholes. There are atheist soldiers. Atheist police officers. Atheist firefighters. There are even entire organizations of them. (For a while, there was actually a group of military atheists with the waggish name, “Atheists In Foxholes.”)

Atheist responses to death and imminent death vary, of course, what with us being human and all. Some of us feel a desire to return to religion, a wish that we could believe in God and the afterlife and take comfort from that belief. Others of us are even more confirmed in our atheism than before: finding little comfort in the idea that death and tragedy were created deliberately by the hand of God, and finding great comfort in our humanist philosophies of life and death. But deathbed/ foxhole conversions to religion are really pretty rare. (If you’ve heard stories about them… know that many of these stories are made up by religious believers to bolster their case.)

When you think about it, the whole argument is completely absurd. Do people really think that, out of the millions of atheists around the country and around the world, none of us have ever been deathly ill, or suffered the loss of someone we loved? Does that even make sense?

But let’s move on. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that this accusation is true. Let’s suppose that every single atheist who’s ever faced death has converted to religion.

How would that be an argument for religion being true?

Mistakes_were_made If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s been clearly demonstrated that when we’re strongly motivated to believe something, we’re much more likely to believe it: we amplify the importance of evidence that seems to support this belief, filter out evidence that contradicts it, etc. When we really, really want to believe something, that’s when we have to be extra-cautious about concluding that it’s true… since the chances that we’re just trying to talk ourselves into it have shot through the roof. The human mind’s capacity to persuade itself of things it wants to believe is damn near limitless.

And the desire to believe in immortality is the mother of all wishful thinking. Especially when we’re immediately confronted by death.

So if atheists only converted to religion when they were on their deathbed… that wouldn’t be an argument for religion being a true and accurate perception of something in the real world. That’d actually be a strong argument for religion just being something people made up to make themselves feel better.

Okay. Those are the most common, most obvious defenses against the “atheists in foxholes” accusation. But I want to add something more — something that often gets left out of the conversation about foxholes and deathbed conversions.

I want to point out what an ugly argument this is.

What would you think if someone made this argument to a person of a different faith? “Sure, you believe in Judaism now — but when your plane is going down, you’ll turn to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? Would you think that was an appropriate thing to say?

Or would you think it was religious bigotry, pure and simple? Regardless of what you personally believe about Jesus Christ and his ability to comfort people during plane crashes… would you renounce this argument as insensitive and tone-deaf at best, callous and inhumane at worst?

So how it is any different to make this argument to atheists?

Simpsons_nelson_ha_ha And the “You’ll change your tune when you’re looking death in the face” trope has a Schadenfreude quality to it that is truly ugly. It takes a sadistic, “I told you so” glee in the potential suffering of others. There’s an almost hopeful quality to it that’s deeply unsettling. “Someday, you’ll be sick and dying with a terrible illness, or you’ll be in a terrifying accident, or the person you love most in the world will be gone from your life forever… and then I’ll be proven right! Then you’ll know the glory and majesty of the Lord! In your face!”

People will shamelessly and unhesitatingly say things about atheists that they would cringe from saying about people of different religions. Many believers — even progressive, ecumenical, “all religions have some truth and are all worshiping God in their own way” believers — will happily say that atheists are immoral, that atheists have no meaning or joy in our lives, that atheists are just being trendy or rebellious, that atheists have no right to express our views in the public forum. And even the most zealous hard-core believers will usually approach diverse religious beliefs with more understanding and tolerance than they show to atheism. Atheism seems to unsettle many believers, to a degree that different religious beliefs generally don’t… and those believers seem perfectly willing to take out that unsettled feeling on atheists.

And the “no atheists in foxholes” trope is a classic example of this. It’s not just a lie. It’s not even just an ignorant, absurd, colossally stupid lie. It’s a bigoted lie. It’s a lie that denies our most basic humanity: the fact that atheists love life, that we’re deeply attached to the people we love, and that we experience fear and grief in the face of death. It’s a lie that tries to depict us, not just as callow and naive, but as something less than human.

Please know that it’s a lie.

And please don’t tell it.

48 comments

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  1. 1
    cag

    My father was killed by a drunk driver, my mother committed suicide some months later. I was 24 at the time. Twenty-six years later my sister-in-law died of cancer. Ten months after my S-i-l died, my brother committed suicide. Shortly after my niece from this brother went missing. Her body was found about a year later.
    Through all this, I did not embrace stupidity as articulated by belief in any superstition.
    Wishful thinking was never anything that I took seriously, even if I sometimes indulge in it (such as hoping that people will think for themselves).

  2. 2
    spriteless

    My usual response to this is “That is a lie, and unless you confess to a Catholic priest and repent, you are going to burn in hell forever for it. By repent I mean make sure not to lie again, because if you just say you repent without making that effort you are asking permission, not repenting. You are the same as the mobsters who murder Saturday and repent every Sunday, and think that’s okay.
    What? Am I not allowed to use Catholic logic here? I thought you were using religious logic, and I used to be Catholic, it’s the religion I’m familiar with.”
    I mostly debate for the interesting answers, though.

  3. 3
    Valhar2000

    What do they tell you, Spriteless?

  4. 4
    daf

    Atheists are normally the first to poke fun at and laugh at people who choose to follow a theism (yes, that’s correct, “a theism”, meaning some kind of belief in one or more God(s)). I specifically use that term instead of Religion because a lot of Religion is rite made up by man… but I digress.
    My experience of the average atheist is one of being mocked for being “stupid” or “needing a crutch”. On the contrary, the “complexity requires design” argument works for me — I just see too much complexity, too many things inter-connected and well-designed (hey, I am looking at this from the point of view of a programmer / engineer, so perhaps my view is tinted — perhaps I find more unbelievable the blind faith in order emerging out of chaos over some extended period of time (which totally flies in the face of thermodynamics, you know, that pesky science stuff, but again, I digress)).
    My point is that the one point out of your argument (which, on a whole, didn’t seem — to me — to be all that concrete) which I find most despicable is the lumping together of all faith-based people as forceful, ignorant zealots “out to get the atheists” as it were. Seriously? I have far more pressing issues than worrying about a bunch of self-important people — by definition, an atheist places himself or herself _above_ the rest of his/her existence by denying that something/someone more important could exist. If you don’t know that this is the central tenet of atheism, then you have something to learn about your “faith”.
    Perhaps once, when someone makes a pitch for theism, you could also consider that these people more often than not don’t stand to personally gain from your conversion — more often that not, these people have a personal conviction about something and are daring enough to attempt to make you aware, to the level that they are or perceive to be, of the threat that they perceive (real or otherwise) from being an atheist. Sure, some people can go overboard — but perhaps that’s just an indicator of their level of conviction.
    Think about it this way: if you felt heat, smelled smoke and saw flames, you would warn everyone around you about the fire. No-one could blame you for that — even if the sensory illusion was triggered by, say, a large dose of LSD.
    The atheists I have met and talked to, on the whole, are insensitive, self-righteous mockers who have the gall to turn around and cry “no fair” when someone preaches to them — even though they preach atheism with every breath. Personally, I don’t mind what faith or lack thereof you choose. But hypocrisy (whether from people who abuse “religion” for personal gain, or atheists who use the lack of faith for joy and personal elevation) — that annoys me. If you don’t want to be preached at, perhaps it’s time you stop preaching your faith. And if someone else does preach at you, don’t swing back — just tell them you’re not interested, thanks for the concern, and move along with your life.

  5. 5
    spriteless

    They usually say “But not all religions make people feel bad like that!” So I say “But not all religions don’t make people feel guilty ever, what does that have to do with converting in a foxhole? Are there no Catholics in foxholes, either, because Catholics believe in hell? Be consistent here.”
    To daf: Spock sacrificed himself for the need of the many outweighed the need of the few, not because god said so. Just an example of a rational reason to be moral; holding no god above yourself does not mean to hold yourself above others. It’s kind of rude to call one person a jerk based on other people. Does Greta come off as selfish as the people you’ve met? Does this guy? http://yudkowsky.net/other/yehuda

  6. 6
    Dave Hasbrouck

    @daf
    Hoo-boy. I’m presuming that you’re probably pretty new to the blog, since you seem to be dragging out so many ‘Theist Argument Greatest Hits’, all of which have been written about repeatedly in other posts. I may be digging myself into a quagmire by responding to them all but, weeeall, here we go:
    “My experience of the average atheist is one of being mocked for being “stupid” or “needing a crutch”.”
    Well, if your drive-by post on the blog is a typical indication of how you address atheists, I can’t say I blame them for not being terribly receptive. You make a great deal of classic mistakes; from snarkily referring to atheism as ‘faith’, to saying that the original post ‘isn’t concrete’ while not offering any reasons (instead hopping onto completely different topics) and even dredging up the old chestnut about intelligent design with a side dish of mis-use of thermodynamics:
    “I just see too much complexity, too many things inter-connected and well-designed
 I find more unbelievable the blind faith in order emerging out of chaos over some extended period of time (which totally flies in the face of thermodynamics, you know, that pesky science stuff, but again, I digress)”
    The facts behind evolution are way too vast to give appropriate time to in a blog comment, so I’ll paraphrase:
    1) Evolution is a well-established natural phenomenon. We have fossil evidence (including transitional fossils), we have DNA evidence, we’ve observed slight variation between generations and evolution is the basis behind all of our medicine, agriculture and animal breeding.
    2) We actually aren’t particularly well-designed. From our teeth to our hipbones to our limited eyesight to difficulty in child-birth, human anatomy pretty much looks like something cobbled together from things that were adapted from other things; basically what you’d expect from a species that was in a constant race to adapt over time.
    3) Evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. To demonstrate why, I would like to quote from the esteemed MC Hawking, who states so eloquently:
    “Creationists always try to use the second law,
    to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.
    The second law is quite precise about where it applies,
    only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.
    The earth’s not a closed system’ it’s powered by the sun,
    so fuck the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!”

    Sing it, Hawking. Next topic;

    “My point is that the one point out of your argument (which, on a whole, didn’t seem — to me — to be all that concrete)”

    Ssooo, why isn’t it concrete? You just kind of drop that in there and don’t come back to it. Are you saying that atheists DON’T ever face life-threatening situations without turning to faith? Are you saying that turning to faith in times of crisis IS somehow evidence of the faith’s truth? If so, then how does that follow? You just kind of stated ‘nuh-uh, that’s not a good argument’ and then left us all dangling.

    “which I find most despicable is the lumping together of all faith-based people as forceful, ignorant zealots “out to get the atheists” as it were.”

    Where exactly does the article do that? The article is about people who claim that there are ‘no atheists in foxholes.’ In no way does it say that all theists claim that, or even MOST of them. The post is a deconstruction of one specific phrase. Honestly, I’m a bit mystified; did you READ the blog post?
    “by definition, an atheist places himself or herself _above_ the rest of his/her existence by denying that something/someone more important could exist.”
    Nnnnooo
 Don’t think I know a single atheist that would say that. Really, lack of a god means that all of us are just one more finite piece of a vast universe; that we’re no more special or chosen or entitled than anything else. We don’t think that a divine being created the cosmos just for us, or that the creator of the universe personally loves us and cares about our petty wishes or desires. We don’t believe that we have souls that are so incredibly important that surely they’ll live on after death.
    Atheism doesn’t put us above the rest of existence. Atheism means that our place in existence is transient and small; a tiny twinkle that’s here and gone in the blink of an eye.

    “And if someone else does preach at you, don’t swing back — just tell them you’re not interested, thanks for the concern, and move along with your life.”

    Um
 Nobody’s saying that theists don’t have the right to ‘preach’, and we certainly are going to ‘swing back.’ Saying that we shouldn’t is what we call a ‘Shut up, that’s why’ argument.
    While you may think that theists ‘don’t have anything to gain by converting us’ (and some other theists may try to argue with you on that point) the rest of us actually have a great deal to lose by not speaking up. Believers don’t just privately believe things without it affecting the outside world. The way that people believe affects how they act, how they vote, how they treat people who are different from them
 it affects civil rights and government policies and education
 what people believe affects all kinds of things in everybody’s day-to-day life, and we would be shooting ourselves in the foot not to put our arguments into the marketplace of ideas.
    :phew:: That was a long comment. Maybe one of these days, somebody should make a ‘Theist Arguments Greatest Hits’ site, so we can send folks over there rather than having to type the same responses over and over again.

  7. 7
    Kevin

    Atheists dig the best foxholes!

  8. 8
    daf

    @greta
    Thanks again for your brazen holier-than-thou attitude. There’s nothing like consistency to give that comforting feeling of knowing everything is still the way it was before you went to sleep the night before. Your last paragraph is so typical of the attitude I was describing earlier: the “well, duh, you’re wrong because you’re a silly theist”.
    Let me address your concerns in order:
    1) My negative view of the average atheist (and to the person who posted on my blog, I only deleted the post because it’s nothing to do with the blog entry) is due to my experience of atheists at school, university and in real life thereafter. I don’t believe all atheists are evil: note the usage of the term “my experience of the average atheist”. Also, I don’t think that making mention of a fictional, rationality-based character really does much for any argument — quoting that “Spock did X” just means you can read or watch a movie. I can make up the most amazing characters too. How about I start quoting the deeds of the people on that TV show where there are angels and the like? Not working for you? Thought so.
    The best bit is that the average atheist tone, as redisplayed in the reply to my post, is one of condescension. Not one of “actually, no-one has the whole universe figured out just yet, so maybe”. Just “go away, stupid”.
    2) On evolution: micro-evolution or, as some like to call it, “adaption” is well understood and documented. The metamorphosis of one complete species into a different one (not finch sub-species and the like: I don’t really see how a slightly shorter beak transforms a finch into a bat) is not completely understood or concrete — but perhaps I’m too short-sighted? Darwin was a great scientist with good method. I respect him and his work. I also don’t think that the concepts of evolution and creation have to be completely polar: what if the mechanism of creation was something akin to evolution? I’m just putting this out there: if programmers can make adaptive neural nets, why could the giant programmer in the sky do the same? I don’t have all the answers here — I have a faith and things that could make sense to me. However, I don’t make repeated blog posts about it. I don’t feel the need to thrust that out others. Clearly, on this, we are not aligned.
    On the topic of being well-designed: (a) I haven’t seen any human endeavour come even close. Perhaps genetic engineering will get somewhere some day, but we still don’t even understand how to start the spark of life, let alone how to deal with concepts like intelligence creation. I’m just saying: I think we are fairly well made (by whatever means you come to terms with). A machine which starts smaller, grows, adapts to its environment, is powered through simple chemical processes from readily-available and highly variant sources? Wow, if man could ever make something like this, I’d like to see it. And we’re supposed to be so smart…
    Not to fly in the face of the famous Mr Hawking (who also has the atheist chip on his shoulder so doesn’t exactly make unbiased comments — just read some of his work), he’s right: the earth is not a closed system. But for all intents and purposes, the universe *is*. Is your (and his, by proxy) argument that we’re just in the most unlikely place in the entire universe where entropy is reversed? I mean, theoretically, such a place is possible in a universe of infinite options — but isn’t that going out on as much faith as the belief that there might be a higher being or that, indeed, our universe as we know it might be a fabrication (ala Douglas Adams)? Just saying. Thermodynamics doesn’t check it’s coat at the door to the universe — thankfully.
    3) on theist and atheist inter-personal interaction: you’re right: a person’s beliefs or lack thereof do affect their decisions. I don’t think an atheist is any less affected by his/her lack of faith when casting a vote than a theist is when he/she casts a vote. Your argument here doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re *all* like that. However, being an atheist does mean that you are free to pick your moral code. You don’t have to subscribe to the laws of the land even — if you can get away with it. Don’t take me out of context here — I know there are plenty of theists who can’t stick to their own moral code, but at least you know what you should be able to expect from them? With an atheist, it’s up in the air — and subject to radical change depending on benefit to self. The atheist is an evolutionary creature: no creature on the Darwinian evolutionary track looks out for others unless it has direct positive impact on itself. Why do you think that people are amazed when a dog looks after a cat or a cat doesn’t eat their budgie? Because it’s “not natural”. The atheist admits that he/she is an animal with the instinct to survive as primary. That’s a little worrisome in my book — but probably just because I’m a silly theist who likes to care about others…
    4) Finally, on the preaching: I’ve touched on this above, but I feel it warrants another visit. Please go have a look at my blog. See how many theist entries I have. Please. Compare that with the many that you have done? People write stuff on the web to have it read. You can’t just say “O, I just put it up there — you don’t have to read it” any more than I can say “O, you don’t have to listen to the theists around you — just block your ears”. Atheists preach a lot more than they would like to admit — and a lot more than a lot of theists I know.

  9. 9
    Maria

    daf, you need to work on your reading comprehension! It wasn’t Greta who responded to you, but another person. You claim to know atheists so well (you certainly know your straw man atheist well) but aren’t even paying attention to who you are talking with. It tells me that you probably usually don’t pay attention to real atheists and what they are actually saying on the whole, but keeps it on your made-up version of what an atheist should be in your mind.

  10. 10
    Bruce Gorton

    Atheists are normally the first to poke fun at and laugh at people who choose to follow a theism (yes, that’s correct, “a theism”, meaning some kind of belief in one or more God(s)). I specifically use that term instead of Religion because a lot of Religion is rite made up by man… but I digress.
    So on the one hand you criticise us for calling theism bullshit, and then you go on to call religion bullshit. Nice double standard you are waving there.
    My experience of the average atheist is one of being mocked for being “stupid” or “needing a crutch”.
    Well if a lot of theists argue that we need God to give our lives meaning, and make the argument for “God-as-a-crutch” all by themselves.
    Anyway, we here are pretty much “new atheists.” We see religion as being something that holds you down, which is the opposite of a crutch.
    On the contrary, the “complexity requires design” argument works for me — I just see too much complexity, too many things inter-connected and well-designed (hey, I am looking at this from the point of view of a programmer / engineer, so perhaps my view is tinted — perhaps I find more unbelievable the blind faith in order emerging out of chaos over some extended period of time (which totally flies in the face of thermodynamics, you know, that pesky science stuff, but again, I digress)).
    Your fallacious reasoning (IE: Your appeal to personal incredulity) may well have more to do with why you get called “stupid” than your belief in any given God.
    Further, the fact that clearly you don’t understand the third law of thermo-dynamics yet are perfectly willing to use it in an argument doesn’t exactly make you look bright.
    It in fact makes it look like you are talking out of your backside.
    My point is that the one point out of your argument (which, on a whole, didn’t seem — to me — to be all that concrete) which I find most despicable is the lumping together of all faith-based people as forceful, ignorant zealots “out to get the atheists” as it were.
    Where does it do this? Oh yeah, in your imagination.
    Seriously? I have far more pressing issues than worrying about a bunch of self-important people — by definition, an atheist places himself or herself _above_ the rest of his/her existence by denying that something/someone more important could exist.
    Actually, read your Bible, pay attention to Genesis when you do it. You know the bit where God gives man dominion over all things? Yeah, we deny that too. Your little projection act doesn’t exactly do anything to dismiss that “stupid” charge.
    Perhaps once, when someone makes a pitch for theism, you could also consider that these people more often than not don’t stand to personally gain from your conversion — more often that not, these people have a personal conviction about something and are daring enough to attempt to make you aware, to the level that they are or perceive to be, of the threat that they perceive (real or otherwise) from being an atheist. Sure, some people can go overboard — but perhaps that’s just an indicator of their level of conviction.
    Tanslation: “People having the right to disagree with me is oppressing my beliefs!”
    Think about it this way: if you felt heat, smelled smoke and saw flames, you would warn everyone around you about the fire. No-one could blame you for that — even if the sensory illusion was triggered by, say, a large dose of LSD.
    Oh, but you aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t blame the guy on LSD, you are arguing that nobody should contradict him.
    The atheists I have met and talked to, on the whole, are insensitive, self-righteous mockers who have the gall to turn around and cry “no fair” when someone preaches to them — even though they preach atheism with every breath.
    This might have to do more with you being a toss-head, given your post here, than them being atheists.
    Personally, I don’t mind what faith or lack thereof you choose.
    Yeah, so long as none of us contradict you or dent your ego you don’t mind.
    But hypocrisy (whether from people who abuse “religion” for personal gain, or atheists who use the lack of faith for joy and personal elevation) — that annoys me.
    Hypocrisy – You mean like calling people out for calling other people’s beliefs bullshit, while at the same time calling other people’s beliefs (AKA: Religion) bullshit?
    Yeah I can see how looking in the mirror might annoy you.
    If you don’t want to be preached at, perhaps it’s time you stop preaching your faith.
    First off, atheism isn’t a faith it is a lack of belief, second I don’t actually mind getting preached at. Nor does this blog in any way endorse telling theists to shut up so far as I have seen.
    This post, that you are trying to derail the comments to, is all about how you do in fact get atheists in dire straits who don’t actually convert.

  11. 11
    Bruce Gorton

    Posted by: daf | February 10, 2010 at 08:52 PM
    Considering that Greta didn’t make any of those arguments, and in fact you are responding to arguments made by other people:
    That “stupid” charge is looking more and more spot-on.
    As is the idea that you are a thousand times more a hypocrite than the people you are calling hypocrites.
    You see, this post was all about theists who employ a specific argument, and why that argument is wrong.
    Yet you criticise it for treating theists like they are all the same – at the same time as not even being able to differentiate between three totally different people (Greta, spriteless, and Dave Hasbrook) who happen to disagree with you.
    See to that beam in your own eye boetjie.

  12. 12
    daf

    To all posters here: I apologise for the @greta: I did miss the small type mentioning Dave Hasbrouk. I’m so sorry I can’t be as perfect as the people who religiously follow this blog and would know that I’m so “new” to it.
    @greta: Personally I apologise for any arguments I’ve responded to as if they were yours but are not. Part of my moral code is having the sack to admit when I’m wrong — I was wrong to address you.
    I’d love to hear an atheist admit they are wrong. But it won’t happen. Because you’re all so right!

  13. 13
    Maria

    I’d love to hear an atheist admit they are wrong. But it won’t happen. Because you’re all so right!
    Uhhh… say what?
    Most atheists used to be Christians, or believers in all sorts of woo. For most of us that means that we had to admit that were were dead wrong about those beliefs.
    I was never a Christian, and never believed in god, but I used to have a lot of newage beliefs, and BOY was I wrong about ALL of that! I’ve corrected myself, and have been corrected by others, a thousands times about these things to get to where I am today, and I am pretty sure I will keep doing that. I am not planning to stop learning after all.

  14. 14
    Bruce Gorton

    Posted by: daf | February 10, 2010 at 08:52 PM
    I was a Catholic before I became an atheist. Kind of took admitting I was wrong and changing my mind to get me to where I am today dude.

  15. 15
    Dave Hasbrouck

    I hate to make the argument about tone, since doing so tends to overshadow the actual arguments, but there was absolutely nothing in my comment that was in any way condescending, insulting or ‘holier than thou’, except for, arguably the last line of the MC Hawking quote.
    The fact is that we DO get the same arguments made over and over again, and we DO find ourselves addressing them repeatedly, and it WOULD be a whole lot easier to point people to an ‘Theist Arguments Greatest Hits.’ That’s not an insult or condescension; it’s the truth. Even Greta herself made a whole blog post about the frustration of having to make the same arguments repeatedly. There’s nothing condescending about pointing that out.
    On the other hand, your comments have been incredibly snarky and condescending, calling us ‘holier than thou’, saying that we never admit that we’re wrong, saying that we think we’re the center of the universe, etc…
    Now, onto your responses;
    “The metamorphosis of one complete species into a different one (not finch sub-species and the like: I don’t really see how a slightly shorter beak transforms a finch into a bat) is not completely understood or concrete — but perhaps I’m too short-sighted?”
    Correct! You’re short sighted in a very literal sense (and again, it’s not condescension, you just chose surprisingly apt words) as what you fail to take into consideration is time. What you consider ‘micro-evolution’ doesn’t just hit a brick wall after a certain point; it continues to make small incremental changes on and on until hundreds of thousands of years have passed and the end result isn’t anywhere close to the animal you started with. It’s like a genetic game of telephone.
    The error comes in when you expect one species to spontaneously erupt fully-formed from the offspring of another species. It doesn’t work that way. The classification of species is a muddy and complicated thing; Species A is likely to be extraordinarily close to Species B (like your finch example). By the time you get to Species Z there’s a remarkable difference, but in between you’ll have Species C-Y, all of which look only very slightly different from our predecessor.
    We actually have a pretty good record of this. We have a very comprehensive fossil record of the evolution of the whale; an animal that started in the sea, became a land animal, was briefly a hoofed animal, then spent more and more time in water and became a marine animal again. As remarkable and unlikely as it sounds, we have fossil examples of virtually every single step of that amazing and bizarre evolutionary process. It’s one of the more complete records we have.
    “However, being an atheist does mean that you are free to pick your moral code.”
    Moral codes are established and ingrained into us by mutual agreement of society. This has always been the case, both with theists and atheists, and this moral code has historically changed with the tides of human progress.
    If you don’t believe me, then why don’t Christians still think it’s okay to hold slaves, or stone their children for being disobedient, or offer their daughters up for rape to spare their house guests? These were all strict moral codes during Biblical times.
    Atheists hold moral codes for the same reason as anyone else; empathy. We understand that our actions affect society, affect our loved ones and, yes, even affect our own personal well being.
    This isn’t unique to humans either. Many animals have highly developed social structures where they’ve realized that cooperation is more beneficial than selfishness.
    If it makes you happy, then yes, I will be the first to say to you that atheist do not know or claim to know exactly how the universe came to be. What we do propose, though, is that saying ‘God did it’ isn’t really an answer. It’s tantamount to saying ‘Well, wizards did it!”
    There’s an example that I always like to use: Say there was this really really amazing magic trick, and everyone’s trying to figure out how it’s done. It seems like some of it might be done with mirrors, we can kind of see how wires might fit in, but so far we’re not really sure 100% about how the trick is completely done. Well, saying ‘God did it’ is basically like saying “We can’t figure out how this trick is done – so it must be real magic!” It’s not even trying to solve the trick, but just throwing your hands up in resignation.

  16. 16
    daf

    @Maria: then I’d love to see the atheists who have the spine to admit that they were douches after I apologised for an honest mistake. But it’s not going to happen. I would have loved to see honesty when posting on my blog — instead, just anonymous cowards (slashdot’s term, but appropriate). Perhaps it’s too difficult to sign a post with a name, even if you don’t want to identify yourself another way. But no loss. I really don’t mind.
    @Dave: I realised that I didn’t answer your question about my “concrete” statement. Perhaps a better term would have been that I found the argument a little wishy-washy. Here’s my take (and perhaps, no probably, you will disagree):
    The original argument boils down (to my little theist brain) to two parts:
    [1] Atheists do not convert when placed under duress (and I’m not going to give actual evidence, I’m just saying this from my point of view, but I’ll state it as a fact).
    [2] Despite what I said above, even if an atheist did change his/her mind, it’s under duress, so it doesn’t count.
    My questions:
    (1) Some evidence of that please? I mean more than just some gung-ho marines. You’ve made a blanket statement (never safe, but we all do it some time) and you’ve given some examples, bolstered by your own opinion. It’s not enough for me to actually believe that it happens, and I’m quite sure that on his deathbed, my grandfather had a change of heart. But hey, I was small — I must have my memory blurred by time.
    (2) Really? Most human beings have to make a lot of decisions under pressure. Are they all flawed because of that? It’s an interesting insight and I hope that I can use it if I’m ever put in a court of law: “No, your honor, see, I was super-stressed, so I couldn’t decide if it was better to stop or ride over the old lady, so I just rode her over. In hindsight though, I see it wasn’t the best choice. But it was a choice made under duress — it doesn’t count!”.
    Like I said, just not the “great blog post” from a “great writer” that this entry had been hyped up to be on TweetBook. But perhaps my atheist friends are more easily impressed?

  17. 17
    Joel Monka

    Speaking as a theist, I have to say that Greta is absolutely right on this one; the foxhole argument is both wrong and insulting to atheists. In fact, it’s insulting to believers, too, as it’s a piss poor reason for believing.

  18. 18
    J. J. Ramsey

    daf:

    The original argument boils down (to my little theist brain) to two parts:
    [1] Atheists do not convert when placed under duress (and I’m not going to give actual evidence, I’m just saying this from my point of view, but I’ll state it as a fact).
    [2] Despite what I said above, even if an atheist did change his/her mind, it’s under duress, so it doesn’t count.

    The first part is a mild strawman. Greta said that many atheists have, in practice, on the ground, undergone suffering and not converted. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been atheists who have converted due to suffering, but rather that there are plenty of counterexamples that render the claim “No Atheists in Foxholes” false. And as for Greta not giving evidence for her claim, good grief, she linked to the web sites of atheist firefighters and soldiers!
    The second part is a more thorough distortion. Greta’s point is that the “atheists in foxholes” bit is not an argument for the truth of religion. People can come to have a comforting belief in God (through duress or other means) even if God doesn’t actually exist, and this has nothing to do with whether, as you put it, “[m]ost human beings have to make a lot of decisions under pressure.” You completely missed Greta’s point.

  19. 19
    Dave Hasbrouck

    @ Daf – Thank you for responding to the blog post itself. I actually really appreciate that you’ve helped bring the comments back on track.
    The point isn’t that atheists that convert under duress ‘don’t count’, it’s that converting under duress doesn’t actually give any particular credence to whether religion is actually true. Believing in something while under stress doesn’t automatically make the thing that you believe in a reality.

  20. 20
    Bruce Gorton

    [1] Atheists do not convert when placed under duress (and I’m not going to give actual evidence, I’m just saying this from my point of view, but I’ll state it as a fact).
    Greta didn’t say this – she said that not all atheists convert under stress. She went on to explain that some might – but deathbed and “time-of-stress” conversions are relatively rare.
    She linked to websites run by and for atheist soldiers (atheists who have literally been in foxholes) and fire-fighters as evidence.
    For further evidence let me point out that atheists make up about 21% of the US military, yet are only about 15% of the US population.
    [2] Despite what I said above, even if an atheist did change his/her mind, it’s under duress, so it doesn’t count.
    If you continued that phrase with “as evidence in favour of theism actually being right” it wouldn’t have been a straw-man.
    The old chestnut puts it thus “No atheists in foxholes isn’t an argument for religion, it is an argument against foxholes.”

  21. 21
    Eclectic

    Bruce

    let me point out that atheists make up about 21% of the US military, yet are only about 15% of the US population.

    Interesting figures; I assume you are using the broad definition, including everyone with “no religious affiliation” even if they don’t like the A-word.
    But can you tell me where you got them from? I had been under the impression that the U.S. armed forces were something of a hotbed of religious zealotry.

  22. 22
    Bruce Gorton

    eclectic:
    I am using the broad definition. Anyway, it is on page 25 of the following:
    http://www.prb.org/Source/ACF1396.pdf?page=27

  23. 23
    Harsha Svrs

    So if it’s only theists in foxholes, and they are the ones doing all the fighting, does that mean atheism is the solution to world peace? :P

  24. 24
    Michael D

    I think Daf is right that many atheists think that theists are ignorant. Whether they’re right or not, atheists could sure be a lot less haughty about it.

  25. 25
    Julanar

    One could say exactly the same things about many theists’ attitudes toward atheists, as this comment thread has just shown.

  26. 26
    Sabrina

    There are no atheists in foxholes, and I’ll go a step further: there are no atheists in bed either. What’s the main thing a person screams during sex? case closed :) hahahaha

  27. 27
    Marc A.

    If I were in a foxhole, I’d become an even stronger atheist. I’d be thinking “If a personal god existed, how could it let this kind of shit go on? People dying, me expected to kill other people.”

  28. 28
    Maxx

    Good evening;
    I’ve served in a fox-hole. What the flip do any of you really know about it?
    So many opinions from so many who have never done it – try it and then talk to me…
    Whatever… Don’t talk about that which you could not even begin to understand – unless you’ve been there.
    Thank you

  29. 29
    Maria

    Whatever… Don’t talk about that which you could not even begin to understand – unless you’ve been there.
    I seriously suggest that you take your own advice on this when it comes to writing about atheism and atheists.
    Thank you!

  30. 30
    Maxx

    Evening;
    For “Maria”
    I also seriously suggest you stay out of things you obviously have no knowledge of or experience of in order to make any circumstantial, experiential, moral or epistemological judgements of.
    Take your atheism – join the service – go to a foreign country – get your face shot at – look into the eyes of your friends as they die – and then come back and tell us all about what YOU believe.
    Otherwise, don’t come here anymore or anywhere else with your naive philosophical “academic advice.” It don’t work on the battlefield – “Honey.”
    Just thinking…

  31. 31
    Maria

    Hmmm… Yeah, I haven’t said anything about foxholes you see. So I have stayed out of it. You on the other hand have said a lot about atheism, dear!

  32. 32
    Bruce Gorton

    Posted by: Maxx | December 26, 2010 at 10:39 PM
    No you aren’t you sexist pig.
    If you were thinking you would actually consider the stats on the subject instead of spouting macho BS.
    How about considering the stats on the issue which I posted earlier in the discussion? Or checking out groups like this one:
    http://www.maaf.info/
    Instead, you cowardly little gobshite, you try to play cards that mean nothing online.

  33. 33
    Maxx

    Good evening:
    Thank you “Maria” and “Bruce” – you have simply proved what I posted.
    You have no ideal what either of you are talking about.
    You haven’t been there.
    Boring……….
    “Bruce” will I see YOU in the trenches? I doubt it. Good luck with your cake-eating civilian propositions which mean nothing in the real world that means nothing online.
    As a footnote, my friend, I served with males and females and both did their jobs with honor.
    Course, you wouldn’t know that would you – since you were not there…
    What is a “cowardly gobshite?”
    Isn’t it so nice that you can preach from the comfort of your whatever world as the rest of the world spins? Sounds more like you than me.
    Funny how you and your like can philosophize from the comfort of your whatever, and then try to relativise how it is for everybody else.
    Just thinking…

  34. 34
    DA

    You know, if every right wing troll who anonymously claimed to be a combat vet online was telling the truth, we’d have never had a troop shortage.

  35. 35
    Greta Christina

    Maxx: You seem to have somehow entirely missed the point of this post. Whether commenters in this blog have or have not seen combat duty is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that there are plenty of atheists who have seen combat duty, and who remained atheists. (There are, in fact, many soldiers who became atheists in response to the horrors they experienced in war.) And there are plenty of atheists who have faced death and danger in situations other than combat: from police officers and firefighters, to ordinary people who have faced grave illness and the death of those they love… and who, again, remained atheists. Denying the existence and experience of these brave people is not only false — it is a grossly insulting form of religious bigotry.
    And everyone here: Please keep it civil. No personal insults. Criticize ideas and behavior; don’t insult people. (And yes, Maxx, calling women you don’t know “honey” is an insult.) Thanks.

  36. 36
    Maria

    Thank you “Maria” and “Bruce” – you have simply proved what I posted.
    You have no ideal what either of you are talking about.
    You haven’t been there.

    Maxx, it seems to me now that you are simply being obtuse in your refusal to read what other people are actually saying.
    How can I possibly “prove your point” when I have never stated that I have been in a foxhole, and when I made clear that I have therefore never said anything about what it is like.
    It was you who claimed that you have to have personal experience of something in order to be allowed to have an opinion of it (an idea I personally think is ludicrous, but I digress), and I simply advised you to follow your own words, and, consequently, not have opinions of atheism. Because, correct me if I am wrong, you do not have personal experience in being an atheist – and so, following your own words, should not utter any opinions about atheism at all.
    Personally I think you have every right to have opinions about atheism, in spite of not being one – I was just reminding you of your own “rule of personal experience before opening mouth”.
    I also think it’s rather rude of you to ask people to shut up and stay away in someone else’s place. Surely you realize that this is Greta’s privilege alone, this being her blog and all?
    Again, I’ve never claimed to have been in a foxhole, and have never said anything about what it is like to be in a literal foxhole. I was merely pointing out the hypocrisy in you telling people to refrain from commenting on things they have no personal experience in, while you yourself keep doing just that, constantly.
    You try to reflect peoples’ attention away from this fact by continuing to spew “righteous indignation” over people who “philosophize from the comfort of your whatever” and getting upset over women talking back to you (apparently, as you have to put them down condescendinly if they dare to).
    None of it are working very well, I can assure you.
    This is all beside the fact that you, as Greta pointed out above, are missing the point entirely. The point isn’t that I, or Bruce, or anyone else here, have been on a battlefield, or not. The point is that plenty of people HAVE, and they are still atheists. That is a piece of fact that someone like me can, in fact, repeat when I see the lie ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ without having been in one myself.
    It is in fact YOU who doesn’t know what you are talking about in this case if you deny that these people exist (or are you calling soldiers who calls themselves atheists liars?) and that is even more astonishing, if your claim to have been on a battlefield is indeed true.

  37. 37
    Bruce Gorton

    Posted by: Maxx | December 28, 2010 at 11:05 PM
    You talk about philosophising, we supply stats from the US military to say exactly how atheists are represented in their ranks.
    We can supply links to atheist organisations made up by and for atheists who serve in various militaries.
    That’s not philosophising, that’s pointing to very real and easily verfied evidence.
    You claim military service, much like I suspect you would claim to be a prosecutor or a university professor or a economist or a biologist if it suited your position.
    The reason why your personal military experience means nothing online is because quite frankly we have no evidence to say you aren’t lying for one thing, and for another it is anecdotal.
    It is a cowardly besides – your argument should stand whether you have served in the military or not, it shouldn’t have to hide behind a service record.
    Now as to gobshite, what that insult means is you talk very loudly and contribute nothing.
    Read over your argument – what have you actually added?

  38. 38
    Jesse Weinstein

    http://www.militaryatheists.org/expaif.html is a list from MAFF (Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, linked in the Greta’s post) of over 200 atheists serving in the military.
    Maxx — care to tell them to shut up because they don’t “know what it’s like”?

  39. 39
    Rose

    I am an atheist, and here’s my personal input: I recently had a major car accident (my car was totaled after someone ran a red light). I’m basically okay because of the airbags, safety glass, and seatbelt (and some automatic reactions on my part). I wanted to share something relevant to this discussion, which are my thoughts when the car appeared. I thought: I’m going to be in really bad shape, or maybe even die. My next thoughts were of my boyfriend and my mother. A few more things flitted through my head, but not a single one was related to god or a universal being that could help me, and nor were any after. It was only upon reading some blogs about atheism today that this realization popped into my head. I thought I was going to die, and there was no thought that was even remotely religious. In what I thought could be my final moments, nothing in my brain or heart or whatever suddenly decided that I really did believe. If you don’t believe in the big sky daddy or the positive healing energy or anything, why would you turn to something like that for help? Would a Christian turn to the tooth-fairy in times of need?

  40. 40
    Israel Walker

    Oddly, I’m the only member of the MAAF that’s commented. There’s a lot of atheists in the military, and yes some serve in combat positions. There are also religious crazies, but AmeriChristian viewpoints are sort of required for promotion. The religious indoctrination is mostly from middle and upper level officers and upper level enlisted people.

  41. 41
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    On January 7, 2010, I came home from work to discover that one of my dearest friends died. His name was Micah and the depth of our friendship was such that others would consider the two of us soul mates (agreement on matters of both great importance and sheer triviality; an unceasing desire to be around each other; finishing each others’ sentences; being able to annoy one another where NO ONE else could and more; it’s actually hard to quantify what our friendship was like–while we were both gay, our friendship was everything most people associate with couples, save the lack of sexual chemistry). I came home to discover his body at roughly 11pm on Thursday, January 7. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard or as long as I did after that. I remember specifically thinking, wishing even, that I could believe in heaven and an all loving god. I wanted to believe that my friend was in a better place and that one day I would be able to see him again and enjoy his presence.

    I couldn’t.

    I simply could not make myself believe in something that absurd.

    In my case, at least, being confronted with the death of a close loved one did not make me renounce my non-theist status. If anything it made me appreciate the time I had with him and the short time I have on this planet.

    Tony

  42. 42
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    >>Whatever… Don’t talk about that which you could not even begin to understand – unless you’ve been there.<<

    By this logic, most people would have very little to talk about. As I type this, I'm watching one of the home buyer shows on HGTV. I don't understand the intricacies of the housing market, so I guess I can't comment on some of the ridiculous expectations of new home buyers.

    I'm not a lawyer or a doctor, so I probably shouldn't comment on the trial of Michael Jackson's lawyer.

    I'm not a musician, and I don't know the first thing about muscial composition, so I can't comment on Michael Jackson's music.

    I don't understand any of the complex structures of the universe, so I can't comment on them.

    I can't talk about the ridiculousness of people getting irate that Kim Kardashian is getting a divorce after 72 days since I know nothing about her marriage or the lives of people who got angry at that news (heck, I can't talk about marriage at all, since I've never been married, and the US isn't exactly the most gay marriage friendly country at present).

    I think I can stick to that which I do know: bartending. I've been doing it 12 years now, so I know some stuff. Oh wait, even though I worked at a higher end restaurant, my wine knowledge isn't as advanced as many others. In fact, there are some things about wine that I "…could not begin to even understand" so I can't talk about that either.

    Sheesh. What's left to chat about?

    Tony

  43. 43
    'Tis Himself

    I did six years in the US military. I was an atheist going into the Navy and an atheist coming I was a nuclear mechanic in a submarine which had a collision with a Soviet sub. I was the Engine Room Lower Level watch during the collision. I didn’t cry out for Jebus, Vishnu or Huitzilopotchli. Instead I worked on shutting down the starboard side of the plant. Fortunately we’d already had the SUBSAFE conversion so we had backups for all the hull valves, because even Ol’ Yahweh would have had problems shutting MSW-1.

  44. 44
    Blah blah blah

    Spam deleted. Normally I just delete spam without notice, but others have commented on it, so I’m leaving this notification in place so readers aren’t confused.

  45. 45
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    What are you indicating, man? I recognize everyones got their own viewpoint, but really? Listen, your weblog is cool. I like the effort you put into it, especially with the vids and the pics. But, come on. Theres gotta be a better way to say this, a way that doesnt make it seem like everybody here is stupid!

    -Is this supposed to make sense? Or is it just spam?

  46. 46
    Andrew G.

    It’s just spam. (The payload is the link)

  47. 47
    Rev. James

    I remember watching, on the History Channel, a show about Epic Tank Battles. . . I believe it was El Alemein.

    One British tanker, when speaking of the horror of the battle, said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It knocked all the religion right out of me.”

    In this case, at least, it appears that the exact opposite of “there are no Atheists in foxholes.” The foxhole gave birth to the Atheist, to mangle a saying.

    I was once a “believer.” I was even an Altar Boy. I became an Altar Boy because I had recently lost my father – the thing which started my first questioning of god, etc. Thought that becoming an Altar Boy would put me closer to the source, as it were, and help me to gain a better understanding.
    It didn’t.

    Even as a small child, I had a big interest in science. At an age where not a single classmate could spell Paleontology, much less knew what it was, I was studying to be one.

    Science won. As you said, it’s verifiable and replicable.

    I’m not Atheist, in the usual way. Nature is my religion. Not in the “man in the sky” way, but in the “plants and animals and people are all connected” way. We here on Earth can’t be the only Life in the Universe – even the most anorexic probability precludes it. The Internet doesn’t run by Divine Intervention.

  48. 48
    believerskeptic

    There are no theists in foxholes.

    The soldier, in the line of fire, rejects the idea of a supernatural God saving his or her skin, and instead, sensibly seeks the protection of the foxhole.

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