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Humanism in a Shitstorm

“There are no atheists in foxholes.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this more times than you care to remember. I’m sure you’ve heard religious believers dismiss secular humanism as a shallow, breezily hedonistic philosophy that dries up and blows away in the face of trauma, mortality, and grief.

It’s malarkey. You probably know that, of course; you probably know plenty of atheists who have been through terrible hardship without turning to religion. Chances are you’ve been through some yourself and emerged with your godlessness intact. You may even know — or indeed be — an atheist in a foxhole: not the metaphorical kind, but the military kind, seeking shelter from enemy fire.

I want to talk about one of those metaphorical foxholes. I want to talk about how, in the depths of it, my atheism and humanism didn’t dry up; instead they supported me and helped carry me through. And I want to encourage other humanists to talk with each other — and with religious believers — about your own trials and challenges and the ways that humanism, atheism, materialism, skepticism, and an evidence-based view of the world have helped get you through. (Assuming, of course, that they have.)

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Thus begins my latest “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist magazine, Humanism in a Shitstorm. To find out about how atheism and humanism have helped me get through the unspeakable shitstorm of the last few months — and why, in the depths of this metaphorical foxhole, I haven’t had the slightest wish to take false comfort in religion — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. Thorne says

    My only real trauma occurred about three years ago when I awoke from a routine cystoscoping to learn that I had bladder cancer. My first thought was, “Shit, that’s not good!” My second thought was, “Has anyone told my wife?” My third though was, “FUCK, that’s not good!” All before I was fully recovered form the anesthesia.

    A month later, after routine surgery, I was cancer free, and have been so ever since. Now, I can’t say that my atheism helped me at that time, but at no time, during that month or since, did I even think about any gods or afterlife. I said thank you to the doctors and nurses who helped me, to the insurance company that covered the costs, to the pharmaceutical industry that developed the chemo.

  2. Thorne says

    (Sorry, submitted too early.)

    When someone told me I should get down on my knees and thank god for my recovery, my response was, “Even if I believed in your god, why would I want to thank him for giving me cancer in the first place?” That was the last god stuff I heard.

  3. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Just shared on FB with the following:

    Greta Christina has penned an excellent piece on secular grieving. She lost her dad right around the same time I lost my mom, so I have been going through alot of the same emotional territory from the same perspective. Like Greta, I have found that contrary to popular misconception, my atheism/skepticism has provided quite a deal of comfort, reassurance and hope during a difficult time of loss and grieving. She has put into words, more eloquently, many of the exact things I’ve been thinking over the past few months.

    I’m sure most of my friends will think “there he goes again with his militant atheism” while continuing to post endless Jesus and angels pictures, and won’t read or absorb any of the points. But thanks for writing it. It’s the first step in the long process of eroding popular stereotypes of atheists.

  4. Rodney Nelson says

    I’ve always hated the “no atheists in foxholes” meme. In the late 1960s I spent a year as an infantryman in a hell called Vietnam. I was an atheist going in and I was an atheist coming out. I never felt the urge to call on any deities to keep me safe or get me out of a nasty situation. I depended on my buddies, on my training, and the ability to call for massive fire support. Jesus wasn’t needed.

  5. mnb0 says

    “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
    I love to hear that. I immediately refer to that American organization of atheist soldiers – people like Rodney Nelson above. The believer involved immediately is silenced. Btw I’m more or less a pacifist; that doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the “argument” as one of the most stupid ones I have ever heard.

    Some five years ago my father was killed. My son, 13 years back then, found him. The experience has not turned either of us into a believer. On the contrary, the bare fact that the lifeless body was not my father anymore helped us to begin the mourning process immediately. We talked a lot to each other and with some friends, realized soon how lucky we were to have each other and how important it was not to lose valuable time.
    If you ask me any supernatural notion only would have complicated things.
    I just asked my son if he needed a god back then. His answer was a simple “no”.

  6. manojjoseph says

    Hi Greta,

    You said,

    you probably know plenty of atheists who have been through terrible hardship without turning to religion.

    In my case, emotional trauma during my adolescence was what caused me to examine my religion. I ended up discarding it. Once I started examining Christianity, it did not take me long to see that it was completely inconsistent. I have not turned to religion since. :)

    Cheers
    Manoj

  7. richardjohnson says

    Greta, you should know, shouldn’t you? You’ve been through your own “hell” lately and I don’t see you turning to religion for help. Perhaps that’s because you know that all religion can offer is a few lies and platitudes, which are quickly seen through and thus don’t really help at all.

    It’s interesting that this just happens to tie into a little blog entry which I just now finished (having finally found the time to write something), entitled:


    “Religion doesn’t really help dealing with the real world.”

    (During my own little life threatening situation, an emergency appendectomy, I must say that I never though of God once. My only thoughts were of what I could to help my situation and to heal best.)

  8. Matt Penfold says

    Anyone claiming there are no atheists in foxholes is clearly very ignorant of first world war poets.

  9. littlejohn says

    My late father, a lifelong atheist and WWII combat veteran, used to raise hell whenever anyone spouted the “no atheists” line. If it’s meant literally, it certainly isn’t true.

  10. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    When my parents died, within a few months of each other a decade ago, I can’t say my atheism was a specific, positive comfort – any more, say, than my democratic socialism or feminism or environmentalism. But nor did these events cause me to reassess any of them, or wish I believed differently. What I did draw real comfort from was my wife, my son, my brothers and sister, and my friends; and from doing things as I knew my parents would have wanted them done – like letting all the right people know, and ensuring that an error on my father’s death certificate (about the cause of death) was corrected: that might sound trivial, but I knew he’d have felt it mattered.

    I never felt any pull to believe in an afterlife, that I’d see my parents again*. Nor, I’m glad to say, was there anyone who tried to push this on me, or to talk about religion – something that may seem incredible to many Americans, but not I think unusual in Britain. My parents both had humanist funerals, and although I’m sure some of the guests were believers, I think most Brits, including believers, would have seen it as grossly ill-mannered to have talked religion in that context, given the family’s choice of ceremony.

    *I have seen them in dreams, but usually there’s been some “tell” in the dream that they were dead, or at least, soon going to die. Over time, these dreams have become less frequent, and I can’t recall when I last had one. The same has happened with two close friends my own age who died a decade or more ago.

  11. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Over time, these dreams have become less frequent, and I can’t recall when I last had one.

    No doubt as a result of writing the above, I had one last night.

  12. ismenia says

    I suffered terribly for years as a result of a combination of terrible family problems, eventually leading to family breakdown; severe anxiety; depression; ME and the high susceptibility to infection that resulted from that combination. I tried to find solace in religion and I could get fleeting moments of it, especially by prayer. But, far more I was consumed with doubts as well as fears that some of the nastier bits of the Bible were true or actually a different religion might be the correct one. I think it made me worse.

    Letting go of religion was part of my healing process. I stopped pleaded with an invisible deity to make me better. I saw healing as being much more under my control. I became more confident because I was no longer conflicted about believing and I accepted the inevitability of death. I also became more adept at some of the mental processess that I had previously considered religious experiences. Unfettered by a sense that I should stick to acceptable Christian thoughts, I was able to explore my own mind and follow where my subconcious wanted to go (there’s no good vocabulary for this sort of thing and I’d love to understand it better).

    In church this Christmas with family, I actually cringed when the minister started thanking God for giving us a love that we do not deserve. It sounded like a terrified lackey cringing before a tyrant. I wanted to shout that we shouldn’t see ourselves as unworthy for being imperfect in the eyes of a being that allegedly made us that way. Instead I contented myself by remembering the school assembly scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (“Oooh you are so big, so absolutely huge, gosh, we’re really impressed down here I can tell you”). I think that in a foxhole, being an atheist is the best thing to me. Getting to grips with reality is tricky enough without confusing it wth a load of utter tosh.

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