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Are There Atheists in Foxholes?

Why an old adage doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Key points

  • Some people find religious faith comforting during stressful or dangerous experiences.
  • Others, however, lose their faith when undergoing trauma or witnessing immense suffering.
  • The adage "there are no atheists in foxholes" ignores both this psychological reality and the many atheists who serve in the military.

Consider the utter devastation of the Battle of Stalingrad.

It was the winter of 1943. Hitler had sent tens of thousands of soldiers into Russia to capture an important industrial center in the Caucus region. It was a terrible idea. The German soldiers ran out of food and ammunition and steadily froze and starved to death or were killed by Russians. A true hell, with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Certainly, amidst such misery, many of these young men found comfort in their religious faith; as they starved, froze, and were shot, they turned to God, prayed, and died with the personal conviction that they would soon enter a heavenly world beyond.

But not all of them benefited from such spiritual succor. Some of the men could not turn to the comfort of faith because, frankly, their faith had disappeared. Amidst the drawn-out pain, fear, and suffering, some of these soldiers became atheists.

The final days of many of these men were captured in letters that they wrote home, found in the anthology Last Letters From Stalingrad, first published in 1950.

As one young soldier wrote:

"In Stalingrad, to put the question of God’s existence means to deny it. I must tell you this, Father, and I feel doubly sorry for it. You have raised me, because I had no mother, and always kept God before my eyes and soul. And I regret my words doubly, because they will be my last… you are a pastor, Father… I have searched for God in every crater, in every destroyed house, on every corner, in every friend, in my fox hole, and in the sky. God did not show Himself, even though my heart cried for Him. The houses were destroyed… on earth there was hunger and murder, from the sky came bombs and fire, only God was not there. No, Father, there is no God.”

Or as another young soldier lamented:

“This will be my last letter… perhaps forever… the situation has become untenable. The Russians are within three kilometers… If there is a God… I don’t believe any longer that God can be good, for then he would not permit such injustice. I don’t believe in it anymore, for he would have enlightened the minds of those people who began this war… I don’t believe in God anymore, because he betrayed us. I don’t believe anymore.”

These letters are but two examples of a fact rarely talked about: sometimes soldiers actually lose their faith on the battlefield, rather than find it.

The Truth Behind an Old Adage

The old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes” captures a simple, obvious reality: when people are in dire straits, when they are literally fearing for their very lives, they will often turn to some higher power for comfort or guidance. In other words, desperation can feed faith. Or put another way: some people may have little interest in God when things are going relatively well, but when such people find themselves under a hail of bullets, staring death in the face, their atheism surely vanishes (or so the adage suggests).

But there are several problems with the old adage.

First off, it is too absolute. It fails to acknowledge another, simultaneous reality: some people in scary, dangerous, or threatening situations can and sometimes do lose their religious faith. For some people, the horrors they witness or the suffering they endure can render belief in an all-powerful, all-loving deity unsustainable.

Secondly, it fails to appreciate the reality that many people who never had religious faith to begin with have still managed to endure all kinds of devastating, life-threatening experiences without any recourse to religion. Perhaps they did so stoically or heroically, or petrified and anxiously, but they did it.

Finally, the “no atheists in foxholes” adage blatantly negates the existence of millions of atheist soldiers who have served in countless wars throughout history. Some estimates suggest that 7 percent of our enlisted men and women today are atheists. According to survey data, 16 percent of those in the military identify as secular, saying that they are “humanists” or have “no religion.” (For a contemporary glimpse of atheists currently serving for the United States military, check out the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.)

While numerous studies have shown that religion helps many people cope during distressing situations and painful experiences—especially during military combat—the fact remains that not all people find faith helpful. Some people lose their faith. Some people raised without it don’t acquire it—even while enduring the harshest of circumstances. And when it comes to foxholes, yes, there are atheists. As secularization continues to increase, it is important that we recognize the ways in which non-religious people cope—even in the face of bullets and bayonets.

More from Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.
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