One often hears the claim thrown around that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The claim is common, but the intent behind it varies. Sometimes the intent is to assert quite literally that there are no atheists in the military, or that atheists never put themselves in harm’s way for others. Other times, the intent seems to be just to claim that atheists sometimes turn briefly to religion in moments of terror, and that this undermines the truth of atheism.
What can one say about the first claim; namely, that atheists never join the armed forces or put themselves at risk for others? That claim is, of course, sheer nonsense—a comforting fairy-tale for pompous bigots. My own four years with the United States Marine Corps included two tours in Iraq, in both of which my primary role was to drive ahead of convoys and dig through old blast craters and suspicious roadside rubbish with my bare hands, so that any hidden IEDs would, at worst, kill me instead of some other Marine in the convoy; I was completely defenseless, but not once did my atheism waver.
I knew a fair number of other religious skeptics among my colleagues in the Marine Corps, and even most of the believers knew where to draw the line. For instance, I was once sitting in the back of a seven-ton with a group of fellow Marines after a training exercise, when one of them passed news alleging that Bush said that God had told him to invade Iraq. I expected to provoke a fight with my reply that this sounded the same as Osama bin Laden, but instead of throwing me out of the back of the seven-ton, everyone actually laughed out loud and nodded their heads. Although there certainly are some religious bigots among the Marines—like a stupid Sergeant Major who proselytized us at the end of a battalion safety brief, and sagely informed us that atheists pray to rocks they carry around in their pockets—there are enough atheists in the Marine Corps that most others would not insult them: they know there’s a decent chance that the brother who takes shrapnel for them tomorrow will be an atheist.
How about the second claim, that some atheists may briefly turn to religion when faced with the threat of imminent death? Although there are enough examples like my own to show that this contention expresses something far from a universal truth, I’m sure it often is true. My advantage in the field was that I had already reflected seriously on death, and made peace with my own mortality, long before I joined the Marines. Not everyone does so, and I find it easy to understand that one might grasp at comforting metaphysical straws when the threat of death catches one unprepared. The thing is, the flight from reason in moments of desperation does not at all undermine the truth of atheism—it supports it, because it lends support to the view that much religious belief ultimately is driven by fear, especially the fear of death.