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

The notion that 'there are no atheists in foxholes' isn't just mistaken, it's bigoted and ugly; a denial of atheists' humanity and the reality of our experience with death.

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. 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, who have been in terrible accidents, 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.

This 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 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?

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.

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