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

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.

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.

OK. 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."

Is that an appropriate thing to say? Or is it 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?

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. It has an almost hopeful quality 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 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.

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, as not just callow and naive, but as something less than human.

Please know that it's a lie.

And please don't tell it.


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