Atheists in Foxholes

Because I susbscribe to Alternet, I occasionally read the blogger Greta Christina.   She’s an atheist, one who believes that it is important to be aggressive in overcoming “religion.”   I have many philosophical disagreements with her, such as a belief in God, but more fundamentally, she is a useful example of an atheist who is tone deaf to the experiences of those who find religious traditions worthy and useful.  She is also one an atheist who doesn’t believe she needs to learn much more.

In her most recent Alternet column she takes on the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  It’s a charming, quaint assertion, one that, she rightly points out, is most likely empirically untrue.  Atheists do face death and they don’t suddenly become metaphysicians in those times.  My father, when he was diagnosed with cancer, didn’t start praying,  although he did continue going to a Unitarian Universalist church (he was one of those atheists who wasn’t offended by religion) and did not drive out the Episcopal chaplain who offered consolation when he was in hospice.

She also argues that it is a bigoted assertion.  That somehow it insinuates that atheists, in their moment of questioning, will then abandon their beliefs and join, for example, the Catholic Church.

At heart of the conundrum is the example of the “praying atheist.”   What she doesn’t seem to understand is that the issue is not about the afterlife, or about death, nor is it really about belief.

For her, in a foxhole, the true atheist may fret, complain, twiddle their thumbs, anything except pray to something that doesn’t exist.   But does an atheist in a foxhole who does pray suddenly a theist?   No:   all they have done is express a desire to be rescued.

And there would be nothing wrong with that.

The phrase, as Ms. Christina reads it, is a good example of one that misdirects.  To add to the confusion, she mistranslates it, interpreting it mainly as a comment on the faith of atheism, rather than on their desires.  Religious language, however, directs the hearer to look and hear in a particular way.  Greta Christina hears religious language in a foxhole as a communication to a non-existent object.

But is that all it is?  Not really.

Being in a foxhole presumes a couple things. One is that we would be completely powerless.  We would have no control.  And that our lives are at stake.  In these situations, our mental energy might be consumed, believer or non believer, by one possibility.

We’d want to be rescued. And that presumes that rescue is possible, even when the facts, the reality, is that we won’t be.  Reality matters, of course, and in a foxhole, the reality is that we would probably die.  To a religious believer, in these situations, prayer is justified.  And I would assert that it would be perfectly reasonable to do so, even if it were inefficacious.

But it seems to me that any sort of prayer, for Ms. Christian, is that prayer is an incomprehensible language, the expression of which is not merely nonsense, but also – even in its utterance – morally circumspect.

When someone says “there are no atheists in foxholes,” however, the assertion is not merely that they will become metaphysicians.  It is not necessarily about the supernatural.  It is an expression that asserts that even when we are powerless, we may desire a power that will rescue us.   It may be a natural, materialistic power.  But the desire still exists.    Even when the object, the rescue, the rescuer, may not exist.

If anything, the praying atheist is merely taking a bet, covering all bases.  When one is powerless, it is fully rational and pragmatic to put ideology aside and take a risk, even if is a poor one, if only because the only temporary cost to prayer is one’s identity as a non-believer.  If praying is merely an archaic tool that probably has no use, there is no shame in using it in a time of need.  But if it is a tool that is morally and conceptually offensive to one’s own identity, then it becomes a problem.  Greta seems to be in the latter category.  Praying is not merely incomprehensible, no true atheist would use it.

Granted, not all atheists require a belief in human power.  But for many people – including non-believers – power is desirable, especially when faced with death.   Such a statement about atheists in foxholes is to place them in the company of human beings who have such desires.  And these desires are reasonable, even if the outcomes are not guaranteed.

Greta is clear:  “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.”   Well, I do hope that Christians could understand that.  In fact, it might be exactly why they say “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  Even an atheist loves life and experiences fear and grief in the face of death, and a desire not to die.

Atheists often make a similar assertion about Christians:  that if they really believed in the afterlife, why wouldn’t they just love death and kill themselves?  After all, isn’t the afterlife a better place?  Although there is a legitimate tension, the truth is that there is no place in Christian theology that requires a Christian to love death.   There is a strong tradition of not being afraid of death, but the two virtues are not identical.  One can be both brave and love life.  If anything, the doctrine and tradition of the church is precisely directed thus.  This why suicide is circumscribed and the funeral mass is a resurrection mass.  The challenge to the belief in the afterlife that Christians should love death, illustrates a misunderstanding of the tradition and human experiences within that tradition.

A Christian may admit that merely wishing does not make things happen.  Wishing, after all, is only one dimension of prayer, and not even the most important one.   But if I were in a foxhole with an atheist, and s/he started to pray I would neither condemn her for her hypocrisy or her weakness.  I wouldn’t expect her to ascribe to any metaphysic or join a church afterwards.   I would understand the desire.  I might share in that wish.  For sometimes we are powerless, and we want someone to rescue us, and have to find a way to express that hope.  And prayer is a rhetoric that is not circumscribed only to believers.

When we do get rescued, it may be a human face that does, and for me, that face would seem a lot like God’s.

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