Golden Atheists

The popular aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes” implies that people can only be atheists in times of comfort and security, and that if the end of life is in view, they will inevitably cry out to God to save them. I wish everyone who uses this thoughtless and insulting slur could meet Claire Hull:

Claire Hull rarely misses a Sunday at church. That’s remarkable for two reasons: She’s a 91-year-old with a replacement hip, and she’s an atheist.

Yes, you heard right: Ms. Hull is a 91-year-old atheist. And from all accounts, she’s still living a life as rich, full and rewarding as that of many people far less than her age, reading three books each week and taking an active role in politics and her community. I hope I can accomplish half as much at that age!

So why is this atheist grandma at church on Sundays?

One of Hull’s greatest loves is people, which is how an atheist ended up being a steady churchgoer at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tacoma.

“I believe in people and ideas,” she said.

Any atheist should be proud to give assent to such a concise and expressive creed. While we have no truck with notions of gods and other mythical beings from our past, we do focus our concern on the truly real and important things: the well-being of our fellow humans and the rich life of ideas we can conceive.

For an atheist, the Unitarian Universalist church is a good choice. Unlike most churches, it’s free of dogma and doctrine, leaving each congregant the freedom to make up their own mind as they see fit, and usually promotes a commendably progressive and humanistic viewpoint. I’ve attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church myself, and I enjoyed the experience – if I were a religious person, that’s where I would go.

And for the record, the redoubtable Ms. Hull is not the only golden-aged atheist out there; far from it. I myself had the privilege of meeting another one.

This happened during my junior year of college. I was on the bus home after a day on campus, typing up some notes on my laptop, when out of the blue an elderly Middle Eastern gentleman sitting across from me started talking to me. I admit my first thought was mild annoyance at being approached by a stranger, but I had nothing important to do, so I was polite.

He asked about my laptop and my major, computer science, and it transpired that he was auditing classes at my university because, he said, he wanted something to do and he doesn’t think you’re ever too old to improve yourself. I was fairly impressed by this.

Then, without any suggestion on my part, he started talking about religion. I thought it was an odd topic to bring up with someone you’d just met, but he did, and to my amazement, I learned he was an atheist. In just a brief conversation, he expressed his view that there was no life after death, ridiculed religious exclusivity and salvation based on holding a particular belief, and stated his opinion that, if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith. I was completely absorbed in the conversation by this point, and since I didn’t want him to think I was just agreeing to humor him, I even showed him the “Born Again Atheist” button on my bag (which got a smile from him).

Needless to say, I was very impressed by all of this. He told me that he was 90, and a 90-year-old speaking frankly and with no fear about death is truly something to be praised. I asked him a bit more about himself and learned that he was a surgeon for 50 years, now retired. (Back when he used to practice, he told me, there were no specializations – you were just a surgeon in general.) Just think about it – a 90-year-old atheist surgeon!

We talked about a few more things before my stop came up, and I was actually sad when it was time for me to shake his hand and get off. When I got back to my apartment, though, I looked up his name on Google and found his name on an issue of my university’s newsletter – it said he was the owner of a valuable collection of ancient, original Persian art, which he’d loaned to the college art museum.

These stories show that atheism is a view that any person at any stage of life can hold with courage and pride. In contrast to the apologists who smugly proclaim that even the slightest intimation of mortality will drive a person into the arms of religion, we atheists know that a life well-lived leaves no reason to fear.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Wedge

    I’d just like to add to the anecdotes: my FIL had a moment of what he called ‘reverse revelation’ while on a transport ship in Korea, when he suddenly realized that he ‘didn’t believe in any of that crap.’ He remained a staunch and happy atheist throughout his life, and died at the age of 80 without a hint of fear. He was one of the most rational and inspiring people I ever met, as well as one of the kindest.

  • James Bradbury

    if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith

    Hmm, I’ve never heard this put so succinctly before. What a great quote.

    I’ve never quite understood why theists say “there are no atheists in foxholes”. I think this claim casts their beliefs in a very negative light. A belief based purely on fear doesn’t seem worth much.

  • Scott Frost

    I agree with Mr. Bradbury’s post. The “one good deed” quote is the same comment that struck me the most. Personally, I like Mark Twain’s take on death. Basically, he pointed out that before he was born he did not exist and it was not the least bit inconvenient for him and he didn’t see how non-existence would be any more inconvenient for him after he died than it had been before he was born.

  • http://brokenspells.blogspot.com/ ylooshi

    Just think about it – a 90-year-old atheist surgeon!

    I’d take a 90-year old atheist surgeon over a 30-year old fundamentalist one anytime… what if I was under the knife of the fundy and he knew I was an activist atheist? By letting me die on the operating table, he might save a few souls that I would otherwise turn away from faith!

  • Clay Shirky

    I’ve never quite understood why theists say “there are no atheists in foxholes”.

    They say it in part because there is at least a grain of truth in that sentiment.

    As Scott Atran has pointed out in “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion” (http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/satran/files/atran-norenzayanbbs05.pdf), there’s experimental evidence linking “adrenaline-activating death scenes to increased belief in God’s existence”. Furthermore, such anxiety-activating scenes are more effective at inciting belief in God than are scenes involving other people’s religiosity.

    So while the statement “There are no atheists in foxholes” is falsified in a literal sense by a single counter-example, the larger sense of the statement is nevertheless true — religion is held in place partly by existential anxiety, and in situations where existential anxiety is greater (true, a fortiori, of foxholes), religious belief will be as well.

    More generally, you have to be pretty high up the Maslovian hierarchy to be willing to accept the worldview that comes from admitting that supernatural beings don’t exist, one of the reasons that public atheism only flourishes in rich nations.

  • Polly

    “One good deed…than a lifetime of faith”

    I’ll pile on and add that that is a really good summary recap of Faith vs. Deeds. I couldn’t agree more heartily.

    I’ll confess that I’m always just slightly EVEN HAPPIER when I hear about middle easterners being atheists. I dunno why. Maybe because we’ve been fed an image of that region as being irretrievably soaked in fundamentalism. But, it’s not (entirely) true. Freethinkers are EVERYWHERE in the world.

  • javaman

    As we atheists age perhaps we could use this story as a model, and each one of us individually start our own informal outreach mission to young school age and college students. Our everyday language is filled with religious references ( eg. god bless you after sneezing) and during the holidays which serve as a starting point.As a H.S. teacher I find a large marjority of students are natural atheists in their world view and are very receptive to honest dialog. Many young people are afraid to express their natural atheist views in a society that discriminates against us. Each one of us should try our own real world experiment.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    Well said. It is important that people base belief on logic and evidence, not the “hoped for.”

  • OhioAtheist

    I wish I had the patience and time to read three books a week! Good for Ms. Hull!

  • http://dailyatheist.blogspot.com Strappado

    This line made me think: “people can only be atheists in times of comfort and security”. Sounds pretty un-American to me to be against Atheism.

    Think about this:
    “people can only have a swimming pool in times of comfort and security”.
    Bad thing?

    So next time, just reply that Atheism = success.

  • random guy

    I always like to counter with the “no atheist in foxholes” argument with a “no Christians in the path of a bullet”.

    The way I see it is that whenever some deranged maniac starts firing a gun in public people will scatter. They run, they hide, they shield their loved ones. Which is understandable. The only problem is that when asked about their beliefs on statements such as:

    “I believe God is looking out for me.”

    or “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die.”

    or “Everything happens according to Gods Will.”

    a majority of theists will agree with them. If they truly believed in these statements there would be no need to panic for anything, ever. I mean if God is looking after you or He has a Reason for something bad to happen to you then none of it matters cause you’ll be eternally rewarded. But thats not the way these people behave. As soon as shit hits the fan they respond to their flight or fight instincts, just like everyone else. They suddenly turn into the most skeptical of materialists. Doubting the power of their God and believing very firmly in the reality of the bullet and the very real death it can cause.

    Simply by being in a foxhole you doubt the existence of your God. True believers would walk onto battlefields without armor or weapons and, believing in some kind of divine invulnerability, be promptly shot.

  • http://darkmatterusa.blogspot.com Neil Phalanx

    I always took exception to this one especially, being that I was in the military. I was an agnostic by this point, and always agreed with that statement (to give credit to Clay’s comment) to the extent that the unprepared were willing to grab onto the convenience and comfort of religion. It is like the convict finding Jesus (or Islam) while paying for his/her crimes against society. They always laughed at the need for religion, but when the chips were down, it was there and waiting for them.

    When I was facing danger, I thought of loved ones. I had already decided no god would look out for me, so I looked out for myself. I like “there are no Christians in the path of a bullet”. I will have to use that.

  • Alex Weaver

    I suppose “there are no atheists in foxholes” is a true statement in the sense that there are also no (or, at least, very few) Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. in foxholes–in a life or death situation like a battlefield or the midst of a natural disaster, people with any sense at all aren’t going to stop to worry about their philosophical positions, and those that do reportedly tend to have a low survival rate.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Random Guy:

    I am reminded of the old saw, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die.” (Forgive the assumption of faith it contains, please).

    Alex:

    As a former Air Force firefighter, when I faced danger I wasn’t thinking of Mom, Dad, or anyone else. I only knew that I couldn’t let my buddies down, and even that was not so much a conscious thought as it was an emotional drive.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Ebon, that wasn’t a 90 year old atheist on the bus with you, that was Satan! Now we all know how you went astray!

    ;-)

  • Valhar2000

    [...]if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith[...]

    That reminds me of this line of Isaac Asimov’s, talking about what a god “might” be like:

    I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul

    Priceless!

    Then again, as Steve Dutch says, if there is a god, it has the properties it has, rather than the properties one imagines it has.

  • Valhar2000

    [...]if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith[...]

    That reminds me of this line of Isaac Asimov’s, talking about what a god “might” be like:

    I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul

    Priceless!

    Then again, as Steve Dutch says, if there is a god, it has the properties it has, rather than the properties one imagines it has.