Becoming an Atheist While in a Foxhole

84-year-old Milton Christian received a Bronze Star on Tuesday for his “heroic service” in World War II. It’s a belated honor, but a well-deserved one:

From 1943 to 1946 Christian served as a machine gunner with the 29th Infantry Division. He doesn’t consider himself a hero, although his collection of medals tells another story — Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign medal, Victory Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award, Honorable Service Lapel Button, Marskman Badge — ribbons he says he earned simply doing his job, protecting his fellow soldiers.

The highlight of the article, though, is when Christian talks about the toughest times during the war:

“They say there are no atheists in foxholes. But as we sat in those holes, praying that God would save us, I thought about the fact that the other side was doing the same thing. And then I wondered if God is just playing some kind of game with us. Pretty much I decided at that point there was no God,” Christian said.

“For the rest of my life, I’ve tried to do the right thing. I raised a beautiful bunch of kids — and they truly are my greatest accomplishment. So I’m not worried about what’s next. If there is a God, I think he’ll know that I just did the best I could. That’s all a man can do.”

Some people (mistakenly) say there are no atheists in foxholes.

Milton Christian became an atheist while sitting in one.

How awesome is that.

(via @SecStuAlliance)

  • Jason

    Awesome!

  • PrimeNumbers

    And also a nice demonstration of the rebuttal to Pascal’s wager that “what if god prefers and honest atheist to a dishonest believer?” Given the poor track record of “revealed knowledge” in communicating god’s wishes….

  • Stephanie

    I love reading how people come to having that first moment of doubt that leads to their deconversion. It’s different for everyone but still fascinating, nonetheless.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    War probably produces a lot of atheists. Any person capable of critical thinking would have a hard time reconciling the horrors of war with the existence of a truly benevolent and omnipotent deity.

  • James H

    Even if he became an atheist, he was still Christian.

  • Ron in Houston

    Great story. Hopefully it can get disseminated to a wider audience.

  • Jonas

    Christian’s is a story I’ve heard before. The peace time equivalent is God’s in favor of the Football team with the best coach.

    Interestingly, he doesn’t say what he converted from. That is if he had a particular image of a deity on his side, not the other. FYI: in WWII some of the Germans had the phrase “God with us” on their belt buckles.

  • http://adoubtersramblings.wordpress.com/ cj

    I would imagine that with all the death and destruction and violence that a soldier would see, there’s probably a lot more of this throught process happening than we are aware of.

  • barker

    There are no theists in foxholes.

  • fritzy

    My guess would be that those who remain religious in battle already had a very bellicose notion of god, or are really good at ignoring cognitive disonance.

    The true bravery in this story is Christians willingness to publicly admit to his doubt. Used to be that no one in this country would attack a decorated veteran, but then Faux “News” and the neocons slithered in and changed that…

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Jonas, you beat me to the Sports team example.

    Good job, Christian. Now, there’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear myself say.

    (OT – today is World Nutella Day. Dig in and savour the flavour)

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Thanks for posting this. The fact that other people are praying for the opposite of what you’re praying for, and that God does not seem to have intervened to make his intentions clear does raise a lot of doubt.

    It’s was very brave of him to actually seriously consider his doubts, especially in a situation when he was facing such danger. I think it shows that people can look to other sources of strength besides God.

    @cj: I have to agree. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people had doubt. If I have doubt about God just thinking about the horros of war, what must it be like for someone who’s actually seeing it?

    @barker: Your comment made me smile. Seriously, though, I often wonder if people who claim that there are no atheists in foxholes have every contemplated the weird idea of there being war in a world with an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God.

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  • Andrew Morgan

    “‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.” – James Morrow (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011203/morrow.shtml)

  • Karen

    Cool! If only more people like him were honest enough to speak out about their atheist “deconversions,” right?

    I was at a social event recently and the topic of religion came up. Out of about eight women there, only two professed any religious beliefs and one of those admitted she wavers towards agnosticism. The one who is religious goes to a very liberal Episcopal church.

    Of course, I’m in Southern California and tend to socialize with highly educated liberals. But I didn’t even know most of these women were non-theists and I doubt most would call themselves atheists, though they were all quite skeptical and critical of fundamentalism.

    Still, our movement is definitely gaining momentum!

  • AJ

    i was hypothetically thinking about this exact situation this morning…really cool that it actually happened to somebody..weird

  • muggle

    Applause. Applause. Well and courageously stated!

    Just last night I was in a chat room with someone going by the handle old vet (who is actually pretty cool though set in some rather conservative stubbornness as he is at least someone who converses, really converses, with those he disagrees with). He said there are no atheists in fox holes. When I was under fire, I heard a lot of oh gods, jesus christs, and mommys but nothing about no god. I said maybe the Atheist was the one crying out mommy. He laughed and said maybe. To tell the truth, I think he was being a bit tongue in cheek and was fully aware that some of those screaming out God and Jesus Christ were Atheists.

    Freethought Today periodically publishes some story about someone being one and occassionally a letter from a reader reflects that. I went to the first Godless March on Washington and a whole group of combat veterans got on stage to declare they were atheists in foxholes.

  • http://www.thatpinkmouse.com/bloggy Jenny Bliss

    well war has an intresting effect more often than not, it either increases ones faith in a deity or destroys it, like was said (i forget who though must check cos its bugging me now heh)

    ‘what kind of god allows for the crying child in the middle of the battlefield’

  • Bryan

    I was in the marine corps from 2003-07 and had a similar revelation. Became an atheist on my second tour in Iraq. I was pretty much agnostic by then but still unsure.

  • Isa

    It’s awesome that he’s willing to stand up and say this. And it sounds to me like he is a hero, whether he thinks so or not.

  • Linda

    I was not in a “war” as being discussed but I was in a war as a child by seeing substance abuse, physical abuse and being abused. One morning I ran to the neighbours and the mother told me to go to sunday school with her two daughters (my parents were fighting); without any christian teachings I went and the teacher was teaching us the song “jesus loves me”; well in my six year old mind I knew that there was no jesus. But the other thing is I also knew that abuse was wrong and I would not do that do another person. I really disagree when I hear others say that only with christianity does one have morals, etc. p.s. I survived, later on those adults around me changed and I am quite happy today.

  • Herbert

    Well, there ya go.

    It’s funny how the only ones saying that there are no atheists in foxholes are… not atheists. It always confuses me when fundamentalists make sweeping statements about sides they don’t like, but when a counterpoint is brought up, they completely ignore it as if it wasn’t real.

    I’m not an atheist, but stories like this make me happy. People are able to think for themselves, rather than blindly follow a god they *think* is on their side.

    My reason for abandoning my Christian faith is not as powerful as this war one, but it’s a reason nonetheless. To keep a long story short, one of my best friends in high school went into a vegetative state, after her new heart (that she received after her first heart ceased functioning) all of a sudden went incompatible with her brain. My brother and I prayed for her with all our hearts, only to find out that she’d already been dead for a week.

    I just couldn’t understand how God could grant some people’s comparatively useless prayers, such as winning a football game, getting a raise, or passing a test, but he didn’t help my friend when she was in pain.

    I’ll never become an atheist, but I realized three years ago what it was like to really think–WITHOUT God.

  • Richard

    great story, I’ve been there for 45 years


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