When Times Are Tough, God Isn’t Going to Help You

David Hayward (a.k.a. nakedpastor) uses the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes” to point out a metaphorical truth:

I’ve seen and personally experienced people under extreme threat who realize their faith has totally evaporated.

I’m convinced that we need to get in touch with our atheism, our unbelief. Is there a separate “Deity” out there? Is there a Divine Interventionist? If asked if I’m a deist or a theist, I say not really. If I’m asked if I’m an atheist, I also say not really. Although it might unsettle some, I’m okay with that.

I have been an atheist in a foxhole. You might be one now. That’s okay.

You don’t have to be an atheist to be an “atheist in a foxhole.” One commenter at David’s site makes the point very clearly:

… A few years ago both my children were in ICU at the same time. They were very sick from ecoli poisoning and kidney failure. I took some comfort that people were praying for them. I even tried to pray myself. But it felt like my prayers went no further than the ceiling. Maybe not that far. The great news is that they recovered. Of course, we were in an awesome children’s hospital with an incredible specialist…


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/BdrLen Len

    Step 1, put your damn helmet on.

    • Andrew S. balfour

      It implies that atheism doesn’t hold up under duress or the threat of death, that when the going gets tough, atheists will be motivated by fear to accept god.

      • CoboWowbo

        Atheists in the military would disagree with you…

        • RobMcCune

          I  think he’s explaining it, not endorsing it. Could be wrong though.

        • JohnnieCanuck

          I didn’t assume that Andrew was arguing for the point, just explaining it. It’s a little gem that theists like to pass around, without putting much thought into it.

          On top of that, I would imagine that some of those atheists in the military got that way in reaction to the mayhem they experienced.

          What kind of god would allow so much suffering? If you still believed god existed, it might even be easy to decide you hated him.

    • IndyFitz

       Ooh, nice observation!  I never thought of it like that before.  It may just be my first response whenever some religious type informs me that there are no atheists in foxholes! — “That’s because it takes religion to have war.”  Oh yeah, that will work nicely. :-)

    • Victor Harris

       What people, theists, don’t realize, and probably should is that are no theists in foxholes, if you are praying in the middle of a firefight you’re not doing your job. In the midst of duress most people act rather than pray.

      • JustGuessing

        The religious will utter ‘Lord give me strength’ and do his job at the same time, I think.

        • Maria

          Or kiss a rosary before charging the enemy…

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    You have reminded me of the saying “Praise the lord, and pass the ammunition.”

    I’d say that pays lip service to religion,  then suggests acting like an atheist.

  • advancedatheist

    Ironically back when the U.S. had the draft, clergymen, seminary students and religious conscientious objectors could get exemptions from military service. Atheists didn’t have that option. 

    • Agnostic

      If Americans did not send troops to S Vietnam, it is highly likely that the country would have been run over by the north pretty fast and the domino effect sweep SE Asia and beyond. Atheists would be happy people since communists governments are all atheists. Then it is unlikely that countries in so many Asian countries would be thriving as they are now. It is highly likely that communist countries would be a much, much stronger foe today.

      • Nathaniel

         Yeah, all those happy atheist communists Asians, all buddy buddy.

        So buddy buddy that China invaded Vietnam almost right after we left.

        They got their butts kicked too.

      • Maria

        Ummmm….dude! I am a proud atheist but I would not want to live in China for shit! Yeah, they’re a communist/atheist government, but do you know what goes on in China? In what ways people’s lives are controlled? No. I am a fan of socialism, but defs not communism.  That’s a bit too extreme for me.  I like that I was born in a country where we all enjoy many freedoms, even if those freedoms include the freedom to be just about as dumb as you want…..le sigh….

      • Coyotenose

         Oh good, another drop-in poster who doesn’t know that Communist ideology is religious in nature, with God replaced by the State. Haven’t seen one of you guys in almost a day.

        Considering how ferociously North Vietnam overran the South without our presence, it’s obvious that any Domino effect would have occurred anyway. Cold War apologetics are pretty irrational.

      • Drew M.

        Thank goodness for that autonomic system, otherwise you’d be too ignorant to breathe.

    • 3lemenope

      This is incorrect. Since United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), religious scruples are no longer a necessary prerequisite for claiming conscientious objector status. The draft ended in 1973. The intervening period was basically the entirety of the Vietnam War.

    • RickRayFSM

      When I registered at Teachers’ College in 1970 I remember registering as a conscientious objector because there was pressure to take the religious course.  Man, people were lined up to get away from indoctrination.

  • Agnostic

    Athesists do not pray because they believe that there is no god there to listen. Agnostics do not pray because we are not sure there is someone there and will listen even if he is there. Yet both are likely to be grateful if there are people who care enough to pray for them in times of crisis; even though atheists are sure that the prayers will not work and agnostics are skeptical that they work.

    • Stan

      I wouldn’t be grateful that someone cared enough to pray for me in a time of crisis.  I’d be grateful if they got up off their knees, stopped mumbling to themselves, and did something!

    • Maria

      I would much rather just be kept in someone’s thoughts….the actual act of praying is someone sending up the glory to their chosen deity so that that deity can do something about the problem at hand, not the actual person themself.  Not too keen on the idea of someone praying for me, especially if I were in a literal foxhole or had my children in the ICU.  Knowing that someone was doing something so useless and pointless, while at the same time thinking that it’s any kind of effective, would perturb me greatly.  Now, if I’m in someone’s thoughts, it is comforting to know that at least someone’s thinking about me and pulling for me. That alone will suffice.

      • Drew M.

        In my experience, when someone who genuinely cares about me prays for me, they are also keeping me in their thoughts.

    • Coyotenose

       Okay, and?

    • Piet Puk

      Wow, your mind ‘works’ in mysterious ways.

    • Ida Know

      Like the joke goes: Prayer — how to do nothing and still think you’re helping.

      You want to show you care?  *Tell me* you care.  Doing some little, concrete act of kindness to make things easier, if you’re able — clean my house, take care of my cats, lend me money, whatever — would be awesome as well.

      You can pray too, if you must, but don’t delude yourself that that’s for me — it’s for *you*, to make *you* feel better.

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    As an ex Christian, I can tell you that the term “I’ll pray for you” either meant, “I’m not going to help you in any real, substantial way” or “eff you”. 

  • katetech

    What is really sad though with the whole praying thing is when that is the only thing that someone relies. When someone goes to a sacred place thinking they are going to be cured of their ailments or when someone participates in faith healing. Neither of these things will every work and instead they should really be getting medical treatment.

  • Guest

    God isn’t going to help you?  That sounds like making a claim to me.  And we all know how keen atheists are for saying that since religion makes the claim, religion must prove the claim.  Fair enough.  Now, the claim has been made: God isn’t going to help you.  Fine.  Prove it.