There Are No Atheists in Foxholes…Or Anywhere?

There Are No Atheists in Foxholes…Or Anywhere? July 17, 2014

There Are No Atheists in Foxholes…Or Anywhere?

According to journalist Nury Vittachi, writing for the web site Science 2.0 (Google it), “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke.” Of course, the “joke” is the old saying “There are no atheists in foxholes”—meaning under threat of death everyone prays to some god.

Vittachi’s essay reports on the studies of atheist scientist Graham Lawton (writing in New Scientist) that indicate everyone is hard wired to believe in someone or something above nature. It also reports on literary studies showing that, with few exceptions (“bleak narratives”) the vast majority of literature includes some kind transcendence.

Of course, these studies fall far short of “proof of God.” That’s not the point. The point is that, just as many atheists (really naturalists) claim there is a “compassionate gene” that makes empathy normal (without religion), so there seems to be something deeply embedded in human nature that makes religion or at least belief in something or someone transcending nature normal. Belief in God, then, is not just “projection” (a lá Feuerbach and Freud).

Again, of course, nobody is really arguing that persons cannot resist their own nature and deny the reality of any god or gods. But the argument is that, underlying that denial, there lies an implicit belief the atheist is not conscious of but that appears in his or her other beliefs—such as in purpose and meaning in reality, basic trust in reality, justice that transcends law, etc.

I have certainly not met every atheist, so I can’t universalize or absolutize the following opinion. However, my experience of atheists is that, those I have met and talked to, do not really deny the existence of God (or any god or gods) due to lack of evidence. Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.

I have trouble taking atheism seriously. It is so clearly a product of modernity and (in my view) so clearly goes against the grain of everything we humans believe in (e.g., objective morality that transcends tribe, culture and custom) that I find it almost amusing—except that it can and often does have extremely pernicious consequences.

True, religion can have extremely pernicious consequences as well, but “organized religion” is not the same as implicit belief in God (what the ancients called the “sensus divinus”). Without God there is no way to judge the behaviors of concrete religions. Not everything labeled “Christian” is authentically Christian, of course. (In fact, I would go so far as to argue most of it is not.)

While there is no “knockdown, drag out” proof of God’s existence (although I happen to think some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are very strong), there are all around us, to borrow my friend and colleague Peter Berger’s term, “signals of transcendence.” So strong are they that atheism has to shut its senses to them.


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