The phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” is not without controversy. (In fact, one Soldier even went so far as to file an official complaint because an officer used the “discriminatory” phrase.) The old saying, whose origin is unknown, isn’t meant as a moral conclusion or a statement of fitness. It simply characterizes the belief that in extreme situations and faced with mortal danger, many people are open to the concept of some form of higher power.
There are certainly examples of the opposite truth. A New Hampshire publication recounts the recent award of a medal to a World War II veteran. Milton “Chris” Christian, an 84-year old vet, was presented with a Bronze Star for his service 60 years ago. In the article, he says
“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.”
(Contrast Christian’s beliefs with those of Garrett, another WWII veteran.)
The military is made up of men and women of all belief systems, and men and women in the US military sometimes adopt other belief systems, just as they do in the civilian society from which they are drawn. Mortal combat makes men neither religious nor a-religious, but it certainly brings the larger questions of life to the forefront of discussion, regardless what their beliefs may be.
Still, the sentiment about there being “no atheists in foxholes” isn’t completely without basis. “Near death” experiences in civilian tragedies also stereotypically “bring people to God,” giving credence to the thought that those faced with the possibility of death at least consider the existence of something outside of themselves. Stories abound about military Soldiers seeing the ‘greater power’ in a deadly or near-deadly encounter. Take, for example, the story of US Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan T. Mathison, as recounted in the New York Times.
During a foot patrol, Mathison stepped on a pressure plate designed to detonate an IED. The pressure plate ignited the firing charge, but the bomb itself failed to explode, resulting in only a small puff and a few small rocks blown into the air. As the investigation revealed the size and scope of the weapon (it would likely have killed the majority of their team had it worked), the Marines had the stereotypical (and “offensive”) reaction:
“Well, Matty,” said Lance Corporal Hickson, his voice rising. “You might want to stop drinking, stop cussing.”
Lance Cpl. Jacob M. Ohl, 19, interrupted. “Hickson was reading the Bible last night,” he said. “Been to church three times in his life, and last night he was reading the Bible.”
“I saved you,” Lance Corporal [Calvin] Hickson said.
“If this really was an IED, then you ain’t drinking with me,” [Mathinson] said. “Because I’m done drinking. I’m going back to the way I was before I joined the Corps.”
Not dying–when everything indicates they should have–made these men muse, even jokingly, about the existence of some higher power.
There may be atheists in foxholes. Somehow, though, it’s unlikely Lance Cpl Mathison is one of them.