“There are no atheists in foxholes.” This meme has been persistent, but we know for sure that it’s not true. There are many organizations for service atheists, including the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. We’ve seen examples in the media of atheists who died serving their country. There have been many legal battles over the role of chaplains. For anyone who cares to look, there’s ample evidence that there are lots of non-believers who remain that way after combat.1
Even so, I’ve been wondering about “foxhole conversions.” Are there a lot of examples of atheists turning a new leaf and spontaneously coming to Jesus during combat? I did a Google search for “foxhole conversion” and came up with a surprisingly low number of hits – 2,660. After scanning the first several pages, I discarded most of the entries since they were just blogs on the subject, not first-hand accounts. The most prominent examples I found hardly seemed like real conversions. Take this one as an example:
Sitting down on the grass in front of him, I asked what was wrong,” Cash writes in the book, recalling a few life-changing moments spent with Guthrie…
It’s just what I’ve done in my life. All I can think about is that I’ve just been through the worst experience of my life, and yet, God protected me through it all. But why did He do it? How could He do it after all the things—the bad things—I’ve done? I don’t know what else to say, what else to feel. I’m just so sorry.’
Surrounded by 20 Marines, Cash, 33, led the young soldier to Christ. (LINK)
Does that sound much like a conversion to you? Or does it sound like someone who already believed in a God? To my ears, Guthrie knew exactly which god he was talking about, was emotionally overcome in a moment of stress, and wanted relief. So he said a prayer he believed would work.
I’m sure this story is compelling to believers, but to a non-believer, it’s not very exciting. Why should we be surprised when someone who has already been indoctrinated into religion turns over a new leaf under stress? It seems like there are precious few stories of genuine foxhole conversions where dyed in the wool skeptics and atheists suddenly experienced unmistakable miracles and became believers. In fact, I can’t find any. If you think you know of one please point me to it, but ask yourself first – is this a real atheist or someone who just wandered away from church for a while?
What’s that you say, Mr. Theist? Did I just commit one of the classic blunders? Did I resort to a No True Scotsman? I just let myself explain away any foxhole conversion by saying the fellow wasn’t a “True Atheist,” right? No. In fact, I’m sure there are a few genuine conversions out there, and it wouldn’t bother me if there were hundreds or thousands. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t happen. What I’m suggesting is that for a conversion to fit the theist’s definition of a “true conversion,” it would need to be someone who genuinely did not believe in God. Christians have other words for people who return to the faith after “backsliding” or “doubting their faith.” They call it “recommitment” or something similar.
Christians are generally very happy to tell us about atheists who convert. They’re still bringing up Antony Flew, even though he plainly said he did not convert to Christianity, but rather a form of deism. So it’s a surprise that the internet isn’t ablaze with stories of foxhole conversions – that is, if such things happen with any regularity.
We could leave things here, but something else is bothering me. Let’s assume that there are a few foxhole conversions out there. Should we just chalk them up to subjective experience, or is there something more important we can say about them? I suggest that the circumstances are a big deal, and we shouldn’t just gloss over them. According to the spirit of the idiom, a foxhole conversion is a highly stressful situation where death is imminent. The non-believer realizes the error of his ways and cries out to Jesus in the moment of his greatest and most immediate need. I suppose we can also include moments of post-traumatic stress after a near-death experience as well.
The important thing is that these conversions happen in moments of extreme stress and urgency. And what do we know about people’s actions in such situations? Science tells us that the symptoms of emotional and mental stress include the following: generally emotional, nervous, hostile, anxious, forgetful, exercising poor judgment, fuzzy perception, confusion, lack of clear thought. Almost by its very definition, extreme stress is one of the worst times to be making important decisions. The body is turning off the mechanisms for higher thought, which is slower than reflex, and taking us back to our animal instincts. Fight or flight. Survive or die.
Sometimes, these moments of extreme stress can cause a lifetime of dysfunction and mental stress. They can permanently change our ability to think rationally or to separate ourselves from our emotions. There’s a reason so many veterans are on permanent disability even though they are physically capable of working.
In short, I can’t think of anything compelling about the statement that there are no atheists in foxholes. In the first place, there are plenty of them. In the second place, most of the “conversions” seem to be stories of backslidden or apathetic believers, not genuine atheists. More importantly, in the rare cases of serious atheists who change their minds under extreme stress, it’s hard to think of any good reason to trust their decisions.
1I’ve often wondered what happened to the many Russian troops who died in combat during the Stalin Regime. Do Christians suppose that Jesus himself came down to reveal himself to each and every atheist in that army?