No Atheists in Foxholes?

by Fr. Sean Levine

Perhaps you have heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Speaking as one who has spent some time in “foxholes”, I can tell you with certainty that this is not true. As a Chaplain’s Assistant and as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army for close to ten years in various reserve and active duty positions, I have spent time in South Korea and two combat tours in Iraq, and I have to tell you that I have come across my share of atheists as well as a host of other systems of belief and disbelief. There seems to be no end to the variety of religious and non-theistic positions represented in today’s military, and the one thing no one should ever say about any religion, philosophy, or belief systems is this: “You won’t find that in combat once the bullets start to fly.” This is simply not true.


 

That is not to say that people do not care about death and dying. Some do not, but most do, and fear is fear whether you find it in the face of a person with no professed faith, or in the face of a die-hard believer. No one likes the threat of death or dismemberment resulting from the hostile actions of someone who has vowed to kill him or her, but the simple fact is this: Fear of death or of one’s enemy does not always motivate faith in God. Further, the kind of faith that does arise in the face of death may or may not be genuine. What dynamic governs “battlefield belief?” Often it is nothing more than a bargaining chip grasped in response to the immanent threat of death rather than a real encounter with God leading true faith.

 

Generalizations always stand vulnerable to the contradiction of specific exceptions. Surely, some people in combat find a real and lasting belief in God, and there are many stories to prove it. What I want to flat out deny is the validity of the position that “foxholes” naturally and invariably bring people to faith. I say “no,” and this refutes the idea the atheism does not have the strength to stand up under the pressure of combat and possible death. It is insulting and demeaning to a person who claims to be an atheist to suggest that his/her disbelief in God represents a weak position that cannot withstand the rigors of harsh experiences and that all atheists “convert” in combat.


 

More important than this is the fact that many convinced theists walk away from the trauma of combat with a broken faith system and a rejection of their previous belief in God. If the reports of returning soldiers are to be taken seriously, we have to acknowledge that wartime trauma is just as likely to obliterate a person’s belief in God as it is to encourage it. Why is this? In my experience, it has everything to do with unrealistic expectations, a damning dynamic in any serious relationship. People often expect something of their idea of God that they do not find in war; that is to say, God does not behave according to the expectations that many believers hold dear.

 

War brings with it unspeakable death and destruction, and this might be relatively easy to stomach when you read about it in the paper or see short clips on TV. However, when you experience the sights, smells, sounds, tactile sensations, and emotions first hand, it brings the reality into your life with an entirely different, and often very painful, impact. The areas of a person’s brain and personality that govern belief (as opposed to excursive, rational logic) can be invaded by wartime experiences, and this invasive assimilation of the horrors of war can change a person at a very fundamental and uncontrollable level. It is not rational to jump under a table when someone accidentally slams a door, but many veterans do it; the response comes from deep within the neuro-psychological center of the person. It is not rational for a soldier, who has had to kill an enemy, to be bitterly angry at people he used to love; the anger comes from a wound deep within the moral center of the soldier and he/she “acts this out” upon loved ones.

 

At this very deep level, where faith and trust exist and function, war can break things and overload circuits bringing about the damage or entire collapse of the belief system. This is not a rational rejection of faith, but a loss of the ability to trust and believe brought on by the absolute moral sewer into which the warrior is tossed when he or she engages in modern warfare. “How could God allow this to happen to these people, to us, to me?” says many a combat veteran who has experienced the pain and brokenness of war.


 

Far from being some sort of ludicrous, unthinkable response to the world in which we live, atheism responds to one of the most challenging questions ever asked: How can a loving, personal God allow the horror and evil of war? God is either too weak to do anything about it or perfectly capable of stopping it but not compassionate enough to care.

 

It is not my aim to answer such questions, but rather to acknowledge them as valid concerns that emerge with force within the lives of those who deploy into war zones. Not only are there atheists in foxholes, but there are both many atheists who come home from war more firmly convinced than ever before and many believers who emerge from foxholes,when they come out physically alive, as atheists.

 

Belief and combat trauma encounter one another in complex ways resulting in complex effects because every human being responds in a unique and personal way to this encounter. Many people turn to God in a crisis while many others either do not turn to God or actually turn away from God. This raises a myriad of questions that I cannot handle in the brief article, but I hope that I have encouraged a reevaluation of the popular quip “there are no atheists in foxholes” and a deeper consideration of the relationship between combat and faith.


7 Responses to No Atheists in Foxholes?

  1. John Tkachuk says:

    Bravo!

    Fr. Sean, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your “No Atheists in Foxholes?” piece, and am glad that this was the maiden reading on “Wonder” ~ a long over-due site!

    I served 20 years in the USAF Reserve as chaplain, and my 40 years of priestly service have been enjoyable (rather than merely tolerable) due to the presence and company of young people I’ve had the privilege of befriending and pastoring (and being pastored-to by them!).

    All in all, I look forward to returning to this site many times in the future.

    Archpriest John Tkachuk, Major, USAFR (Ret)

  2. Dear Father Sean,

    Thank you so much for your blog article “No Atheists in Foxholes?” It was a very interesting and thought provoking article. It is always great to hear from our Orthodox Chaplains!

    I am retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserves after 20 years of service. I spent 4 years on Active Duty and 16 in the Reserves. I have been stationed all over the USA as well as having served in Kosovo.

    I am the Co-Director of a fairly new Orthodox Military group “St. George Orthodox Military Association.” I invite you to check out our website and learn more about the Association. Our website can be found at: http://www.orthodoxmilitary.org

    We are always looking to make new contacts with our Orthodox Chaplains in the U.S. Armed Services. We are preparing to launch our new Podcast Series on Ancient Faith Radio sometime in March 2010. We would very much like to welcome you in joining or Association if you wish to. We would also like to share your “No Atheists in Foxholes?” piece on or web and Blog site if you’d be willing to let us.

    Thank you so much for your dedicated service to our men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces and for your service as an Orthodox Priest.

    Sincerely yours in Christ,

    Vladimir M. Laven. TSGT., USAFR (Ret)

  3. Dani Greer says:

    One of the more sensitive and sensible articles I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for sharing your views.

  4. Maryann Miller says:

    Wonderful essay and I agree totally. One thing I learned in my CPE training is to respect everyone for where they are.

  5. Ian Shipley says:

    Well done Father. We will never be able to have a meaningful dialog with Atheists if we simply insult them with generalizations that are inaccurate. Honesty and respect has to be the beginning of anything real, your article reflects this in a very pastoral way.

  6. David says:

    I served four years in the active army, and a couple years in the reserves. I am almost done with earning my bachelors degree, planning on going back on active duty immediately afterwards. If you had to label me I guess you could say I am an “atheist” however I do not like labels. What I mean, is that I have many doubts about whether or not there is a god in this world, but I keep an open mind and I really do hope there is one. The thing that has always bothered me though when I start to become interested in learning more about the bible, jesus, etc is that I meet so called “christians” who make generalized statements such as “no atheists in foxholes”(and these people are usually ones who have never served in the military at all). These kind of simple answers is what turns me off to christianity in the first place. I like to actually use critical thinking to be able to come to a conclusion if whether or not I want to accept jesus as my lord and savior, or if I decide that I want to be a buddhist, a muslim, etc. In conclusion, I agree with the writer of this article that if you really want to help someone who is genuinely interested in learning more about your faith, do not put them down, give them answers as if you are saying “duh dummy dont you get it, it’s so simple”, and talk to them as if “your right” and “there wrong” because they do not follow the same beleive system as you do.

    • Fr. Sean A. Levine says:

      Dear David,
      I am hoping that you might return to this site and receive my reply. Many Christians follow Christianity simply because the “brand” of Christianity they have found offers them simple, black and white, “sound-bite”, answers to very complicated questions. The Christian faith then becomes a fortress made of straw; it gives the illusion of safety but it can be burned down in one minute. This is not true Christian faith. As you continue your journey and critically evaluate systems of faith for their inherent merit, remember that Christianity is all about Jesus Christ. It is unfortunate that so many Christians have such a hard time showing Christ to others through their lives. Instead, we often project “viewpoints” and arguments and opinions, and, more often then not, these expressions heap condemnation and shame on others. I urge you to look deeply into the eyes of Christ as seen in Orthodox Iconography. Read the Gospels straight through in large chunks–not as the fodder for rational arguments that so many see, but as stories revealing the character of the person that Christians should be following. Forget about all the “right and wrong” Christians out there and get to know Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels, because being a Christian is really about choosing to live like Jesus. The generalized statements and “bumper sticker” Christianity of which you have grown weary should disgust you, so it is good to hear that such things disinterest you. I would encourage you to consider that both the sound bites and the demeaning posture of many Christians are NOT the standard, and there are many of us who love people enough not to insult their intelligence and to esteem them wherever they may be on the religious landscape. Thanks for your reply to my article. –Sean

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