Believers are fond of saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” as though this statement somehow proved the existence of a god. And not just a god, but their god.
I’m not here to attack anyone’s traditions. The best of societies, in my view, is an open one that allows room for all manner of beliefs — or lack thereof — as long as they’re expressed, rather than imposed. But I do want to point out that the absence of “atheists in foxholes” does not, logically or otherwise, prove the existence of a deity.
To begin with, there are atheists in foxholes, and there's no basis for stating otherwise. (You can’t start with a premise like that and fail to provide evidence for it; since it’s impossible to prove a negative in a case like this, so you’re behind the 8-ball from the get-go.) Millions of people have sacrificed their lives for their principles, and the refusal to compromise those principles under threat of death isn’t exclusively religious. If it were, every soldier tortured would turn traitor rather than die for his or her country. No one would ever give his or her life for anything.
But say, for the sake of argument, that the premise is valid. Let’s assume that, in the face of death, every single atheist will, in fact, call out to some deity in the hope of deliverance. If that were so, would it prove the existence of a god?
Hardly. The mere fact that you want something is no proof that it exists: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. No, if such an impulse is evidence of anything, it’s that human beings (like other organisms) have a fierce will to survive, and that, in extreme circumstances, they’ll go to extreme lengths to do so.
Darwin’s monkey wrench
If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the nursemaid of hope. It’s not religion that impels us to contemplate actions at the far edge of possibility, it is — perhaps ironically — the very Darwinian struggle to survive. (Isn’t it just like that Darwin to throw a monkey wrench into the grinding gears of dogma?)
The impulse that drives foxhole conversions, when they do occur, is the same one that spurs the destitute to spend money on a lottery ticket, even in the face of ten million-to-one odds. It’s the reason a cancer patient might pay thousands of dollars for a snake-oil remedy on the slim hope that something, anything, might ward off the inevitable.
With everything at stake and nothing left to lose, what can it hurt? When all else fails, throw that Hail Mary. It's natural, it's human, and it has nothing at all to do with religion.
Proof of human desperation is no proof of any god. It’s merely proof that well-meaning people will sometimes enter into contracts under duress. Those contracts, however, are never binding to either party. They won’t hold up in a court of law, and the argument that they somehow prove the existence of a deity won’t hold up in a logical argument.
You can take that to the bank. Or the foxhole.
Author’s note: This essay is presented, not as a critique of a specific belief system, but of fallacious argument used in the defense of any belief system. For more on this subject, see Requiem for a Phantom God (2012).