An Atheist Wary of Foxholes

Question from Michael:
I was raised a Bible Church Christian since birth, but can remember questioning my faith and details about it from a relatively young age. I gave my religion “the old college try” throughout college and young adulthood until my thirties when I finally could no longer justify my belief in something for which I saw no evidence. I have lived as an atheist since that time. However, I often feel that if my life were ever in danger (e.g. I was held at gunpoint) I would break down and pray to God to save me.
I’ve heard of this phenomenon before – “There are no atheists in foxholes!”

My question: Does this mean that I’m not really an atheist? Am I really a believer that is just trying to convince himself that he’s an atheist, but when push comes to shove, his true beliefs are exposed? Or am I the atheist that I believe myself to be, but when confronted with a life threatening situation, I revert to my childhood teachings as a safety net? Your insight would be appreciated. Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
You won’t know until you’re tested, but even if it does happen it may not mean much.

Firstly, there most definitely and literally are atheists in foxholes, as you’ll hear from members of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and similar organisations. There are soldiers who go on active duty, risk their lives, survive by the skin of their teeth, and recall no point during their ordeals when they reached out to a deity they didn’t think they believed in. (A far more accurate statement is that there are no chaplains in foxholes – military keepers of the faith are only dragged into combat in the most dire situations.)

That’s not to say that people who’ve lost their faith never try to pick it up again in tough times. This may have nothing to do with actual belief; as you suggest, when there is no comfort to be found, people think back to times when they felt safe and protected, and many remember the prayers and churches of their youth. Afterwards, they may wonder what the heck they were thinking. Some recent apostates may even pray, or shout for God and Jesus, out of sheer habit.

What you appeal to in your darkest moments is not necessarily what you really believe, it’s just what your brain latches onto when you can’t think straight. It’s no wonder that some non-believers fall back on their early ideas of God as a companion and protector, before they remember that there’s likely no God.

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