Sunday, July 28, 2013

Of atheists and foxholes

One day (but not today you'll be pleased to hear) I shall write my atheist manifesto.  Clause 1 of which will say there's little benefit, and scant prospect of success, in attempting to dissuade someone who believes in god from that belief.

War memorial dedicated to atheists in foxholes
Here I'll just comment on the atheists in foxholes story. It seems a US airforce chaplain has got into hot water for claiming there are none - atheists in foxholes that is. I suppose the hot water flows from the famed separation of church and state mandated by the American constitution [1]. Though this doesn't seem to have inhibited President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he popularised the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes in a 1954 broadcast [2]. But I must get to my point. Simon Singh responded to the airforce chaplain story by tweeting that “no atheists in foxholes” is nonsense, since typically there are foxes in foxholes, and foxes have no organised belief system. But though Singh is a hero of mine, his witticism misses the mark. The proponents of the aphorism (my friend Noel is one, frequently quoting it at me presuming thereby to put a stop to my gallop) mean, I suppose, that when facing an extreme threat, such as soldiers under fire, people habitually seek a divine power. This may be the case, or it may not.   The Freedom From Religion Foundation in the US doesn't believe so, for in the hope that humankind may learn to avoid all war, they have erected a monument in memory of “ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and the countless FREETHINKERS who have served this country with honor and distinction”. [3]

But let us for the sake of argument concede that in a foxhole under fire everyone including me will indeed seek a divine power. The question is, would this be evidence

(a)    for the existence of a divine power? or

(b)    for divine power being a figment of the human imagination, called forth by the stress of living in a frightening world?

How you answer that one will depend on what you believe about god in the first place; which leads me back to clause 1.

[1] The separation phrase doesn't actually appear in the US constitution but has been used repeatedly by the Supreme Court.

[2] Eisenhower broadcast cited in the Wikipedia entry “There are no atheists in foxholes”

[3] A parallel organisation, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers provides a community for atheists, humanists, and other nontheists in the military, and has something to say about atheists in foxholes on its website.