If ever I was foxed it was now


Yet again the tired old phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes”, raises its tired old head and looks around the battlefield and concludes it is the killer blow by the tired old religious army. Once more over the top, hunting bugle blowing, and the atheists will be put to flight, vanquished at last.

PZ Myers has had a go at this latest piece of nonsense too, but it stimulated me, in my present state (somewhat foxed, as Pepys might have it, though I wish my condition was also the result of too much wine), to set down my thoughts on it.

As best I understand the tired old phrase, what our religious friends think it means is something like this: the only reason anyone would want to be religious is because their life had really been mucked up by something they call “god” and therefore they need to ask “god” to stop mucking them around. Atheists are just people who have had it easy, and “god” has not let anything bad happen to them, so they don’t have to ask him to stop, but when it does, in a foxhole, then they do. No, that can’t be right, can it?

Let’s try again. Everyone is born an atheist and continues to be one until something goes wrong, at which point they become religious. Since so many things can go wrong more people are religious than atheist, but the laws of chance eventually catch up (in foxholes) even with atheists and then they become religious too. No, still don’t think I quite get the logic.

OK, how about this. Atheists are like naughty children in school playing up in class while the teacher’s eyes are elsewhere helping the good children, but any moment one of those naughty atheists is going to fall off a desk and hurt himself and then who will go crying to teacher (that’s “god” for those not following the metaphor closely) eh?

Look all of that sounds so silly, even by the very very low standards of theological logic, that I can’t, quite, believe that this is what people mean when they use this phrase yet again. So let me indulge in a little plain speaking. If I have gone through life with the help of many real friends and no imaginary ones, why would I change that pattern, invent an imaginary friend, just because I discover that my old body isn’t functioning quite as well as it did a few years ago? Sure, having intimations of mortality puts a different complexion on how you think about life, the universe, and, well, many things, but it doesn’t put the “fear of god” into you, why would it? And if it hasn’t done it to me after being in two medical foxholes in three years then it sure ain’t going to do it now.

One of my doctors asked me hesitantly the other day if I was “taking any alternative medicines”. I laughed and said “No, I believe in science”. Why would I change that pattern either? Foxed or not I am not about to take up the irrational beliefs of stone age goatherders in preference to the scientific findings of the Enlightenment.

I reckon, if you must know, that foxholes (metaphorical, as well, presumably, as literal) are exactly the places you would expect to find atheists. That if you are faced with real bullets whistling over your head, or metaphorical bullets whistling through your body, what you really need is a good hard clear-eyed grasp on the real world. Imaginary friends are of no more use than imaginary body armour or homeopathy, and to the extent that they stop you making rational decisons based on facts, are actually a great deal less use.

I’m with Thomas Otway – “These are rogues that pretend to be of religion [now they are in a foxhole]! Well, all I say is, honest atheism for my money.” [I made up the foxhole bit].

And real friends.