Foxhole Atheists

It’s Veterans Day and prayer makes the headlines. The old adage about no atheists in foxholes comes to mind as those who fought for the values we hold reminisce about the not-so-happy days before the 1950s when the last semblance of normalcy in American life apparently died. The New Jersey Star-Ledger quotes a World War II veteran who participated at the Battle of Normandy saying “I might have prayed more than I ever prayed before.” No atheists in foxholes. As a lifelong pacifist, I have always believed that war is a terrible waste. 3.5 billion years of evolution and the best we can come up with is to hurl supersonic lead slugs at each other over who gets what and who deserves more than who else. I don’t deny that veterans should be honored – my father was a veteran – but war should not.

A sad truth is that many wars, probably in the history of the modern world, most wars, have been fought for religious reasons. The idea that God demands certain things ultimately leads to fighting over what it is God wants. Both sides often claiming the silent deity is on their side. Millions of mere mortals have had to pay the price. Hey, can’t we just talk about this?

War may very well have evolutionary roots. Studies of chimpanzees suggest that homo sapiens are not the only overly aggressive primates. If we deny our cousins religion, however, only homo sapiens fight for mythological causes. One of the great ironies of life is that the most advanced technology trickles down to civilian life from military applications. If something is new, it must have a tactical use against the enemy. Once the enemy is subdued, we can share the wealth. I grew up hearing about “godless Communists.” I watched in dismay as Bush declared a new crusade. I shudder when I read that Iran is developing long-range missile facilities. God is the midst of all this. Veterans protected us from the human-level wars of a bygone era. In our own homemade Armageddon, however, our own technology will doubtless become the weapons in the hands of an angry God.

If God be for us...

4 thoughts on “Foxhole Atheists

  1. I definitely agree that most wars have been justified using religious reasons. However, I feel like it’s slightly misleading to say that all wars were fought for religious reasons. Certainly, religion plays a significant role in most wars (some more than others). However, I think that political and economic reasons feature just as heavily in the reasons for going to war. It’s also important to consider that many cultures (especially ancient 0nes) fuse religion, politics and economics. Conceptions of separation of church and state were (and in some cases, still are) unheard of. To justify something for economic reasons is the same as justifying it for religious reasons.

    Either way, I am also saddened that religion is so often used to justify violence. So much for it being light in the darkness or a city on a hill.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Davo.

      I agree that it’s a sad state of affairs as well. I also agree that not all wars are fought because of religion. I tell my students to stay clear of qualifiers such as “every” or “all” or “never.” That’s why I wrote that most wars have religious roots in recent times.

      Good point about the fusing of religion and politics in ancient times. That is yet another concept I stress in the classroom.


  2. I love your remark about honoring veterans, but not wars. I think for the individuals at the highest levels, war is about power balance–gaining power or protecting the power of the state, which, to be fair, is their responsibility. Heads of state have long wedded politics and war to religion because that rallies the masses to their causes. There’s an interesting bit about how an Indian prince used religion to rally troops in a biographical book called The Man Who Would Be King: The First American In Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre. The prince, himself, like those who rallied the Muslims against him, couldn’t have cared less about religion. Really enjoying your blog. All the best.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Piper.

      The sad part is that so few serious religious believers see this manipulation taking place. I suppose that is why it is so effective.


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