Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

No Atheists in Foxholes?

I came across this article reference while reading a 1946 Master’s thesis on the effect War has on religious and moral beliefs, and I fell in love.

The Power of this tendency to create myths has recently been demonstrated in the famous assurance that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. As near as the origin of this formula can be traced, it was first uttered by Lieutenant Colonel Warren J Clear in a story of Bataan’s final weeks, delivered during the “Army Hour” program over the NBC Red Network in 1942. Colonel Clear attributed the immortal observation to an unnamed sergeant who had shared a foxhole with him during a Japanese bombing raid. No pretense was made that there had been an official catechism of every man or that the sergeant was a trained theologian. It was simply meant to be an emphatic way of saying that all men in the moment of peril seek the support of religion.

Whether they do or do not is as much a question as whether it is creditable to religion to claim that they do, but neither question was widely agitated. For the populace the rhetorical flourish was a military fact, and for the papers it was news, however frequently repeated. At first it was only the foxholes of Bataan that were distinguished for their conversional powers, but as the war spread the manna was found in any sheltering declivity, and the trenches of Port Moresby and Guadalcanal delivered their quotas of converts.

There was no reason why divine favor should be confined to the infantry, and other branches of the services were soon touched with similar grace. By December 1943, according to an article in the Reader’s Digest, atheists had been pretty well cleaned out of cockpits (where God, it will be remembered, had been retained in the inferior position of the co-pilot); and Rickenbacker’s celestial sea gull drove them even from rubber rafts. A few skeptics may have gone on lurking in the glory holes of the merchant marine, but their enlightenment merely waited for the first torpedo.

There were, of course, dissenting voices. Poon Lim, a Chinese steward, who existed for one hundred and thirty-three days alone on a raft in the South Atlantic, stated, on being rescued, that nothing in the experience had led him to believe in a merciful Providence, Even though he too had had a sea gull. But then, he was a heathen to begin with.

The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism felt that the phrase was a reflection on the patriotism of their members and did their best to refute it. They managed to find at least one sturdy doubter in the Army who had his dog tag stamped “Atheist,” but, unfortunately, though he had once been run over by a tank, he had never been in a foxhole, and hence could not technically qualify. A better candidate, whom the A.A.A.A. overlooked, was E.J. Kahn, Jr. who in one of his articles in the New Yorker confessed that he was not a religious man and in another that he had dived into a latrine trench when Jap planes were overhead. Of course, an unbeliever in a latrine is not exactly an Atheist in a foxhole, but the faithful would probably have been willing to accept it as a reasonable facsimile.

— Evans, Bergen. “Don’t Believe All You Hear,” The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 71-72, April 1946.

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