There are no atheists in foxholes

There are no atheists in foxholes

The statement "There are no atheists in foxholes" is an aphorism used to argue that in times of extreme stress or fear, such as when participating in warfare, all people will believe in or hope for a higher power.[1]



The precise origin of the phrase is uncertain. Various sources credit Lieutenant Colonel William J. Clear[clarification needed - do you mean William J. Cleary ? -], or Lieutenant Colonel William Casey,[2] but the phrase is most often attributed to journalist Ernie Pyle.[3][4][5]

It has also been attributed to U.S. Military Chaplain William T. Cummings in a field sermon during the Battle of Bataan in 1942.


While primarily used to comment on the specific experiences faced by combat soldiers, the aphorism is often adapted to other perilous situations such as "there are no atheists in Probate Court".[6]

While the term is occasionally used to imply that all soldiers in combat are "converted" while under fire, it is most commonly only used to emphasise the belief of the sayer that many people tend to seek out a divine power when they are facing an extreme threat.[1][7]

The quote is also referenced when discussing the opposite effect — that warfare will cause some soldiers to question their existing belief in a God due to the death and violence around them.[8][9][10]

The quote has also been used in non-military contexts. In September 2008, in the depths of the financial crisis of 2007–2010, both Ben Bernanke and Paul Krugman popularized a version of the quote in reference to financial crises. They paraphrased Harvard professor Jeffrey Frankel, who originally wrote in the Cato Journal a year earlier, "They say 'there are no atheists in foxholes.' Perhaps, then, there are also no libertarians in crises."[11]

This sentence is also quoted in the Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers.

Notable counterexamples

A number of prominent individuals have been both atheists and combat veterans. During the coverage of his death and subsequent cryonic suspension, Baseball Hall of Famer and combat fighter pilot Ted Williams was reported to be an atheist by his former teammate Johnny Pesky.[12][13] Richard Tillman, in giving the eulogy for his brother, former NFL player and soldier Pat Tillman, stated that Tillman "wasn't religious.".[14] Tillman's atheism is also confirmed in a documentary about his life.[15] In his 1988 book "Intellectuals," Paul Johnson states that writer and World War I veteran[16] Ernest Hemingway "not only did not believe in God but regarded organized religion as a menace to human happiness."[17] Philip Paulson, plaintiff in several of the lawsuits in the Mount Soledad cross controversy, was an atheist Vietnam combat veteran.[18]

Joe Simpson, author of the book Touching The Void, explicitly addresses the issue in the film adaptation of his nearly fatal climb of the Siula Grande mountain. Referring to the moment he lay at the bottom of a deep crevasse, dehydrated, alone and with a broken leg, he states: '"I was totally convinced I was on my own, that no one was coming to get me. I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I'd long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn round and say a few Hail Marys and say 'Get me out of here'. It never once occurred to me. It meant that I really don't believe and I really do think that when you die, you die, that's it, there's no afterlife." [19]

The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, an atheist organization, opposes the use of this phrase. They have adopted the catchphrase of "Atheists in Foxholes" to emphasize that the original statement is just an aphorism and not a statistical fact. The religious convictions of current U.S. military personnel are similar to that of the general American population, though studies suggest members of the military are slightly less religious.[20] This organization maintains a list of over 200 of its members who choose to publicly show their service and to show that there are atheists in foxholes, on ships, and in planes.[21]

James Morrow has been quoted as saying "'There are no atheists in foxholes' isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes."[22]


The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin, based organization, has erected a monument to "Atheists in Foxholes" because of its opposition to the statement of "no atheists in foxholes." The monument reads:

"In memory of ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and the countless FREETHINKERS who have served this country with honor and distinction. Presented by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation with hope that in the future humankind may learn to avoid all war.”[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b Thomas J. Reese, S.J. (May 31, 2007). "No Atheists in Fox Holes". Washington Post Company. 
  2. ^ Cummins, Henry. "Spiritual Point". British Humanist Association. Retrieved 2008-11-27. [dead link]
  3. ^ "Oops! He Did It Again! Brokaw Repeats Canard, "There Are No Atheists In Foxholes" During NBC Evening News". Flashline (American Atheists). 2003-03-12. Retrieved 2008-11-27. 
  4. ^ Johnson, Chip. "GI turns to Islam to find God."] San Francisco Chronicle. Monday, March 6, 2006. Accessed Nov-22-2009.
  5. ^ Books & Culture Weblog: Content & Context - Books & Culture, Christianity Today
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ "Report on Chaplains." Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Accessed Nov-22-2009.
  8. ^ Resnicoff, Arnold E. (June 28, 2004). "On becoming our own worst enemy". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  9. ^ Allen, Joshua. There Are No Atheists in Foxholes. Rhode Island Monthly. April 2007 issue.
  10. ^ "Religion: Atheists & Foxholes". Time Magazine. Monday, Jun. 18, 1945.,9171,775935,00.html. 
  11. ^ Frankel, Jeffrey (Spring/Summer 2007). "Responding to Crises". Cato Journal (Cato Institute) 27 (2). Retrieved 2009-12-17. 
  12. ^ Sports Illustrated: Williams' body moved to cryonic warehouse in Arizona
  13. ^ South Coast Today: No ones talks about Ted Williams' atheism
  14. ^ An American Tragedy, Part 3 - Death of an American Ideal
  15. ^ The Tillman Story
  16. ^ Ernest Hemingway Biography WWI
  17. ^ Google Books: "Intellectuals" by Paul Johnson, p. 144
  18. ^ LA Times: Philip Paulson Obituary, Oct. 28, 2006
  19. ^
  20. ^ 21% of U.S. Military atheist or non-religious, Source: "America's Military Population." by David R. Segal and Mady Wech Segal. Population Reference Bureau, 2004. page 25.
  21. ^ MAAF Atheists in Foxholes List
  22. ^ Justice, Faith L. (3 December 2001). "Interview: James Morrow". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  23. ^ Atheists in Foxholes Monument

External links

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