"the foxholes" being those of WWII, which was going on when this phrase was popularized. Attributed sometimes to Douglas McArthur, but c.f. "There are no athiests in foxholes", which was said by William T. Cummings.

Interpretation of the phrase varies depending on the speaker, however it is generally used to point out people's inconstancy in their beliefs.

I don't see that praying, as an atheist, in a foxhole, has anything to do with the solidity or constancy of your beliefs. I would think that if I was in a foxhole under fire, I would do absolutely anything that might even conceivably improve my chance of getting my ass out alive. Even if you don't believe there is a God, hedging bets doesn't sound like a bad idea. If there is a God, and She won't listen due to your previous behavior, then either She's a petty God or She simply won't listen, that's all; but faced with death, the chance that maybe She would listen anyway is worth it.

Theists might use this phrase to suggest that atheists aren't sincere in their beliefs. When it's time to face the final curtain, vehement atheists will recant their beliefs and admit that a benevolent deity (or deities) exist...or so goes the line of reasoning. "There are no atheists in foxholes" is usually said with a humorous voice inflection.

Unfortunately for the newly-converted soldiers and the more seasoned theists trapped in such horrible situations, they soon find out that there are no gods in foxholes either.

"'There are no atheists in foxholes' isn't an argument against atheism; it's an argument against foxholes."

                                                                                                                          -- James Morrow



I have quite rightly been admonished by karma debt for simply presenting  this quote verbatim, by itself, in my original write-up.  I have to confess, I did it deliberately to see if I could get away with it; when I first heard the quote it was completely without context, and I was quite taken by the unqualified wit of it.  Still, I duly present for your pleasure what little I have to say about the man and the sentiment...


This quote is originally found in James Morrow's 1994 novel Towing Jehovah - the first part of the Godhead trilogy.  The (quite intriguing) premise of the book is that the two mile long corpse of God is found floating in the Atlantic Ocean, proving simultaneously that God did exist, and that God is dead.  The plot centres around a Vatican-sponsored mission to tow the corpse to the Arctic, and the efforts of a group of atheists to stop them and destroy the corpse.  In the book, Morrow explores what it means to speak of morality in the absence of God.

In the book, the line in question is spoken by Cassie Fowler, the instigator of the atheist plot to cover up the discovery of God.  It was later recalled by Morrow in a 2001 interview where he was asked which of all the lines he has ever written he was most proud of and best encapsulated his world view.  Morrow himself is a humanist, and the bulk of his work is satire aimed at the furthest extremes of both organised religion and hard-line atheism.

Whilst I wouldn't presume to know the thought process that went into Morrow's writing of this line, it seems to centre on the idea that beliefs that are held under duress, or in situations of extreme pressure, are not the kinds of beliefs around which we should centre our worldview.  If someone who has been a lifelong atheist on the basis of reasoned consideration of the evidence available to them decides to start offering up prayers because they're under fire, the likelihood is not that they were misguided during their cool and calm considerations, but that, in a state of panic, they've simply thrown their common sense out the window.

As The Custodian points out, even the atheist might want to hedge their bets and start praying, just on the off chance that someone up there is listening.  But then, of course, there's the question of just which god exactly one should start praying to.  From what I hear, they tend to be a jealous bunch.

The chaplain smiled his smile, and unlike those preceding him, those who bore only sugar-free candies or raspberry Crystal Light, he was handing out cigarettes to go along with his pocket-sized, camouflage-covered bibles.

There were grumbles of astonished delight up and down the long sprawl of bodies and gear. Here, clearly, was a dude who got it.

He danced around the bags and Pelican cases and limbs and sleeping heads, a Marx brothers ballet, finding impossible places to plant his feet to chat. He circulated around the room, unobtrusive.

He made his way down to where I was slouching and said, "Hm, you don't look like one of mine!"

"No, chaplain, I'm not. I'm just trying to catch the same flight."

He smiled and held out a cigarette. I took it with a smile and a "thanks", and he asked "Do you have one of these?" as he held out the tiny little new testament in his other hand.

"Oh, no thanks padre," cigarette tucked behind the ear. Weird vibe from this guy.

"Well, do you have one?" his voice becoming a bit strident. Posturing for an argument, shoulders high, elbows cocked.

"No," flat. Final. Impolite tone to match his impolite probing.

"Well, why not?" The smile returning now. Saccharine smile of a missionary at the door.

"It's not my thing, chaplain," already irritated at the direction this was taking. I need to nip this in the bud.

"Well, I have a torah, too, somewhere if you'd rather that."

"No, no thank you. That's not really my thing," thinking to myself, Maybe he doesn't get it.

"Oh, I think I see now," he said as he put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. He shook his head a little. Condescending sigh.

"There are no atheists in foxholes, son," was the last thing he said before he tucked it into the pack at my feet and walked away.

Oh yeah? Fuck you, too, buddy.

Fun fact: A little sniffing around lead me to learn that he'd never seen a foxhole, or any of "his" in one. He'd never deployed. Actually having experience is crucial to dispensing advice, conviction of faith or not.

My personal pissing contest with a particular chaplain aside, I find that anybody who takes this phrase at face value to be lacking in a certain basic sincerity.

In all of the time I spent fighting a grubby little war in a grubby little place, I never once felt the need to appeal to a higher power, and I know I'm not alone. The smug, half-sheet flyer on the coffee hooch corkboard for the "(placename) Atheist Support Group", the mere existence of which is hilarious from any angle you care to look at it from, point towards similar sentiments from others than I.

Is it so difficult to conceive of a person, who, when placed in a terrible position, does not appeal to a higher power? So outside the realm of possibility for a person to believe only in the outcome of their own rational actions versus those of another? To accept that it was political, not divine will, that sent them into the foxholes in the first pace? That God has no particular plan for the 80mm shells tumbling wildly out of improvised tubes?

If one accepts that God is willing to change the path of a bullet, one must question why God would have set in motion the events that sent the bullet your way in the first place - and that question leads to a long and studied line of philosophical drivel.

In this case, it's like asking someone who's allergic to bees where they prefer to be stung: on the dick, or on the face? A pointless discussion of a microcosm that simply doesn't apply in the first place. They prefer to not be stung at all.

The correct answer to that type of question, supposedly, is Mu.

Will God save me if I pray, whether I'm an atheist or not? Does a dog have the Buddha nature?

"Mu." - retract the question. Its very asking and contemplation requires certain assumptions that cannot be backed.

Or, phrased another way, for the less articulate: Oh yeah? Fuck you, too, buddy.

Now, I've been in the Foxhole. In fact, to be particular about it, I remember having twice or thrice visited an adult entertainment lounge -- ie a strip club -- called "The Foxhole" out in Zanesville Ohio of all places. And, strangely enough, I recall having met some folks there who, I discovered once our discussion waxed philosophical, were indeed atheists. But I'm sure this recounting will be met with stern protestations to the effect that, no, we mean real foxholes. Naturally, and so I promise to restrict my consideration to incidences of atheists in real, honest-to-goodness literal foxholes.

The proposition, really, then requires that we first set down what it means to be an "atheist" -- for there are different schools of thought on this question and it turns out it is vital to the inquiry into this old saw. Some would class all who lack a "religion" as atheists, even the spiritualists who believe in some metaphysical property to our Universe other than a standard-issue theistic puppet-master sort of deity, and even the agnostics who doubt the question to be answerable at all, the ignostics who deny knowing the answer on present information, and the apatheists who simply do not care. But, others would title anyone who simply lacks a theistic faith as a non-theist, saving the appellation of atheist for the ones who harbor an active and forward-pressed belief in the nonexistence of deity, not simple doubt but a certitude that the absence of a god is a fact, possibly even one susceptible to final proof.

And this, this is why I agree that there are no honest-to-goodness literal atheists in honest-to-goodness literal foxholes. For, you see, such a foxhole is, quite obviously, a hole inhabited by a fox. Why else would you call it one? Now, I'm not oblivious to the fact that people in wartime colloquially refer to trenches, bunkers, and other dug-out defenses against incoming fire as "foxholes" but this does not make the hole housing the fox into something else. And, verily, having agreed at the outset to dispose of my Zanesville tale, I must abide by my own restriction and view only the quandary of whether true atheists inhabit true foxholes.

So, it is the fox's own haven which must retain first claim to the title of "foxhole," and anyone familiar with the fox must understand that this Vulpine creature has a home too small for humans to typically crawl into. And putting aside fictional foxes, like the Fantastic Mr. Fox, B'rer Fox, and the Fox who befriended the Hound (which ought not count for any real-world analysis), human experience teaches us that foxes lack the cognitive capacity to consider conundrums such as those orbiting the existence or non-existence of deities. Certainly, no member of the species has the capability of deciding, on the basis of whatever proof presents itself, that there is definitively no such thing as an immensely powerful entity responsible for the creation of our Universe and its current contents. Nor, naturally, can the fox conceive of the possibility that there definitively does exist such an entity, or that the truth lies on any of the points mapped out between these extremes. And if we grant that a human baby or a very small child just might be able to squeeze itself into a foxhole, a person small enough to make that fit would have little more ability to cast any kind of cognizable thought toward ponderings of the metaphysical.

And so, in sum, it must be fairly concluded that foxholes are exclusively occupied by the genetically nontheistic, and not at all by either theists or atheists.

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