There are no atheists in foxholes

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The statement "There are no atheists in foxholes" is an aphorism used to argue that in times of extreme stress or fear, such as during war ("in foxholes"), all people will believe in, or hope for, a higher power (and there are therefore no atheists).[1]


The origin of the quotation is uncertain.[2] U. S. Military Chaplain William Thomas Cummings may have said it in a field sermon during the Battle of Bataan in 1942,[3] though scholars have been unable to find a firsthand witness to the sermon.[4] [5]Other sources credit Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Clear (or the anonymous sergeant he spoke with there), who was also at Bataan and published the usage in 1942;[6] or Lieutenant Colonel William Casey. The phrase is often attributed to war correspondent Ernie Pyle;[7][8][9][10] however, no such source published prior to Pyle's death is known. It was also quoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in remarks broadcast from the White House as part of a February 7, 1954, American Legion Program. With slightly different wording, the statement appears much earlier in press reports dating from the end of the First World War, while a similar concept has been sought in Plato's Laws.[2]


While primarily used to comment on the experiences of combat soldiers, the aphorism has been adapted to other perilous situations, as in "There are no atheists in Probate court".[11] Although the adage occasionally means that all soldiers in combat are "converted" under fire, it is most often used to express the belief of the speaker that all people seek a divine power when they are facing an extreme threat.[1][12] The quote is also referenced when discussing the opposite effect — that warfare causes some soldiers to question their existing belief in God due to the death and violence around them.[13][14][15]

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."[16] The sentence is also quoted in the Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers.[clarification needed]

Notable counterexamples[edit]

During the news coverage of his death and subsequent cryonic suspension, Hall of Fame baseball player and fighter pilot Ted Williams was said to be an atheist, by his former teammate Johnny Pesky.[17][18] Richard Tillman, in giving the eulogy for his brother, former NFL player and soldier Pat Tillman, stated: "he's not religious."[19] Tillman's atheism is discussed in a documentary about his life.[20][21] Philip Paulson, plaintiff in several of the lawsuits in the Mount Soledad cross controversy, was an atheist Vietnam combat veteran.[22]

Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, addresses the issue in the film adaptation of his nearly fatal climb up the Siula Grande mountain. Referring to the moment when 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."[23]

Several atheist organizations object to the phrase. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers has adopted the catch-phrase "Atheists in Foxholes" to emphasize that the original statement is just an aphorism and not a fact. The over 200 members of this organization publicly display their military service in order to show that there are atheists in foxholes, and on ships, and in planes.[24] The religious convictions of current U.S. military personnel are similar to those of the general American population, though studies suggest that members of the military are slightly less religious.[25] Department of Defense demographics show that "Atheist" is selected as a religious preference (0.55% or less than 1 percent of the total DoD force) more than non-Christian options such as Agnostic (0.12%), Hindu (0.07%), Buddhist (0.38%), Muslim (0.24%), and Jewish (0.33%).[26] 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," as the mental state, or decisions, of an extremely frightened and desperate person can hardly be imagined to be more rational than those of a person in a calm state.[27] Due to its opposition to the phrase, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has erected a monument to "Atheists in Foxholes".[28]


Recent research on the relationship between death anxiety and religious belief have found that strong atheists and strong religious believers both share low levels of death anxiety, but that moderately religious and irreligious people experience higher levels of death anxiety.[29] A study by Oxford University psychologists also suggests that faith in the explanatory and revealing power of science increases in the face of stress or anxiety.[30]

To empirically examine the question, "Are there atheists in foxholes?" Cornell University behavioral economist, Brian Wansink examined 949 post-combat surveys of World War II American infantrymen and observed that these soldiers' reliance on prayer rose from 42% to 72% as the battle intensified. To test the lasting impact of combat on religious behavior, a follow-up survey was conducted 50 years later with a different sample of veterans from all branches of service. The second study showed that 50 years later, many soldiers still exhibited religious behavior, but it varied by their war experience. Soldiers who faced heavy combat (vs. no combat) attended church 21% more often if they claimed their war experience was negative, but those who claimed their experience was positive attended 26% less often. The more a combat veteran disliked the war, the more religious they were 50 years later.[31]


  1. ^ a b Thomas J. Reese, S.J. (May 31, 2007). "No Atheists in Fox Holes". Washington Post Company. 
  2. ^ a b Discussion on Linguist List
  3. ^ "I Saw the Fall of the Philippines", Carlos Peña Romulo
  4. ^ Crosby, Donald F. (1994). Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II.  Page 26
  5. ^ Page 2 of Fulton Sheen's Wartime Prayerbook
  6. ^ "The Heroic Defense of the Philippines", reprinted in Reader's Digest, July 1942
  7. ^ "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. 
  8. ^ Johnson, Chip. "GI turns to Islam to find God." San Francisco Chronicle. Monday, March 6, 2006. Accessed Nov-22-2009.
  9. ^ Books & Culture Weblog: Content & Context - Books & Culture, Christianity Today
  10. ^ Down in the drink: true stories of the Goldfish Club, Ralph Barker 1955
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "Report on Chaplains." Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Accessed Nov-22-2009.
  13. ^ Resnicoff, Arnold E. (June 28, 2004). "On becoming our own worst enemy". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  14. ^ Allen, Joshua. There Are No Atheists in Foxholes. Rhode Island Monthly. April 2007 issue.
  15. ^ "Religion: Atheists & Foxholes". Time Magazine. June 18, 1945. 
  16. ^ Frankel, Jeffrey (Spring–Summer 2007). "Responding to Crises" (PDF). Cato Journal. Cato Institute. 27 (2). Retrieved 2009-12-17. 
  17. ^ Sports Illustrated: Williams' body moved to cryonic warehouse in Arizona
  18. ^ South Coast Today: No ones talks about Ted Williams' atheism
  19. ^ An American Tragedy, Part 3 - Death of an American Ideal
  20. ^ The Tillman Story
  21. ^ "Intellectuals" by Paul Johnson, p. 144
  22. ^ LA Times: Philip Paulson Obituary, Oct. 28, 2006
  23. ^
  24. ^ MAAF Atheists in Foxholes List
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Military Religious Demographics Survey
  27. ^ Justice, Faith L. (3 December 2001). "Interview: James Morrow". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  28. ^ Atheists in Foxholes Monument
  29. ^ [2]
  30. ^ [3]
  31. ^ Wansink, Brian and Craig S. Wansink (2013), “Are There Atheists in Foxholes? Combat Intensity and Religious Behavior,” Journal of Religion and Health, 52:3 (Sept), 768-779

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