There are no atheists in foxholes

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"There are no atheists in foxholes" is an aphorism used to suggest that times of extreme stress or fear can prompt belief in a higher power.[1] In the context of actual warfare, such a sudden change in belief has been called a foxhole conversion. The logic of the argument is also used to argue for the opposite.


The statement is an aphorism used to argue that people will believe in, or hope for, a higher power in times of fear or stress, such as during war ("in foxholes").[1] The origin of the quotation is uncertain.[2] The 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, and in Karl Marx's often-misrepresented[note 1] partial quote that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".[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".[citation needed] 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.


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.[17] The religious convictions of current US military personnel are similar to those of the general American population, though studies suggest that members of the military are slightly less religious.[18] Department of Defense (DoD) 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%).[19] Author James Morrow said: "That maxim, 'There are no atheists in foxholes,' it's not an argument against atheism — it's an argument against foxholes."[20] In 2015, describing the phrase as a "tired, old, untrue cliché", the Freedom From Religion Foundation erected a monument to "Atheists in Foxholes", commemorating American atheist, agnostic, freethinking and skeptical US armed services veterans.[21]

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."[22]


  1. ^ Karl Marx's quote is only quoted in part as the interpretation of the metaphor in its context has received much less attention.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Reese, Thomas J. (May 31, 2007). "No Atheists in Fox Holes". Washington Post Company. Archived from the original on June 8, 2009.
  2. ^ a b "Discussion on Linguist List". Archived from the original on 17 June 2008. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  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. ^ "Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina". Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  10. ^ Down in the drink: true stories of the Goldfish Club, Ralph Barker 1955
  11. ^ McKinnon, Andrew M. (2005). "Reading 'Opium of the People': Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion". Critical Sociology. 31 (1–2): 15–38. doi:10.1163/1569163053084360. hdl:2164/3074. S2CID 143119316.
  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. Archived from the original on September 19, 2010.
  16. ^ Frankel, Jeffrey (Spring–Summer 2007). "Responding to Crises" (PDF). Cato Journal. Cato Institute. 27 (2). Retrieved 2009-12-17.
  17. ^ "Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers". Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  18. ^ 21% of US military atheist or non-religious, Source: "America's Military Population". by David R. Segal and Mady Wech Segal. Population Reference Bureau, 2004. page 25 Archived 2011-07-27 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^, Military Religious Demographics Survey
  20. ^ December 2001, Faith L. Justice Issue: 3 (2001-12-03). "Interview: James Morrow". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 2021-10-16.
  21. ^ Seering, Lauryn. "FFRF unveils 'Atheists in Foxholes' monument at new headquarters - Freedom From Religion Foundation". Retrieved 2021-10-16.
  22. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Touching the Void atheism". Retrieved 8 April 2019.

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