Are There Really No Atheists in Foxholes?

It’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. While this isn’t technically true—a group called The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers even keeps a roster of them—new research suggests that inducing fear of death at least makes atheists a little less entrenched in their beliefs.

The research, now in press at The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, was conducted by Jonathan Jong and collaborators at the University of Otago in New Zealand. In their first study, they asked subjects to write about what will happen to them when they die, or what happens when they watch TV. Then they used a Supernatural Belief Scale (SBS), asking subjects if they believe in things like God and heaven.

If you say there are no atheists in foxholes, you’d probably guess that reminders of death (such as one might have in battle) would increase SBS scores (thus decreasing atheism). If you disagree with the aphorism, you’d probably guess that a death reminder would have no effect. The results, however, did not match either expectation. Compared to writing about TV, writing about death increased SBS scores among religious participants but decreased SBS scores among nonreligious participants. So maybe we should say there are no agnostics in foxholes?

The researchers explained their results using what’s called Terror Management Theory (TMT). According to this set of hypotheses, reminders of death lead us to defend our cultural worldviews because the more we feel valued within a stable worldview the more we feel like part of something larger that will transcend our own deaths. Theism and atheism are just two of many worldviews, and so, ironically, affirming one’s atheistic worldview that there’s no afterlife appears to reduce anxiety about the end of this life.

But in the first study, subjects were asked about their supernatural beliefs explicitly, where answering a certain way can act as a defense mechanism. There might be another, more buried, part of atheists that begins to let in the idea of God. To find out, in the second study the researchers used a type of Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure such subtle superstition.

Subjects once again wrote about death or TV. Then they took an IAT requiring quick categorization of words. Reaction times indicate implicit associations between different types of words (in this case, synonyms for real; synonyms for imaginary; and words for supernatural entities, e.g., God, soul, Hell). Two main effects emerged. First, religious subjects showed a stronger association between the supernatural words and the reality words than nonreligious subjects did, indicating a stronger belief in the supernatural. (No surprise there.) And second, a reminder of death increased this association in both religious and nonreligious subjects. What’s more, thoughts of death increased implicit belief in supernatural entities just as much in skeptics as it did in the faithful.

A third study supported these results. Subjects wrote about death or TV, then categorized 20 nouns as real or imaginary as quickly as possible. The nouns included 10 religious words such as God, angel, heaven, and miracles. Religious subjects of course tended to categorize these words as real, and nonreligious subjects on average called them imaginary. But while a death reminder strengthened religious subjects’ implicit belief in religious concepts (by shortening their response times), it weakened the disbelief of the nonreligious (by slowing them down). According to the researchers, “Supernatural agents and related concepts might offer a unique buffer against death-related anxiety that tempts—albeit does not fully convince—the non-believer.”

I asked Jason Torpy, the president of The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, for comment on the research. “People would be better served by seeking comfort in reality,” he said. “Fantasy-based coping can only delay the inevitable reckoning with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.” Perhaps, but some evidence indicates that a little bit of magical thinking can actually increase post-traumatic growth and decrease existential angst.

In any case, while atheists might not pray to God in the heat of battle, it seems likely that they’ll sense the shadow of this imaginary wingman anyway. Sometimes reality is not as comforting as it could be.

2 thoughts on “Are There Really No Atheists in Foxholes?

  1. Well, it’s still not clear if there are atheists in foxholes but the more interesting question is, are there atheists watching TV? After all, staring at the boob tube is tantamount to being brain dead isn’t it?

  2. I think this isn’t about getting down to the truth. It’s a trick question which causes a person to assume that because many people agree with something, even when they say they don’t, then it must be true; “see…there IS a god, even atheists secretly agree!” This is a psychological trick. An abstraction. If you interview 100 children and ask them if they believe in Santa Claus what will be the results? It depends whether they have caught “mommy kissing him” yet or if they saw daddy putting presents under the tree. Just because someone is a self proclaimed “atheist” doesn’t mean they know. I would say most people are closet agnostics and if you gave them a shot of “truth serum” or put them into a hypnotic trance or gave them a lie detector test, it would be self evident. They would register as agnostic. Because no one knows. Everyone in prison is “innocent” if you ask them. And from their point of view, they aren’t lying. They acted in self defense. And the atheist suffers just as much from their fear of the unknown as the true believer. No one knows. So they make up false idols to worship …and scapegoats to sacrifice and witches to burn. Some images to save them from their pain, others to blame for it. But how many atheists or agnostics do you see committing mass murder? Everyone at Jonestown was a “true believer”. They poisoned their own children. So I would argue that were not asking the right questions here. It doesn’t matter what people believe when they are in fear. That’s the worst time to ask questions about truth because we’re not actually using our brain. We’re really asking the amygdala to answer. Which is like asking your dog what 12 x 24 is. It can’t answer because it can’t even understand the question. Good discussion and debate topic. But the right question was not asked in the experiment. And certainly not to the adult part of the brain. It feels like they were looking to prove a point. And they did. Just not the one they intended.

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