‘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. The precise origin of the phrase is uncertain.
While primarily used to comment on the specific experiences faced by combat soldiers, the statement is often adapted to other perilous situations such as ‘there are no atheists in Probate Court.’
The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, an atheist organization, opposes the use of this phrase. The 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.
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.
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.’