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“There Are No Atheists in Foxholes”—and Other Examples of Religious Propaganda

‘There Are No Atheists in Foxholes’—and Other Examples of Religious Propaganda

About 10 years ago, I received a phone call from a total stranger—a man named David Williamson, co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community and a major activist for the separation of church and state. He invited me to meet with him for breakfast, noting that we seemed to share a number of values concerning religious liberty and associated topics. 

What triggered his assumption about our shared values was an op-ed I recently published in the Orlando Sentinel, the main newspaper in Central Florida. What I wrote was old-time Seventh-day Adventist teaching and practice—back to the days before large numbers of Adventists started jumping into bed with Christian fundamentalists who clamor for the government to impose fundamentalist morality on everyone through government policy, legislation, and judicial ruling. 

My breakfast with the atheist leader went well. Over the intervening years, I have interacted considerably with him and his wife, Jocelyn, who is the president of the Florida Humanist Association. Through them, and during my nearly 11-year stint as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, I interacted with other atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics—people wearing an array of non-faith labels. I will generally refer to them in this article simply as “non-believers” since they don’t believe in any deity. Those who do believe in a deity or deities, I will refer to as “believers”, whatever their faith tradition might be. 

I would like to share some of the observations I made.  

1. Some non-believers are unmitigated ratbags. 

I want to get this fact onto the table right from the start to avoid having to address it later as a “but what about?” question. Yes, there are scurrilous, boorish, mean-spirited, and otherwise obnoxious non-believers. Of course, the reality is that every subset of humanity has its proverbial saints and its villains. Non-believers are no exception. Nor are Christians. 

So, I hasten to add that there is a large contingent of salt-of-the-earth non-believers just as there is a large contingent of salt-of-the-earth Christians. There are people of nearly every philosophical persuasion who care deeply about their family, their community, their nation, and their world. There are people of almost every stripe who are committed to human health and wellbeing, the environment, and liberty and justice for all. In virtually all ideologies, there are those who seek to live by the Golden Rule, though some non-believers prefer to call it “the principle of reciprocity.”

All I ask is that when we, as people of faith, pontificate about non-believers, we remember Moses’ command to use a consistent, evenhanded method of measurement—no double standards (Deuteronomy 25:13-16). This principle applies whether we are buying and selling commodities or assessing the strengths and weaknesses of specific ideologies. Jesus warned about the pitfalls of judging others—because they inevitably are going to use “the same measure” to judge us in return (Matthew 7:1, 2). 

2. Spoiler alert: There actually ARE atheists in foxholes. 

I break this news because I am certain you have heard the oft repeated cliche I used in the title of this article. Let me assure you, the cliche is wrong.

Some people of faith, out of ignorance, make emphatic and demeaning statements about non-believers. They parrot what they have heard. But others do so because they believe it is their moral/spiritual prerogative—obligation in fact—to discredit non-believers through whatever means available, be they fair or foul. It is an act of one-upmanship: “Our faith is bigger and better and stronger and smarter than your non-faith. So there!” 

But, back to the foxholes. It is true that when the bullets are flying and death seems to hover around the corner, some self-described atheists have cried out to the god they claimed they did not believe in. Such instantaneous (and typically short-lived) realignments do happen though not with anything like the frequency the cliche suggests. After all, if we have “fair weather” Christians, why should we be surprised that other worldviews have their vacillating adherents as well?

Indeed, if we use an evenhanded method of measurement, we must acknowledge that some Christians fail to demonstrate serenity and give tangible evidence that “it is well with my soul” when bombs are falling around them, and bullets are flying at them. They somehow fail to find in that context the “peace that passes all understanding.” The reality is, terrified people, whatever labels they may wear, are prone to behaving in desperate ways that do not keep with their declared values and allegiances.  

Ernest Hemingway describes the Christian version of this phenomenon through a little vignette in his book, In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear Jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

The canard that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is believer propaganda. And propaganda is despicable from whatever source it comes. But propaganda that comes from people of faith against another group of fellow humans is even more despicable than your general, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety propaganda because people of faith claim to abhor lying. And propaganda, by definition, ranges from exaggeration to misrepresentation to bold-faced lies. The ninth commandment inveighs against such behavior. Contrary to widespread opinion, the ends don’t justify the means.

3. Non-believers AREN’T without a moral compass. 

I have heard quite a few believers—both Christian and non-Christian—argue that there is no such thing as morality apart from God. To them, by definition, morality must be based on divine revelation and divine mandate. God says it. I believe it. That settles it. Obviously, if that is the only definition of morality available to us, then non-believers, by definition, have no moral compass. 

But wait. If morality is derived from divine revelation and divine mandate, then how are we to determine moral propriety in the areas where God has not explicitly spoken? Slavery is a classic example. Both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures outline certain dos and don’ts when it comes to the relationship between slave and master, and master and slave. 

In neither set of writings do we encounter a moral mandate calling for the abolition of slavery nor do we find a declaration about slavery’s absolute moral repugnance. Yet, despite the absence of a divine mandate, modern Christians have generally concluded that human bondage is immoral. We have even advocated for laws that impose this moral view on the entire populace. These are not based on divine mandate, but on experience, logic, observation, and other such considerations. 

Those who do not believe in any form of deity have likewise come up with ideas of what is moral and what is immoral. Like Christians in their condemnation of slavery, they have done so based on experience, logic, observation, and other such considerations. 

From the perspective of many non-believers, humans are/should be on a path to greater fairness, greater equity, and a generally improved situation for all. So, the vital questions are: What actions adversely impact such progress? What actions aid and accelerate its advance? Function and result are the crucial criteria. Obviously, we should do what works and avoid what doesn’t. 

A very basic but highly practical moral/ethical test used by many non-believers involves the concept of harm: to whom and in what ways might a specific action cause harm? It would be a worthwhile question for believers to regularly ask as well. 

In the same way that our world’s many faith traditions (and subgroups within faith traditions) have divergent views as to what is and is not moral, non-believers likewise do not have total unanimity about such issues. They are not monolithic. In other words, subjectivity exists whatever one’s view about the presence or absence, involvement, or non-involvement, of deity.

4. Extrinsic and other-worldly rewards are foreign to non-believers. 

I grew up with the words ringing in my head that “we have a heaven to win and a hell to shun.” Being good was not just about the here and now. Being good had major implications for the there and then. Some awesome prizes awaited me if I passed the divine obedience tests. And hell awaited me if I failed too many of them. 

Fortunately, my Adventist upbringing shielded me from the specter of an eternally burning hell. But the issue of hell still had to be considered, especially considering our prophet’s pronouncement that not 1 in 20 Adventists were ready to meet their Maker. And there is still a hell of sorts. There was still burning—it just didn’t last nearly as long. If I ended up in the camp of the lost, I would still be burned alive. The duration of my burning would be directly related to the number and magnitude of my sins. That was hell enough for me.

Most religions utilize some form of extrinsic motivation as an incentive for proper behavior. Typically, such motivation comes in the form of positive enticements and negative threats and punishments. On the positive side, Christianity promises a pathway to heaven and an eternal existence free from evil and pain and death. On the negative side, we have damnation and the eternal pain of hell (or as Adventists teach, a much shorter hell followed by eternal nonexistence.)  A minister friend of mine calls it “moral persuasion via the honey pot and the bludgeon.” If the honeypot doesn’t achieve compliance, it may be necessary to resort to the bludgeon.

For non-believers, there are no extrinsic rewards or punishments meted out by some super being or super force. The famous agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who was in his prime while the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was in its most formative years, said “In nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” In other words, there is cause and effect. Nature, in its broadest sense, simply takes its course. Actions create their own impact, be they good or bad. 

Thus, morally motivated non-believers do not do or refrain from doing certain things because they expect to be handed a magnificent goodie bag somewhere down the track nor because they are seeking to avoid unimaginable punishment. Rather, they do or do not do things because of the inherent impact of their actions: immediate impact as well as long-term impact on themselves, those around them, and on those who will come after them. 

The only reward they seek is whatever reward is inherent in the action itself and the ripples it sends forth. And they have hope that their actions will nudge humanity in a more positive direction. That their commitment will be emulated by those who come after them. That the human race as a whole will have a brighter future because of the efforts they put forth. From their perspective, the only punishment they risk is the natural consequence inherent in ill-advised decisions and behaviors. 

Doing good, simply because it is good—expecting no future reward for having done so, nor seeking to avoid future divine reprisals—is not something to sneer at. It is actually impressive.

5. How can anyone not believe in God? 

Good question. And it baffles many believers. But my non-believing friends contend that all Christians are predominantly atheist-at-heart: we do not believe in any of the multitude of gods that have been lauded in various eras and in various places throughout earth’s recorded history. Why? Because we Christians simply do not find those gods credible—with just one exception, that is. Non-believers agree except they do not find even that one exception credible.   

Back in the latter half of the 1980s when the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . was being written as a commentary on our (then) 27 Fundamental Beliefs, I was serving as the senior editor at the church’s Signs Publishing Company in Australia. When each section of the book was drafted, the draft section was sent out to a large reading committee of denominational administrators, academics, editors, and others inviting their input. I was a member of that big committee. I responded with suggestions from time to time.

One of the drafts contained a strident claim about God’s existence being self-evident, and that no sincere person could fail to recognize that truth. Therefore, non-belief was always a deliberate and rebellious choice. At that point my interaction with non-believers was limited. But, it had been enough to make me cringe at the thought of so totally damning them for their unbelief. After all, the book of Jude (verse 22) says: “Be merciful to those who doubt.” So I responded with a bit of stridency of my own.

As I recall, I proposed the hypothetical situation of a woman whose experience was limited to an atheistic society in which she had resided throughout her life. The education she received since birth had consistently argued against anything supernatural. Furthermore, this hypothetical woman met only a handful of people who claimed to believe in God, and all of them had been totally despicable, self-serving humans. 

To say, in that situation, that such a woman’s failure to believe in the existence of God is a deliberate and rebellious choice totally ignores her real-life experience. The proposed statement, I argued, was judgmental, bigoted, and truly cringeworthy. So much so—and here is where my stridency kicked in—that if that statement were left in the final draft of the book, I would never give the book to anyone! Never! I don’t know if my rant made any impact. I am happy to report that, for whatever reason, the statement did not make it into the finished product.


I am grateful that an atheist took the time to contact me, a preacher, to see if he and I could work together to protect true freedom of religion for all: freedom for me to hold my beliefs without triggering negative repercussions from those who do not share those beliefs; and freedom for him to hold his non-belief without triggering negative repercussions from those who don’t share his non-belief. 

Interacting with non-believers has not pushed me off my path of faith. Nor have they tried to do so. Our friendships have involved considerable disagreement, but in a context of mutual respect. From my perspective, our interaction has proved the truth of the proverb that “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). And that sharpening can happen whatever the belief or non-belief of the interacting parties.

James Coffin, who retired from Adventist denominational employment after nearly 36 years as a youth pastor, senior pastor and editor, has retired once again after a nearly 11-year stint as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash/ Spectrum

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