I’ve been thinking (again) about what truth the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” might hold. I know what it’s like to believe in God and I know what it was like to gradually dismiss this belief. There were points in my life where a version of this phrase could have been applied to my experience, but those versions didn’t include the word “atheist”--they applied to a pre-atheist label.
Maybe it's There are no lapsed Christians in foxholes.
For a long while I identified as Christian without any intention of attending church. I believed Jesus was a good example to live by and still entertained the idea of the resurrection. In retrospect, it’s an odd state to be in to only kind of believe Biblical miracles. They are so outside the realm of our experience that I’d think belief in them should be all or nothing; either have complete faith in your indoctrination or soberly dismiss magic in a nonmagical world.
During this time I met the periodic hardships of life and, occasionally, prayed. It was a half admission of helplessness from someone who was too stubborn to be helpless. My “foxholes” came in the form of untreatable pain whether it be personal injuries that medicine couldn’t treat fast enough or, more often, my Christian Scientist mother hurting and unwilling to use medication in the first place. I was further disillusioned by the lack of results from my prayer. I could see this stage in my life lasting longer or even re-upping my Christianity if my prayers were coincidentally answered or I was less aware of probability. Luckily, I knew what confirmation bias was before I knew what it was called. Instead, I dropped the Christian label and moved on to a non-committal religious opinion.
Or how about There are no agnostics in foxholes.
It can be argued that we are all agnostics in that none of us know whether or not a god exists, but it’s clear that some of us think we know. Commonly, agnostics admit that they don’t know and are even unsure of their own belief one way or the other. In that way, I can see the agnostics trying prayer during “foxhole” moments. At this point in my life I really had no expectation that prayer would work, and I don’t recall ever praying as an agnostic, but I also had a “why not” and a “it couldn’t hurt” attitude toward other people praying. If Pascal’s Wager ever had an application, it would be for an agnostic in a dire situation, but to cover his or her bases, he or she should pray to every possible God.
Which brings us back to atheism. What truth does the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” hold? Not much. The gut reaction for the uninitiated to agree with the line is a misunderstanding of terms. The dismissal of gods in a society that largely believes in them isn’t an emotional decision, it’s an intellectual one. Likewise it will take an intellectual enterprise to alter that decision, the emotional fear of the unknown need not apply.
Disclaimer: Of course, I can’t speak for all atheists. I can imagine, for instance, that self-proclaimed atheists with little reason behind their atheism outside of a rebellion against their theistic parents may be moved to alter their beliefs by emotional stress. To theists I can only say that you are considerably less qualified to speak for atheists than I and to claim “there are no atheists in foxholes” is to universally do just that.