Sunday, September 28, 2008

On foxholes and prisons

The first time I heard the phrase, 'there are no atheists in foxholes' was also the first time I'd ever heard the world 'foxhole'. Unaware of its military meaning, I was intrigued by this aphorism-cum-koan and found my thoughts turning to fables of foxes or documentary-style canine 'fun facts'.

Turns out, of course, that the underlying message here is 'there's nothing like getting shot at to put the fear of God into you'.

Atheists, particularly atheist veterans, get understandably livid by this sentence, which is among other things an affront to their service and sacrifice. I've always thought, though, that we can appreciate the trite sentiment for what it is: valuable insight into the theist mind.

"There are no atheists in foxholes." When people are safe and comfortable in their lives, they have no need to pretend there is a god. Only when they fear for their lives do they develop a need for a supreme deity. Theism: the ultimate act of desperation.

This above is not what I believe, mind you: I know it's wrong on both sides (there are atheists in foxholes and theists out of them). It is, as I see it, the underlying message of that particular canard.

And whereas it is usually presented as a triumphal 'aha!' in the face of atheists, it seems to me to carry nothing but a sad message for theism. It's the equivalent of saying 'there are no non-cannibals in a plane crash': even if that were true, it's hardly an advertisement for cannibalism, is it?

Having said that, though, there is an increasing tendency for some atheists to scream bloody murder regarding the foxhole sentiment, and then to turn around and retaliate with 'there are no atheists in prisons'.

How that particular canard works is that you quote some dubious statistic saying that while 85% of the general population believes in God, fully 98% of the prison population does. (I've just made up those statistics on the spot, of course, but you need to quote percentages if you're making an atheist argument and you need to defiantly avoid percentages if you're making a theistic argument.)

You should then not elaborate much on the stat, merely casually throwing it on the table for the perusal of others, hoping they'll understand the rather subtle implication that clearly atheists are shining examples of the goodness of humanity, whereas god-fearin' people are unstable criminals.

I exaggerate the point, but apart from considering the crazed extent to which chaplains are allowed to roam prisons engaging in extreme missionary work, I'm bothered by the assumption because it's as much of an 'ad hominem' attack on theism as the foxhole slander is on atheism. Even if it were true that, in society at large, atheists committed fewer crimes than theists, it would really tell us nothing useful about atheism or theism, because the argument that not believing in God makes you less likely to commit crimes is as patently absurd as the argument that believing in God does.

If anything, it might merely tell us that people of a criminal temperament are perhaps less likely to engage in existential thought, and in the USA (where I believe the statistics originate) there is a general tendency for people to 'default' to theism (specifically Christianity) if they've never given it much thought. All in all, not much of an argument, really.

There are plenty of great arguments to be made in the existential battle. These two are not among them, though.

No comments: