There Are No Theists in Foxholes

David Cowles

Feb 14, 2022

“There are no theists in foxholes,” at least not according to ‘conventional wisdom’. After all, even Dostoevsky had a death bed conversion! So, in this rare case, it turns out that conventional is, in general, correct.

Or was he correct! I do not think it is correct any longer. Why not? What changed?

“There are no theists in foxholes,” at least not according to ‘conventional wisdom’. After all, even Dostoevsky had a death bed conversion! So, in this rare case, it turns out that conventional is, in general, correct.


Or was he correct! I do not think it is correct any longer. Why not? What changed?


Prior to the late-20th century, most Westerners (Europe & the Americas) had strong religious upbringings. Or if they didn’t, their friends did! I’m not talking about the casual nod to ‘spirituality’ or ‘the force’ that passes for religion today. I’m talking about a set of beliefs and practices that permeated every corner of a young person’s life.


While few of us were saints, none of us challenged the basic tenets of our faith. To us, they were as self-evident as the sunrise. And they came neatly packaged in their own language.

I’m not talking about the ritual languages of Hebrew, Arabic and Latin. I’m talking about the rituals themselves, rituals marking life’s stages: Baptism/Circumcision, Ba-Mitzva/Confirmation, Marriage, and Death. I’m taking about the weekly (e.g., Sabbath) and yearly observances (e.g., Easter) that polka-dot each year’s calendar. I’m talking about daily prayer: both morning & evening, grace before meals, scripture reading or even the rosary at night.


In my old neighborhood, the bells of the local Catholic churches (3 within walking distance of my house) rang out The Angelus, a Christian ‘call to prayer’, at 6AM, Noon & 6PM daily; and almost everyone stopped whatever they were doing in acknowledgement.


I’m guessing that for most of us at that time, when push came to shove, these fundamental habits and beliefs would have trumped the lessons in philosophy and science that we learned later in life. Therefore, no atheists in foxholes!


Not so today! For most of us, religion is no longer part of our existential core. We do not hold firm theological beliefs. We barely celebrate the ‘rites of passage’ and, for the most part, we ignore the annual, monthly, weekly, daily rituals…or we pay lip service to them.


In their place, we have interiorized the assumptions and methods of science, the ethics of acquisition and consumption, and the language (most any modern Indo-European language will do) of subjects & objects (i.e., rulers & ruled, employers & employees, predators & victims, bourgeoisie & proletariat, etc.). Collectively, these habits of mind are now part of our existential core.


Now, when push comes to shove and we crawl back into our core, it is science, not religion, that takes over. So today, for better or for worse, we may say, “There are no theists in foxholes!”

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