Ask Ivor

Kent asks about the saying about atheists and foxholes.

William Cummings, in a sermon he delivered during World War II on the Bataan peninsula (across the bay from Manila), said, "There are no atheists in the foxholes." The apparent meaning of this comment was that the U.S. and Filipino troops, enduring the Japanese offensive of 1942, were receptive to all forms of assistance, even divine.

Subsequently, the phrase has been repeated, in a general sense, to imply that atheism is a luxury that cannot be afforded during emergencies—that atheists break down and embrace the existence of God during times of crisis.

Negative attitudes toward atheists is nothing new. Francis Bacon, in the 17th century, implied that atheists were shallow minded when he wrote that "a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." In the 4th century B.C., Plato accused atheists of naivety: "Not one of them who took up in his youth with this opinion that there are no gods, ever continued until old age faithful to his conviction." And King David, 3000 years ago, claimed that "the fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The term David used, nabal, means a person both stupid and wicked.

Are atheists intellectually and/or morally deficient? Not necessarily.

There are various types of atheists (theoretical, practical, implicit, explicit, critical, absolute, agnostic, and so on), and atheism, in one form or another, has been around since ancient history.

For example, the Chou dynasty in China, which stretched from the 12th or 11th century until the 3rd century B.C., saw the withering away of the traditional belief in Shang Ti—"the Lord on High" (and father of the ten suns and the twelve moons)—and in various lesser deities and spirits, and the ascendancy of the belief that humans and their virtues, not spirits and their whims, controlled the affairs and destiny of man. Shang Ti became the impersonal T'ien ("Heaven"), and the lesser spirits became tools, rather than masters. The philosophical schools that flourished during this period were Yin-Yang, Moism, Taoism, and Confucianism. These philosophies focused upon humans (either individually or in society) and they did not concern themselves with questions about deity. K'ung Fu-tzu (Confucius), when asked about God, said: "I prefer not to speak." For him, the priority was elsewhere: "Virtue is to love men. And wisdom is to understand men."

At the same time that K'ung was making his impression on China (6th and 5th centuries B.C.), India was witnessing the rise of two new religions that rejected the traditional Vedic gods.

Vardhama Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, had no use for the Indian gods: he taught that the highest beings are perfected humans, occupying the blissful summit of the cosmos. That state of perfection was attained through meditation and non-violence.

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, also had no use for divinity: questions about the existence of God were "questions which tended not to edification."

Also at this time in India arose the materialistic lokayata system of philosophy, which not only rejected the gods as mythical, but even abandoned the idea that the human soul had any existence apart from the body. Morality was only a social agreement, and life was simply a mixture of pain and pleasure. The lokayata system flourished for about 400 years.

In the 4th century B.C., in Greece, Epicurus also taught that the soul does not survive death. He admitted the existence of gods, but claimed that they felt neither anger nor love toward humans. Epicurus' intention was to free people from religious fears.

Also at this time, Pyrrho of Elis, founder of the school of Skepticism, proclaimed that ultimate reality was unknowable and inconsequential.

In the 1st century B.C. Lucretius, a follower of the Epicurean school, asserted that the gods were incapable of intervening in human affairs. Lucretius wrote: "Religion is crushed beneath our feet."

The modern strand of atheism is usually said to have begun in the 19th century with Ludwig Feuerbach. He argued that God was nothing more than a projection of man's own nature: "Man first sees his nature as if outside of himself before he finds it in himself. His own nature is in the first instance contemplated by him as that of another being"; religious belief was actually "nothing else than the consciousness of the infinity of the consciousness." In short, Feuerbach was suggesting that God was made in man's image, not man in God's.

Frederich Engels and Karl Marx adopted Feuerbach's atheistic philosophy, but also criticized it: they complained that Feuerbach had only succeeded in explaining the alienation and contradictoriness of society, but what was needed was to reform society. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Marx viewed religion as an "opiate of the people" that was helping keep them economically exploited. Marx substituted faith in God with faith in humanity: "Human self-consciousness [is] the highest deity. No other may stand beside it."

Like Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche also rejected belief in God. He saw Christianity as "the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion... the one immortal blemish of mankind." But Nietzsche departed from Marx in that he had no sympathy for "secular religions" like socialism, humanism and egalitarianism—their concept of universal brotherhood he regarded as an escape from the responsibility of existence. For Nietzsche, man's duty was to achieve individual transcendence, to reject the "herd instinct" of "slave morality," and to become an Overman, a man of will and power and dominance, master of his own destiny and beholden to no social laws. Nietzsche regarded humility and selflessness and morality as the tools of the weak to debase the strong and the free. He campaigned against resignation and failure and despair, and championed fulfillment in this life, not another: "Remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!" Like Feuerbach, Nietzsche saw God as a fabrication of man's alienation, as an ideal of perfection created by humans because they felt incapable of achieving that perfection themselves.

In 1933, a group of 34 "humanists" in the United States drafted the Humanist Manifesto, a document defining and expressing a philosophy that has come to be known as "secular humanism." Among other things, the Manifesto asserted that humans were a result of natural evolution, that there was no supernatural reality and no afterlife, and that man would continue to develop, looking within himself and to the natural world for the solution to all his problems. In conclusion, the Manifesto stated: "We consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate.... Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement."

In 1973 a second document, Humanist Manifesto II, was drafted. The secular humanists admitted that in the intervening forty years civilization had experienced more decline than development, but far from giving up, they called for "bold and daring measures," and "dedicated clear-minded men and women able to marshal the will, intelligence, and cooperative skills for shaping a desirable future."

Manifesto II spoke at length on various subjects: ideology, ethics, reason, individuality, sex, freedom, equality, transnational government, technology, and so on. Concerning religion and morality, it essentially repeated the positions of the first document: "We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfillment of the human race.... We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species.... Humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.... Science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.... There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.... Moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction.... Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures.... We strive for the good life, here and now."

There are a multitude of responses and criticisms that can be and have been made to atheism, but it should not be overlooked that one component of modern atheism is its reaction to Christianity, and modern atheists often have good reasons for their opposition to religion.

Feuerbach, for instance, abandoned a church that was allying itself with a repressive government (Francis I's, of Austria); Marx criticized a church that was siding with owners against workers; Nietzsche rejected a church that stifled individuality; and secular humanists have no use for a church that so often breeds narrowmindedness, bigotry, hypocrisy, idolatry, negativity, and so forth.

As Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, said: "Show the world a real, living, self-sacrificing, hard working, toiling, triumphing Christianity, and the world will be influenced by it; but anything short of that, they will turn around and spit upon."