I was watching Christopher Hitchens being interviewed By Charlie Rose on Bloomberg the other day. Hitchens had recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and the prognosis was not good (British understatement). The conversation turned to an assumption that Hitchens’, author of ‘God is not Great’ and renowned atheist, may be reconsidering his position vis à vis God on the basis that there are no atheists in foxholes.
Hitchens refuted not that only that he was reconsidering his position, but also the premise that there are no atheists in foxholes. He asserted that this was a sentiment spread by religious people about atheists, suggesting atheists automatically sought refuge in the loving arms of the Lord when normal life is interrupted by the scary and potentially fatal consequences of unpleasant bombshells raining down
out of the sky. (He didn’t actually say ‘loving arms of the Lord’ but you get the gist of it.)
This got me thinking about whose foxhole I would prefer to occupy in the event that I should be caught out under an incoming artillery barrage. Presumably extreme fundamentalists (of whatever flavor) would not dig a foxhole - unless expressly commanded to by God – instead they would rely on God’s mercy and wisdom. If God wills it, they will survive, if God wills that they don’t survive then a foxhole isn’t going to be much help is it? And digging a foxhole could be construed as a lack of faith in God’s plan (previous caveat still in force).
As religious faith, or any other kind, is more of a matter of degree than an on/off binary situation there ought to be a progressive continuum of the quality of foxholes prepared by those about to receive the artillery barrage. It would therefore seem apparent that the atheist’s foxhole would be the one to go for. Lacking a belief in the protective power of a benevolent God, surely the atheist, ceteris paribus, will construct the most effective shelter against protect against the impending danger. But then I saw the flaw in my logic. Where is the evidence that a lack of faith in God guarantees a personal belief in one’s ability to influence one’s own destiny through one’s own choices and actions?
The foxhole you want to be in is the one prepared by the person who has the most faith, not in God, but in their own ability to take responsibility for, and safeguard, his/her own life. The absence of faith in a personal God, a guardian angel, a particularly potent crystal, or the bullet proof tattoo one got whilst stoned in Nepal during one’s gap year, is no guarantee that an individual prudently protects their own safety or well-being. I know of no evidence to suggest that atheists are more rational in their day to day decisions regarding their ongoing personal survival. So far as I am aware atheists are as prone to drug use (I include cigarettes and alcohol) as any others, with Muslims in my experience being about as unlikely to drink as Christians are to commit adultery – although to be fair to Muslims I am unaware of any Islamic sects incorporating adultery into communal worship.
The significant difference between atheists and ‘the faithful’ is not in their behavior, but in how they choose to rationalize it. The same could be said for the differences between Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Confucianists. When it comes to whose foxhole you want to be in, I would recommend the one dug by the person who believes the most in their ability to influence the course of their own destiny, with the final caveat that they dug it for themselves and they are in no way shape of form suicidal, or harboring any self destructive thoughts, There is nothing to say that this person could not be an atheist, but there is precious little evidence to suggest that they would be.
On a personal note I invite you to join me in sending a message of support to Chris and his family, in the hope that his ‘foxhole’ sees him through. I have enjoyed many a dinner soaking in Chris’s words as he lay on the table, pages pinned back by inverted forks, and for purely selfish reasons I would like Chris to stick around and write many more. So light a candle, raise a glass or sacrifice a pair of pure white oxen, which ever takes your fancy; should you choose to say a prayer, please spare a thought for all those in control groups, past present and future, in trials being conducted into the efficacy of prayer as a healing tool.