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Of Atheists and Foxholes

07 January 2013, 11:05

“There are no atheists in foxholes”…

This little gem is often trotted out by Christians during heated arguments with atheists as if it is some silver bullet which ends all debate.

 However, what does this statement actually imply?

I am afraid of dying, therefore, to believe in a god, will ensure my continued survival in the face of impending death.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that this is the sole basis to anyone’s belief in god/s but I do believe that this fear of mortality, is a strong motivator for many believers. This need for eternal life.

But why do we have this fear/need?

The human is the only creature in the animal kingdom that is intellectually aware of its own mortality. This is in direct conflict with our ingrained survival instinct. We are “programmed” to survive at any cost. On one hand, we know we are going to die, on the other we have an overwhelming urge to survive. In psychological terms, this creates what is called cognitive dissonance in our minds.

Cognitive dissonance theory posits that people seek consonance between their expectations of what is real (e.g. we live forever) and reality (e.g. we all die).  Cognitive dissonance creates the feeling of imbalance, anxiety, dread, guilt, frustration etc. within the human mind. Thus the human mind needs to reduce this dissonance and achieves this by either reducing the importance of one of the dissonant elements OR by altering existing cognitions (e.g. we do not die after all).

The only possible way we can intellectually accept that we do not die, is to hold the belief that when we do pass away, a part of us will live forever. This concept is the only commonality held by all religions which have existed since the beginning of recorded history… from the African and North American Indian belief in ancestral spirits watching over us, the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, to the Abrahamic religions’ belief in a heaven and eternal bliss. Belief in an afterlife is an essential element for any persons’ religious beliefs. Without an afterlife, there would be no purpose in worshipping any god i.e. even if a god did exist, to worship it would be a futile exercise if there is no reward in it for us.

So as a Christian, the next time you feel the urge to quote “There are no atheists in foxholes”, bear in mind that what you are actually doing, is confirming the atheists’ belief that the only reason you are religious, is because you are afraid of death.

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