Are Foxhole Atheists Really Seeking a Cure? June 4, 2012

Are Foxhole Atheists Really Seeking a Cure?

In a recent HuffPo article, science writer Matthew Hutson reports on three studies suggesting that fear of death will inspire atheists to believe in the supernatural. At least that’s the gist of the argument Hutson makes. (To his credit, he cites an online listing of over 200 atheists in foxholes, showing that atheism can survive combat.)

Hutson cites studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology which indicate that atheists will more strongly defend their atheism when presented directly with concepts of death and dying. However, when presented with more implicit or hidden associations with death and dying, the responses changed and atheists became more accepting of supernatural concepts. A third study seemed to confirm the result that reminders of death will increase belief. It required respondents to categorize a list of 20 concepts as real or supernatural (ie, god, sun, etc). This third study showed a decreased response time (ie, increased belief) for atheists after being primed with death/dying ideas.

While the studies themselves aren’t necessarily related to the military, the author titled the article “Are There Really No Atheists in Foxholes?” and referenced an article promoting magical thinking for post-traumatic stress disorder. So I felt a military perspective was needed.

Seek enlightenment? or is ignorance bliss?

So what we have here are seemingly reputable scientific studies and conclusions that anxiety about death increases belief in the supernatural. A few atheists seemed to reject the studies as fraudulent or at least prejudiced in principle. The canard about atheists in foxholes is something often tossed out not as a comment on reality but as an insult. It’s not surprising there would at least be an initial visceral reaction against such attempts to move that insult into reality. In at least these few studies, the results don’t seem to be in our favor, but that should not affect how we examine the results. We might present contrary anecdotes to start (such as the list of atheists in foxholes), research with contrary outcomes, alternate interpretations, or we might <gasp> accept an inconvenient fact and explore appropriate responses to the data.

When asked for a quote for the article, I chose to take the study at face value and suggested a way to appropriately respond to the study, if true: “People would be better served by seeking comfort in reality. Fantasy-based coping can only delay the inevitable reckoning with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.'” What this means is that if it is the case that reminders of death increase acceptance of supernatural ideas, that does not change the scientific and philosophical evidence against supernatural things like the afterlife, god, angels, heaven, or reincarnation. It would be irresponsible to take a study like this to mean that we should simply lie to those with anxiety even if it will make them feel better.

One is more than enough.

The medical community has a term for this — the placebo effect. It basically says that a treatment or pill with no active medical purpose may work purely because the patient thinks it will work. To be clear, the placebo effect is not some mind-over-matter magic and won’t cure cancer, bacterial infections, or other physical ailments. However, perceived anxiety and pain (and the resulting physical consequences) can show significant reductions. The medical community considers it unethical to present a placebo without patient approval, but the standards are easy to meet. The physician may present a placebo treatment as safe but plead ignorance about its effectiveness. The Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants concludes its ethical quandary on placebos saying, “A placebo — used honestly, openly, and with respect for patient autonomy — may be one of our therapeutic tools.” The American Medical Association provides an opinion on placebo, warning, “the use of a placebo without the patient’s knowledge may undermine trust, compromise the patient-physician relationship, and result in medical harm to the patient.” The directives appear to include the requirement to warn the patient that a placebo may be used and to secure the patient’s consent. After the initial warning, the patient need not be told exactly which treatment is a placebo or exactly when it is being given.

These new studies suggest that those facing death may be more open to supernatural ideas, at least subconsciously. The implication is that this openness should be used in psychological treatment. The military already rightfully provides for the free exercise of religion and that includes chaplain-led religious services coordinated in the context of both unit morale programs and psychological treatment. However, these studies do not affirm or deny the utility of the stronger belief in the supernatural, just that people have an unconscious tendency toward the supernatural in times of trouble. Michael Shermer has written extensively on this effect in books like Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain. This is, however, entirely different than suggesting that those beliefs should be encouraged. The author cited a New York Times article that covered the apparent benefits of “magical thinking”.

If the proponents of these studies are willing to concede that this openness is not to real supernatural ideas, but actually to “magical” thinking and fantasy ideas with no connection to reality, then we may be able to have an intelligent discussion about the placebo effect and how it may be increased by promoting belief in the supernatural among service members or other patients. We will also have to have a hard discussion about the downsides of promoting supernatural thoughts. In the military, would “magical thinking” decrease reliance on combat training, increase risk-taking, or increase belief-based divisions in units? These are all realistic and troubling potential outcomes for a military that promotes a supernatural world view. Reality may require a longer road to recovery, but shortcuts may have unintended consequences.

In discussions promoting “belief” over “atheism,” the specific belief is often left extremely vague. The hard question of which types of beliefs will enjoy promotion is left for the chaplains or other administrators to decide. The most troubling outcome of promoting supernatural modes of coping with the world would be opening the door to proselytism. Evangelists the world over are already convinced that people are more receptive to religious ideas when they are in dire straits. Those who lack food, water, plumbing, or a safe government are unsurprisingly open to any help offered, even when one’s soul is the payment for accepting help. Who can blame them? Should those anxious about death also be targeted for conversion?

These studies indicate that atheists are more open to supernatural beliefs when faced with death. If these studies stand scrutiny, the outcome says only that people are more open to supernatural concepts in the moment. It certainly does not study efficacy of imposing beliefs or advocating for changes in belief. The studies do not compare Protestant Christianity with belief in Chakras or healing crystals. Most importantly, the studies say nothing about permanent, conscious changes in belief. An atheist scared momentarily by death is no more Christian than a Christian angry at God for suffering and bad design in the world. The momentary unconscious feelings in these studies are a long way from justification for clinical treatments or personal life changes.

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  • That phrase is almost as insulting and degrading as “I’ll pray for you”.

  • judith sanders

    Where is the study on people who lose their faith as a result of their military experiences?   I was in the Army 1981-92, and saw a fair number of people either drift away from their faith or outright dump it.  You don’t have to be shot at or see grisly sights for this change to take place, either.  Sometimes all it takes is being away from that Bible-thumping group back home for a few weeks and learning to rely on yourself  and the members of your unit.  It’s probably hard to keep up that dialogue in your head when there’s a lot of running and yelling going on.
        As for “reminders of death” increasing acceptance of the supernatural, that might be true.  We’re all so marinated in the sentimental, romantic stuff associated with death in our culture that cues may lead us to indulge in a bit of fantasy about the afterlife.  However, without going into my own experiences, I’ll just say that when the possibility of death is real and immediate, you’re not thinking about the afterlife, or much of anything else.  Some combo of animal instincts and training might be enough to save you, or it might not.

  • king_damond01

    I was enlisted from 2004-2010. It was quite the opposite for me. I was a chrisitan with a lot of doubt before I deployed, I came back an agnostic. Later I became an atheist. The thought of people trying to kill me in the name of their god didn’t sit well with me. They all worship the same god. So that pretty much killed any faith I had left.

  • Really good article, Jason!  I wonder what number of these 200 foxhole atheists (using the term as shorthand here) were brought up in a secular household and how many lost their faith. Maybe that journey or lack thereof makes a difference. I am an Atheist and was raised in a secular home. When I was confronted by death, supernatural ideas never entered my thoughts. I thought of and mourned for my life during near-death experiences, but there was never an “after” to think about for me.

  • The study results don’t strike me as particularly unreasonable. Humans have a very strong survival instinct, and we’re also extremely capable at creating scenarios in our minds for possible future events (something that few, if any, other animals can do). Put those together, and it’s hardly surprising that imagining our own deaths- especially when we’re in a situation where that seems imminent-  would mess with the way our mental processing system works.

    To me, this work just bolsters other studies that suggest certain spiritual feelings and openness to the supernatural are consequences of our brain wiring. That doesn’t mean we have to accept it, though. Racism is a consequence of our brain wiring, and the more enlightened of us are able to draw on reason to largely put that aside. Likewise for many other things.

  • Fsq

    Let’s not be so quick to dismiss this as “junk science” or bad data just because we disagree with it.

    Also, even at best, if this is true, it only shows that humans as a species have a propensity to irrational behavior or belief when placed under stress. In no way does this erode our atheism, in fact, if looked at in a certain light, it actually helps prove our point and views via the scientific method:

    If we find the CAUSE for irrational belief, we have the starting point for proving the idiocy of belief. In no way does this diminsih our side of the fence.

    And, again, why is it EVERY group, be it religous idiots, or namby-pamby atheists, wants to discredit studies conducted in the proper fashion as “junk science” simply because we don’t like the results. That is as reprenhensible on our side of the fence as on the other.

  • Ellie

    I went through clinical death after a car accident and was in hospital for two years after that, going through many critical conditions. If it strengthened anything, it was my firm disbelief in any form of supernatural. No, no tunnels, no OOBE, none of that.  And I hope I’ll never be informed about any placebo possibility in my treatment – I am a seriosly ill person, I’ve got a set of three weeks worth of tests and trials set in hospital starting on 18th, actually – because that would be a disaster. What I *believe* in is the chemicals working in my body. If an AP told me about any, *any* placebo possibility, I’d get paranoid and think everything might be sugar pills and saline solution => no treatment at all. Wouldn’t that present a possibility of a decline in my condition? It might, as much of my problems are chronic pain in various parts of my body, which can change along the ups and downs of mental state. Also, after all these years I can judge the dose of typical analgesics given to me by the reaction of my body quite well, to a point where I can tell what I’m given. Soooo… nope, thank you. Just real meds for this one. Oh, no prayers, too. I’ve read a study concluding that people informed of prayers set in their intention actually got worse. You pesky believers, tsk-tsk, scheming to finish the poor atheist off… 😉

  • TheG

    Add me to the group of “Atheists Created In Foxholes”.  The recent report of the Secular Club at the Air Force Academy doesn’t begin to describe the evangelical atmosphere at the Academies.  I went in a fundamentalist; I came out an atheist.

    I, too, would like to see a companion study on the military increasing non-belief.

  • mikespeir

    I don’t see why this should be controversial.  Of course, I don’t want to die.  I say I don’t want to live forever, either, but I suspect that if I knew I were facing death I’d be scratching for another five minutes.  And then another five, and so on.  So, sure, I’d like there to be life after death.  The problem is, I simply can’t see any good reason to believe there is.  So I can’t believe there is, no matter how I grunt, groan, grit my teeth, or squeeze my eyes tightly shut, or chant in the affirmative.  I simply can’t believe it.

  • Mdwelch27

    I would point out the emotional factor.  I think that atheism is built more on rationalism than emotionalism.  Anything, such as the fear of death, that moves the scale towrd emotionalism, could have a statistical impact on atheism.  I would also argue that such impact is temporary at best.

  • Kodie

    Some other people already summed up what I was going to say. If death is an imminent possibility, I think anyone would react with some sort of, perhaps fleeting, contemplation for people they will miss who will also miss them in their lives, or worry about whether you’ve been good enough, if your life had made enough difference. This is how we all “live” after dying, it’s not a question “am I good enough to get into heaven,” or “god, pick me, save me, I don’t want to go yet.” However, if you cross your fingers, wish, etc., that you don’t die right then, you could call that a momentary lapse of atheism, and then it passes. It’s a last resort strong desire to survive that has no effect either way. Are the bullets or bombs aimed toward you controlled by your personal preference that they miss? Of course not.

    When you are in a position to kiss your own ass good-bye, and you have this so-called foxhole conversion, I mean, I think what the phrase assumes you will be automatically praying to Jesus instead of something else. Even if that always happened, that would not make it true! I call to “Jesus” if I stub my toe, of course, because that’s the most culturally available to me.  I think even if I were about to die, or feared that I could, an actual perception of Jesus would be so far from my mind. I’ve been in 2 situations where I could have died, and my adrenaline kicked in to save me and I never stopped to say “hey” to Jesus. I thought soldiers were supposed to train to focus on the problem at hand, not freak out under pressure. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, since they’re also humans in an unusually pressured situation… probably where PTSD comes from, suppressing the automatic reaction to it for sustained durations. How does faith work out with PTSD? Did your faith save you in that foxhole only to be plagued by horrible memories? Did your faith encourage you to counsel your PTSD with more faith, that all you need is god to help you through it?

    When they get these soldiers out of the foxhole, alive yet, how do they count how many were actually saved by converting or having a religious belief? What you think and believe, no matter where you are or what situations you see when you come to believe it doesn’t make it true. That’s pretty much it. At the end of the day, “no atheists in foxholes,” however much you study it, brings no evidence or proof or confirmation of a supernatural being.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    Even if the premise that people become more likely to believe in the supernatural the closer that death is to them is accepted, that doesn’t make the supernatural any more real.

  • I just read the HuffPo article, the last line says it all. “Sometimes reality is not as comforting as it could be.” Really? what a surprise! Reality is not supposed to be comforting. That is not its job. Sometimes reality can be astonishingly beautiful, sometimes it can be horrific and quite often it is exceedingly humdrum; in reality, reality is all of these things and so much more all at the same time all of the time. 

    The view that reality should be comforting is a reflection of the view religious people have that humans are the purpose of creation. They think they are the center of reality, not a by-product of it.

    As Mark Twain said, “The world owes you nothing, it was here first.”

  • I forgot to include my favorite George Bernard Shaw quote as well:

    “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.” 

  • Dan

    This research doesn’t really surprise me, I remember Luke Galen talking about similar research on religious people in the podcast Reasonable Doubts. Basically it showed that Christians who where exposed to death concepts had an increased tendency toward magical thinking, at least in the short term.

    One hypothesis for why some people were more religious than others is that they were more swayed by worry about death. I’d be really interested in seeing a comparison between atheists and religious people and see if the increase in magical thinking when exposed to death concepts is similar between the two groups, or if atheists show less increase in magical thinking in those specific situations.

  • I don’t think there is anything particularly challenging about these studies. I have no delusions of being immune to cognitive bias, and this strikes me as just  another study exploring such bias. We could bandy polemic interpretations about, but that doesn’t strike me as the most interesting angle.

    I do think the analogy to placebo effects may be a bit strained, but it’s an interesting angle.

  • LutherW

    We will also have to have a hard discussion about the downsides of
    promoting supernatural thoughts. In the military, would “magical
    thinking” decrease reliance on combat training, increase risk-taking, or increase belief-based divisions in units?

    Let alone when such “magical thinking” leads to reliance and expense for things that do not work, such as Star Wars. How about a rain dance to hamper an enemy attack!

  • We’re not just outright dismissing it.
     We might present contrary anecdotes to start (such as the list of atheists in foxholes), research with contrary outcomes, alternate interpretations, or we might accept an inconvenient fact and explore appropriate responses to the data.
    I’m sure that if I had a near-death experience, I would probably be more open to religious ideas. Still, we have to argue against what we know theists will say; that these moments of uncertainty prove that deep down, atheists know there’s a god.

  • Death is something everyone has to deal with, but no one can ever understand. No one has ever come back to explain what happens after we die, so people make up stories about people coming back to life and what happens after death to make them feel better. It’s instinctual for us to avoid death at all costs, so death becomes terrifying.
    Also, no one can ever comprehend nonexistence. Even if I think of not existing, I still picture myself thinking about not existing. It’s just natural for the mind to picture itself continuing on after the body dies.
    It’s natural to believe in some sort of life after death, even if it doesn’t really exist. I can reason it away, but in a near-death experience, emotion and instinct will take hold much more than rationality will. It does not surprise me that there are moments when atheists believe in the supernatural. But these moments pass because atheists know that emotions aren’t proof of anything.

  • Jeff Xenobuilder

    I know beyond any doubt that a cock roach can’t hurt me.  The other night one ran across the floor right at me, and the first thing I did when I saw it coming was to jump out of the way like it was a charging rhinoceros.  Then I had to hurry to catch and kill it before it got away.

    Our minds play tricks on us all the time, so what’s the point?  Didn’t we already know this?  Or was the point suppose to be, “Our mind plays tricks on us, therefore god?”

  • Fsq

    Having an “oh shit” moment does not mean we feel there is a god. That is the fly in the religous apologists argument. Just because we are hard wired to go into some mental state during high stress does not equal Jesus.

  • I agree, all the study shows is is a momentary hesitation. There is nothing surprising about atheists, when confronted with the idea of death,  to think for a moment “i’d like to continue living, I’d like to not lose my friends and loved ones” before returning to the conclusion that that isn’t going to happen.

    My mother died of cancer two years ago. During the eight months between her diagnosis and her death I often wished that she had never gotten cancer, that she would get better and that she wouldn’t die. I lamented the fact that she died when she should have had many more years of life. But never once did I pray and I have never since thought that I would ever see her again in any fashion. 

     I don’t really want to live forever but, considering all there is to learn and see, I definitely want to live a hell of a lot longer than I am going to. Personally, I think it would be very cool to go to a planet where life is just beginning and spend several hundred million years watching evolution happening. None the less I know this isn not going to happen.

  • Benjamin Machanik

    I’m not entirely sure what this study was setting out to show. From the linked Huffington post article, there’s a lot of talk of how the study resolved around quick associations. 

    If I were at a party and a guy approached my girlfriend and talked to her, I would possibly have a quick flash of jealousy or anger. When I’m watching a scary movie, I might have a quick response of fear to a door slamming or a loud noise. If someone insults me, I may have a quick desire to punch or attack them. These are all sort of instinctual responses. There existence does not really show that I am a jealous, nervous or aggressive person because they are just quick flashes and instinctive impulses. Like most people in the world who experience them, they quickly vanish and are replaced by my societal and cultural responses.

    Personally speaking, when I had fears of death I still believed in a god. There was no comfort in that belief. Since my ‘conversion’ to atheism, I have lost a close family member in a long, protracted battle with cancer culminating in their very sudden death. That’s possibly the closest experience I’ve had to death as an atheist, whether or not it classifies as fear I do not know, but if anything it made me even less inclined to believe in supernatural because that idea was just to brutal. That actual malevolence was behind such an event was so unpleasant it was ludicrous to conceive.

    While statistics can not really account for individual experiences that go against the trend, I still have to ask, why is it significant that some people showed heightened ‘belief’ for such a brief time period? It does not really seem to show anything when you consider so little of our behaviour is affected by our ‘flash responses’.  As some commentors have stated, its more our overarching culture of people who DO believe in god and the afterlife that are more likely to be behind such instinct anyway.

  • Marco Conti

    I have been in a similar situation to yours and odds are I will be back there quite soon too (hopefully not too soon). I totally understand your position.

    In my case, I flat lined 3 separate times. In neither case was there a light, dead relatives, not even a long gone pet. Nothing. You’d think at least 1 out of 3 if there was anything to it it would have made visible to me. 

  • advancedatheist

    Death is something everyone has to deal with

    How about “dealing with it” as an engineering problem urgently in need of solutions? People in the cryonics movement have thought long and hard about this since the 1960’s, and you can see a good representation of that thinking here: 

  • Ellie

     Exactly. I went flat 3 times, too – and nothing. Not even a spark, you know, some flashlight, something… ;D Nope. Also, those OOBE sounded kind of cool, but I didn’t get to fly around ICU. The nurses rode me around on a wheelchair a lot after the whole thing, though. And a very handsome traumatologist staged a wheelchair race with me (our competeing duo was a male nurse and my bed neighbour), too. So I guess I can’t really complain… 😉

    Hey, maybe you have to go *four* times to get the tunnel? 😀

  • Ellie

     I had more than one and it didn’t change me one whit. I was an atheist and I remained one. I took care of a dying people and that didn’t change me either. I think it might be really personal, that “leaning towards religious ideas” thing… Maybe they should take a deeper look into it? You know, include the strong-weak atheism idea? I’m not in the field, so I cannot really push a firm, defined idea there, but that would be interesting. I didn’t feel like “oh s**t, I don’t want to die!” when I was critical. I was unconscious by then 😉 When I was informed afterwards I was more like “Oh, really? Good job on bringing me back, then. One up high!” :D. I was misdiagnosed with cancer once and it didn’t make me fall to pieces – I asked for a re-test and a bit of info on how we’d go about it if it came back positive. I was hit by a car, I was in a car accident, I had few anaphylactic reactions in my life and I never had “oh god, save me” moment. I was covering my head in that car and remembering where my cell was, that’s what I did. I guess some people are just not scared of death, because I can’t be the only one 😉

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