No Atheists in Foxholes

I have been prompted to write this by a number of Facebook postings I have seen in the past few months. I have not preserved any of the subject postings, but nobody will dispute that they have been composed, that they have been posted and that they receive a definite following. These postings are different cuts from the same cloth, and they have a common theme: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

A little explanation:

A “foxhole” is an infantry combat defensive position. About 150 years ago infantry firepower began to become quite deadly, and soldiers needed some protection if they aimed to hold onto a position for any time. Fortifications, stone walls, fallen tree trunks, earth embankments, all filled the need when available. On open ground the foxhole was the only solution. A soldier dug a hole in the ground and got inside—as would a fox hiding in his den. Hence the name.

During World War I, and particularly during World War II, foxholes became almost as familiar to the civilian population as they were to the soldiers. Soldiers sought shelter and fought from foxholes.

Infantry combat is a scary operation. You shoot at the enemy, and the enemy shoots at you. The enemy also drops aerial bombs and artillery shells on your position. You need to be very brave not to flee to the rear. It is common in these situations for soldiers of religious faith to call on their belief in the supernatural to sustain them. For many it seems natural to pray for divine intervention. Make the incoming shell fall a few feet further to the right.

I am sure this is the origin of the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes. In dire circumstance such as this, nobody could survive without the comforting blanket of faith.

Navy chaplain Patrick McLaughlin has written a book.

When words mean less and less, but money talks more and more; when blasphemy is a best seller, and eternal war has replaced hopeful diplomacy; in times like these is prayer even possible? Patrick J. McLaughlin thinks so. McLaughlin is an active duty Navy Chaplain who has ministered to heads of state and to soldiers living and dying in the heat of Iraq.

No Atheists in Foxholes assembles Chaplain McLaughlin’s experiences and prayers from e-mails, private notes, and personal conversations that take us real-time into realms of duty and spirit: from the quiet darkness of his infant son’s New England bedroom on September 11, 2001, to the bomshelled medical tents and blistered Army Humvees of Anbar Province. Chaplain McLaughlin believes that prayer is not only possible, but critical. “We must all learn to pray for peace,” he says, “and then become an answer to that prayer.”

The title of the book is No Atheists in Foxholes.


Whenever I see an otherwise rational person wander off into this intellectual wilderness I recall some letters I received many years ago. Here is an excerpt from one:

26 March 1968
Camp Evans
Hue — Quang Tri
South Vietnam

Dear John:

Now that our Battalion has moved up North I have finally had the experience of being “under fire.” It is really hard to believe because nothing has happened to me yet. Night before last six persons were killed here at camp Evans by mortars. They were caught getting out of bed, putting on their boots, etc. I was doing the same thing about that time. I was just more fortunate than some, I guess. The attacks are becoming more frequent. I went to the Battalion Staff briefing tonight since the Chaplain is presently in An Khe and the report was that we are to expect frequent rocket attacks between 29 Mar and 4 Apr. The Cav learned of this from the local populace who were told by tho VC to be prepare during the above period. I hope to finish my bunker by tomorrow.

Since things are so dull here at Evans, I have decided to get my kicks in other ways. I am attempting to get on the “night hunter” team. This is a team of four volunteers who go up in helicopters at night armed with M-16s and starlight scopes. The primary purpose is to avert mortar attacks during the hour of darkness. I flew my first two missions three nights ago, and my second was nearly my last. Our pilot came within a hair of crashing. I had already prepared for the inevitable collision with the ground. I am still not sure how it happened. All I know is that I was looking out the door at the ground, as was my job, and suddenly the ground began to rise very fast. Just before it looked like we were go$ng to hit, I pulled myself back inside and braced myself in the seat. The co-pilot grabbed the stick away from the pilot and pulled it back all the way and gave it the gun. The jolt was so severe that I thought we had hit and that the ship and everybody in it bad given. up the ghost. But we stalled there for about ten seconds, rocking like a boat in high seas, and then began to move forward again. The excitement sounds like fun, but it isn’t, and the fact remains that we were all almost killed. But still I have labeled myself a fool and plan to continue. I had to admit that I was a fool to do it in the first place. I haven’t gotten to shoot anyone yet, but I’m sure my chance will come. Do you think I am wrong in killing these people? I think not. Two nights ago they tried to kill me.

It’s obvious the person writing this letter was on active duty in Vietnam at the time. In a foxhole? Not exactly. In a bunker maybe. Does it count if he were not in a foxhole but was flying around at night in a helicopter with a sniper’s rifle hunting people? I can only hope so, because he is an atheist, and he was then. He is my brother.

I’m not going to let this go without dropping a bit of salacious irony on my readers. When my brother was not looking for people to kill he worked as a chaplain’s assistant.

I have more letters from my brother. One of them tells about another time he almost died. I will post it sometime in the future. In the mean time I’m going to wait until somebody posts another silly note about there being no atheists in foxholes.

4 thoughts on “No Atheists in Foxholes

    • If you met my brother at the skeptics meeting, then this is the one. I have only one brother. I will follow up later with the story of his last night hunter mission. It never got started. The helicopter crashed into a mountain when they were coming to pick him up. It was night, he did not see, but he could hear the crash. Everybody aboard was killed.

  1. I can vouch for the fact that the statement “there are no atheists in foxholes,” is untrue, because I was one (for at least one night). When the 2nd Bn, 7th Cav, moved up from Bong Song to Camp Evans, between Hue and Quang Tri, in 1968, there was no place for me to sleep that night we all arrived. I and the Chaplain were the only two in our section. Chaplain Ware slept in a tent with the officers, and the Sergeant Major pointed to a hole in the ground beside the tarmac and indicated that “here is where you will sleep.” It was drizzling rain and very cold when I went to bed (it rained for 30 more days with hardly a let up) and I had a poncho liner and an air mattress to sleep on. At first I tried sleeping on the inflated air mattress and covering myself with the liner. Did I mention that it was raining? So I got the idea that I could deflate the mattress, sleep on the ground, and cover myself with the plastic mattress to stay dry. The ground was very cold sand and I found I couldn’t stand it. I reverted to my original plan and after a couple of hours, slept off and on through the night. In the rain. In a foxhole.

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