As you may recall, much of World War I and some of World War II was fought in “foxholes” – holes dug by soldiers from which to fire their weapons and protect themselves from incoming fire. That was before supersonic fighter jets and drones, a time when war was still up-close and personal.
The maxim exaggerates, of course. There undoubtedly are some atheists in foxholes, but the idea is that when in a situation so horrifying like that of a soldier in a foxhole, people overcome with fear suspend doubt in a desperate hope that God will save them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a long-time hero of mine, commented on this phenomenon in his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” a book I highly recommend. A Lutheran minister and theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945, he lamented the quality of conversions among fellow prisoners who feared torture and execution. He worried that such “conversions” lacked the conviction and sincerity necessary to sustain faith.
Bonhoeffer also wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which argued that many people seek the “cheap grace” of religion. “Grace” is one of those old-fashioned, churchy words that you hardly hear anymore, even in many churches. But most Christian religions see it in general as God’s gift of his/her spirit, enabling them to be faithful followers of Christ.
Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, "is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." In other words, it’s a “no-obligation” deal in which you hope to get something for nothing.
I thought of all this when recently reminded that many of us are uncomfortable with faith because it involves a dilemma. We feel the need to be intellectually honest, to face up to the fact that what humans want to believe is not necessarily how things are, and that humans have a huge capacity for self-deception. Belief seems like a surrender to irrationality, a betrayal of our rational selves.
It’s possible, however, that God exists, that the strictly rational
approach doesn’t show us how things really are, that it’s a matter of failing
to detect the layer of reality that religions like Christianity proclaim. And
if God is the ultimate cause of the universe, somehow foreseeing and shaping
human development, doesn’t he/she want us to use the brains he/she gave us to figure
Personally, I believe there’s enough evidence pointing to the existence of God, but according to Christian theology, it’s not just a matter of “figuring things out.” Belief is a matter of head and heart, and often we lack one or the other in our search for God.
That’s where the churchy word “grace” comes in. According to this theology, God sends his spirit, allowing people who seek faith, and are open to it, to believe despite doubt. Does he/she provide this grace to everybody? That’s one of the many questions about God we can’t answer. But Christian theology teaches that no one is outside his/her love, so in some form or another, the answer is yes.
Cheap grace, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is sought by people who are inconvenienced by doubt, who decline to take the risk involved in faith, who want to live with one foot in belief and the other in unbelief, having it both ways.
Not much in life works that way.
As for the “no atheists in foxholes” idea, there’s evidently something to it. Wikipedia says “Cornell University behavioral economist, Brian Wansink examined 949 post-combat surveys of World War II American infantrymen and observed that these soldiers' reliance on prayer rose from 32 percent to 74 percent as the battle intensified.”
I recall reading that after WWII, seminaries, monasteries and convents filled to near capacity. Former military people, it is said, were deeply affected by the horrors of war.
Everyone has different reasons for believing or not, and we can’t judge the quality of anyone’s conversion. Who knows? God may use life-or-death situations to get our attention. To me, however, being scared into believing is not the best motivation. A genuine search for God involves openness of heart and mind, and patience to examine the issues.