January 12, 2009

No Atheists During an Economic Collapse?

The valkyrie Sigrdrífa says a pagan Norse pray...Image via WikipediaThe "no atheists in foxholes" myth is not only alive and well, but it is being applied to all sorts of other stressful situations. Take, for example, this commentary from The Buffalo News. The author, Lisa Earle McLeod, begins with the foxhole claim and then takes it a step further, "I would also say there aren’t too many atheists during an economic collapse or when your kid gets really sick or when your car flips over in a traffic accident and you find yourself in a ditch." Simple ignorance about atheism and atheists or despicable anti-atheist bigotry?

Just as the more common claim regarding atheists in foxholes, Ms. McLeod's claim can be falsified quite easily. But I submit that it may be even more interesting to walk through the door she opens at the beginning of her comment and see where it might lead.

Why do we always wait until things get awful before we ask for help?

We wait until our marriage is in a ditch before we go to a counselor.

We wait until our kid is failing before we hire a tutor.

And we often wait until we’re desperate before we turn to God.
Why indeed? In the first three cases (i.e., asking for help, going to a counselor, and hiring a tutor), I expect the answer often centers on embarrassment, time, and money. We all like to believe that we can take care of ourselves without help, and many of us were even raised to view asking for help as a sign of weakness. Obtaining professional counseling and hiring a tutor not only require us to admit that we have a problem but also demand resources in the form of time and money.

I think that the fourth example provided by Ms. McLeod is different. Turning to some sort of god can be a personal and private matter, so the risk of embarrassment (at least the type of embarrassment noted above) is unlikely to be relevant. Similarly, if we are talking about something like prayer, monetary expense is probably not involved (until churches figure out how to charge for that too). Time may be a factor, as even something like prayer can require some free time. However, I have a hard time believing that this is a serious obstacle.

Still, I'm not ready to dismiss Ms. McLeod's claim that people only turn to their preferred god in dire circumstances. How then are we to explain it?
There’s nothing like a big problem to bring us to our knees, both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps religious people know, at least on some level, that their god(s) is merely a theoretical fiction, conjured to bring comfort. In their day-to-day lives, they have little use for such an abstraction and have no trouble living as atheists. However, during times of crisis, many may not be strong enough to face reality and overcome the embarrassment of seeking worldly assistance. Instead, they may resort to superstition to provide a fleeting sense of order and control in an often chaotic world.
A quick trip to any hospital chapel and you’ll find people who aren’t even sure they believe in God, praying with all their hearts promising to do anything if only the Almighty will intervene and help their loved one get better.
Forget for a moment that this simply is not the case and that many of us endure awful situations without resorting to superstition. Pretend for a moment that this is true. Just like the religious person, the atheist who engaged in such behavior would simply go right back to business as usual the moment the crisis resolved. When no gods intervene and prayers go unanswered, temporary relief may be obtained, but nothing changes.
I have to wonder what would happen if we prayed for answers when things were going well.
The same thing that happens in response to prayer in dire circumstances...nothing. I think most of us realize this, atheist and theist alike, and this is why the religious behave as Ms. McLeod describes.

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