There are no atheists in foxholes.
The claim that there are no atheists in foxholes has been around for a long time, but it became especially popular after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. This myth tries to claim that during times of great crisis, in particular those which threaten a person's life, it is no longer possible to "hold out" and maintain disbelief in a higher, saving power. During such experiences, the "natural" and automatic reaction of a human being is to start believing in God and hope for some form of salvation.
As Gordon B. Hinckley told a gathering of Mormons in 1996:
As you once knew so well, there are no atheists in foxholes. In times of extremity, we plead for and put our trust in a power mightier than ourselves.
For theists it may be natural to assume that such a thing is true. Theistic religions teach that God is always there whenever circumstances are troubling or threatening. In Western monotheistic faiths, believers are taught that God is ultimately in control of the universe and will eventually make sure that everything turns out well. Because of this, it may be understandable for an adherent of of such a tradition to assume that difficult circumstances will lead to theism for everyone.
Is it even true? There must surely have been any number of atheists who, when faced with a deep personal crisis or life threatening situation (whether in foxholes or not), called out to a god or gods for safety, help or salvation. Atheists are human, of course, and have to deal with the same fears which all other humans must face.
This is not, however, the case with every atheist in such situations. Here is a quote from Philip Paulson:
I suffered through horrifying moments, expecting to be killed. I was convinced that no cosmic rescuer would same me. Besides, I believed life after death was merely wishful thinking. There were times when I expected to suffer a painful, agonizing death. My frustration and anger at being caught in a dilemma of life-and-death situations simply infuriated me. Hearing the sound of bullets whistling through the air and popping near my ears was damned scary. Fortunately, I was never physically wounded.
Clearly it's false that every and any atheist will cry out to God or starting believing in God during times of crisis. Even if the claim were true, however, there would be serious problems with it — serious enough that theists should find it troubling.
First, how can such experiences can generate authentic faith? Would God even want people to believe merely because they were under great pressure and very afraid? Can such a faith lead to a life of faith and love which is supposed to be the foundation of religions like Christianity? This problem is made clear in what might be the earliest expression of this myth, although it doesn't use the same words. Adolf Hitler told Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Bavaria in 1936:
Man cannot exist without belief in God. The soldier who for three and four days lies under intense bombardment needs a religious prop.
A "faith" and a belief in God which exists merely as a reaction to the fear and danger in situations like war isn't a genuine religious faith, it's just a "religious prop." Some atheists have likened religious faith to a crutch, and if that analogy is ever true it's probably most true here. Theists should not try to promote their religion as a crutch, though.
There Are No Theists in Foxholes
A second problem lies in the fact that extreme battlefield experiences and the dangers of foxholes can undermine a person's faith in a good, loving God. Quite a few soldiers have entered battle devout believers but ended up coming away without any faith at all. Consider the following:
My great-grandfather returned from the Somme in the winter of 1916. He was an officer in a Welsh Guards regiment. He had been gassed and shot and had seen his platoon numerically wiped out and replaced more than three times since he first took command of it. He had used his side arm, a Webley revolver, so much that its barrel was pitted into uselessness. I heard a story about one of his advances across no-man's-land in which he set out with a full company and by the time he arrived at the German wire was one of only two men left alive.
Until that time, this branch of my family had been Calvinistic Methodists. . . But when he returned from the war, my great-grandfather had seen enough to change his mind. He gathered the family together and banned religion in his house. 'Either god is a bastard,' he said, 'or god isn't there at all.'
(Paul Watkins, "A Friend to the Godless," pp. 40-41, in A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints, ed. by Paul Elie, Riverhead Books / Berkeley, 1995. Quoted from Shy David's Higher Criticism Page)
If it isn't true that there are no atheists in foxholes and that many theists leave their foxholes as atheists, why does the above myth persist? It certainly can't be employed as an argument against atheism — even if it were true, that would not mean that atheism is unreasonable or theism valid. To suggest otherwise would be little more than an ad hominem fallacy.
Is the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes meant to imply that atheists aren't "really" nonbelievers and actually harbor a secret belief in God? Perhaps, but it is a false implication and can't be taken seriously. Is it meant to imply that atheism is inherently "weak" while theism represents "strength?" Once again, that may be the case — but it would also be a false implication.
Regardless of the actual reasons for any particular theist to claim that there are no atheists in foxholes, it simply isn't true and should be rejected before the discussion goes any further.