Many American Christians seem to have a vague notion of the “moment” when a believer loses faith. Having appealed to a benevolent personal god in a moment of crisis, his faith breaks and the apostate angrily shouts to a turbulent sky, “There is no god!” This scene is, of course, hilarious, and deserves to be the punchline we’ve made it. As many of us have explained in our “de-conversion stories,” loss of faith is more often occurs under a gradually increasing burden of evidence against the existence of a deity. However, formative, traumatic experiences can and do inform our worldview. I remember the moment when, as a Christian, I felt the furthest from my God.
We use the phrase “sonic boom” to describe the sonic shockwave created by an object, usually an aircraft, breaking the sound barrier. Smaller supersonic objects such as bullets create the same effect, but the sound is better described as a “snap” or “crack.” One “problem” with supersonic bullets is that they arrive at your location prior to the sound of the combustion that fired them. The first second or so of a gunfight sound less like “Rambo” and more like the what we’d expect if a Pop-Rocks candy factory flooded.
I vividly remember when I first heard it: It was the first time someone tried their very best to kill me. I was a borderline-incompetent US Army Lieutenant in Afghanistan in 2009 and to be quite honest, it shouldn’t have been terribly difficult. I remember a sudden flurry of cracks and snaps and hisses. I remember the smell of dry soil, dead grass, and goat shit as I tried to become part of the earth. I know that I emptied about half a magazine towards the origin of the gunfire, and I know that I blurted out a largely useless “contact report” into the radio transmitter on my shoulder. The side of my face was cut by a decaying thorn-bush as I did so.
I recall all of this in photo-perfect memory, but what I remember most precisely is one stark, simple realization: “This is real. You have yourself, and you have the people around you; nothing else. There is no safety net. There is no reset. This is real.“ At no point before or since – even after I entirely rejected religion and became a “militant” atheist – have I ever been less concerned with the abstract, the unseen, the supernatural. I’ve never been more faithless.
It was blindingly apparent to me that this problem existed entirely in the natural, physical world. The bullets were composed of atoms, and were propelled by Newtonian physics. Their trajectory and velocity would not change until they collided with another object. If that object happened to be my shoulder, my skeletal system would no longer provide an effective fulcrum through which my muscles could move my arm. If that object was my forehead, my nervous system would no longer be able to produce the chemical reactions and electrical impulses that allowed my body to maintain homeostasis. Everything that mattered – the problem, the consequences, the solution – all existed in the natural world, so that’s where I fought.
The assertion that there are “No Atheists in Foxholes” is self-defeating. A foxhole – “individual fighting position” in the current doctrinally correct Army lexicon – is a small fortification a soldier builds to protect himself from bullets and fragmentation. While used less often in our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it persists in our national psyche to symbolize the places where young men fight, kill, and die. Christians who insist there are No Atheists in Foxholes imply that in moments of extreme danger and duress, we all appeal to the mercy of a god.
I cannot imagine any context, any experience I might have that would arouse less interest in the opinions, whims, and dictates of an unseen, unverifiable, poorly defined Middle Eastern ghost whose impact on the natural world can only be described as “mysterious.” Each time I keyed my radio to talk to my Company Commander, we both identified ourselves, often doing so 5-6 times within a minute. Before my forward observer (think, “artillery coordinator”) relayed our target’s GPS coordinates to the supporting howitzers, he had two other leaders independently verify the location in order to prevent fratricide. We shouted monosyllabic words in the simple present tense, and repeated verbatim instructions we received so as to minimize the risk of a lethal misunderstanding.
Is this tedious, excruciating behavior what we’d expect from people with strong, unshakeable faith in an unseen yet all-powerful god? Would they be True Believers, men of perfect faith in a god’s “plan” for our life? Are these reactions we’d predict from those who, when faced with mortal danger, eagerly look forward to an eternal, heavenly reward? Clearly, it’s not. It’s what we’d expect from those who know they have one life in this real, natural world. It’s what we’d expect from men who value that life, who treasure the experience of consciousness, and who are determined to once again feel joy and happiness. It’s what we’d expect from those who are unsure what “happens” when our brains cease to function, but who know it’s permanent and want to continue experiencing that entirely natural “miracle” of being the means by which “the universe knows itself.”
I cannot know what moves through other people’s minds. However, I do know my own, and I can draw conclusions by observing the behavior of the people around me. Having done so, I am confident in the knowledge that there is no faith in foxholes.