Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: my Uncle Nate

The soul might not be immortal but the canard there are no atheists in foxholes seems unkillable. This particular piece of mythology goes back to a statement by U.S. Army Chaplain William Thomas Cummings just before the Battle of Bataan in 1942. If the Bataan Death March convinced anyone on it to believe in God who didn't already believe, well, God Bless Them.

In any event, the notion that when you are scared shitless you turn to God (not very complimentary to the newly converted, I'd say) raised its cartoonish head again at the 31st annual Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Awards of the NAACP this July:

"Agnostics, atheists and bigots suddenly lose all that when their life is on the line. Something that they lived their whole life believing gets thrown out the door," Blum said. (Kelley Atherton in The Journal of Webster University)

Nice, huh? Atheists, agnostics and bigots, one big happy family. It turns out, however, there are a lot of people who remain atheists until their final moments as living creatures. Some of them are quite famous, like the philosopher David Hume (died 1775). But most are not at all famous, just ordinary people. Like my Uncle.

Uncle Nate was a wonderful, sweet tempered freethinker, born at the end of the nineteenth century. He was a dentist of great craftsmanship (I have fillings in my mouth that are over 50 years old). Unlike other members of the family he never joined a synogogue, thinking it a ridiculous irrational practice, along with everything that went with it. He lived a long life but as he reached his early nineties, a widower, ill and infirm, confined to a nursing home, he had enough. He had all his faculties until the end and asked to have his intravenous feeding and all medications discontinued, except those that made him more comfortable. So he was dying, by his own choice.

My cousin (his son) reports to me that on one of his last visits to see his father they were chatting about one thing and another and out of the blue Uncle Nate said, "You know, I've been thinking lately about religion." Startled, my cousin said to him, "Really? What have you been thinking about it, dad?"

To which my beloved Uncle Nate replied, "I still think it's a load of crap."

More like this

Sure, some "atheists, agnostics and bigots" may find God in the extremity of fear. (How valid is that faith? How many keep it?)

Probably just as many, if not more, "religious folks" lose God when they see war in all its ... I almost said "glory".

"Something that they lived their whole life believing gets thrown out the door."

This is another misrepresentation.

While a subset of atheists do make positive assertions about the existence of deities (which might be considered belief, albeit belief based on the view that enough information is available in support), a substantially larger number of atheists do not make any positive assertions. For them, it is all a matter of not believing, and nothing else.

Similarly, a small number of agnostics fall into the category of agnostic theists, meaning they consider the existence of deities to be unknown or unknowable, while still choosing to believe in deities (reasons can differ widely for this). For the significant majority of agnostics, it follows from the agnostic position that belief in deities is therefore unwarranted.

For nearly all forms of explicit non-theism, evidence and lack of evidence are of primary importance; faith is meaningless. Such an explicit non-theist knows emotions don't change the evidence, although they can cripple one's ability to weigh evidence.

Is it reasonable to hypothesize that sometimes these kind of fox-hole conversions from explicit non-theism to theism are more likely due to overwhelming emotions crippling rational thought than to new, carefully considered, convincing evidence coming to light at that moment? Would remaining unconverted sometimes be suggestive of having greater control over strong emotions?

There's another old canard: "There are no Bushes in fox-holes."

There may be a germ of truth to that one.

Edumnd: You make some excellent points. Most atheists are just that, non-believers. There are some that are anti-theists. For most of us "gods" aren't part of the furniture of our world, simply put.

Regarding your other canard, LOL. Of course, that one's not a myth.

Oh, my Go(o)dness!I wonder which religion Uncle Nate was referring to---the ones with a God, the ones without as science and dentistry, or just life itself?

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 10 Sep 2006 #permalink

Polly: The ones with a God. The "others" may be belief systems (based on varying degrees of evidence) but they aren't religions. If you believe the ssun will come up tomorrow, is that religion? If you believe democracy is a good system of government, is that a religion? If you believe that George Bush is a good President, is that . . . wait. I take the last one back.

Revere: That last one would be a perfect example of a fanatical religious nut. Thanks for the laugh!

No, no Bushes in foxholes. They were in cockpits of airplanes and regardless of what you or anyone says the uniforms have been on the Bush's. Most people though with a rant or a deferrment for medical conditions/college find a problem with this. I recall that one got shot down. Another found a way not to get shot down. So the rant about him being stupid cant be true.

Good story about Uncle Nate Revere. Sounds like he was very educated and like me he just couldnt get 2 and 2 to equal 4. He chose to decide that it just didnt. On my part I am holding out for the big potato. Science or something else might someday prove him right and me wrong. He probably was a pistol of a guy to know. As for foxholes, I can safely say that I heard voodoo chants, prayers to God, Buddha, and Ra. All of which went unanswered at that particular juncture in time.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 10 Sep 2006 #permalink