No Atheists in Foxholes?

January 21, 2010

by Fr. Sean Levine

Perhaps you have heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Speaking as one who has spent some time in “foxholes”, I can tell you with certainty that this is not true. As a Chaplain’s Assistant and as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army for close to ten years in various reserve and active duty positions, I have spent time in South Korea and two combat tours in Iraq, and I have to tell you that I have come across my share of atheists as well as a host of other systems of belief and disbelief. There seems to be no end to the variety of religious and non-theistic positions represented in today’s military, and the one thing no one should ever say about any religion, philosophy, or belief systems is this: “You won’t find that in combat once the bullets start to fly.” This is simply not true.


That is not to say that people do not care about death and dying. Some do not, but most do, and fear is fear whether you find it in the face of a person with no professed faith, or in the face of a die-hard believer. No one likes the threat of death or dismemberment resulting from the hostile actions of someone who has vowed to kill him or her, but the simple fact is this: Fear of death or of one’s enemy does not always motivate faith in God. Further, the kind of faith that does arise in the face of death may or may not be genuine. What dynamic governs “battlefield belief?” Often it is nothing more than a bargaining chip grasped in response to the immanent threat of death rather than a real encounter with God leading true faith.


Generalizations always stand vulnerable to the contradiction of specific exceptions. Surely, some people in combat find a real and lasting belief in God, and there are many stories to prove it. What I want to flat out deny is the validity of the position that “foxholes” naturally and invariably bring people to faith. I say “no,” and this refutes the idea the atheism does not have the strength to stand up under the pressure of combat and possible death. It is insulting and demeaning to a person who claims to be an atheist to suggest that his/her disbelief in God represents a weak position that cannot withstand the rigors of harsh experiences and that all atheists “convert” in combat.


More important than this is the fact that many convinced theists walk away from the trauma of combat with a broken faith system and a rejection of their previous belief in God. If the reports of returning soldiers are to be taken seriously, we have to acknowledge that wartime trauma is just as likely to obliterate a person’s belief in God as it is to encourage it. Why is this? In my experience, it has everything to do with unrealistic expectations, a damning dynamic in any serious relationship. People often expect something of their idea of God that they do not find in war; that is to say, God does not behave according to the expectations that many believers hold dear.


War brings with it unspeakable death and destruction, and this might be relatively easy to stomach when you read about it in the paper or see short clips on TV. However, when you experience the sights, smells, sounds, tactile sensations, and emotions first hand, it brings the reality into your life with an entirely different, and often very painful, impact. The areas of a person’s brain and personality that govern belief (as opposed to excursive, rational logic) can be invaded by wartime experiences, and this invasive assimilation of the horrors of war can change a person at a very fundamental and uncontrollable level. It is not rational to jump under a table when someone accidentally slams a door, but many veterans do it; the response comes from deep within the neuro-psychological center of the person. It is not rational for a soldier, who has had to kill an enemy, to be bitterly angry at people he used to love; the anger comes from a wound deep within the moral center of the soldier and he/she “acts this out” upon loved ones.


At this very deep level, where faith and trust exist and function, war can break things and overload circuits bringing about the damage or entire collapse of the belief system. This is not a rational rejection of faith, but a loss of the ability to trust and believe brought on by the absolute moral sewer into which the warrior is tossed when he or she engages in modern warfare. “How could God allow this to happen to these people, to us, to me?” says many a combat veteran who has experienced the pain and brokenness of war.


Far from being some sort of ludicrous, unthinkable response to the world in which we live, atheism responds to one of the most challenging questions ever asked: How can a loving, personal God allow the horror and evil of war? God is either too weak to do anything about it or perfectly capable of stopping it but not compassionate enough to care.


It is not my aim to answer such questions, but rather to acknowledge them as valid concerns that emerge with force within the lives of those who deploy into war zones. Not only are there atheists in foxholes, but there are both many atheists who come home from war more firmly convinced than ever before and many believers who emerge from foxholes,when they come out physically alive, as atheists.


Belief and combat trauma encounter one another in complex ways resulting in complex effects because every human being responds in a unique and personal way to this encounter. Many people turn to God in a crisis while many others either do not turn to God or actually turn away from God. This raises a myriad of questions that I cannot handle in the brief article, but I hope that I have encouraged a reevaluation of the popular quip “there are no atheists in foxholes” and a deeper consideration of the relationship between combat and faith.

Evicting the Gods: Conversations with a Russian Friend

January 21, 2010

By Mr. Andrew Boyd

Every once in a while, God metaphorically slaps me across the face and makes me realize how much I don’t know or understand. This is what happened when I sat down to write about atheism in the Soviet Union. The topic seemed natural. How can a modern, Orthodox publication talk about Atheism and not talk about the Soviet Union? I thought I was educated on the subject, I have a minor in Russian history, and I had many family members that suffered during the Revolution. But, as I sat down at my laptop and opened up Microsoft Word, nothing happened. Well, something did happen; I realized I had nothing to say.

So, I logged into facebook instead and realized that my Russian friend was online. She grew up in the Soviet Union, in an atheist family, and was baptized when she was eighteen. I grilled her about her experiences growing up in an atheist country. She started right in with a disturbing, yet somehow homey anecdote.

“My grandma used to sing a song from the 1920’s ‘Away, away with the monks, the rabbis, and the priests. We’ll climb up to heaven and evict all the gods!’”

“Was it a folk song?”

“No, it was more of a jingle. The government made sure that there were mandatory events at schools and in companies on all major church feast days. There were Komsomol patrols at the few remaining active churches that caught all kids who tried to go to, say, Pascha services, and took down all your information and boy, the trouble you got into… and especially your parents.” (The Komsomol was the youth branch of the Communist Party. Membership was basically compulsory, though my friend added “people who patrolled were the activists, not just the majority who were drafted into the party because it was mandatory.” The Komsomol youth were party to some of the most brutal executions in the 1920’s and 30’s.)

I naively asked, “What kind of trouble?”

“It depended. You wouldn’t get expelled, but your “behavior” grade would go down considerably, and of course you’d get kicked out of any leadership position. That was important because it affected college admission. For your parents, it would be worse, it went into their files, which meant no promotions, no pay raises, no trips abroad when those were available, etc. It was a very big deal, a huge black mark on the family.”

I asked her how she became Orthodox, which turned out to be a long and complicated story.

“When I was growing up, my parents rented a summer house from a village man who was very religious. It was about 30 kilometers from the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. All summer long we would go to the Lavra for trips. My parents weren’t religious; it was just an incredibly beautiful place. I’d always go into the small group of worshipers during the services. My parents would go crazy trying to find me in those big cathedrals. The landlord never took the icons and lampadas in the house down during the summer, so I slept under the icons my entire childhood.

Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

At the same time, I was a fairly devoted ‘young pioneer’, loved that stupid jingle, and believed that religion was, as Marx had said. “opium for the people”. In short, I was as brainwashed by the system as anyone. In the Soviet Union, you were born brainwashed.”

“So, how did you become a Christian out of all this?”

When I was ten, I heard a broadcast of Father Schmemann on the radio at my friend’s house. I think her parents were listening to it, which seemed strange, not the kind of thing you did when company was around. Father Schmemann, of course, broadcasted weekly sermons into Russia on Radio Free Europe for years. I didn’t quite understand it, but it touched my heart. From then on, my friend’s family would take me to churches from time to time, even to the services at the Lavra (which were not accessible to the “outsiders” at the time, I have no idea how she got us in). I would get parts of services here and there. Somehow, the Church was just growing on me.”

“When were you actually baptized?”

“ I was baptized when I was 18, and in college, when I had a little bit more control of my own life. Still, even though it was at the beginning of perestroika, it had to be done in secret. Also, I wasn’t really educated or catechized. There was no one to do it. I really didn’t become “churched” until I came to the United Stated in a couple of years. The traditional churchgoers in Russia at the time didn’t always trust the young converts, they thought we could be spies… and as for the converts, many of them tended to become very fundamentalist which turned me off.”

“Where you scared when you were baptized?”

“No, I wasn’t scared, I was very sure of what I was doing, but I was very stressed. There could still be trouble in college and for my parents if it became known. But it wasn’t hard for me to keep this secret. I grew up with a ‘split mind’, a classic child of the Soviet intelligentsia. You knew that you were never to repeat at school what you heard at home. My parents’ crowd wasn’t actively dissident, but it was very anti-Soviet. So, I grew up with that rule. I grew up as essentially two people, it’s not hard to do in that setting. When I had to maintain, later in life, a baptized “me” as a secret persona, it was kind of the same thing.”

Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra

“Any other vivid memories that you think are important?”

“Yes, there was a movie called Storm Clouds Over Borsk. It was about a young Komsomolka who gets drawn into a Pentecostal “Cult” (most denominations save Orthodoxy and Catholicism were labeled as “cults” by the Soviets). This “cult” decides to crucify her, but the brave communists save her just in time. It was incredibly well made and had some of the best actors in it. Of course, it was fiercely anti-Christian, and it was mandatory for us to view it at school.

Soviet Christmas?

I think the replacement of Christmas as the great Christian feast with the secular New Year celebration was the greatest success of the regime because it endures to this day. All of the ‘entourage’ of Christmas was transferred to New Year: the gifts, the tree, even the star. Of course, the star on top of the tree was red and five-ended, like on the Kremlin. The main idea was to get very drunk and eat a lot and make merry to celebrate something totally secular. It became THE holiday. If you want to understand something about it, google how many Soviet movies take place on New Year’s night, all the romantic comedies, all the dramas, everything. It is still the case, although the country is supposedly Orthodox now.”

The person being interviewed asked to remain anonymous.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Atheism

January 21, 2010

By Mr. Logan Johnson

It is said that we live in a post-Christian society.  Our laws do not reflect Biblical teaching, church attendance is considerably down compared to what it was sixty years ago, and those who claim no belief in God are at their greatest and most vocal.  For Orthodox young people this has always been the case, and it probably does not shock us as much as it does our parents and grand parents.  Colleges and universities pride themselves on diverse student populations, so no doubt anyone reading this article counts an atheist as one of their acquaintances, and if they are lucky, they consider one as a close friend.  In the last five years a plethora of “New Atheist” literature has been published which seeks to disprove traditional pillars of theism and expound an enlightened, scientific, way of looking at the world.  The Christian response to these New Atheists has been immense, but widely missing the point.  Atheism, whether in the guise of the ‘new’ or ‘old’, challenges Christians not only to give a clear and concise account of their faith that is understandable to the world, but also a great opportunity to love those who not only differ from us, but may actively persecute us, and to show Christ to them.

Noted biologist and ‘New Atheist’ Richard Dawkins, in the preface to his bestseller The God Delusion, writes, “If this books works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”  The exact rate of religious de-conversion to atheism as a result of Dawkin’s book, if any, is unknown, but the resulting books, articles, and debates that have taken place between the New Atheists from Christopher Hitchens to Daniel Dennett and various theistic writers such as David Bentley Hart and Alister McGrath have been legion.  As Hart points out in his book The Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, many of the arguments put forth by the new atheists had really been hashed out and presented in far more eloquent language by the ‘old’ atheists of the 19th and early 20th centuries such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Sartre.  For Orthodox Christians, especially young adults, the polemical prose of these works, which are usually quite entertaining and worth a read, should take second place to the obvious challenges they present to how we give a proper account of our faith to those who are not only not Orthodox, but even not Christian or who are especially opposed to Christianity.

Controversial Bus Ad in London

Controversial bus ad in London

What are some of the arguments the New Atheists give for disbelief?  In a famous passage from The God Delusion, Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  Dawkins backs up his statement with Biblical stories such as God smiting all the first born of Egypt after sending torturing plagues on innocents, Levitical laws that demand stoning for adulterers, disobedient children, and practicing homosexuals, and the sanctioned slaughter of Canaanite peoples by the Israelites.  Christopher Hitchens in various debates takes another stance, claiming that if a Christian God exists we are doomed to live in a celestial North Korea, with a dictator always watching over us, concerned with how we spend our money, what we do on Saturdays or Sundays, and even what sexual position we choose to participate in with consenting adults.  Daniel Dennet, in his book Breaking the Spell: Religions as a Natural Phenomenon, takes yet another view, and argues that experience of the divine can be explained using neuroscience and genetics, without any reference to supernatural souls or other worlds.

I mention especially the above arguments because they have not, as far as I know, been addressed by Christian authors writing in response to the New Atheists.  David Bentley Hart addresses the particular historical inaccuracies of many of the New Atheists who claim that the Christian Church actively tried to destroy secular literature and learning of the classical period of Greece and Rome, or that it was particularly Christian, and not primarily political, economic, or otherwise cultural influences that led to such atrocities as the Crusades or Inquisitions.  Most theologians would be comfortable saying that it has been Christ’s followers, not Christ himself, that have carried these misdeeds out, and so such historically bloody deeds are not proofs against Christianity’s truth claims.  Many Christian writers will point out the incredible beauty of nature and the immense odds overcome that seem ordained by God to support life on this tiny planet.  Others will state that moral law requires a God who lays it down—if God does not exist, they say, no action can ultimately be right or wrong and so He either exists and we should behave accordingly, or He does not exist, so why be good?

and the polemics start...

and the polemics start...

No argument will bring a person to Christ.  In our post-Christian world, where all proofs must be scientific and natural, our challenge and joy as Orthodox Christians is to show Christ’s love to the world, which is itself immaterial and often irrational (at least according to the world’s view).  A close friend of mine, Emma, an atheist, confided that she would like to live simply, have a job that could support her, and spend the rest of her time volunteering in hospitals or schools.  This desire on her part for self-emptying love was a perfect opportunity for me to talk about the Christian belief in a God that emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, and according to Matthew 25 says that the service of the poor and marginalized is the single criterion for entrance into the Kingdom of God.  Sharing the Gospel in this way allowed us to have a real discussion about the Truth of Christianity without being confrontational and polemic.  This is just a small example of how we can talk about our faith with those who have made a conscious choice not to believe in God.  I hope to continue to be challenged by my atheist friends to give a good account of my faith and my hope and to be given the opportunity to love them where and how they are, without regard to our differences.

How to “Grill the Christian”

January 13, 2010

By Mr. Andrew Boyd

Forty students sauntered into a meeting room in the library at the University of Connecticut on an unseasonably cold October evening. Three figures seated behind a small table greeted them. On the right was a man in jeans and a button-down shirt, in the middle was a woman in a clergy shirt complimented by her pink sweater and a kitten pin, and on the left was a man with a beard in a black cassock. Students had come into this room to have their questions answered. And the three people at the front sat ready to get grilled.

Medium or Well-Done?

In my years as a college student, this activity was undoubtedly our most meaningful and most successful. We had rented a meeting room, found three clergy, and invited the campus to come and ask them anything they wanted. We titled the event “Grill the Christian” hoping that would attract some attention in itself. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and the event actually surpassed our expectations. Questions, while sometimes pointed or loaded, where overall genuine and reflected a campus full of students looking for answers and guidance. The questions ranged from practical (how do we read the bible?), to personal (why did you go into ministry?), to philosophical (why does God allow suffering?). Most importantly, the three clergy we invited worked together to provide strong answers that of course left the audience with more to think about. This event can be done easily, and with little cost either in a college setting like OCF or even in a parish.

When we publicized the event, we were sure to be very clear that it was free, open to everyone, and not any type of worship service. Often, other Christian groups would advertise an event like ours, and trick people into coming to a worship service instead. It was important for our group to be upfront and honest with our local community. Below are some other tips we found useful in planning this particular event:

Choose Wisely

Our Group had spent significant time selecting the three clergy that we invited to be “grilled.” We chose specific clergy that we had pre-existing relationships with, people we knew. When looking at local Orthodox clergy, we chose one who was articulate and engaging, but most importantly, was excited about the prospect. The female Episcopalian priest was a local campus minister who was known to our group, and had helped us out with previous events. The other clergyman was a local, well-known evangelical pastor. He was an Alumnus of our school, charismatic and intelligent.  We also gave the clergy a few minutes together before the event to get to know eachother better.

Create Questions

We were surprised at the initial timidity in the room, when the time for the event came. College students are usually brazen and opinionated, but faced with three members of the clergy, willing to absorb whatever was thrown their way, there was only silence. Our OCF had fortunately created a back-up plan. The week before, we had composed a list of twenty questions that we would have liked to ask of our invited clergy. Of course, this event was not our own forum for getting our questions answered, we had that every week in our regular meetings. Rather, this event was something we offered to the greater community. Still, we wanted questions to fall back on just in case. I asked the first one off of our list, and that broke the ice. From the next two hours, and in fact until campus security told us they had to lock up, questions flowed from the audience. Conversation even continued outside the building after the event.

Moderate Well

Part of the reason our event was successful was that we had it moderated well. We chose two people from our group to act as moderator and time keeper respectively. We limited each person to one question either directed at all of the clergy or one in particular. We limited the response to five minutes total. The moderator was dressed nicely, and was welcoming and friendly. He also used his discernment to see when discussions should continue a little longer than five minutes. We had also consulted with our invited clergy prior to the event and came up with a very short list of rules that they were comfortable with.

Follow Up

This event happened over a year ago, and I still communicate with people I met that night. It is important to follow up with people if you can. Invite people to your weekly OCF meeting if they still have unanswered questions. Talk to people after the meeting; start conversation with people whose questions you found interesting. Take interest in the people who come to you with questions.