Monday, February 15, 2010

Fear and Faith
(An Exchange of Letters)

[I just received this email from a friend. He is a retired Marine infantry officer and veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars.]


Thanks for sending [notice of posting “Of Love and Fear”]:

I don't know if you will find this relevant but I was reminded of something as I read through your writings. I recalled a sentiment shared with me by a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War. He said, "There are no atheists in a foxhole." In other words, it is only when we are in harm's way and survival is in question that we tend to find we are not atheists or agnostics but believers.

After retiring from military service and getting wrapped up in a civilian career, I tended to forget this. It was only as my own son deployed to Iraq in 2008 and after his return there again in Jan[uary] -- where he is defusing roadside bombs -- that I again find myself a believer, praying daily for his survival and safe return. I feel guilty at times I tend to be a "fair weather" believer rather than an ardent one. When my son returns home safely from Iraq and Afghanistan (where he deploys in April), I trust I will gratefully remember my prayers have been answered and to Whom I owe eternal thanks. Just a rambling thought from one who -- as his years advance -- so too does his rambling. :)


I replied:


Thanks for those personal reflections. I wondered if religion was any part of your life. That tells me it is, and to what extent it is.

When I was a child my mother often quoted me the aphorism you refer to, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Her brother, a Purple Heart veteran of WW II, quoted it to her. It dates back at least to WW II, if not to WW I. Some attribute it to journalist Ernie Pyle. The WW I version was “in trenches.”

As we advance in age, and the sense of our mortality becomes more intrusive, we all find ourselves in metaphorical foxholes. Many remain atheists to the end. But the foxhole of age or infirmity opens some of us to at least a flickering of faith. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.”

I will add your brave son to my prayer list.



  1. More than 40 years ago, as a believing and practicing Catholic, I ran into the buzzsaw of war. I would like to say that my faith was something that sustained me then, but the truth is that my lifeline was the hope of getting back home to my fiancee, now my wife. Death was so random that prayer seemed irrelevant. Still a believing, practicing Catholic,I have concluded that my faith sustained me in a way I will never understand.

  2. Anonymous,

    Perhaps faith helped you face the dreadful possibility that you would never see your fiance again -- that your most precious hope would be shattered. Faith gave you another hope if that one failed, a hope that even a bullet or bomb could not destroy. No?


  3. Shane said "When I was a child my mother often quoted me the aphorism you refer to, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

    This is only a natural thing for someone in such a scary situation to reach out to a "higher power", however, like I told a friend who presented this same argument, though it may make you feel better, it still doesn't prove that a god exists.