“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
The meaning of this old witticism is clear: no matter the strength of conviction in a non-believer, when she finds herself in a dire-enough situation, she will repent and seek the company of God. I like to sound confident in my own atheism, referring to myself among friends and family as a “foxhole atheist.” but the truth is I can’t be so sure. Like the Disciple Peter, I can say till I’m blue in the face that I would never deny my conviction, but I won’t know until the rooster crows, will I?
There is a big difference between Peter’s conviction and mine, though. Peter’s was born of the miracles he’d witnessed, and the faith he had that what he’d witnessed was real. His denial didn’t come because he started to question his beliefs; it came because he was fearful of persecution. I think this is a defining property of religion: faith that what you believe is real, and judgement according to your actions in the face of persecution. By this measure, I can identify the first major misconception I think some Christians have of atheists:
Misconception #1: Atheism is a Religion
To be an atheist does not require faith, but its opposite: skepticism. I do not have faith that there is no God—rather, I am skeptical that there is a God. For me, this has its roots in probability. I do not believe there is sufficient evidence that the folks who put stylus to paper over the centuries to write the various holy books were in contact with a God, and I otherwise do not believe that the things written about such a being are likely to be complete, correct, and infallible. I do not believe there is sufficient evidence that any being such as the God described in the Bible exists. By similar logic, most modern societies have convinced themselves that the other disparate creation myths generated by ancient peoples are not representative of reality. If I were Peter—if I’d seen the miracles performed by Jesus Christ, or if I were Moses, handed a tabulation of moral guidelines by God himself on a mountaintop, my calculus would be different. That is exactly why atheism is not a religion, though: it does not require faith, and can be disproven by the same principles from which it is derived—that is, the presence or absence of compelling evidence. Perhaps then, a “foxhole atheist” would be no atheist at all.
Misconception #2: Atheists are Amoral
You and I have both certainly been in situations where it would be simple to steal something with minimal risk. Cash from a job, maybe, or clothing from a store. We’ve both been in situations where it is easier to lie to someone to get what we want, with minimal risk of our deceit ever being discovered. Why do we generally avoid doing these things? The law is eliminated as a reason when there is no risk of being discovered. Perhaps you are a Christian, and you believe that you must eventually give a full accounting of your crimes. I am an atheist, though, and I don’t feel compelled to act or not act on this basis. So why do I try not to injure my fellow humans?
I think the answer is simple: empathy. I do not want my things taken from me, I do not want to be deceived, because such things make me feel awful, and anything which makes me feel awful probably makes others feel awful. We’ve evolved the capability to empathize with one another, presumably because society benefits when we do, and we benefit when we live in a healthy society. As we all know, it is a skill that must be practiced throughout life, and must be taught to our children, even if some grow up profoundly lacking it. Sometimes we bargain with ourselves; sometimes other factors (alienation, despair, depression, jealously, anger, etc.) interfere with the ability of the pious and nonbelieving alike to make empathetic decisions.
Sometimes we have to make decisions we know will hurt others—an unfortunate dilemma from which even the most saintly biblical personalities were rarely spared. In Matthew 22 Jesus identifies the most important of the commandments:
“Jesus said unto [the lawyer], Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
If an atheist can get that half right, how amoral can she be?
Misconception #3: Atheists go to Hell
A popular interpretation of Christian tenets goes like this: to get into the Kingdom of Heaven upon death and gain everlasting life, one must ask Jesus for forgiveness for all of one’s sins. Failing to do this affords one an eternity in an unpleasant place called Hell.
After a childhood of going to church on Sundays, two scriptures classes at a Baptist university, and some discussion with the several accomplished theologians in my family, I’ve found little Biblical evidence to support this narrative. The required rituals for getting into Heaven, per the New Testament, range from “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3) to Jesus’ proclamations that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14) and “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7). One of my favorites is found in Matthew 6:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Must I believe that everything written in the Bible is true to forgive others their trespasses? Is it possible for a non-believer to enact the will of the Father, even if incidental to following secular moral principles? John 3:16 is the most direct evidence I can find for a specific, required ritual:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
To what extent do I need to “believe” in Jesus to gain a pleasant afterlife? I don’t think the answer is as clear as some will claim.
So how do you get into Hell? The Jews of the Old Testament clearly believed in supernatural punishments for indecent people, but there is no clear consensus vis a vis Hell as a place where the souls of nonbelievers are stored for eternity. On to the New Testament, then.
The clearest language in the New Testament comes from Jesus himself, during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is adamant that hellfire awaits anyone who keeps anger in his heart, but makes no mention of such judgment awaiting nonbelievers. In a few places (Luke 13, for instance) Jesus mentions Hell as a punishment for the “unrepentant”. Is it possible for a nonbeliever to be repentant?
As an atheist, I am not fearful of these outcomes, because I do not believe in an afterlife or divine judgment. If you are a Christian, though, and you are worried about the eternal soul of an atheist friend or family member, please consider that for a nonbeliever who loves her neighbor as herself, strives to harbor no anger toward her brother, and asks the forgiveness of those she wrongs, the stakes may not be as high as eternal damnation.