Thursday, January 31, 2008

I’ve heard there aren’t any atheists in a Plague

Of course, the actual saying is, “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, a reference to the fact that the religious of our world can’t imagine that when under fire, during a war, with bodies piling up around, that anyone could possibly remain a non-believer. This is a logical conclusion actually. Well, remember that the person who believes so is scared shitless of death (in any situation) and thus can’t imagine that anyone else would feel differently.

If you really think about it though, it is just a very intense version of Pascal’s Wager. If the chances are very good that I’m going to die in this battle, shouldn’t I be willing to pray about it and shouldn’t I accept God (just in case)? The problem is, you can’t force yourself to believe something you don’t – even in a life or death situation.

I can’t say for sure how I’d react in such a situation. That is, I don’t know what level of courage I’d have. But even if my level could better be described as “cowardice”, and I was weeping, shaking and saying things like “oh, god, I don’t want to die out here”, it would have absolutely nothing to do with suddenly believing that there is a god and that I might get to heaven if I just say the right things (in the case of Christianity, that would entail repenting for my sins and accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior). I’m sure it’s from moments such as these, where known atheists have said things like that or like “heaven help us to make it through till morning” that god-believers use to imply that atheists don’t exist in those situations. But it would be like shouting “Fuck this!” and having people say, “See there, men are like that. They always have sex on their minds”!

In “The Plague” by Albert Camus, the characters were challenged by an unthinkable situation that none of us have ever been in (I don’t think. I know I have never experienced that kind of fear, loss and misery). The comparison to war is apt, and is a comparison that comes up a lot in his book. But only one of the characters in the book was concerned with god. And there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary here. It was completely natural.

This is not to say that Camus suggested that many people in the town were not religious and did not pray about their situation. Naturally, in any such situation, god will insert himself (in a calamity which, presumably, he could have prevented in the first place). But Camus populated his story with people faced by an unreasonable, uncaring death – people that I as an atheist could fully understand and sympathize with. Fortunately, Camus gave us insights into how humans handle such tragedy sans god. There were no victories in The Plague. The plague won and then disappeared. But each man and woman carried on in their own very human ways, prostrating themselves before the powers of nature, but not before the supernatural.


UPDATE 2/1/08 - I failed to mention that this reading of The Plague was for the Non-Believing Literati. If you liked my thoughts, you'll love some of the others. Spanish Inquisitor has provided this mini-carnival of posts on the book and you can find all of the other great posts by starting there.


The Exterminator said...

Very impressive post, Evo, with a great title. I agree with everything you said.

I love your likening of the old "athiest in the foxhole" nonsense to "an intense version of Pascal's Wager." That's just a fantastic insight.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes. And I liked that none of Pascal's main characters really even flirted with God... And I liked Dr Rieux's line about Paneloux's horrific first sermon (actually less horrific than the second in some ways):

"I've seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They're better than it seems."

PhillyChief said...

I need to read this sometime.

I like the analogy as well, Evo. Hopefully none of us will be in a situation like a foxhole where we're in mortal danger. The time one faces the very real possibility of their imminent demise and how they react is very personal and should not be a subject for either ridicule or propagating something like religion. It's an ugly insight into the evil of religion that they'd exploit a man's moment of weakness and fear to sell their shit to the masses.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I also was struck by the range of philosophical stances the characters took towards the issues raised throughout this horrific event. I only wish that the sole religious reaction would not have been the stereotypical (albeit accurate for that particular perspective) one. I have no love for religion, but fairness compels me to acknowledge that many religious folks would not have agreed with Paneloux's judgments.

Sarge said...

Great post! My wife reads Proust and Camus much more than I (I confess myself to have wondered how in the heck they managed to communicate with a killer whale, and what it based it's writings on until my good wife informed me that the philosopher /writer was KA-moo, and the orca was SHA-moo...I was informed there was quite a difference) but we do endeavour to set a high bar for reading sometimes.

I am one who has occupied the positions, simultaniously of being an atheist and in foxholes.

I found out that if you have the time to be afraid things aren't as bad as they might initially seem. It's when you take a breath, stand up, and wipe your brow afterwards and it hits you what you've been through, and your teeth chatter,you shake, and a little urine dribbles down your leg when you put the events which seem to have no relationship to each other together and see what's around you that you know you really had a close call. And weren't afraid until it was all done.

I've mentioned it before, but in bad situations I heard guys call on a god...and I heard guys call on their mothers, too. The odd thing was, the god callers, who were assured of ever-lasting life in a wonderful heaven, well, they were kind of reluctant to take the trip. Made all kinds of bargains to not go; I've heard them.

On two occasions, one duting Tet forty years ago, we were actually told that we shouldn't expect to survive. Help wasn't coming and we were pretty much written off. Odd thing happened, I stopped being concerned, even felt elated. Such a sense of freedom, that nothing really mattered. It was almost a let down when we came out the other side.

The Exterminator said...

Well, I just went back and reread my first comment and I guess I've been eating too much dairy or something. I wrote "ATHIEST"!!!!!!

Yikes! Shoot me now.

Anyway, Evo, on behalf of all the Nonbelieving Literati: thanks for suggesting a book that has spawned so many amazing essays.

And Sarge: That comment was very powerful. I'd ask you again when the hell you're going to start your own blog, but that might deprive the rest of us of some of the best responses we get to our posts. So, selfishly, I'll keep my mouth shut.

ordinary girl said...

But it would be like shouting “Fuck this!” and having people say, “See there, men are like that. They always have sex on their minds”!

That made me laugh. They're always wanting us to not take God's name in vain, but when we do they think we're believers.

Anonymous said...

Evo said: But it would be like shouting “Fuck this!” and having people say, “See there, men are like that. They always have sex on their minds”!

Of course that's what people will say. It's true.

Tommy said...

I have never served in the military, so I was never in an atheist in a foxhole situation.

However, without going into details, several years ago I made a terrible mistake that I feared would wreck my life and cause me to lose my family. And it wasn't something of brief duration. I lived in absolute terror for some four months. But in all that time, I never wavered in my atheism. And in the end, everything ended up being okay.

Lifeguard said...

Paneloux has taken a beating in the essays I've read. I actually thought his last sermon was a vast improvement over the first one.

If anything, I thought it handled the whole plague issue the only honest way that religion can-- resort to how inexplicable god's will truly is. In the end, doesn't that put the religious person in the same situation as the atheist? Facing an inexplicably indifferent situation?

Maybe I don't recall Paneloux's last sermon that well, but I thought he had quite explicitly dropped the "we brought this on ourselves" rhetoric and adopted the same kind of resignation as the other characters.

Lifeguard said...


John Evo said...

@ Sarge and Tommy -

It's a happy day today. We have both of you here commenting. I think someone once said: It's another day in paradise.

I too have had a couple of experiences that I know have led others to beseech God to give his blessings. It never even occurred to me. The only time I thought about it was afterwards. And that was only to smile and tell myself, "yeah, boy. You really are an atheist". Or, as my friend Trinity would say, "athiest". Whatever. Spell it how you like; we know what it is.

Thanks for the nice comments everyone. I think the whole Non Believing Literati idea has born sweet fruit. Thanks again to Ex for getting us all together for this. It's been enlightening.

Sarge said...

If you want to read a REALLY great book which, in part, deals with atheism and takes you on a ride, find a copy of Mika Waltarai's The Egyptian.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think the second sermon is worse because it abandons all attempt to make sense of horror and just says (to hark back to our previous book) Deus Vult.

"In other manifestations of life God made things easy for us and, thus far, our religion had no merit. But in this respect He put us, so to speak, with our backs to the wall. ... [H]e would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child's agony. ... since it was God's will, we, too, should will it.... [T]he love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God's will ours."

In other words, cease to be human and you will accept whatever happens, and once you accept it, you'll want it.

Tara said...

An excellent non-fiction book on the plague by John Kelly, "The Great Mortality", goes into the role of the church during the plague as well as the reactions of many victims (many turned their backs on god and the church during this time due to the ineffectiveness of both parties).

During my own life-threatening illness and subsequent surgery (that put both me and my unborn son in danger), I never once thought about god or about turning to any faith to get me through it.

John Evo said...

@ Ridger - they are both bad. I see the insidious nature that you are referring to.

@ Tara - Thanks for the tip and stopping by!

Lynet said...

Hooray! This is really great -- all these fascinating posts. I was a little concerned that everyone else would say the same thing I did and that my post would be boring more-of-the-same. I shouldn't have worried. It's so great having all these thoughtful and different reactions. I have to echo Stermy's thanks for choosing a book that got us all thinking.