Are There Atheists in the Foxholes?

Today’s guest post is by Rev. Paul Bruno, Pastor, Evangel Christian Church, Little Ferry, NJ and Executive Director, Meals with a Mission, Garfield, NJ.

Do you believe in God? Billions of people do. And, millions of people kill in the name of God. In fact, more and more people believe organized religion, and not money, is the root cause of all evil. Perhaps that’s one reason why atheism is growing so quickly. And yet, articles such as this one from The New York Times suggest renowned atheists like Christopher Hitchens are embracing religion in their final days!

So, what’s going on? I asked Rev. Paul Bruno, pastor of the Evangel Christian Church in Little Ferry, NJ, for his take.

foxSteve Cody recently came across The New York Times article Christopher Hitchens Was Shaky in His Atheism, New Book Suggests and posed this question to me about lifelong atheists who become believers as they face death. Is it true that there are no atheists in the fox hole?

With history having documented well-known conversions, the question then becomes twofold: why the late life or death bed changeover to faith and does a last-second conversion impact the image and reputation of a lifelong, high-profile atheist?

Both religious folk and atheists arrive at their belief or non-belief in God by collecting information and drawing on personal experiences. The chasm that divides the two may seem wide at times, but in reality, both groups grapple with the same issues: free will vs. predestination, the violent nature of the Old Testament culture vs. Christ’s teachings of grace in the New Testament and Heaven vs. Hell.

It is at this point where the sum of personal experiences and information gathered either draws people toward faith or turns them away. The Barna Group’s 2015 State of Atheism in America states that there were three primary components that lead to disbelief in God’s existence: the rejection of the Bible, a lack of trust in the local church and cultural reinforcements of a secular worldview. One wonders if those complicated issues lose significance in the face of one’s imminent mortality.

David Kinnaman, the president of The Barna Group, directed a study of the lifestyles and habits of atheist adults in America, and pointed out some of the implications of the research. “Neither the 20 million no-faith adults nor the 58 million active-faith Christians are as internally consistent as those who write and speak on behalf of their groups make them out to be. Proponents of secularism suggest that rejecting faith is a simple and intelligent response to what we know today. Yet, most of the Americans who overtly reject faith harbor doubts about whether they are correct in doing so.”

Christianity is often found to be a foundational and educational principle in the United States, many children growing up are directly exposed to its teachings and disciplines. Since research shows that the disengagement with those teachings often happens in the teen-college years, it stands to reason that the wrestling of faith vs. no-faith continues for the rest of most adult’s lives, leading to the death bed/conversion dilemma. Do those early teachings and experiences influence one’s end of life beliefs and decisions?

The end of life issue is both intense and complex in every instance with a lasting profound effect on each individual’s family and friends. Its complexity stems from the “unknown” factor of what happens next: afterlife or no afterlife? If its afterlife, then Heaven or Hell come into play and the life of the individual’s relationship and commitment to God. If no afterlife, then the finality is burial.

The atheist who embraces faith in his last moment is making his strongest statement of belief. Perhaps the significance and obsession with public image and reputation cease at death’s door and are finally of no consideration in the face of one’s final moment of transition. We finally believe what we believe, unfettered.


12 thoughts on “Are There Atheists in the Foxholes?

  1. Wow. Some fascinating commentary ranging from pedophilia and ghosts to Woody Allen and genocide. He most certainly does work in mysterious ways….

  2. When I was 10 years old I had a sexual relationship with a Catholic priest. When the good priest was exiled to Central America I blamed myself. At 10 I didn’t want to let my Dad know that I was going to Hell…so I buried our secret. Later in life when I became self destructive and suicidal there were many incorrect diagnosis …until a therapist realized that I had been sexually abused as a child. I don’t believe in Hell anymore…when it’s over it’s over…I wish these organized religion’s got their shit together and stopped causing so much death and destruction in the world.

    • You didn’t have sexual relationship you were raped. And, organized religion, which, since the beginning of time, has been responsible for war, hate, killing, prejudice, bigotry, destruction, abuse, and genocide will never change.

  3. I’d like to first thank Pastor Bru I for penning such an insightful analysis of last-second conversions. Personally, I’d liken it to an afterworld insurance policy.

    What possible harm could there be to a last-second, death bed conversion? If there is an all-merciful god, one would hope He’d open the pearly gates regardless of one’s past record as an atheist. If there is no afterlife, then we simply fade to black. It’s actually a win- win from that perspective.

  4. You call it a statement of belief. I call it fear. I was raised a Christian, taught for seven years in Christian day school, and my brother is a Christian minister. From what I learned, the fundamental principle of Christianity is this: If you accept Jesus as your lord and savior, you’re absolved of your sins and go on to eternal happiness. If you don’t accept him, you’re out of luck. Period. It’s an interesting way to build a belief system.

    I’m not trying to be flippant, but many people hedge their bets at the end of their lives. Facing our mortality is terrifying (just ask Woody Allen). Faith gives people something to lessen the terror.

    • Thanks, Matt, but I’m not terrified of death. I don’t want to die, but it doesn’t scare me. Maybe it terrifies people who believe there is a heaven and hell. (again the scare tactics of organized religion.) Someone asked me, “But don’t you wonder what happens when you die?” I know exactly what happens when you die…op open a casket and you can see for yourself 🙂

  5. I always say I’m half Roman Catholic and half atheist. My mom is Catholic and my dad is an atheist, so that’s what I am, right? People ask which I mean. I lean toward living life and then if life were to flash I would be religious. If you’re able to switch in your 11th hour? I can see both angles. But attending a Catholic grade school, more questions about God arose than were solidified. How to we lie to children about Santa then tell them there is a Jesus? But yet, how this creation come to be. We shall never know. So the questions continue.