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Foxhole theist syndrome

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By Nicholas Provenzo from The Rule of Reason,cross-posted by MetaBlog

We have all heard the line that "there are no atheists in foxholes." The argument goes that it is impossible for a person to maintain their rationality when pushed to the extreme; a person must believe in God if they are to endure the challenges of the battlefield. How it empowers anyone to switch focus from facing the facts of reality to believing that a transcendent being will face them for you is never really answered, yet such is the way of those who are animated by their blind beliefs. Besides, the goal in claiming that there are no atheists in foxholes is to smear the rational by simply denying that they exist, or that their reason earns them anything.

It is interesting then to see a variation of this tactic employed by the conservatives in response to C. Bradley Thompson's landmark essay "The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism." For example, blogger Orrin Judd thinks that the American founding was not animated by reason in defense of individualism, but by faith in pursuit of the general welfare.

Mr. Thompson argues that the rights to life, liberty, etc., matter because self-interest is the American ideal. The Declaration, however, states quite clearly that they matter because the Creator endowed us with them. Similarly, when it came time to institutionalize the genuine American ideals, the Founders not only made no mention of self-interest but were quite forthright about their purposes being social, rather than individualist: "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Their concern is general welfare, common defense, etc, not your own welfare or your own defense or other narrow and selfish aims.

This argument on the part of the conservatives shows how they seek to enshrine the aspects of the founders' philosophy that embraced faith while rejecting the more influential (and consequential) aspects of their philosophy that embraced reason. Frankly, to claim that the Declaration of Independence did not establish the principle of individual rights (including the right to pursue one's own selfish happiness) as the governing philosophy of America is ludicrous and dishonest. How does one then explain the Bill of Rights, which limited government power to enter into the individual's private spheres? And almost more importantly, how does one then explain the industrial revolution, were it not an expression of individual men's selfish desire to conqueror nature and prosper accordingly?

In the comments to his post, Judd goes on to reveal his real hand when he chimes that Objectivism is "libertarianism, [but] just more cultish." What else would one expect from a person who believes in an unknowable supernatural entity that demands all our sacrifice, and that the goal of our civil government is to secure such a benighted worldview? Yet according to some, we should nevertheless align ourselves politically with such people in order to secure and protect our freedom.

Count me as one who fails to see how any such an alliance can bring Objectivists anything worthwhile.

http://ObjectivismOnline.com/blog/archives/002160.html

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We have all heard the line that "there are no atheists in foxholes." The argument goes that it is impossible for a person to maintain their rationality when pushed to the extreme; a person must believe in God if they are to endure the challenges of the battlefield. How it empowers anyone to switch focus from facing the facts of reality to believing that a transcendent being will face them for you is never really answered, yet such is the way of those who are animated by their blind beliefs.

I think you may have mischaracterized the idea. The driving idea behind turning to God in the "foxhole" is not that shifting focus away from reality to "blind beliefs" has an affect on your survival. The point, however, is that the "foxhole" situation is one where a person realizes that his rational actions and thoughts are utterly and completely irrelevant to his survival. IE, you are crouched down in a trench, with enemy shells falling all around. You can't stop the shells, you can't move, you simply have to endure the fact that your life could disappear in an instant through no action on your part. In such situations, I actually think it is at least understandable that someone would turn to God. Turning to God, in a sense, is a means of "doing something" you think might affect your survival when all the other actions you might do would not.

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The point, however, is that the "foxhole" situation is one where a person realizes that his rational actions and thoughts are utterly and completely irrelevant to his survival.

At that point rationality is the only thing left which may increase ones chances of survival.

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The claim that "There are no atheist in a foxhole" actually supports the atheist viewpoint! Religious people who advocate this line of thought are hoist by their own petard. Notice that this argument does not address whether God exist, it merely states that in extremely stressfull situations, people have a need or tendency to believe in a "comforting" scenario - in this case a benevolent God that will eventually make everything all right. Put in another way, people will more easily entertain fantasy in order to feel relief - this hardly proves that God exist, if anything it argues for the opposite.

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There are no such situations.

Well, since my first question was sent to the trash can (I am not sure if it was by you or not) I will ask it again:

Exactly how do you know this?

Remember, we are talking about situations (specifically in warfare) where a person's choices are limited in such a way that rational decision-making largely does not affect their survival.

The best example I can think of is of a soldier in a trench who is being shelled by the enemy. He can't run away, he can't stop the enemy from firing the shells. He has to crouch down in the trench, essentially motionless, and wait for either for some order to come from above or simply for a shell to hit close enough to injure or kill him.

Of what use is reason in determining his survival in this context? Not much, for sure. Certainly there is a level of rationality which need apply, IE he can't go completely insane and start running around firing his rifle in the air or go out of the trench where it is less safe. But my point is that, especially in war, you sometimes have situations where you have choices to make which affect your survival, but beyond those minimal choices you have no meaningful capacity to change your fate.

This is where the "foxhole theist" issue comes up even with normally rational, athiest men. God is essentially acting as the "ace in the hole" which is turned to only once all other options have failed. Certainly the "foxhole theist" doesn't really count on God to magically change reality and "part the Red Sea" so-to-speak, but as a psychological tool I think said syndrome may be valuable to some men.

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The best example I can think of is of a soldier in a trench who is being shelled by the enemy. He can't run away, he can't stop the enemy from firing the shells. He has to crouch down in the trench, essentially motionless, and wait for either for some order to come from above or simply for a shell to hit close enough to injure or kill him.

So you are saying the rational decision here is to stay put in the fox hole until another opportunity presents itself, if such an occurrence happens? Rationality is still in play then as you have outlined his best chance for survival based on his decision to stay in the foxhole.

Or, if dying is the only possibility for him remaining in the foxhole, the rational choice if he wants to live is to make a run for it and take his chances. Rationality is still in play here.

Your scenario illustrates that rationality is still his best guide to staying alive.

Edited by GreedyCapitalist
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This is where the "foxhole theist" issue comes up even with normally rational, athiest men. God is essentially acting as the "ace in the hole" which is turned to only once all other options have failed. Certainly the "foxhole theist" doesn't really count on God to magically change reality and "part the Red Sea" so-to-speak, but as a psychological tool I think said syndrome may be valuable to some men.

I actually think you are sort of on the path to a valid point - though I don't think it has anything to do with some sort of "ace in the hole."

There are situations that one has absolutely zero metaphysical control over yet the outcome of which has profound and extremely significant implications to one's values and perhaps one's entire life. So much is at stake - and yet one is unable to act in any way whatsoever. One is essentially powerless and can do nothing but await the outcome of events. Maybe it is the foxhole situation Vladimir described. Perhaps one is shackled in a cell after being kidnapped by terrorists and is suddenly being dragged in front of video cameras and one of the masked terrorists has has a very long knife. Or maybe a loved one is having an operation.

The only thing one can do in such situations is await the outcome of events and hopefully find one's self back in a position where one can take positive action in the name of his values. But while one may not be able to act - one's mind is still alert and, undoubtedly, a lot is going through it at that moment. I think it is entirely understandable and not at all irrational if a person in such a dramatic situation makes an emotional plea to the universe at large that goes something along the lines of: "In the name of everything that is wonderful and good and dear - please let me get through this." Or "My loved one is a dear and wonderful person and has so much to offer and so much living to do - in the name of everything that is dear and just, please let him/her make it through this." Having such an emotion does not negate one's rationality nor does it hamper a person's ability to take immediate action should the situation evolve and provide such an opportunity. If anything, such an emotion is beneficial in that it keeps one's mind focused on one's values.

Unfortunately, our culture does not really offer us with much help in terms of providing us with a secular form though which one can give voice and express such an emotion. In her 1968 Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand talked about how "religion's monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life." She provides examples of how religion has "usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man's reach." She provided examples such as "exaltation" "worship" "reverence" and "sacred." She then explains: "...such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists."

I think that the sort of "prayer" by atheists in foxhole scenarios is a good example of an actual emotion that religion has basically usurped and for which no secular counterpart exists in our culture (in part, possibly, because so many secularist intellectuals today are nihilists who routinely ridicule and sneer at any display of intense emotions other than rage, hostility and hatred.) My guess is many "foxhole theists" address their plea to God simply because no other words come to mind but yet the emotion they feel is very real, profound and deeply personal.

This issue reminds me of that wonderful 1979 interview that Ayn Rand did with Tom Snyder:

Tom Snyder

: You love this country, don't you?

Ayn Rand
: Passionately. Very, very much and consciously. I love this country for its ideas. And I've seen enough of the other side, so I can appreciate this country.

Tom Snyder
: You might even get emotional about this country.

Ayn Rand
: Oh, yes! You want me to get emotional?

Tom Snyder
: Might even thank God for it?

Ayn Rand
: Yeah....I may not literally mean a "god," but I like what that expression means: "thank God" or "God bless you." It means the highest possible to me and I would certainly thank God for this country."

Somehow I don't think that an atheist in a desperate situation praying to God for the safety of himself or his loved ones is very much different - and such a person is not necessarily any more of a theist than was Ayn Rand when she said "thank God for the United States of America."

Edited by Dismuke
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The best example I can think of is of a soldier in a trench who is being shelled by the enemy. He can't run away, he can't stop the enemy from firing the shells. He has to crouch down in the trench, essentially motionless, and wait for either for some order to come from above or simply for a shell to hit close enough to injure or kill him.

He should then try to use the knowledge he has to wiegh the chances of death in all possibilities, fall back? Wait for a break and charge? I don't seem to understand you, are you saying that the best choice could be reached without reason? Everything has chances of incidence, he would choose the best.

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Also, rationality requires long-term thinking. A rational person would not end up as cannon fodder to begin with, whether that means not enlisting, dodging the draft, or serving in another branch.

Yikes! Have you been talking with John Kerry, lately? (Just kidding - but, if read in a certain way, there is a similarity between the above and Kerry's recent remarks).

What if your country was being invaded by dictatorship and, if your country fell and you survived the war, life would be utter hell?

Sometimes such situations happen despite people's best intentions to avoid them. And, in some countries, dodging the draft or defying the government has meant not only putting one's self at risk but one's loved ones as well. If one is under gunpoint, any option that is open to one is likely to be pretty awful.

I, for one, do not understand how or relate to people who undertake any high-risk profession on grounds that such is what they want to do. It seems totally nuts to me - but there are, without a doubt, many highly rational and intelligent people who do more than willingly choose to accept such positions.

As for the military in general - well, I personally wouldn't make it through boot camp without telling the drill sargent exactly where to go and shove it. I don't allow people to talk that way to me. I don't take orders and, while I am all for "teamwork" in a business or any other setting which requires coordinated cooperation, militaries seem to equate teamwork with their own version of what amounts to collectivism. I can't relate to someone choosing to be on the front lines - and for that reason, I can very much relate to your suggestion that such is not a rational decision. However, in reality, I don't think that such a charge is necessarily accurate or just. There are a great many rational people in the military - which I suspect you will agree with.

As for people on the front lines, as opposed to less risky assignments, I think the matter can be highly contextual and a choice to be there does not necessarily mean that a person is not rational. Maybe one is fighting for his freedom and would rather die than live under dictatorship. Not everyone has the intelligence and/or the skills needed to achieve the less risky assignments. Lack of intelligence and ability does not translate into lack of rationality - though it usually does translate into less desirable jobs. Some people have a spirit of "adventure" and thrive on high-risk situations. Some become spies. Others become test pilots. I am only guessing here - but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the survival rate of a low ranking troop in Iraq is actually better than the on-the-job survival rate of astronauts in the shuttle program over the past 25 years. Yet being an astronaut requires a tremendous amount of rationality. A rank and file soldier is a way that those who are into that sort of thing can experience that sense of "adventure." And the job of today's front line soldier is significantly different than it has been in the past where the only requirement was to obey, know how to shoot and be tough. Everything today is going increasingly high tech, even on the front lines. This not only means that one's odds of survival are better, it also requires that soldiers be something more than mindless brutes.

It is not a job I would ever take. But, considering the state of the world today and the fact that we are sooner or later going to have to take out our enemies if we are not going to become the sort of Vichy America that the Jacques Kerrys of the world would have us live in, I for one, am very glad that there are some people who do choose to take it. For the sake of all of us, I sure hope that most of them are rational people - which I suspect they are. At the very least, I think it is pretty accurate to say that the typical rank and file soldier of the very lowest rank in the US military is probably significantly more rational and undoubtedly many times more moral than the likes of Jacques Kerry.

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I didn't mean to say it is irrational to serve in the military, just that it's not rational to end up in a deadly situation because of a lack of planning. The only reason one should end up serving in trenches is because no other possibilities are open to him. Hopefully, in the 21st century, not even that will be necessary.

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So you are saying the rational decision here is to stay put in the fox hole until another opportunity presents itself, if such an occurrence happens? Rationality is still in play then as you have outlined his best chance for survival based on his decision to stay in the foxhole.

Or, if dying is the only possibility for him remaining in the foxhole, the rational choice if he wants to live is to make a run for it and take his chances. Rationality is still in play here.

Your scenario illustrates that rationality is still his best guide to staying alive.

As I said, rationality isn't abandoned by the "foxhole theist" situation. There are some choices that need to be made. The problem is that once these baseline choices are made "Do I stay or do I flee," or "Do I follow my superiors or shoot them?" you likely to be left in a "hurry up and wait" type situation where you have nothing to do and no choices to make. This is where the foxhole theist idea comes up.

He should then try to use the knowledge he has to wiegh the chances of death in all possibilities, fall back? Wait for a break and charge? I don't seem to understand you, are you saying that the best choice could be reached without reason? Everything has chances of incidence, he would choose the best.

As I said, those choices have already been made. By choosing to stay in the trench he has essentially chosen to sit and wait there through the shelling with absolutely no influence over whether or not the shelling kills him. At this point, further rational choices are minimal and have little or no effect on his survival.

Also, rationality requires long-term thinking. A rational person would not end up as cannon fodder to begin with, whether that means not enlisting, dodging the draft, or serving in another branch.

I could not disagree with this more. See Dismuke's post.

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Regarding the matter of the threat of death in war due to present circumstances -- mortar fire around you from out of nowhere, automatic weapons fire from somewhere out there, whatever the nature of the threat is -- I would like to hear from younger combat veterans, Vietnam and later, who have been in this situation. Certain people do hope that god will get them out of whatever bad situation they are in, up to the point that you can find evangelical types actually praying to make their credit card debt go away (I guess because they think god doesn't ask "Wats in yoor walllet??"). I'd like to see the evidence that there is any significant causal correlation between being is a hopeless combat (or otherwise) situation, and actually giving real consideration to the possibility of a magical being who can get out out of the hell that you are in right this very minute.

I can construct all sort of plausible, rationalistic death-psychology scenarios, but not having personally faced the threat of imminent death under fire, I have nothing in reality to base my conjectures on. So, vets and cops, speak up. I know the question is by nature prejudiced: only those who held that man's proper means of survival is reason are likely to have followed that abstract belief under fire, and are thus likely to still be alive to report how they felt when they were threatened with nonexistence. Still, I'd like to get some empirically-informed feedback on this point.

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As I said, rationality isn't abandoned by the "foxhole theist" situation.

Yes, I know. As has been said, rationality offers the best opportunity to survive any situation.

I'm not really interested in debating this further. If we disagree, you are free to pursue irrational means of survival if you find yourself in a foxhole being shelled. Good luck with that.

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So, vets and cops, speak up.

I've been in life-threatening situations, but none that I would compare to the potentially hopeless foxhole bombing scenario. I've been in one particular situation where there was a significant threat to my life and the lives of other cops in the area (one had already been shot, another shot at at close range and others shot at at a distance), but it was not to the point where I seriously considered, "This may be the day I die." It's difficult for me to speculate how I would react to a situation where death seemed imminent.

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By choosing to stay in the trench he has essentially chosen to sit and wait there through the shelling with absolutely no influence over whether or not the shelling kills him. At this point, further rational choices are minimal and have little or no effect on his survival.

? Why wouldn't he move as soon as he finds a break? Isn't the point to use foxholes as temporary waiting room? You say that once he decides to wait further rational is irrelevant, why? His priority is to wait attentivley for a change in circumstances or to think (and decide whether there is a better chance for survival there, back or the front).

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? Why wouldn't he move as soon as he finds a break? Isn't the point to use foxholes as temporary waiting room? You say that once he decides to wait further rational is irrelevant, why? His priority is to wait attentivley for a change in circumstances or to think (and decide whether there is a better chance for survival there, back or the front).

You are really just arguing the facts of the hypothetical, which is slightly beside the point. Yes, there might be similar circumstances where a person has different options open to them. But the whole point of the hypothetical is to show that in some situations, there are no such options. You say his priority is to "wait" and that is exactly the point. Waiting implies doing nothing at that moment, and that is the kind of circumstance where being a "foxhole theist" seems attractive. There isn't much point in pleading with God when you are the midst of activity, IE, in a dogfight with an enemy fighter, locked in hand-to-hand combat, etc. But not all human activity is that reliant on second-by-second thoughts having a profound difference in your survival. Sometimes your personal thoughts have almost no impact, as in the trench example I gave. That is where I think people, even atheists, see God as a last hope, maybe even an attractive option.

If Objectivism really is a philosophy concerned with reality, then the fact that such a syndrome as "foxhole theism" exists should be taken as an interesting example of human psychology. It can't just be dismissed out-of-hand as not actually occurring, or serving no purpose whatsoever. Whatever you think about the existence of God, that doesn't mean that you can't analyze the belief in God as a psychological tool or crutch in such circumstances.

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I didn't mean to say it is irrational to serve in the military, just that it's not rational to end up in a deadly situation because of a lack of planning.

Yes, exactly. The time to do your rational thinking is BEFORE you get stuck in a foxhole. You don't just wind up in a foxhole where all your options are bad by accident. Catch-22-type binds are the result of previous sloppy thinking (or simple lack of thought altogether.) When you saw the dictators taking power in a neighboring country, you did nothing. When you saw them engaging in shady deals with other countries and undergoing a massive military buildup, you did nothing. When you heard the anti-your-country propaganda campaign launched over the airwaves, you did nothing. When you were drafted and your military commander outlined a suicidal strategy, you did nothing.

You could have denounced them from the rooftops. You could have elected "Hawk" politicians. You could have left the country if it was determined not to see the threat on its doorstep. You could have refused to be a martyr to other peoples' fuck-ups.

I won't speculate as to why you did these things, but don't complain when you've systematically weeded the choices from your life that there are situations where rationality is irrelevant. You asked for it.

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You are really just arguing the facts of the hypothetical, which is slightly beside the point.

It's your hypothetical, and you proposed it. All we've done is demonstrate that it is not, in fact, an example of the theoretical situation you've proposed, which also answers your other question: "how do you know?"

I know because I look at the context of a situation, not just the two seconds that may exist in which all choices are bad, and I have not seen a real situation that, in context, actually qualifies as a Catch-22. Since it's your theory that such situations exist, it's up to you to provide an example. If you can't, then my assertion stands.

If Objectivism really is a philosophy concerned with reality, then the fact that such a syndrome as "foxhole theism" exists should be taken as an interesting example of human psychology. It can't just be dismissed out-of-hand as not actually occurring, or serving no purpose whatsoever. Whatever you think about the existence of God, that doesn't mean that you can't analyze the belief in God as a psychological tool or crutch in such circumstances.

I don't recall anyone arguing that foxhole theism doesn't exist, oh Changer-of-Terms. People resort to religion or other kinds of irrational beliefs in all sorts of situations for all sorts of reasons: this is an ostensive fact, not subject to argument. I don't really find it surprising that the confused-of-thought would reach for a crutch in a crisis: their mental motor is full of sand and not operating with any kind of efficiency. What I'm arguing is your baseless assertion that there are situations in which rationality is not of value, which is simply a large-scale example of context-dropping.

I don't really think it says anything noteworthy about humanity in general, either. It's not a psychological "syndrome" or some kind of involuntary pathology. I know quite a few people that have maintained the most stringent kind of unassailable atheism in the face of fantastic crises. All I have to say on the matter is: good for them.

Edited by JMeganSnow
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Yes, exactly. The time to do your rational thinking is BEFORE you get stuck in a foxhole. You don't just wind up in a foxhole where all your options are bad by accident. Catch-22-type binds are the result of previous sloppy thinking (or simple lack of thought altogether.) When you saw the dictators taking power in a neighboring country, you did nothing. When you saw them engaging in shady deals with other countries and undergoing a massive military buildup, you did nothing. When you heard the anti-your-country propaganda campaign launched over the airwaves, you did nothing. When you were drafted and your military commander outlined a suicidal strategy, you did nothing.

You could have denounced them from the rooftops. You could have elected "Hawk" politicians. You could have left the country if it was determined not to see the threat on its doorstep. You could have refused to be a martyr to other peoples' fuck-ups.

I won't speculate as to why you did these things, but don't complain when you've systematically weeded the choices from your life that there are situations where rationality is irrelevant. You asked for it.

What you are saying here is essentially that being a soldier is always irrational. The type of "foxhole" situations we are talking about here are an inherent risk in being a soldier. Your point is that no rational man would voluntarily choose an option that contained such a risk. Hence no rational man would ever choose to be a soldier. This seems opposed to Ayn Rand's own position, just for starters. Too, it assumes a sort of omniscient knowledge of the future men don't possess. Once the choice is made to join the Army, you have accepted the risks of whatever conflict may occur during your enlistment. Thus you can't reevaluate it at some future point and say "Wait a minute, this war using irrational and suicidal tactics, I think I am going to go to Canada!" Well, that is a strategy if you are a Democrat at least...

It's your hypothetical, and you proposed it. All we've done is demonstrate that it is not, in fact, an example of the theoretical situation you've proposed, which also answers your other question: "how do you know?"

Again, I don't think this is true because your only reponse to the hypothetical is to say that being a soldier is inherently irrational and thus to remove from the scope of the discussion any issues of rational choice dealing with warfare. Since I think it is entirely possible for a man to make rational choices yet still end up in the "foxhole" situation I think the issue still is worthy of discussion. I could detail the sort of rational choices which would lead to the "foxhole" if you wish. But in short, simply lumping all soldiers into the "irrationality" bucket does not free one from having to decide difficult moral issues dealing with warfare.

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