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Atheist in a Foxhole

It is commonly said there are no atheists in a foxhole, that fear of death terrifies a skeptic into believing in God. I was unexpectedly forced into this situation when diagnosed with incurable cancer last fall.
Confronted by my own mortality for the first time, where could I turn for spiritual meaning and comfort? I had been a devout Catholic for half of my life due to strong family influences. I uncritically accepted the dogma and found much comfort in the social network as well as the beautiful liturgy. My beliefs at that time provided meaning and purpose to my life and gave me hope for an existence after death.

Richard Feil today
I first questioned this world view due to my graduate training in scientific psychology, which provided me with the analytic tools to study human behavior in an objective and unbiased manner. I asked myself if the human being could be regarded as just another member of the animal kingdom, subject to the same laws of behavior as other animals. I slowly became convinced that our behavior can be fully explained without resorting to supernaturalism. That led me to the conclusion that we ourselves are part of an impersonal physical universe, the result of millions of years of natural selection.
I learned that there has never been an empirically demonstrated exception to the laws of nature that has stood the test of scientific scrutiny, despite numerous claims. How could I intellectually reconcile this deterministic view of reality with the metaphysical claims of religion? Could I dare question what millions of people accept as "gospel truth," and even sacrifice their lives for? For years I experienced growing cognitive dissonance as I tried to pretend both views of reality are true.
My thinking was further shaped by studies in anthropology and sociobiology. It is theorized that hunters and gatherers in the prehistoric period survived the harsh conditions by developing strong social cohesion and dependency as well as blind obedience to a strong leader. Today we also are programmed to follow authority figures uncritically, especially powerful and charismatic leaders. This, combined with our innate fear of rejection by the group, provides powerful peer pressure not to question the prevailing ideology.
I certainly felt this need not to "think outside the box." But it conflicted with what I honestly believed to be true regarding human nature. I came to see religious faith as an unquestioning acceptance of beliefs that contradict reality.
I also think the strong, genetically programmed need for survival that we share with all living creatures, combined with the vivid imagination unique to humans, has, over the eons, driven our species to construct an escape from the annihilation of physical death through fantasies of an afterlife. The promise of paradise, I believe, is the bargaining chip used by religion to subvert logical thinking, sometimes resulting in extreme physical and emotional misery. Religions tend to produce inflexible dogmatic thinking in their followers, preventing them from achieving their full human potential.
It felt scary at first. But it was liberating to question the core assumptions of a belief system that most people take for granted. After reading the works of such writers as Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, and other "freethinkers," I became convinced that, indeed, the emperor has no clothes.
What a marvelous and unique product of natural processes we humans are! We experience exciting developmental processes: becoming a person in childhood, the "Sturm und Drang" of adolescence, the challenges of adulthood, and the denouement of old age. We also get to observe ourselves making this journey full of thrills and chills. Our "selves" are capable of remembering, sharing, and anticipating future adventures in living. How many of us realize this is the only life we will ever have and therefore strive everyday to maximize our happiness and that of others?
And what of the atheist in the foxhole? Faced with the fear of death, will the atheist cave in to cultural expectations and social pressure to plead with a god for magical intervention? Or will the atheist remain courageous and true to convictions that this life is all there is? I think fear is the ultimate self-serving force underlying all forms of religious observance. We humans are ingenious in suspending logical reasoning in the pursuit of physical and emotional security.
I myself have not wavered in my philosophy of life as a rationalist and humanist. The meaning of my life lies in my family and in my personal and professional accomplishments. Now I treasure each remaining day as another opportunity to fully experience the joys of living. And in the end I shall tearfully bid farewell to my loved ones and simply cease to exist. Only my genes will live on in my children and their offspring.

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  • byline: Richard Feil

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