“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
I’m sure you’ve heard this more times than you care to remember. I’m sure you’ve heard religious believers dismiss secular humanism as a shallow, breezily hedonistic philosophy that dries up and blows away in the face of trauma, mortality, and grief.
It’s malarkey. You probably know that, of course; you probably know plenty of atheists who have been through terrible hardship without turning to religion. Chances are you’ve been through some yourself and emerged with your godlessness intact. You may even know—or indeed be—an atheist in a foxhole: not the metaphorical kind, but the military kind, seeking shelter from enemy fire.
I want to talk about one of those metaphorical foxholes. I want to talk about how, in the depths of it, my atheism and humanism didn’t dry up; instead they supported me and helped carry me through. And I want to encourage other humanists to talk with each other—and with religious believers—about your own trials and challenges and the ways that humanism, atheism, materialism, skepticism, and an evidence-based view of the world have helped get you through. (Assuming, of course, that they have.)
Here’s the short version of what happened to me: This past October I got hit with a serious one-two punch. My father died and less than two weeks later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
The cancer is treatable, and in fact has already been treated. I got lucky there (if any kind of cancer can be “lucky”): it was slow-growing, caught early, and entirely treated with hysterectomy, with no chemo or radiation needed. But it was still terrifying. Recovery from the surgery has been slow, often painful, almost always difficult and exhausting. And it was much more traumatic coming so soon after my father’s death. I was just barely beginning to recover from that shock and wrestle with my grief when the news about my cancer came. Plus there was a nasty feedback effect: each of these traumas left me weakened, and less able to cope with the other. (I was, for instance, keeping an almost-daily grief diary on my blog in the days after my father’s death, which was helping me cope and wring some meaning out of it. But I had to abandon the writing when the cancer came and immediately demanded all my attention.) And of course, the two traumas were closely entwined; the harsh realities of mortality and grief, of the eventual death of myself and everyone I love, were in my face every day, for weeks.
If there was ever a time when suffering, grief, and a stark reminder of my own mortality could make me turn to religion, this was it. I didn’t seriously think I would turn to religious belief—I know the arguments against it too thoroughly—but I kept waiting for the moment when I’d wish I believed. I kept waiting for the moment when I’d think to myself, “Goddammit, this atheism stuff sucks. If only I believed in God or an afterlife, this would be so much easier.” I kept waiting for that shoe to drop… and it kept not happening. The opposite happened. The thought of religion made me queasy—and my humanism proved a profound comfort.
Honestly? If I believed in a god who made this shit happen on purpose, I wouldn’t be comforted. I’d be wanting to find the biggest ladder I could, climb to heaven, and punch the guy’s lights out. Either that, or I’d be wracked with guilt and confusion trying to figure out what I’d done to deserve this, or what lesson I was supposed to be learning from it. If I had a relationship with an imaginary personal creator who supposedly loved me and yet made this horror show happen on purpose, it’d be just about the most toxic, dysfunctional relationship I could imagine.
But it is tremendously comforting to see these events as physical cause and effect. My father’s death and my illness didn’t come about because some asshole in the sky was pulling the strings. My father died and I got cancer due to cause and effect in the natural world. And the unbelievably awful timing of it? Physical cause and effect works that way sometimes. You roll a pair of dice long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get snake eyes. You live long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get two or three horribly crappy things happening at once.
That can be hard to accept. It can be hard to accept that we often have little or no control over what happens to us. But when I compare the idea that “Yeah, sometimes life sucks, and I have to deal with it as best I can” with the idea that “an immensely powerful being is fucking with me on purpose and won’t tell me why” I, for one, find the first idea much more comforting. I don’t have to torture myself with guilt over how I must have angered my god or screwed up my karma, with that guilt piling onto the trauma I’m already going through. And would the glib cliché that “everything happens for a reason” really give this shitstorm more meaning? Would it really be more comforting to twist my brain into absurd contortions trying to figure out what God was trying to teach me, and why the lesson was both so brutally enforced and so obscure?
Of course I can learn from all this. But I get to decide what lessons to take away and what these lessons mean. While others may think that praying hard and doing the right rituals to appease an imaginary friend ensures that their life will always be awesome, I have the real power to learn from the challenges life hands me, and to use what I’ve learned to make myself a better person, and to make life better for others.
The secular philosophies of death that I’ve been writing and reading about and contemplating for years have been a tremendous comfort. For instance: The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born—that nonexistence wasn’t painful or bad, and death won’t be either. The idea that our genes and our ideas will live on after we die. The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have. (When I first got the cancer diagnosis, one of my first reactions was, “I can’t die! I have books to write!”) The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die. The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe.
None of these humanist philosophies have made the trauma or grief magically disappear any more than prayer or belief in God would. When I say that these outlooks are comforting, I don’t mean that they’re a panacea. I mean that they staved off despair. They gave me a bridge over the chasm. When the worst of the fear and grief felt like it would overwhelm me, these outlooks gave me hope: a sense that life was worth returning to, and worth fighting for.
And that’s not trivial. When I first realized I was a nonbeliever, I wasn’t familiar with any of these ideas. I didn’t even know that atheist or humanist communities existed. So I had to re-invent the wheel. I had to grind my own way to my godless views of life and death, and I had to go through my earliest experiences of godless hard times on my own. And as a result, those hard times were much harder than they needed to be. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. As hard as these last few weeks have been, they’ve been made far, far easier by the ideas I’ve learned, and the skills I’ve acquired, and the connections and friendships I’ve formed from my years in the humanist, atheist, and skeptical communities.
So let’s talk about this. Let’s not concede the ground of comfort to the religious. Let’s talk about the worst of times—and how humanism can help get us through. Let’s give other people who are questioning their faith, or who have let go of their faith and are going through hard times, a hand across the chasm—or the foxhole—and a safe place to land.