“I was an atheist in a foxhole.” I’ve never actually heard anyone say this, but I have often wondered at the title of the node.

Conventional wisdom speaks otherwise, telling us that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” When pressed, so the more traditional saying goes, we will all naturally join the ranks of the believers, if only to save our own precious hides.

Some say this shows the insincerity of the non-believer’s convictions. Some say just the opposite, that it shows that all “belief” is simply self-serving manipulation. As for myself, I see it as an acknowledgement of the inherent human need to seek out and connect with a Power greater than ourselves.

So when I come across someone telling me that he was, in fact, an atheist in a real-life foxhole, I naturally have to ask some questions. The original writeup in this node makes just such a claim, containing an article by an author who, contrary to popular wisdom, declares that he never found a belief in God while in combat in Vietnam.

Is this proof that my own belief in the natural “believiness” of human beings is misplaced? Is this the exception that proves my rule? Or has the author simply misstated the truth, telling us of his professed atheism when he was, in fact, anything but?

I’ll take Door Number Three.

Why not take his words at face value, you say? After all, I have no direct evidence to the contrary. I wasn’t actually with him when he fought, and I certainly didn’t feel the bullets zip past my face or hear the explosions around me.

Who am I to question his claim to atheism?

I am a human being who knows enough about human nature to know that the key word in this node title is “was.” Not atheist. Not foxhole. Was.

As in “I’m claiming to have been an atheist after-the-fact, while sitting comfortably at my keyboard hammering out an article for The Humanist magazine.” That kind of “was.” And while I could go into a long, boring analysis of human capacity for rationalization, justification, denial, and self-delusion, I’d rather just make my argument my favorite way. With a little joke.

There was a man whose wife was very, very pregnant. As he and his wife were driving home from Lamaze class one night, his wife suddenly went into labor without any warning. Recognizing that she was about to give birth at any minute, the man changed course immediately, heading for the nearest hospital.

As they approached the hospital, he saw that the emergency room entrance was packed with ambulances. There was no way to pull in close enough for the medics to get his wife, now very much in labor, out of the car and into the hospital. Fearing that she would give birth in the car right in front of the hospital, the man said a little prayer.

“God, I know I haven’t talked much with you lately. I haven’t gone to church, I haven’t read the Bible, and I almost never pray. But I swear, if you find some way to get my wife to the hospital in time for the birth of my child, I’ll turn over a new leaf. I’ll go to church every Sunday, and I’ll read the whole Bible from cover to cover. Please help.”

As they drove past the emergency room entrance, the man saw a space he hadn’t seen before, just beyond the last ambulance. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, he slid the car into the spot. As he saw the medics rush forward with a wheelchair for his wife, he looked up and said:

“Never mind. I found a spot myself.”

Now that is an atheist in a foxhole.