According to the conventional wisdom of many believers, atheists frequently find themselves pulled toward God during times of stress, and they’ve come up with clever aphorisms to describe the phenomenon, like “there are no atheists in foxholes” or “only an atheist until the plane start to fall”. The idea behind this is that it’s easy to be an atheist when your life is going well, but once you experience hard times, you’ll believe in God or at least hope that he is real.
While this claim may be true for some people, it’s certainly not a universal truth among atheists. Moreover, the existence of “deathbed conversions” and similar experiences does not prove the existence of God. They only suggest that people are at their most irrational when frightened, in pain or delirious. The intense fear of death may drive some to accept illogical or irrational views out of desperation for comfort or a way to relieve or lessen their intense anxiety. We’re all human and experience the same basic emotions, so this desire for comfort is certainly understandable. Then, it’s not that someone is desperate for God; they’re desperate for some kind of comfort and emotional relief.
The idea that fear could drive you toward the belief in God only goes to suggest that religious claims are commonly fear-based and not rooted in actual logic or evidence. Unintentionally, theists are essentially acknowledging that their claims are irrational.
Are There Really No Atheists in Foxholes?
Many atheists lost their faith in God through reasonable discourse and careful consideration. Such views are unlikely to change on a whim. An atheist suddenly believing in God is like a grown man suddenly believing in Santa Claus. For many atheists, the only thing that could genuinely cause them to change their minds is real evidence for God’s existence, not the emotional turmoil of stress, death and tragedy.
Seven years after astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan died, his wife, Ann Druyan, said this about her husband:
“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural... The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.” (1)
Prior to his death, journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens stated in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN that if he had any deathbed conversion, it would be the product of delirium. He acknowledged that his brain may act erratically and outside of his control in his final hours but was confident that any actions it took would not represent who he really was:
Cooper: In a moment of doubt, isn’t there?...I just find it fascinating that even when you’re alone and no one else is watching, there might be a moment when you want to hedge your bets.
Hitchens: If that comes, it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain and I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on—because these things happen, and the faithful love to spread these rumors. Well, I can’t say that the entity that by then wouldn’t be me wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I’m lucid, no. I can be quite sure of that.
Cooper: So if there’s some story that on your deathbed...
Hitchens: Don’t believe it. Don’t credit it. (2)
Evolutionary biologist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins said in an interview with Bill Maher:
“When I'm on my deathbed, I'm going to have a tape recorder switched on. Because people like me are the victims of malicious stories after their death, people saying they had a deathbed conversion when they didn't.” (3)
A Dying Brain Cannot Be Trusted
Faced with extreme stress, pain, loss of blood, drugs and other similar factors, the brain sometimes acts differently than it normally would. Some patients come out of surgical anesthesia feeling extreme delirium, believing, for example, that their doctors are conspiring to kill them or simply seeing things that aren’t there (4). That some of these hallucinations could be religious in nature is hardly surprising. Religious myths are widespread, and many people are exposed to religion from a young age. Such fables can easily resurface from the subconscious mind regardless of the person’s conscious, rational beliefs.
Theists like to point to the global prevalence of religious belief as proof that there is a global desire to believe in God. The reality is more complex. Cultural indoctrination certainly plays a role. So does the nature of the human brain, which finds patterns in random noise and searches for explanations by assigning agency to events that are not caused by any agents (5). Humans have a lot of natural impulses and tendencies, but that doesn’t mean we need to embrace them all. It should come as no surprise that human brains frequently act similarly. That we might have some desire to appeal to a higher deity says less about the reality of a god than it does about the way our brains are wired and our naturally human desire to understand the universe, regardless of whether such perceived understanding is based on verifiable evidence or ancient dogma.
Belief Does Not Influence Reality
Believing in something does not make it true. Just because someone may or may not change her mind about God does not make religious claims any more likely. Insisting that an atheist will convert on her deathbed or stating that a person’s views will crumble in times of crisis is both patronizing and irrelevant.
There is no shame in strange deathbed experiences or temporary reversions in times of crisis. People do not have any control over what their brains do when under a state of duress, and it’s hardly representative of their views if they do or say strange things when faced with death, illness or tragedy. Using the behavior of a person made vulnerable by tragedy as an excuse to promote a religious agenda is utterly reprehensible.
- Druyan, Ann. "Ann Druyan Talks About Science, Religion, Wonder, Awe... and Carl Sagan." Skeptical Inquirer 27, no. 6 (2003): 25-30.
- Christopher Hitchens. "Author Hitchens Talks Cancer and God." CNN. August 5, 2010. Accessed September 25, 2014.
- Richard Dawkins. "Real Time with Bill Maher." New York, NY: HBO. April 11, 2008.
- Dobson, Roger. "How Having an Operation Can Send You Delirious: Terrifying Post-surgery Hallucinations Strike up to Half of the Over-65s." Mail Online. September 10, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2014.
- Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. St. Martin's Griffin, 2012.