Atheist in a Foxhole

As my buddy JL and I were recently discussing, I have always held that atheists have more faith than I and most “religious” folk do.  Ironically, philosophers (like David Ronnegard in his second sentence) will claim that they have no faith.  The atheist is convinced that there is no God, but when it comes down to it, the rest of us are just agnostics as we do not have the answers (although some are not shy about claiming that they do).  Some would try to convince atheists that there is, in fact, some sort of deity, but I feel no need to do so.  I believe that the term “God” (big or small “g”) is a matter of semantics.  In their attempt to convert atheists to theism (usually a particular brand of theism, e.g. Christianity) they will claim that there are no atheists in a foxhole.  That is, if one is faced with death or the awareness of his or her mortality, that person will certainly begin a deeper search and reach out to God for help.  A read of the article linked below will show that this is not necessarily true.

Ronnegard embraces his atheism in the face of impending death.  Having been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 37, he is still able to be at peace with the idea that there is nothing beyond this life and nothing out there guiding our destiny.  Ronnegard says that “the terminality of life helps us see” the value of life.  Ultimately, he argues that faith in an afterlife makes us deny that life ends and leads to less of an appreciation of what we have though limited it may be.  I think we can learn a lot from this atheist.

I do believe, however, that semantics are still at play here.  Philosophers and theologians, humanists and theists argue about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and many things that appear to divide them, but at closer look actually unite them.  I, for one, am not concerned about a physical realm called heaven after my physical life here on earth.  I am very concerned, however, about the legacy that I leave behind for my kids and those around me.  What are the lessons that I have taught?  What kind of environment have I created?  Ronnegard says as much in his article.  So, what’s the deal?  Am I actually a closet atheist or is Ronnegard actually a theist?  Neither.  We are letting words get in the way of saying the same thing.

Ronnegard embraces the impermanence of life.  This is something that we all can stand to learn.  We never know when our time will be up, but we do know that it will be up.  In the end, like the tattoo on his nurse’s arm says, we should “live life like you will die today, love like you will live forever.”  All we can do is do our living the best that we can and ask ourselves along the way if this is really what we want to leave behind.

3 Responses to “Atheist in a Foxhole”

  1. Scott Nowlan Says:

    My kids extend what I can do here on earth. I cannot bring world peace. But I can be the best father I can, even with my limitations. So far, not doing too bad. As they get older, they will need me more then less. I need to be better prepared for the solitude. I was not prepared when Kumi left. I learned something valuable though. Belonging can be found on a sunny day or a raining day if I can convince myself that someone wants it as much as me.


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. John Lovestrand Says:

    Great thoughts B, as always.

    I especially enjoyed your awareness of the legacy you will leave to your kids. That may be the last, best shot at immortality!

    I’ve had Jim’s brother Reggie on my mind this week, and it occurs to me that Reggie lives on through Jim, and that we were all bettered last Sunday by hearing of the many Christ-like acts that Reggie (the avowed “atheist”) performed in his life for strangers — out of the kindness of his heart, the goodness of his soul.

    It was yet another beautiful reminder of what you have eloquently stated on many occasions about how semantics tends to confuse our shared destination — what most of us are striving toward: to do good, to be good.

    I am also reading the Paul Knitter book you recommended last Sunday and — couple chapters in — once again see the commonality (wisdom and compassion) between the core teachings of two of the world’s most enlightened teachers: Buddha and Jesus.

    My rudimentary takeaway on Buddha thus far is that he was not an outright atheist so much as he instead realized the ineffable nature of God, and therefore concentrated solely on this human life.

    I like the focus on the impermanence of life. We all know, generally, that we are not promised tomorrow, but naturally we proceed through today with the expectation that the sun will rise again. I imagine that changes in an immediate and visceral way when a person becomes aware of a terminal illness.

    In reading Marcus Borg again now, I continue to appreciate his use of synonyms (Spirit, the Sacred) for God. Knitter similarly invokes energy in the Buddhist sense.

    Personally, I like thinking “God” is “Love”, which I think was in one of the epistles attributed to Paul. When any person loves another, we are all immeasurably the better for it. Atheists and theists alike, with infinitely more in common than apart.

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