Often you will hear Christians state that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’, indicating that when a person’s life is at risk, everybody asks for a god’s assistance. A variant of this was sent to me and others on Twitter. It stated that when a person experiences a near-death they always cry out for help from a god. I have been a confirmed atheist now for over 50 years and I have completely thrown off the shackles of religion1. When I had a near-death experience, I didn’t cry out for anyone. Such a thought never entered my head. I put my trust in the training and dedication of the doctors who were to operate on me.
A few years ago, one morning I woke up shivering uncontrollably and gasping for air. To cut a long story short, I had gallstones which blocked the entrance to my gall bladder, and the gall bladder had become infected with the bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae, which is usually found in the human gut2. The gall bladder had basically disintegrated and my bloodstream had been infected by the bacterium and was not doing its job of carrying oxygen to where it should; hence the gasping for air. I went into hospital and they put me on about 5 litres of oxygen a minute, with a view to having surgery in a day or two. Next morning, despite being on the oxygen, I woke up shivering and gasping for air again. Suddenly there were 11 people in the room, with the crash cart. I thought to myself: “This is not [expletive] good”. I was immediately booked in for emergency surgery. Some time later, I was wheeled down to the anteroom near the theatre and my partner and I were talking, when in came one of the anaesthetists and one of the surgeons who were to work on me. They said, among other things: “This is a risky operation.” That is a polite way of saying ‘you may not make it off the operating table alive’. My partner burst into tears as they started to wheel me away to the theatre. All I could think about was my family. I thought they would be okay as they had some semblance of financial security and they were able to cope with the world and all its tribulations and complications. Other than that, I was relatively unconcerned with whether I’d survive or not, as I wouldn’t be around to suffer from the fact of having kicked the bucket.
As for their being no atheists in foxholes; there are numerous instances online of those serving in the military forces who maintain their atheism despite having to regularly occupy foxholes, even among those in the US forces3. The last word on this is probably best left to Kurt Vonnegut, who said: “People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes”.4
There is one sidelight which may be worth relating. A decade or so before my gall bladder disintegrated, I apparently developed an allergy to Penicillin. The allergy was not serious, it just made my groin and armpits itch. It wasn’t a good look sitting at my work desk furiously scratching my groin or armpits. As a consequence, Penicillin was an antibiotic which I had not used for quite a long time. When they cultured the bacterium which had destroyed my gall bladder, they found out “it was not very clever”. By this I presume they meant that it was not resistant to many antibiotics, especially Penicillin. As a consequence, I was treated with massive doses (one gramme twice a day) of the latter antibiotic. I survived, and there was not a prayer to be heard anywhere, just bucketloads or medical science; even better, my groin didn’t itch!