What explains foxhole theism?

The well-known dictum that there are no atheists in foxholes (the source of this phrase is uncertain) is false. After all, there is even a military organization for atheists, the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. Having read several the testimonies from these military men and women, I was struck by the extent to which (Christian) religiosity (regular prayer, semi-compulsory meetings with chaplains) is an ingrained part of military practice, and how tough this must be for atheists. As one MAAF member put it: "I was there for most of these prayers thinking, 'Religion is why we are in this war [Iraq] in the first place, haven't you guys figured that out yet?"

Sergeant York

Cognitive scientists of religion do not deny that people can remain atheist in the face of mortal danger. But there is a steady stream of literature indicating that, although one can be an explicit atheist in such cases, priming people with mortality-salient stimuli seems to increase implicit religiosity. For instance, Tracy et al. (2011) found that reminding people of their mortality increases their propensity to accept creationist accounts and to reject evolutionary theory. This result was obtained regardless of the participants’ religion (or lack thereof), religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Jong et al. (accepted manuscript) showed that although mortality primes do not increase people's explicit religious convictions, they do increase implicit measures of religiosity. I will refer to this phenomenon as Implicit Foxhole Theism (IFT).

The theoretical framework in the literature to explain IFT is terror management theory (TMT). Accordingly, people cope with their awareness of death by investing in some kind of immortality. Religious beliefs, which cross-culturally, but not universally, have a literal form of immortality in their package deals, play a salient role in this.

Admittedly, not all religions paint a rosy picture of the afterlife.



Ecclesiastes, that wonderful bible book that, according to theologian Jenson makes Nietzsche and more recent nihilistic authors seem pusillanimous, mentions the Sheol (and God), but seems for all intents and purposes not to hold belief in an afterlife:



Anyone who is among the living has hope–even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. […] Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave [sheol], where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom (Ecclesiastes, 9:4-10).

Grim pictures of the afterlife (or lack thereof) are not limited to the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions. In Shintoism (Japan), the pre-Buddhist hereafter was Yomi, is a Sheol-like place where the dead are in a continuous state of decomposition (see image).


It is even worse in Vanuatu, Oceania, where the hereafter (Wies) is described as follows:

The life in Wies is not a particularly pleasant one, it seems. The king of this land of the dead is a being called Anrum Mbwilei, who was himself never a living person. He stands in the centre of the village dancing ground in Wies and beats the gongs. He beats them so hard that he excretes continually. His excrement is the food of the dead, but ghosts may escape having to eat it by bringing with them from the land of the living the rotten stump of an Erythrina (nendar) tree (this is from Deacon's 1934 classic Malekula: a vanishing people in the New Hebrides).

Conjoined with the fact that young children believe in an afterlife even before they know they are mortal, as studies by Jesse Bering and other have shown, terror management theories seem in a pretty hopeless state. And it is especially in the light of this that I am wondering how death salience prime studies should be interpreted. If TMT doesn't explain why we believe in an afterlife, and if reliable witnesses (military people) testify that they do not burst out in spontaneous prayer in life-or-death situations, how can we explain that death primes increase implicit measures of religiosity?

My proposed answer to this puzzle (and I would be interested to hear others' thoughts on this) is first, that fear of death is a real problem for animals that are capable of mental time-travel like us. Second, although TMT does not explain the origin or prime function of religion, it does explain one of the several functions that religions can have. I am not endorsing a functionalist account of religion, where we can explain the origin and transmission of religious beliefs and practices in terms of what they accomplish. If, for instance, Stewart Guthrie's view is correct, and religion emerges out of a form of agency detection (more specifically, anthropomorphism) it could still be the case that religions have many different functions, which they can fulfill to various extents. Given that religion is not a natural kind, but a differentiated activity, we can expect that some religious traditions have functions that others lack. For instance, faith healing cannot cure cancer but can provide some subjective forms of relief and may also help some psycho-somatic problems. Thus healing (or providing some form of psychological relief from physical distress caused by illness, infertility and other conditions) can be an important function of religion. In some religions, healing has this function, not in others.

Similarly, in western culture (as in many other cultures) the imagined hereafter happens to be a pleasant place. In his fascinating review of afterlife beliefs, Nähri proposes that concepts of the afterlife often adhere to evolved aesthetic and other dispositions, e.g., the afterlife is a beautiful garden (Islam, Jehovah's witnesses), a planet where one has all comforts and is united with family and friends (mormonism), a hall where one can feast, booze and have sexual intercourse at will (Valhalla in ancient Scandinavian religion) and so on. Given that we happen to live in a culture that has an elaborate belief in an afterlife, and that atheists (even those who were atheists as children) do grow up with public representations of this afterlife all around them, it seems rather straightforward to explain IFT. I would predict that people from cultures without rosy afterlife beliefs would have less strong measures of IFT when confronted with mortality primes. Perhaps there are studies that confirm this prediction, of which I am not aware?

In sum, it seems to me that by rejecting TMT wholesale, some cognitive scientists of religion have thrown out baby with bathwater. Even if TMT cannot explain religiosity, the occurrence of IFT, conjoined with the cultural success of religions with happy, positive outlooks on the afterlife (e.g., the introduction of Buddhist funeral rites in Japan), does suggest an interesting connection between religion and management of fears of death. This is not a straightforward causal connection: it is not the case that fear of death engenders belief in an afterlife, since young children already believe in an afterlife prior to realizing they are mortal. But it might be the case that fear of death promotes the cultural transmission and invention of pleasant hereafters.

This leads to some empirical predictions: religions with pleasant hereafters would, from an epidemiological perspective, be more culturally successful than those with unpleasant or no afterlife beliefs. Also, one would expect that the evolution of beliefs within particular religions would be more frequently in the direction of pleasant afterlife beliefs than in the direction of unpleasant afterlife beliefs.

See also on ICCI blog: Is terror management theory dying? by Nicolas Baumard.


Jong, J., Halberstadt, J. & Bluemke, M. (accepted). Foxhole atheism, revisited: The effects of mortality salience on explicit and implicit religious belief. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Nähri, J. (2008). Beautiful reflections: The cognitive and evolutionary foundations of paradise representations. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 20, 339–365.

Tracy, J.L., Hart, J., & Martens, J.P. (2011). Death and science: The existential underpinnings of belief in Intelligent Design and discomfort with evolution. PLoS ONE, 6, e17349.


  • comment-avatar
    Martin Stehberger 5 April 2012 (12:51)

    Maybe an alternative solution to the IFT puzzle can emerge if we distinguish between, on the one hand, an eventual death after a fulfilled life and, on the other, an immediate, premature death.
    In contrast to the second, the first kind of death is not “unjust”, as it affects everyone, and everyone has the opportunity to lead their life before it happens. I believe TMT to be false, at least where it says that the capability of mental time travel and anticipation of inevitable eventual death is a problem for humans that plays a major role in explaining religion.
    In foxholes, however, only the second kind of death, the premature death, is salient. And when participants of an experimental study are death-primed, then as long as the study is not somehow explicitly designed to separate the two kinds (I quickly checked some papers and this seems typically not to be a concern) the salience of mortality may also fall in part on the second kind. IFT might therefore be explained as people looking to God for protection from such a scenario. But this is not TMT, where religious beliefs promise immortality; instead it could be God replacing parents as protectors from injustice, a psychological function taken on by certain religions that is related to attachment theory — more on this function can be found in the work of Lee Kirkpatrick as far as I know.

  • comment-avatar
    José-Luis Guijarro 16 April 2012 (13:03)

    Maybe, Daniel Dennett is out of fashion. maybe he was never in fashion, I don’t really know. To me his idea about the intentional stance that people seem to adopt when unable to understand a given system which in one way or anther bothers them, seems a very interesting one. I am surprised that it was not mentioned here.

    I am not religious, but I will certainly kick my old car if it breaks down in the middle of the motor-way, when I am travelling to meet, say, Naomi Campbell, in Seville (I live in Cadiz, a rough 60 miles away from Seville). Cars are systems that I don’t understand, and if mine breakes down I will attribute it wicked intentions which is the reason why I kick it. I don’t believe that my car is alive, nor that it has intentions (even less, that it has personality). But in that situation, it’s the only thing I may do to steam out my frustration. I know this won’t help me out of this situation. If I would have a deep knowledge of my car’s mechanics, this would help me a lot better.

    There seems to be a very short path from the attribution of intentions à la Dennett to te attribution of personality. So, if I am in the middle of some tempest I may pray Neptune, why not? The whole Nature is an awesome system that may trigger in some of us the idea that it has intentions, and/or personality –i.e., a superior being to whom we may ask for favours. Death is also difficult to understand individually. We may understand it intellectually, but maybe, in the last minutes of our life, we will be a lot more bothered than I was wihen my old car broke down, and I started kicking it in despair. So, maybe an old atheist like me will start praying -to which people may think that in the end I recovered my faith…

  • comment-avatar
    Martin Stehberger 24 April 2012 (14:22)

    Imagine a hypothetical participant in these studies who, for some reason, never feels any anxiety of any kind. The death-priming won’t cause this person any anxiety, but it may divert attention away from the small practical issues, such as “what do I need to buy later in the supermarket”, towards a broader viewpoint, on life itself and the natural question “what was/is the meaning of my life”. Religion, in western culture, is commonly associated with this question and provides easier answers than science does, which may already be enough to explain the higher implicit measures of religiosity after death-priming.
    Having said that (and my previous comment on the topic): it is also undeniable that some people do harbour existential anxiety beyond just a fear of premature death (and religions have taken on a function to help). But you could still ask whether in most cases their concerns are ultimately caused by the finiteness of life, as TMT says, or ultimately by its possible meaninglessness. In other words, would immortality and a pleasant afterlife be enough to satisfy the concerns if the religion made no attempt to provide purpose? (Or is a pleasant afterlife itself sufficient purpose?) If meaning rather than mortality is the primary factor this can still promote IFT — if, as argued above, mortality-priming also renders the question of meaning more salient.