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Are There Atheists in Foxholes? Combat Intensity and Religious Behavior

Wansink, Brian and Craig S. Wansink (2013), “Are There Atheists in Foxholes? Combat Intensity and Religious Behavior,” Journal of Religion and Health, 52:3 (Sept), 768-79.

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ITHACA, NY: Ernie Pyle – an iconic war correspondent in World War II – reportedly said “There are no atheists in foxholes.” A new joint study between two brothers at Cornell and Virginia Wesleyan found that only part of this is true.

A recent analysis of archived World War II surveys of Army Infantry after a battle showed a soldier’s reliance on prayer rose from 32% to 74% as the battle intensified. “The question is whether that reliance on faith lasts over time,” said Craig Wansink, author and Professor of Religion at Virginia Wesleyan College.

To determine this, a second study of 1123 WWII veterans showed that 50 or more years after combat, most soldiers still exhibited religious behavior, but it varied by their war experience. Those facing heavy combat (versus no combat) attended church 21% more often if they claimed their war experience was negative, but those who claimed their experience was positive attended 26% less often. The more a veteran disliked the war, the more religious they were 50 years later.

The self-funded findings, forthcoming in the Journal of Religion and Health, note that no causality is assumed. “We can’t claim, for instance, that combat made soldiers religious or, conversely, that religious soldiers hated combat,” said Brian Wansink, study co-author and Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

A new Cornell/Virginia Wesleyan study found WWII veterans who experienced heavy combat attend church 11% more often than those who didn’t – but only for those who saw their overall military experience as negative.

Still, there may be important implications for counselors, clergy, and health practitioners who work with combat veterans. Religious involvement may be as particularly meaningful for a combat veteran who has had a negative military experience.

“These are people who had intense, trusting relationships with others under fire,” said Brian Wansink, “They recognize both the importance of community and the limitations of their own abilities. A social component might be more important to healing than we think. One Memorial Day gift you could give to a veteran might just be to say to them ‘Thanks.’ In the end, saying there are no atheists in foxholes may be less of an argument against atheism than it is against foxholes.”

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Brian Wansink, PhD
Food and Brand Lab, Director
110 Warren Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
Email: foodandbrandlab@cornell.edu