By Mathew Goldstein
It was common for theists to be convinced that there are no atheists in foxholes even during the height of the Cold War when the enemies of freedom and democracy actively and aggressively fought with guns from hideouts in forested mountains on behalf of an anti-capitalist and godless, militant, totalitarian ideology. The contradiction should be obvious, how can atheists with guns be battling and overthrowing governments around the world when there are no atheists in foxholes? Yet even today many people seem to think, despite the lost Vietnam war, despite Communist victories in Cuba, China, Nicaragua, etc., that there are no atheists in foxholes. This suggests that there is a psychological mechanism at play here that overrides the evidence to the contrary. It turns out that the same psychological mechanism that helps convince people that there are no atheists in foxholes also helps to convince some of those same people that only their particular religion is true.
University of Missouri psychologist Kenneth Vail III and colleagues recruited 26 Christians, 28 atheists, 40 Muslims and 28 agnostics to study how religious individuals tend to believe so strongly in their own religion’s gods yet deny the gods of competing religions. Each participant was tasked with writing either a brief essay about how they felt about their own death or a "religiously neutral" topic, such as loneliness or how to cope when plans go awry. After a brief verbal task to distract the participants from the true purpose of the study, they filled out questionnaires about their religious beliefs, including their faith in the Christian God or Jesus, Buddha and Allah.
When Christians thought of death, they became firmer in their religious beliefs and less accepting of Allah and Buddha. Likewise for Muslims, who became more committed to Allah and less accepting of Buddha or the Christian God. Agnostics became more likely to believe in any deity, whether the Christian version, Allah or Buddha.
This explains why theists, including theistic leaning agnostics, so readily accept the counter-evidenced claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. They are projecting their own religiously motivated psychology onto atheists. However, that projection is a mistake because atheists lack this ideological dependency common to theists. Atheists showed none of the responses to thoughts of death that the theists and agnostics did. In the words of the researchers, "atheists do not rely on religion when confronted with the awareness of death."