Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


foxhole

A defensive machine gun position completed by U.S. Navy Seabees during training, 2010. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Atheists, Foxholes, and How Combat Impacts Religiosity

• July 09, 2013 • 4:00 AM

A defensive machine gun position completed by U.S. Navy Seabees during training, 2010. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A survey of World War II veterans finds combat experience can either increase, or decrease, religious participation. It depends on whether vets found their wartime experiences positive or negative.

Ernie Pyle’s maxim “There are no atheists in foxholes” raises a couple of serious questions. Does being thrown into life-threatening combat really make one more religious? And if so, does that predisposition stick throughout one’s lifetime?

A new study of veterans of World War II—the conflict Pyle chronicled—suggests that, for those who were badly shaken by the experience, the answer to both is yes.

“The more a combat veteran disliked the war, the more religious they were 50 years later,” Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Craig Wansink of Virginia Wesleyan College report in the Journal of Religion and Health.

Their findings suggest that “the level of combat intensity—or perhaps the level of fear—one experiences may be related to subsequent religious activity, such as church membership and attendance.”

Those who associated their combat experience with valor and victory had a below-average lifetime interest in religion.

Wansink and Wansink began by analyzing archival data on the attitudes of infantrymen serving in one Pacific Division during 1944. The men were asked about whether they found motivation in, among other things, prayer.

“As combat became more frightening,” they report, “the percentage of soldiers who reported praying rose from 42 to 72 percent. These results suggest that near the time of combat, the more fear infantrymen felt, the more they were likely to rely on prayer as a motivation to continue to fight.”

OK, but that was in the (terrifying) moment. Did this propensity to pray have a long-term impact on their religious outlook? To find out, the researchers analyzed a random national survey of 1,123 WWII veterans conducted in the year 2000.

“In general, religious behavior was high among all veterans,” they report. “In this generation, approximately 69.1 percent were church members, attending church 3.1 times per month. What is interesting, however, are the variations from these high base-rate numbers.

“Among those veterans who claimed their military experience was positive, the heavier the combat they experienced, the less frequently they attended church. Those who saw no combat attended services an average of 3.1 times per month, while this dropped to 2.7 times per month for those experiencing light combat, and to 2.3 times for month for those experiencing heavy combat.

“In contrast, the pattern for those who claimed their military experience was negative exhibited nearly the opposite pattern. As their involvement in combat increased, so did the number of times they attended church each month, trending up from no combat (2.3 times per month), to light combat (2.4 times per month) to heavy combat (2.8 times per month).”

The same pattern was found when they were asked whether they belonged to a religious congregation.

“When compared with veterans who did not experience combat, heavy combat was associated with a 10 percent increase in church membership for those who claimed their experience was negative, but an 8 percent decrease for those who claimed it was positive,” the researchers write.

This all suggests that “the combat-religion relationship may dramatically vary based on how a person retrospectively views their wartime experience,” they conclude. Those who associated their combat experience with valor and victory apparently had a below-average lifetime interest in religion, while those who associated it with misery and fear seem to be more attracted to religion than the average vet.

Wansink and Wansink note that church attendance was a much stronger cultural norm for the World War II generation than for their kids and grandkids. Given societal pressure to retain religious affiliation even for those who had lost their faith, it’s possible this survey under-reported the actual number of non-believers.

While they are eager to “conduct a similar study with contemporary soldiers” to see if the same patterns hold true today, they conclude that “Religious participation, such as joining or attending a church, may help combat veterans who have had a negative military experience better deal with the aftermath of combat.”

Their study suggests the intense, conflicting emotions of battle—putting your life on the line, fighting for a cause greater than yourself, watching helplessly as your buddies die—can lead one person toward faith, and another to lose his faith. It largely depends on whether you came home feeling triumphant or traumatized.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.