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Atheists, Foxholes, and How Combat Impacts Religiosity

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

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

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.