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The Atheist & the Foxhole

Catriona Hanley asks: Is God still dead?

In Bataan, the Philippines, in the year 1942, Army Chaplain William T. Cummings famously announced to the US troops, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. In other words, when confronted very immediately with the fear of imminent death, everyone prays to a god, therefore (one supposes he went on to add) there is a God. Whether the first part of this is true or not could be a matter for the sociologists, though it would be very difficult to prove statistically, and not only because a large number of subjects would be lost in the study if the fear of immediately impending death were indeed warranted. The greater difficulty is that humans have a peculiar attitude towards death, an almost constant denial of its real nature, which is that death can come at any time, in any way, by surprise.

The fact that we will all die eventually is less hard to grasp than that I, this subject here and now, will die, and that furthermore my death is waiting for me, spying on me constantly. In a trench, at war, being fired on by the enemy, it would seem less possible than in ordinary quotidian life to deny either the certainty of personal mortality, or the fact that death can come at any moment. Still, it is no doubt possible for some staunch death deniers; at 18 especially, it is hard to believe in death. In point of fact, however, we are all in metaphorical foxholes by virtue of being alive and mortal.

The difficulties of demonstrating whether or not soldiers in foxholes do actually admit the reality of death is perhaps less interesting than the substantial claim embedded in the expression under consideration: if we were truly, inescapably aware of the nature of death, we would have to take recourse in a god: more succinctly, fear of death leads to belief in God. A secondary claim is that if this is a universal feature of the human condition, then there must be a God.

I do not think the first of these claims is true: fear of death is not good enough justification for belief in God or a god; it is neither sufficient nor legitimate. The second claim, that widespread – or even universal – belief in God demonstrates his real existence is clearly a fallacy, so I will not address it here. But I will argue that if there is a universal human experience of God that can be demonstrated descriptively, then we can at least claim that possession of some concept of God is a feature of being human. A concept of the infinite – which is one way of conceiving god – is a feature of the human understanding of the nature of being, as an analysis of the phenomenon of existential gratitude can show.

But first, I will need to set the scene by discussing some of the multiple meanings of ‘god’.There are two dead gods of Western philosophy to look at, before attempting to resurrect him on the third move. I move from death to life also in my central theme, which is that it is not fear of death which gives us reason to believe in a god. It is rather gratitude for being alive that provides us evidence for an infinite Other.

Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God in the 19th century, but he was not responsible for theocide. As a matter of cultural fact, Nietzsche says, God is no longer a force of moral restraint for us. Our system of values is based on the idea of a transcendent god who is the arbitrator of Good and Evil, but we no longer believe in this deity. We in the West follow the values of Judeo-Christian morality without examining their foundation. But once we look for the root of our moral opinions, we realize there is nothing there: moral values are branches of a dead tree.

That God is dead in the realm of moral action seems at least empirically true. Nietzsche’s appeal is that he is a philosopher for the 20th and early 21st century, because now the truth of his scandalous declaration is evident. It is not because of conflicts of interpretation of God’s word that we find moral behaviour so difficult to delineate or international policy so troublesome to justify. It is because we no longer believe in God as the ground of moral action. Culturally, God is a false figurehead to whom lip service is given, a cover for actions contrary to the morality for which he is said to stand; it is fitting that this God is a slogan on the American dollar.

But lack of belief in God as a moral foundation is not the same as failure to believe in god as some kind of explanatory principle of being. In other words Nietzsche’s dead moral God is not identical to the metaphysical god. Indeed, it is possible to maintain belief in the latter without believing in the former. Aristotle is a fine example of this. While his system of metaphysics – his conception of the nature of being– is fundamentally dependent on the existence of a supreme deity, his ethics do not require belief in God, and are even virtually independent of theological considerations.

The difference between the two gods – and this is crucial – can be illustrated by the following example. If asked the question, “why be moral?”, some people would answer, “because there is a God”. This answer, ingenuous at best according to Nietzsche, would be an appeal to the moral god. But if in response to the question, “why are things the way they are?”, one were to respond “because there is a god”, she would be expressing a metaphysical conviction.

While Nietzsche announced God’s moral demise, Heidegger actually murdered him in the realm of metaphysics. When Heidegger declares the death of metaphysics, he is presiding over the funeral of the metaphysical god, the ‘god of philosophy’, the explanatory god, the god of Aristotelian metaphysics who actually survived Nietzsche himself by 27 years.

Aristotle’s quest, in his great work which we call the Metaphysics, was to answer the question, “why is what is, as it is?” Aristotle came from a line of physicians and was by temperament and interest a natural scientist. His methodological approach might be paraphrased thus: “what are the causes of such and such a disease, and what principles rule diagnosis?” He extends this approach to the study of being itself, conceiving it as a science, thus primarily an aitiological inquiry (that is, one which asks about causes – or grounds – and principles). The question of being then is: “what are the grounds and principles of being?”

‘Being’ has many different meanings, but the primary meaning is ousia, or beingness; that activity of being a certain kind of thing, which is inherent to every being. What is common to all natural beings, all material beings, is that they are in a process of movement and change. Every natural thing is undergoing some sort of process: rocks erode, animals and plants are born, grow and die, the planets and stars rotate in circular fashion about the earth. This movement, we quickly note, is not random, but is determined on the level of species. Change occurs in very precise and unsurprising patterns: stars move in a way appropriate for stars, porcupines grow and develop to become porcupines, and humans develop into humans, and die as humans do. In a very metaphorical sense, everything ‘desires’ to accomplish its own end, and this ‘end’ or ‘telos’ is determined on the level of species. There is an inner propulsion of all individual things to grow into what they are ‘supposed’ to become as determined by their species essence. Everything becomes what it already is, by nature, designated to become. But why? What is the ground of this movement?

To expect an answer to this question is to expect that nature makes sense. And indeed for Aristotle the cosmos is rational, and we as rational humans are capable of discovering its structure. For Aristotle, there is a way that things are, and this is accessible to human reason. Things must happen for a reason; there must be some ultimate reason why things move and change as they do, some reason, in other words, why things are as they are.

This is the crux of Aristotelian scientific metaphysics: the search for the ultimate reason why. Since the cosmos must be rationally comprehensible to humans, and since human reason works on the understanding that every effect has a cause, there cannot be a causelessness at the very heart of the universe. There must be a first cause, a primary ground, a fundamental explanation of why what is, is as it is. And for Aristotle this reason is god. God is the unmoved mover, the groundless ground of the universe. The nature of this god is to inspire desire in all things to become what they are destined by their nature to become, and it does this simply by being what it is: the principle of rational comprehensibility. God, supremely rational, is the reason why all things follow a rational path, and why the cosmos makes sense to human beings.

Heidegger – and I concentrate here on the early Heidegger – kills Aristotle’s god primarily by shifting the method of philosophy. He moves from a scientific search for objective grounds, to description of what is evident to human experience. In short, he turns from rational metaphysical explanation to phenomenological description. His question is no longer “what are the grounds of being?”, but rather “what is the meaning of being for human being?” Under this formulation, god is no longer necessary to understand being. If we are not looking for explanations of why what is, is as it is, but rather demanding the ‘how’, then no god need enter into the picture.

Bringing human being into the picture as the one who asks the question of the meaning of being turns Aristotle’s scientific project on its head. Heidegger does not ask about the way things ‘really’ are, for like Kant, he recognizes that the only way that we have access to what is, is through our human experience of what is. Furthermore, our human experience of what is, is not innocent, but is always affected by what we have been trained to ‘see’, or the way that we have grown up in a world of already interpreted signs.

We demonstrate our understanding of what is by our behaviour in the world. For instance, we come into a room and sit down on a chair, thus demonstrating that we know the ‘meaning’ of ‘chair’. But in understanding this meaning, we demonstrate that we have an understanding of the whole network of meanings that make up the ‘world’. The world, always already understood, is exactly this network of meanings. Truth is not a direct correspondence between the way things ‘really’ are and our translation of this into a formal proposition, but rather ‘truth’ is the way that we interact with the world of things and people which we find already before us.

Clearly for Heidegger, then, there is no lonely subject set against an alien world of which she must make sense. The world already makes sense to humans, given that we go about our daily business and find ways of being and behaving that are deemed appropriate or inappropriate by our fellows. ‘Being’ is simply the network of interrelations that we have with what we find in the ‘world’. But the primary ‘thing’ that we find in the world ourselves: and, no less important, our own limitations.

Though Heidegger does not ask why what is, is as it is, he does ask how it is that we understand being, and what it is about humans that makes such understanding possible. Human existence is characterized by living into the future; life is a throwing forward of ourselves towards what we will become, a project. Each human being is in a process of self definition through the choosing of perceived possibilities of selfbecoming. Contrast this with Aristotle, for whom all beings, by virtue of belonging to a definite species, are on a path to fulfilment of their determined essence.

Naturally our choices for self-creation are not unlimited. For one thing, the past weighs heavily on the choices that are open to us, or that we are capable of perceiving as possible. We are born into a particular time and in a particular set of circumstances; we did not decide the circumstances of our birth. But more, our possibilities are limited by the fact that we are mortal; death is the ultimate and inescapable possibility.

Most of the time we go unreflectively about our affairs, standing about waiting for the bus, doing our work, chatting to those around us. At times, however, we do experience the urgency and immediacy of being. In ‘dark nights of the soul’ we lie awake and realize that “this is my life – my life is now – and I am going to die.” In such moments we realize the limitations of personal existence, and the reality of death.

What actually happens in such experiences of anxiety? For Heidegger, these are not prozac moments; it is not time to relax into life and cheer, though the slip back is inevitable. Rather, such moments are awakenings – they are insights into the real conditions of human existence. To be human is to begin to die from the moment that we are born. To be, is to ‘be unto death’, to be above all mortal. The fundamental condition of human existence is mortality. In short, the meaning of being is time; and my time is limited. In moments in the metaphorical foxhole, it may be possible to comprehend the fact of personal mortality and then to throw oneself back again upon life, with a renewed vigour springing from the realization that there is limited time, and limited scope, for selfcreation.

Thus Aristotle’s god dies in Heidegger’s analysis of being. Heidegger relegates the existence of a metaphysical entity, beyond human experience, to the realm of speculation – or of faith. The religious impulse, as well as scientific attempts at explanation of the origin of the cosmos, are secondary human activities that have their root in the primordial fact of human mortality. Since being is the meaning of being for humans, and since humans are finite, being itself is finite. From the point of view of Heidegger’s phenomenological description, god – an infinite being – is not a feature of human existence.

In the view of Cummings, whose phrase begins my paper, it would seem that in moments of the realization of death, which Heidegger describes as angst, humans would be overcome by fear and in consequence believe in an infinite god who would give some meaning to their mortal existence, or at least provide some extension of life beyond the grave. Pascal’s famous wager was that it was better to hedge one’s bets and believe in god, since if he does not exist, one has nothing to lose, whereas if he does, one has everything to gain. But belief in a deity is not philosophically well-grounded if it is grounded in fear or superstition. From the perspective of an Aristotelian scientist, one needs a rational foundation for belief, that is, god as an explanatory mechanism. From the perspective of a phenomenological approach such as Heidegger’s, on the other hand, one would require some universal experiential evidence of an infinite. Fear of death is itself grounded in the recognition that this life, this realm of possibilities of self-formation, is limited. Recognition of this fact under duress may make us desire that things be otherwise, but “wishing don’t make it so”.

Does the world make sense without a god? The difficult answer is that, yes it does, and perhaps it makes more sense than with a god. Certainly the existence of an all-powerful and supremely good God, following the Christian notion, is troublesome, given that war, torture, murder of the innocent, genocide, starvation, and hopelessness characterize earthly existence.

The task of phenomenology, however, in Heidegger’s conception, is not to provide individuals with the meaning of life. The point is that the meaning of being is already given; the meaning is: you will die, and you have only limited years before you to make of life what you can. But this raises an important question. Does not my experience of myself as a finite being require that I be in some relation to the non-finite – to the infinite? Heidegger never answers this question, though clearly unless we have some experience of the infinite, unless the infinite can enter into finite experience, we cannot call it a feature of human existence.

My contention is that there is such an experience which is universal to human beings, and this is the fundamental experience of existential gratitude. There are atheists in foxholes, because fear of death is not sufficient to exact substantial belief in an infinite. When Elie Wiesel writes that God died at Auschwitz, he means that as a simple matter of fact – however difficult to accept – fear, horror and despair can turn people away from belief in a supreme being who is supposed to give meaning to life. In the face of suffering – and this includes existential suffering – life does sometimes appear meaningless to us. But it seems that those who survive the foxhole and who are grateful for surviving have had some experience of an Other beyond their own finite selves.

The fear experienced in the face of death is a fear in the face of personal extinction. Clutching at straws, one in fear for her life cries out for help to anyone, anything available, real or fictitious. The experience of fear does not necessitate the experience of a being beyond myself, but merely expresses the hope that there is some being beyond myself, exactly because I am so attached to this life, and now recognize its fragility. In this sense, fear is a return to the self, and is not an experience of the Other.

The case of gratitude, however, is different. In this case, I recognize that I have survived threats to existence, whether it be the onslaught of gunfire or, more commonly to academic philosophers, the possibility, which was not rendered actual, of my never having been born. And I am grateful that I am here, I am grateful beyond all the ‘despites’ that give real form to my existence, and I am for a moment fixed in gratitude. Gratitude of this existential kind is a direct positive parallel to Heidegger’s description of the negative we call anxiety; in the latter, I am confronted with my death and am thrown back upon my life in consequence. In gratitude, I am confronted with my life, not the impending annihilation of possibility, but with the real existence of the fact of possibility. Gratitude, the awareness of life, throws me outwards, beyond this life, towards that to which or to whom I am grateful; it forces me to look elsewhere than in myself. Gratitude is always gratitude to

Gratitude to whom? To something Other than me, whom I experience as in some way the source of possibility itself, the infinite, which provides the possibility of all possibilities. The possibility of my not having been born was not realized. As death, the possibility of impossibility, is the end of my possibility, birth, the actualization of the possibility of my possibility, is the beginning. And I am indebted. It is a feature of being human to pay this debt with gratitude, as much as it is a feature of human being to feel anxiety as horrified recognition of this debt. This does not entail that there is a real existent object of human gratitude. My claim is much smaller: humans, in moments of authentic realization of the conditions that make up their own existence, do in fact live in relation to an experienced infinite.

Do children born into misery in Ethiopia or Grozny, do crack babies, experience existential gratitude? Did Elie Wiesel? Or Primo Levi who committed suicide after having survived the camps? Is gratitude a universal human experience? Do we need recourse to a sociologist here? I cannot begin to question the doubtful claims to universality of any philosophical endeavour. But I will claim that gratitude is a feature of human experience, and it is an experience of a subject which requires a powerful respondent, even if the respondent is eternally silent.

God is dead morally and metaphysically; and there are atheists in foxholes. But perhaps the gratitude that we have for surviving these deaths, and for being still here despite, is evidence that there is an infinite Other. Maybe there is hope for a God.

© Catroina Hanley 2002

Catroina Hanley teaches philosophy at Loyola College in Maryland.

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