Home / News / No atheists in foxholes? Study finds connection between religion and war; bad World War II experiences led veterans to church
No atheists in foxholes? Study finds connection between religion and war; bad World War II experiences led veterans to church

No atheists in foxholes? Study finds connection between religion and war; bad World War II experiences led veterans to church

A study soon to be published in the Journal of Religion and Health entitled "Are There Atheists in Foxholes? Combat Intensity and Religious Behavior,” found that bad World War II experiences led vets to attend church more regularly after the war than those who were less troubled by their experiences. The study may have implications for clergy and counselors who help war veterans today.  The State.com reports that prayer also, was a huge motivator that helped soldiers get through combat situations:

The study also found that when service members were fearful in combat, they reported prayer was a better motivator for getting them through it than several other factors, including the broader goals of the war.

Researchers say the study, which will be published in a future edition of the Journal of Religion and Health, has implications for health professionals, counselors and clergy who work with veterans with more recent service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The most important thing is that the more veterans disliked the war, the more religious they were 50 years later,” said Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and co-author of the study with his brother, Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University.

“And the takeaway is that for people who work with combat veterans, if veterans have had a bad experience, it is clear that one alternative that has helped people understand the world or find a common community has been religion.”

The study also says that atheists are the minority.  Cornell University's website, where the study originates, adds:

In the heat of World War II, men who experienced intense combat were more than twice as likely to turn to prayer as those who did not, reports a Cornell economist in the forthcoming June/July issue of Journal of Religion and Health. And the more that the veterans reported they disliked the war, the more religious they were 50 years after combat.

“People of that generation are fairly religious to begin with. But we were surprised to find people who saw heavy combat were so highly involved in church, though their ages ranged from 75 to 95. Even at that age, they still went to church three times a month. The frequency surprised us,” said study co-author Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who conducted the study with his brother, Craig Wansink, professor and chair of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.

The researchers found that as combat became more frightening, the percentage of soldiers who reported praying rose to 72 percent from 42 percent. A second study showed that 50 years after combat, many soldiers still exhibited religious behavior, but it varied by their war experience. Heavy combat (versus no combat) was associated with a 21 percent increase in church attendance for those who claimed their war experience was negative, but a 26 percent decrease for those who said it was positive.

One reason for this may be that veterans greatly value social relationships to their comrades in their units, and those types of relationships they may be finding in church, according to the co-author of the study, Brian Wansink.    The study looked at 1,123 World War II veterans, and the study was self-funded.  The study also notes that no causality is assumed.  MedicalXpress.com notes:

 "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. 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."

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • Who did this study? Fox News? I had a great uncle who was a medic in WW II, he helped to decide who they could save and who they could not during the war. He returned an atheist. I remember the many arguments my grandfather and he had (brothers) concerning God's existence and they'd often end with one of them leaving and me unable to see my great uncle because "he's an atheist" blah blah blah. They even conjured up a deathbed conversion story for him when he died. I'd like to see the stats and the sample group in this study, because I have a sneaky suspicion it is biased and skewed.

    • Diane Yoder

      Actually, Cornell University did the study as cited in the article. Details are also included in the article.

      • That was a rhetorical question. However, I wonder if Faux News was involved with the study.

        • Diane Yoder

          I tend to agree with you about vets returning atheist though. I know a few who never went to church again. And I seriously doubt that Fox News has ever funded anything having to do with actual education in their journalistic career.

          • You maybe right about Faux News haven't funded anything to do with a real journalistic education.

  • Francesca Ford

    This makes sense. Philosophy has largely failed us and this was the best thing people could think to turn to in times of trouble. What we need now is to show them there are better alternatives to mysticism and snake oil, we need to reinvigorate society with reason.

    • Deborah_B

      I agree with you. World War II was a different time; different motivations for war (at least re: American involvement) — and our understanding of psychology was different. I think the churches of that era were a bit different, too, being more community and neighborhood centered rather than the huge megachurches and televangelist snake oil we see nowadays.

      As to prayer, I personally think it is sort of an evolutionary byproduct that turns our mind within to try to make sense of things that happen, especially in danger. Animals hiss; people pray or meditate or whatever when they don't know what else to do. There was a recent scientific study that found that couples who pray for one another tend to treat their partner better … I think it's because of the inner examination and the empathy that results, not because of supernatural intervention.

      War itself is unreasonable and barbaric, in my opinion, and people drawn into it are going to have different motivations or reactions.

  • Bor1am

    If this story is true, then consider this: It is to the benefit of religion that we have wars. If there are no more wars, then religion will die. No wonder religious leaders bless the bombs and guns that are used in war, for they are their bread and butter.

  • DonFerguson

    The research also found that 28% of Pacific Infantry never prayed, even during heavy combat, so the study proves more than disproves the service of atheists in combat. > http://militaryatheists.org/news/2013/07/wansink-veteran-prayer-study-illuminates-foxhole-atheists/

  • Jim Jones

    Religion is about social conformity, not at all about belief.

    Returning servicemen wanted to get back in the group as soon as possible.

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