Religion as Emotional Blackmail

Donald R. Burleson

There are no atheists in foxholes.” Attributed to World War II journalist Ernie Pyle and various other people, this gratingly smug (and of course factually inaccurate) dictum, often addressed to nonbelievers, seems on a practical level to mean something akin to “Sure, go ahead, be an atheist and sneer at religion, as long as you’re safe from harm, but just try dodging a few bullets on the battlefield and you’ll be glad to come crawling back to God.” Oddly, religious zealots who employ this line of argument also seem to think that it proves the existence of God.

The unspoken but implicit syllogism is: Major premise: If some people feel the need for God, then God exists. Minor premise: Some people feel the need for God. Conclusion: God exists.

While the form of the syllogism (modus ponens) is correct, there is no reason whatever to suppose that the major premise is true, and in fact there is abundant reason to suppose that it isn’t, whereupon the whole syllogism comes crashing down. (This doesn’t usually bother believers, of course, since typically they don’t think of the matter syllogistically anyway.) Essentially, the “foxhole” argument amounts to saying that if you get scared enough, you will believe in God, therefore God exists. But this is a little like saying: “If we torture you long and hideously enough, we can make you denounce your mother.” That may well be, but so what? It has nothing to do with the propriety of denouncing one’s mother and everything to do with the limits of human endurance.

However absurd it may be, the foxhole homily is emblematic of a broader and more complex issue regarding religious belief, one that we might call “emotional blackmail.” This essentially characterizes common human situations in which, if one resists the encroachments of religious belief systems, one is subject to imputations of ingratitude or guilt of one kind or another. Examples are not difficult to find; the following illustrations are hypothetical but by no means fanciful, because dark dramas of this sort unfortunately are played out somewhere every hour of every day.

Imagine a married couple whom we will call George and Martha. They have been married for decades and love each other dearly. Both are atheists. Martha is fairly healthy for her seventy-five years, but George, about the same age, is dying of cancer. George and Martha’s family members and friends are Christians exhibiting varying degrees of avidity. The fun begins.

George’s sister, Martha’s two brothers, and several friends have told Martha: “We’re praying for George, and for you too.” They seem, most of them, to be kindly disposed folks and to have good intentions; one of the church group members even brought over a nice casserole recently. Martha would certainly feel churlish telling them, “Your prayers are unlikely to do poor George any good,” though that is what, as a realist, she’s thinking.

She contents herself with just thanking them quietly but has a harder time maintaining equanimity of spirit when George’s sister says to her, “You know, dear, it’s really sad that you don’t believe in God, because your prayers could do so much for George. If both of you believed, everything would be better.” Martha, who more than anything in the world would love to be able to move heaven and earth to save her beloved husband, knows that what her sister-in-law says isn’t true, but she also knows that her sister-in-law thinks it is. It is clear that with these people, even the most fervently heartfelt good wishes and desperate hopes count for little or nothing unless they morph into actual prayers to a deity. Martha strongly suspects that in some perverse way, George’s sister somewhat blames her for his not getting well.

George catches flak too. One of Martha’s brothers comes to his bedside one day and says, “I want you to pray with me.” George, though awash in morphine and hardly well positioned to put up with this unwelcome gesture, replies, “I don’t really care to do that.”

The brother-in-law, never a terribly felicitous personality, then says, “See, that’s your problem, George. You don’t believe in anything, and that’s why you have all this trouble. If you would only come to the Lord and be saved.” Mercifully, George drifts off to sleep before the conversation can take any more sordid turns. Religionists seldom really understand a freethinker’s mind.

Martha and George are both enmeshed in problematic human relations because of their families’ and friends’ religious beliefs—Martha perhaps more than George, because she is still up and about and has to interrelate with all these people on a regular basis. It is obvious that because they resent her unbelief, they have doubts about how well she is really taking care of George, even though she spends almost every waking minute doing so. She is the outsider in the midst of these groups, the nonparticipant in the common cultural heritage, and she is so by choice, as they all know. While Martha is confident that her worldview makes sense, this does not altogether shield her from the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) censure of those around her. Already under immense emotional strain because of George’s illness, she is an unbeliever among believers, a person continually urged to buy into the idea that she is wrong and everyone else is right. She feels highly vulnerable, and whether her family and friends mean to take advantage of her or not, she gets taken advantage of anyway.

Many less emotionally robust people in Martha’s situation might well suffer more. Indeed, let us “edit” our hypothetical Martha a bit and make her less thoroughly out of sorts with religion, though not enamored of it either; in some moods she rather inclines toward agnosticism, but she was raised in a Christian household and has never abandoned it altogether. She respects George’s atheism but does not share it. All it would take is a well-timed shove, and religion would have its hooks into her again.

Her tragic circumstances with George’s terminal illness provide the impetus. When Martha’s family and friends urge her to pray with them for George’s recovery, when they press the view upon her that if she really loves her husband she would believe in a god who can help him, they manage not only to make her feel guilty but to give her second thoughts about sharing their religious beliefs—a subtle form of proselytizing that, under her emotional buffeting, she is hard put to resist. For her, it may well be that the desire to have a beneficent resource, a supernatural haven of hope, will at some point shade over into the belief that there really is one.

In this situation, it matters little whether the religionists consciously try to convert Martha or not. Religious belief systems often spread like a virus, quite on their own; I may not know that I am spreading my viral infection to you, but I still infect you. If anything, this religion-as-virus metaphor is too weak to capture what religious belief can do to replicate and perpetuate itself; a biological virus does not have the imprimatur of a whole cultural heritage behind it, but (especially in America) a religion like Christianity does. Poor Martha not only paints herself as ungrateful if she is slow to warm to the ministrations of her prayer-group acquaintances; likely as not, she runs the risk of seeming to them to be a poor citizen as well. If this circle of believers includes some particularly rabid fundamentalists, she may be told that she and her infidel husband are going to roast in hell—the ultimate appeal to fear. Sharing the common religion is the socially and morally expected thing to do, after all, and when this is added to the emotional pressures Martha is already under, she may become a conscript to religion.

But this tendency of religion to spread virally as a sort of emotional blackmail is by no means confined to scenarios as dire as Martha and George’s deathbed watch. Any time one is threatened with impending or ongoing troubles, one may readily be subjected to the sort of extortion we have considered here. Church groups urge orthodoxy when you have lost your job, when you are in danger of losing your house, when you have family problems or any of a world of other difficulties—in short, when your defenses are down. Again, religionists may not always have a consciously insidious agenda, but the effects are much the same.

The simple fact is that religion has always been based on fear, and there has always been plenty to fear. From the prehistoric cave dweller living in terror of animal attacks to the medieval farmer fearing a famine-producing crop failure to the modern entrepreneur living in dread of ruinous market conditions, the notion that one could sometimes wish there were somewhere to seek protection and relief from one’s fears is, for many, an alluring one. Thus are gods born, and they will survive in the meme pool so long as people in large numbers feel helpless to counter the perils that life in a scary world can present. It is less than surprising that some people want there to be an ultimate source of aid and comfort, and organized religions obviously thrive on this desire. But wishing does not make it so, and the kindness and good intentions of many religionists does nothing to validate their beliefs. Indeed, the fact that religion as a social institution so often relies upon people’s vulnerabilities only shows how vacuous it really

Donald R. Burleson

Donald R. Burleson is a mathematician and a widely published writer on nonbelief. He is a contributing editor to The American Rationalist, from which this article is reprinted with permission.


There are no atheists in foxholes.” Attributed to World War II journalist Ernie Pyle and various other people, this gratingly smug (and of course factually inaccurate) dictum, often addressed to nonbelievers, seems on a practical level to mean something akin to “Sure, go ahead, be an atheist and sneer at religion, as long as you’re …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.