Atheists in foxholes

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I have also heard that true-atheists take great umbrage at this – at the insinuation that their beliefs, clearly so much weaker than those of “people of faith,” are subject to collapse in extremis.

In hospice training we learned about “terminal anxiety.” It’s not clear to me whether it’s called “terminal” because death is near, i.e. it will soon go away, or because the anxiety is about one’s own termination. As Rilke says*, in the first of the Duino Elegies:

“Strange, to wish one’s wishes no longer. Strange,
to see all that was one time related, fluttering now
loosely in space. And it’s difficult to be dead.”

It’s terrifying, to be about to be dead.

I wonder how many faithful people, on the precipice of death, suddenly decide their beliefs are all absurd. Could there really be a father-figure God up there, crowded in with all the faithful people who have ever lived, waiting in welcome? And, on the other hand, how many atheists undergo deathbed conversions?

In either case, there’s no escaping the terror. That’s why they give Ativan.

*as translated by William H. Gass

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