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“No atheists in foxholes” ? Sebastian Faulks’ phrase, “non-believers finding faith in fear”, in his World War 1 novel “Birdsong”, is closer to the truth. In the Battle of the Somme, chaplains discarded their crosses, generals committed suicide, while God was trying to decide whether to listen to the German prayers or those of the British Tommies and Aussie Diggers, or ignore them all.

Faulks has succeeded in describing the unspeakable terror of the troops forced by their officers to face the shells and the shrapnel and a fate literally worse than death : the excruciating agony of being left to die slowly, mangled and tangled in the omnipresent barbed wire. Most of the dying screamed for their mothers, others whose face had been shot away could only pray to God for a quick death or curse Him for abandoning them. Some lost their faith, others found it. Everyone, including the heroes, was scared to death, scared to die, but especially scared to suffer. It is not surprising that many turned to God as a last resort. Fear fosters faith.

It was ever thus. It is bad enough to have to face the uncertainty of what follows death, whether in one’s bed or on the battlefield. But when one has been told about the punishment God has reserved for sinners like us, fear can result in repentance – or hedging bets, like the prudent Pascal. Others have the dignity to refuse to let fear delude them into the fantasies of faith.