Only an atheist until the plane starts to fall.

The full quote of the above phrase is “Communist until you get rich, feminist until you get married, atheist until the airplane starts falling”.


I could probably spend blog entries of equal length debating the merits of the first two statements as well, but allow me to focus. Typically, theists just love the last part of this statement, and love to quote it whenever possible. I always imagine them posting it with a smug little smile on their faces, thinking, “Take THAT, stupid atheists!”.

You can’t really blame them. It’s quite a catchy little saying. It’s got some nice punch to it, which is why so many theists post it without thinking, and assuming they’re being terribly clever. Of course, like many of these viral quotes (think: “Atheism is a belief that nothing exploded and made nothing which turned into dinosaurs!” or “It takes more faith to be an atheist”, or my personal favourite, “Atheism is a religion too”), this one suffers from similar leaps in, or, a complete lack of, logic.

I was thinking about this while in an airplane, funny enough. A 12 hour flight gives you plenty of time to think, and I’d grown tired of imagining I was living in Pride and Prejudice (TMI?). The flight was quite turbulent. We experienced a few of those drink-spilling, shriek inducing, random 10-foot drops… which I find terribly amusing, and wish the entire flight was made up of to be honest. Of course, many people already experience a fear of flying, and several gasps of surprise and “OH MY GOD’s” were heard. I spent a few moments after that seriously considering if that plane started to go down, what I’d do. I decided quite quickly I’d try to call my mom, and if that didn’t work, I’d turn my iPod up and settle in for the ride. Never once did it occur to me that I’d pray. Hear that, theists? I am an atheist. And I know for a fact there is a 0% chance a crashing plane would lead to my re-conversion to theism. I’m finding it difficult to properly describe why this is, which should be a clue as to how utterly ridiculous the proposition is.

Let’s first consider the unintentional irony of the statement itself. “Only an atheist until the plane starts to fall!” So essentially what theists are suggesting is that logic completely fails in times of panic. Or that fear leads to completely irrational beliefs. Well spotted! I feel like theists should get a prize for this. But despite this irony, I still can’t imagine a situation in which this would potentially be true. Atheism is an informed position. It is a position of logic and reason. Being an atheist means you’ve seriously considered the claim that there is a god, and have rejected this claim. Why would a crashing plane ever make me re-think that conclusion which I’ve spent years arriving at? No amount of fear, or panic, would make me reconsider this truth I’ve come to in my life. Certainly, the fact I’m about to die in a plane crash would in no way confirm that a god exists. It might piss me off a bit, or make me wonder what idiot didn’t properly check the plane before letting us fly in it. I think the thing theists fail to realize when making statements like this is that we have truly THOUGHT about the possibilities. We aren’t atheists because someone told us to be. It isn’t some waffling position where we may or may not believe. We do not believe. No amount of tragic circumstances will change that. At least not for me.

So, next time you’re in an airplane and the turbulence gets a bit rough, do what I do- turn up your music, chuckle at the frantic believers, accept there is not a single fucking thing you can do about it, and just enjoy the ride.

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17 Responses to Only an atheist until the plane starts to fall.

  1. I’ve thought about these types of comments as well. All I can extract is that theist use these less for the receiver of the sage advice and more for themselves. Its a way to justify, internally, their belief system. “He’d believe like me if only he’d get the chance to stop thinking so much and let

  2. I’ve thought about these types of comments as well. All I can extract is that theist use these less for the receiver of the sage advice and more for themselves. It’s a way to justify, internally, their belief system. “He’d believe like me if only he’d get the chance to stop thinking so much and let his emotions take the forefront” It’s a way perhaps to validate their idea that the are not so crazy.
    As a foxhole atheist, the stress and trauma I was lucky enough to get through was not something that pushed me towards a deity, in fact quite the opposite. Very good post, cant wait for more. This one was a-boot time…

  3. Jorge Garcia says:

    I absolutely agree! Saludos desde México!

  4. I always wonder why or how the phrase “Oh my god!” came to be used during panic, etc. I don’t necessarily think it indicates much other then a call for outside intervention by anyone or anything. I have a feeling ‘oh my god’ is used in climatic orgasm more then any other time. How prevalent its use is worldwide in different cultures and languages would be interesting to know. Do isolated tribal cultures say an equivalent ‘oh my [insert something here]’ during a crisis?

    I would say though, and I am not judging anyone’s ‘knee-jerk’ reaction during times of crisis, but I would say that I believe one’s theology makes an ultimate difference in a situation, and a logical one. For example it would be pretty illogical for someone who believes in the Biblical God to truly panic during a plane crash or any life or death situation. But like I have mentioned in previous comments, for someone to say they believe in the Biblical God but not hold that He is sovereign over everything is irrational, albeit I say that with obvious sensitivity. Fundamentally though, the God of the Bible is sovereign even over the ‘roll of the dice’ or what we would call ‘chance’ (Proverbs 16:33) which if one actually understands provides the ultimate security in every aspect of life (even this blog).

    One thing though and I would love to have a conversation with you directly sometime especially to understand more of your background, is why you are an atheist and not agnostic? Because I really think that agnosticism is more rational than atheism since you one can neither prove or disprove of a reality outside of our known one. But from what I understand from tone of this blog, the point being is to push against the theists by arguing against their gods whom you don’t believe exist. This I have never really understood, in the same way no one spends any effort trying to persuade people that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. If they don’t exist why take the time to refute it, but understandably the thrust of this blog comes out of the dreadful experience you have had with people who claimed to have known and followed a tooth fairy.

    Personally I am upset (yet actually excited) that you experienced what sounds like ‘christianism’ (for want of a better word) so early on, which is driving you to push against it. It is like you once bought a broken yo-yo that didn’t spin, and are now passionate about refuting physics. The reason I say ‘yet actually excited’ is that your whole worldview is about reason, logic and reality which means you are in the magnificent mindset and attitude to actually investigate the claims of the Bible without the baggage of presupposition. But the reason I say ‘I am upset’, is explained in my metaphor, that your experience of physics was a broken yo-yo and not perhaps a gyroscope.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Well, atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive concepts. I’d consider myself an agnostic atheist, as I suspect most atheists would, precisely for the reasons you mention- it would be illogical to claim absolute knowledge that there is no god.

      For me, I consider the question of gnosticism/agnosticism a completely different one from theism/atheism. Gnosticism/agnosticism will describe your level of knowledge, whereas theism/atheism describes your belief or opinion on the topic of god. I don’t believe in god, making me an atheist. That’s my opinion on the matter. But my level of absolute knowledge on the topic is of course in question, because, as you pointed out, how do you prove the non-existence of a being? You can’t, of course. So that leaves me as an agnostic atheist… but atheist for short 🙂

      Now, as to why I push against religion- it really has nothing to do with my history as a Christian. It also really has nothing to do with wanting to “prove” anything. Because, of course, proving god doesn’t exist isn’t possible. What I, and I suspect many others, try to do is expose some of the more ridiculous aspects of religion to help people to think about why they believe what they believe, and to help other atheists see that it’s ok to question these long held belief systems. My dislike of religion has nothing to do with my past and everything to do with the harms it inflicts on the world today. Homosexuals and women are often treated as second class citizens, or even killed for who they are. Blasphemy is somehow against the law in many countries. People are stoned to death for apostasy. These are the things I am against and these are the reasons I speak up. The purpose is to expose religion to hopefully show people that these things that happen, which are atrocities all on their own, are made even worse by the fact that they happen because people believe in ridiculous mythology.

      • Thanks for the reply, ‘agnostic atheist’ does actually makes sense. I suppose it is like sitting on the fence with one leg dangling on the one side rather than the other.

        Interestingly if you look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, he continually spoke up against religion for the purpose of exposing the atrocities and injustices carried out by those who believe in mythological traditions. More so his accounts with and attitudes towards women were fundamentally revolutionary, and very much part of the reason the ‘traditionalists’ wanted him dead. In regards to homosexuality, in the context of the Bible the reality and metaphor of marriage runs right through from Genesis to Revelation and is the very means by which anyone single or married finds definition.

        I haven’t written an article for some time, but I once wrote this around the topic which you might find interesting:

    • rennrad says:

      having checked this posting more than a year after its publishing, little i can add to the discussion… but i will try anyway. the point for an atheist is not wanting to disprove or refute the existence of a god. it is that they don’t believe there is such a thing. elaborating a reasoning like “there is no god” ends up bringing the same kind of problem that goes through a christian, when s/he affirms that god exists, that is, s/he has the burden of proof.

  5. The funny thing is, It’s almost silly even from a theistic point of view. Assuming an omniscient and omnipotent god, he/she/it already knows the plane is falling (and, by extension, if it will actually crash, and how many and even exactly who might be injusred or die), so at best any prayers or cries of “oh my god” could only be in hopes of influencing their god’s decision. What makes one think his or her humble prayer will change the mind of a super-being?

    Then again, if this god is so loving, as is preached, why would he/she/it allow an airplane full of he/she/its “children” to crash at all – with or without prayer and begging?

    • I don’t know about other religions but in the context of the Bible prayer itself is under God’s sovereignty. I actually commented on this in a previous post:

      The question I always ask myself is if the Biblical God is true and that he terrifyingly holy, why does he not just destroy everyone? But not only that, this same God provides finite creatures the means by which they can exist eternally, completely fulfilled, satisfied and enjoying God forever. Obviously this is the very thrust of the Biblical narrative and provides the very means by which someone who is about to die or has lost someone to ultimately be joyful again. Our lives, personalities, desires and abilities are not just experienced for at most a hundred or so years, but continue on infinitely ever growing, developing and being fulfilled.

      In terms of the Biblical God, he is as much sovereign in choosing to answer prayer and preventing a crash as he is for crashing the plane in the first place. But since he is also the very means by which physics and biology produce tears from tear ducts, there is relief there that in all history things happen in the order they do including prayer, understood as being answered or unanswered from our perspective. The very point though is of what nature is this God, and we see that most fully in the Biblical record and most fully in person of Jesus of Nazareth.

  6. hanspolak says:

    I had a potentially deadly accident in february, falling of a galloping horse (one stirrup broke). Not once did I think about god or prayer. Not once have I said or written “thank gods”

    I also find turbulence amusing during flights.

    Cheers, Mel

  7. After years of Christianity, I sometimes sit back and think, “Wow, prayer never entered my mind as a solution at all.” Once upon a time I would have prayed my butt off over it. I have been told the “no atheists in foxholes” bit before, so I thank you for giving your perspective on it.

  8. Keith says:

    There’s definitely a certain amount of wishful thinking that I experience as an Atheist.

    Sometimes I really wish there was a God who could deal out some God-Damned-Justice in the world. That the millions of children who starve to death every year, the civilians who get massacred in wars, and other people who die in horrible ways, can actually experience some happiness even after they die. All the evil tyrants, murderers and rapists don’t escape from justice through death.

    But no matter how much I wish it were true, I can’t actually believe it.

    The same way that I still secretly wish that my letter from Hogwarts just got held up and it will arrive (a decade late) and I’ll soon be going to a community college for adults who came late to magic.

    No matter how much I daydream about these things, no matter how much I wish they were true, I can’t actually believe them. They are firmly in the fantasy/imagination category of my mind, not the “real life” one.

    Death is the ultimate reality check. It reconfirms all those things that you daydreamed about in your life never came true, because they were simply figments of the imagination.

    Something like Israel and Palestine reaching a lasting peace agreement is more likely to make me think there might in fact be a God than a brush with death.

  9. Lea says:

    Well you did not face death on your flight… There were turbulences? People were scared? Sure, but that happens a lot ! That is not finding yourself face to face with death ! That is NOT a falling plane ! I was once on a flight from Brezil to Paris and the plane literally was falling ! We never knew what really happened ! All if a sudden it went 180 degrees downwards and the oxygen masks fell down and the lights were blinking , the people were terrified and the hostess in my aisle was crying and screaming and trying to hold on to the seats because she was literally on the floor hanging down ! That is a ” plane falling ” and guess what ? Next to me, there was a man in his 50s who saw me holding on to my rosary … He removed his oxygen mask and asked me : do you believe ? So I nodded with my head and without removing my oxygen mask : yes … He then said : ” can you please, pray for me as well ? I was raised as an atheist and don’t know how to pray or what to say to a God I never believed in … I don’t even know if he would listen to me now after I have been ignoring him all these years ! ” I was astonished and I then answered : ” don’t worry, God is all ears and I will pray for all of us on this flight ” … The plane after few minutes was back on track and readjusted its course and the pilot never gave a real explanation he just said : ” we are sorry about that, we faced some issues and now everything is under control ” … I did not take a flight for 2 years after that one ! People left the plane crying and shaking ! That was one experience I will never forget or wish even to my worst enemies … A great atheist professor who became a believer after almost dying , said once : ” it is very easy to be an atheist wheb you are young, strong and healthy and very hard to stay an atheist when you are face to face with death, clinging to life by a hair … ” Howard Storm , is his name and he is a professor with a PHD at Harvard and spent all his life as an arrogant and an atheist until he had a near death experience and realized what a fool he was to be so smart and believe that the world with its complexity just happened to be …

    • M from Germany says:

      Nice story. Quite conveniently fitting, isn’t it. I call you on that, this is a bold faced lie.

      The thing is that this stupid little saying does not make sense to begin with. Atheists do not believe because they are not convinced. Near death does not change the basis of that. This seems to be something many theists just don’t get, atheists don’t “decide” to not believe. You either believe, or you do not, you either are convinced of something, or you are not.

      Let me give you an example, I am convinced that there is no difference in, for example intelligence between black people and white people. All the data we have shows that the average iq-value is not at all in connection to skinn colour. So, I am convinced of that because of the data, I believe that there is no difference regarding intelligence.

      Now, the theist idea about atheists deciding not to believe is the equivalent of me going: “right, I decide that from now on, I believe that one group is superior in intelligence because of their skin colour”. I can say that, but I cant simply change the belief I have.

      So, sitting in a foxhole under fire, sitting in an airplane falling, an atheist might WISH that there was a god to protect him, but he does not actually believe it, otherwise, he wasn’t an atheist to begin with. He does not believe because he has not been convinced and being under fire or falling from the sky does not change that, it can not change that.

      Someone who actually DOES start to believe stuff out of fear or just because of the desire for those things to be true is someone with an unbelievable low standard of evidence. Someone like that would have to believe pretty much anything that “feels right”.

  10. Boxxy says:

    *tips fedora*

  11. Anonymous says:

    The airplane never crashed. You can say you WILL do a lot of things, but if it actually crashed I doubt you’d do what you said.

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