American soldiers in World War II increasingly found motivation through prayer and less often found motivation by the thought of returning home to their loved ones as the war went on, a new analysis of government data has found.
Originally administered in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The American Soldier studies were conducted by the Army's Information and Education Division. An upcoming analysis of that data, to be published in the Journal of Religion and Health, finds when soldiers reported that battles became "more frightening," as many as 72 percent of them turned to prayer as their primary source of motivation. When battles were less frightening, just 42 percent of soldiers regularly prayed for motivation.
Those who had "high levels of fear symptoms" were less likely to find motivation by looking forward to the end of the war, feeling hatred toward the enemy, or "thinking of what [they] were fighting for."
"The thing motivating a lot of these guys, as combat became heavier, was prayer," says Craig Wansink, a religion professor at Virginia Western College and one of the authors of the study. "That might be what you'd expect, but as the battle became heavier, all of these other factors decreased heavily. There became less trust in national ideals. What surprised us was not that prayer increased but that reliance on other ideals decreased."
The study may lend some credence to the oft-repeated saying "There are no atheists in foxholes," but a second part of the study found that once soldiers returned, those who had bad experiences during the war seemed to remain religious.
When surveyed 50 years later, those who faced heavy combat and said they had a bad experience in the war were 21 percent more likely to attend church than those who had a bad experience but faced little or no combat. Those who faced heavy combat but had a positive overall experience were least likely to attend church.
"It's tough to know why those who had a negative experience attended church more often," Wansink says. "It may be because they have had a history of relying on a larger community – a band of brothers situation – but it also might have something to do with recognizing that they had a reliance on a greater power during the war."