Rick and Morty is definitely a show with some strong atheist themes in it. Rick very openly professes that there is no God, and many of the episodes that deal with religious themes are set up specifically to disprove religious beliefs. Even in the episode where Rick faces the literal devil, the whole point is about how humans are more powerful than these religious figures by showing that Rick is able to humiliate and even beat up the devil. However, there is one moment where Rick’s staunch atheism falls apart, albeit briefly. In the episode “A Rickle in Time”, there is a moment when Rick thinks he is about to die and prays to God, but after he survives, he goes back on his prayers, declaring once again that there is no God. This plays into a rather offensive trope that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, which is the idea that under pressure, everyone believes in God. But is this really the message that Rick and Morty is trying to send?
The idea that there are “no atheists in foxholes” originally comes from a sermon from a U.S. Military Chaplain who claimed that under stress, for example during a time of war, everyone turns to God. Basically, the idea is that when you lack control and your life is in danger, then naturally you turn to God, meaning that there are no real atheists.
This trope could also be called “Prayer as a Last Resort”, again, the idea being that an atheist in a dire situation, not knowing what else to do, turns to prayer. One of my favorite examples of this comes from an episode of the Twilight Zone called “The Obsolete Man” in which a religious librarian is declared obsolete by an authoritarian government that outlawed books and religion. The librarian is set to be killed but manages to capture his executioner so that the man would also die with him. A bomb is set to explode which will kill both of them, but the religious man stays calm reading from the Bible, while the executioner, an atheist, panics more and more as the time the bomb is supposed to go off draws closer. Finally, he screams, “In the name of God let me out!” He is released by the librarian, who stays and faces his execution. But the executioner’s call to God marked him by the government as obsolete as well, meaning that he will soon be executed anyway. While I enjoy this episode, it shows a lot of problematic ideas. It suggests that atheists’ lack of faith makes them somehow more cowardly because they don’t have anything outside themselves to believe in, which in turn means that in a dire situation, they will discover their faith because they’ll realize they can’t simply rely on themselves. Rick, in Rick and Morty, does engage in this trope, but also attempts to subvert it.
In “A Rickle in Time”, Rick, Morty, and Summer pause time in order to clean the house after a major party. When Rick finally unfreezes time, he mentions that their time might not be exactly stable; this proves to be true when Morty and Summer become uncertain about their actions, causing time to split showing them reacting in two different ways. This makes their time even more unstable. They both exist and don’t at the same time and Rick needs to figure out a way to fix their time and make sure they exist. At one point in the episode, Rick uses special collars that stabilize their time and allows them to exist, except Morty’s latch on his collar is broken, so Rick gives his own to Morty so that he can be safe. Rick thinks he is going to die and seems to accept his fate, but then realizes he can fix Morty’s old collar and use it on himself. During this time, when Rick is desperately fixing the collar, he begins to pray that he can fix it and live, but once he is able to fix it he laughs and says, “Fuck you, God. Not today, bitch.” So Rick prays at first when he thinks he might not survive, thus following the no-atheists-in-foxholes trope, but Rick then immediately mocks God when he realizes he is going to survive. But why does Rick pray to begin with when he so clearly does not believe in God?
This trope is obviously offensive to a lot of people who are atheists and ignores a lot of outside factors. It claims that somewhere at our core, all people believe in some sort of higher power as if it’s a part of our very nature. Indeed, a lot of Christian beliefs claim that people all have a desire for God in their hearts and that humans can never be fulfilled unless they have God. Many Christians claim that this is what causes people to try to fill this void in their life with other things such as drinking, television, anything really, when what they really need is God. So it’s not hard to see why Christians would believe that in a dire situation an atheist would turn to God, because those other things aren’t helping save them. But it is still offensive to people who do not believe. As Daniel Finke, a writer for the faith-centric site Patheos, explains:
So how it is any different to make this argument to atheists?
And the “You’ll change your tune when you’re looking death in the face” trope has a Schadenfreude quality to it that is truly ugly. It takes a sadistic, “I told you so” glee in the potential suffering of others. There’s an almost hopeful quality to it that’s deeply unsettling. “Someday, you’ll be sick and dying with a terrible illness, or you’ll be in a terrifying accident, or the person you love most in the world will be gone from your life forever… and then I’ll be proven right! Then you’ll know the glory and majesty of the Lord! In your face!”
What about Rick in this episode? Is the show reinforcing the anti-atheistic belief by showing Rick almost hedging his bets when it comes to his life? No, what it actually does is turn the trope on its head. Rick does fall into the classic trope at first, but according to the trope, a person should come out of that situation with belief. Rick, however, immediately goes back to his atheistic beliefs, even going so far as to curse at God and tell him that he is not getting him today. In this way, God becomes more of a cultural force for Rick to fight against, not a real believable deity.
Culture plays a large part in why Rick might pray. Despite traveling the universe, Rick still was born and grew up in the United States, which is predominantly Christian, and so culturally, those things affect someone even if they themselves are not Christian. Sometimes people pray in dangerous situations because they have picked up from TV that that’s what people do in those situations, not because of any genuine belief. Similarly, when someone says “bless you” after you sneeze, most people do not say that because of any actual genuine belief in a higher being. So Rick could just be playing out something more cultural and maybe is even aware of the irony of it, despite not believing in God. It’s just that that’s what society tells you that you are supposed to do. Rick is probably aware of that, because the minute he is out of danger he makes fun of the very cultural practice he just took part in.
Now it’s true that Rick tends to show his more serious side when he is alone or in a bad situation, but afterward he still belittles his real feelings and emotions. But I don’t think that is what is happening, because usually even when Rick does this, we see an emotional change in Rick and how he acts. He may not change in dramatic obvious ways, but he builds a better relationship with his family and friends as the show progresses because of these moments. However, Rick’s staunch atheism never changes. Rick’s prayer may or may not have been genuine, but we can’t measure people exclusively by what they do when they’re desperate. It’s not proof he believes, it’s proof he’s willing to do anything in order to survive. The point is that Christians don’t get to say who counts as an atheist any more than atheists get to decide what counts as Christian. Rick’s atheism isn’t negated by this moment, no matter what people may perceive by his prayer. Rick is an atheist because Rick is an atheist, and how he responds and reacts to certain situations doesn’t negate that. There is a belief among many people that atheists are somehow less good or trustworthy because they don’t believe in a higher power. But Rick disproves this belief and shows his goodness when he sacrifices himself for Morty in this episode. This also helps negate the no-atheists-in-foxholes trope by showing that Rick didn’t have a change of heart after he prayed—he is still an atheist and still, ultimately, a good person. Not having a religion has no effect on that.