Why I Reject the Label “Militant Atheist”

Sorry I haven’t been posting loads recently. I’ve had a cold ever since my birthday and it just got worse and worse. I’m finally recovering, though.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon I had a conversation with one of my friends who insisted that I was a militant atheist. As you may have already noticed from previous entries, I despise that term with a passion and I intend to make it clear why I do.

As a well-known and popular blogger, I have a reputation to uphold. When part of that reputation is being a ‘militant atheist’, that reputation is tarnished. But why do I consider the term tarnishing?

Let’s start with the adjective “militant.” To me, this conjures an image of a guerrilla soldier brandishing machine guns and home-made bombs about. Granted, militant does not necessarily mean taking military action. I’m just saying, that’s how it sounds. According to my Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition…

militant adj. & n.

  • adj. 1 combative; agressively active esp. in support of a (usu. political) cause. 2 engaged in warfare
  • n. a militant person, esp. a political activist.

The adjective isn’t on the whole entirely inaccurate, though it obviously has negative connotations to it and seems to apply more to politics which… doesn’t really apply to me.

As far as I can tell, the term was originally started by Lenin when he wrote On the Significance of Militant Materialism. In it, he defined the militant atheist as “carry[ing] on untiring atheist propaganda and an untiring atheist fight”. I still cringe at the adjective ‘militant’ but that definition might fit better than an atheist who sees themselves at being at war with theists.

You may notice that there isn’t much of a difference between being ‘militant’ and being an activist. If you really want to say that I actively promote atheism, I’d prefer you use activist. But if they’re almost the same thing, why do I prefer activist?

First of all, there’s less of a negative connotation to it. Militant is a rather strong word. If you hear a person described as being ‘militant’ you assume that they are intolerant, hostile, and… scary.

Secondly, because of this, it’s almost an ad hominem attack. To quote Catherine Fahringer…

At some point in history the adjective “militant” was attached to the noun “atheist,” very much as was the adjective “damn” attached to the noun “Yankee” during the Civil War. The story goes that many children born in the south during that war grew up thinking damnyankee was one word.

Oh yeah. I learned how to do a block quote. Kudos to me.

Anyway, militant atheist has really just been used as a propaganda tool by the theists.

Of the few fleas (books written in response to those written by Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins) I have been able to get my hands on and thumb through, I have noticed that they seem to have two main angles of attack. One is to attack reason itself, saying stuff like “if your reason evolved through natural selection, how can you know that it’s reasonable” (feel free to begin the eye rolling) or to label them all as a bunch of “militant, Fundamentalist Atheists” who are dogmatic and are no better than religion and yadda yadda yadda.

Why are they doing this? Well, like I said, it’s little more than an ad hominem attack, but it does effectively attach a negative connotation to atheism which gives people a subjective bias. When you have pre-made assumptions about a person, it’s more difficult to read their stuff objectively and see what they’re really saying. I certainly am guilty of misunderstanding based on making subjective presumptions.

But do I fit the term ‘militant’? Am I aggressive? Do I see a coming war with theists? I could be wrong, but I don’t see myself as aggressive. I will passionately argue with theists, and I will not hesitate to shred their arguments to ribbons, but I’ll still eat lunch with them and be chummy with them. I may destroy their arguments, but that doesn’t make me aggressive.

If you really think I’m ‘intolerant’, I’d be happy to have lunch with you. Or, if I were above the drinking age, I’d buy you a drink.

Really, just because we tear your arguments to sub-atomic particles doesn’t mean we’re going to sneak into your house in the middle of the night and set fire to your Christmas trees. And, please, find me an atheist like Billy to help prove the existence of militant atheists.

Oh, and what if your definition of militant atheist isn’t that? Well, frankly, I don’t care. It’s not a term I’ll let you brandish about lightly because it’s definition is so fuzzy. If you’re going to use it, at the very least make your definition clear. Otherwise, you’ll end up calling Albert Einstein a militant atheist.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Nice post. You’re right about people being raised with images of militant atheists thinking that is how atheists really are. I have had a few interesting experiences where friends and acquaintances simply refused to believe that I was an atheist because I didn’t fit their understanding of what an atheist is. Which, of course, got us into that endless loop:

    “I don’t believe you’re an atheist”
    “Well, then I don’t believe you’re a theist”
    “…”

    I must say, however, that there are plenty of atheists I would readily describe as “militant,” in the same way I would describe many religious people as “fanatics.” These are the ones who are irrationally hostile to religion and resort to attacks of “the religious are idiots” and the like. I have never met one in real life, but there seems to be somewhere around a billion floating around the Internet.

    Cheers,
    Adam C

  2. Posted by Dysentery on March 20, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    It works like this. They don’t like what you have to say and you won’t shut up when they tell you that you’re wrong. If you won’t roll over and die then you are militant.

  3. Posted by Evolved on March 20, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    If I say that all theistards should be used as lab rats in scientific experiments, does that make me a militant atheist? 🙂

  4. Preferably in invasive brain experimentation, that is.

  5. Evolved, don’t insult rats. They are kind and cuddly creatures.

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