Militant atheism

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Militant, but definitely not an atheist.
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An actual militant atheist.
It's rare to walk anywhere in public and not see some religious advertisement every few moments. Imagine if the cause of non-belief were promoted to even one hundredth this degree? Theists would be totally outraged. Yet if an atheist decides to react to the overwhelming pro-religion propaganda that's in his face on a daily basis, he's labeled as "militant", "intolerant" and "extremist."
—Morgan Matthew, Why atheists care about religion[1]

Militant atheism, also known as "making the case for atheism and/or antitheism in a frank but unapologetic manner", is a derogatory neologism called upon against any and all nonbelievers who won't just shut up about it (and is, as a result, a snarl word primarily directed against so-called "New Atheists").

The term describes any given atheist or secularist who dares profess their own views against religion or against religious influence in public life or government ruling within earshot of a religious person who has grown accustomed to never having their views challenged. The term thus denotes the enormous social faux pas one commits by not simply giving in to the arbitrary privilege accorded to religion in the United States.

Militant? Really?[edit]

Most generally, the term "militant" means anyone who promotes their cause in an organised and vigorous way, and the activities they use to support it. In this case, it is just an adjective describing a particular attitude and is technically accurate. "Militant evangelical" isn't a widely used term, though it would be equally technically accurate, because it would be pretty redundant.

However, the word derives from the Latin militare, which is connected with soldiers and the military. Militant is not exclusively associated with "official" armies, but is still used to describe armed militias, rebel groups, and those with a violent predisposition. The implication of using violence, particularly armed violence, is still strong, especially when used as a noun, e.g., "a militant". The association with violence is strengthened because "Militant Islam" is a term associated with terrorism and wielding AK-47s in the Middle East, and "Militant Christianity" is associated with gun nuts in the United States.

By contrast, the most militant action done in the names of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens was a peaceful rally against the Pope's state visit to the UK — so the wider implications of the term "militant" is somewhat unfairly applied to atheists. As a result, the charge of "militant atheism" amounts to nothing more than a tone argument if one considers the complete absence of actual militancy within popular atheism (compared to various religious actors). QualiaSoup provides a summary of this view in his Lack of belief in gods:[2]

Some theists (who are determined for atheism to mean more than "a lack of belief") note how fervent some atheists are in discussion, and point out that "fervency doesn't just come from a lack of belief". No, it doesn't. A great deal of fervency is a response to the hostility directed at us [Atheists] simply for not believing in Gods.

To being condemned, criticised, marginalized and dehumanized by people who are unwilling to allow us to live our lives; who impugn our morality, who tell us we don't belong in the country in which we were born, who distort our education, attempt to monopolize government, and ostracize us for not participating in their rituals.

Treat any group of people with such profound disrespect, and it would be surprising not to see fervency from some of them. Fervency is not a result of simply being an atheist. But nor is it solely a response to the disgusting manner in which atheists are treated. It also comes from a wider sense of injustice at the way human beings are being treated around the world.

How church leaders are invoking baseless religious priviligies to keep the details of child sexual abuse cases secret. How children are dying from torture and neglect after being branded as "witches" and "demon-possessed". How adulterers are being stoned to death, gay people are being hanged, and other barbaric acts are being commited[sic]all in the name of an entity whose basic existence can't be demonstrated.

This isn't to say that militant atheism doesn't exist in spirit — examples of people who want to abolish religion entirely, often through violent means, can be found rather easily on places like Reddit — or in New Atheist circles in general (well, okay, the "through violence" part generally doesn't apply to New Atheists, but the "abolish religion" part often does). Indeed, the Four Horsemen of New Atheism are known for their excessive hostility towards religious people; the most extreme example is Sam Harris, who has infamously called for religion to be squashed through violence and expressed an absolute refusal to tolerate the existence of religious people (more specifically Muslims), and… well, there's a reason why The God Delusion has proved to be controversial. However, most of these are Internet tough guys who would never dare put their rhetoric into practice (we hope), and with enough digging, there are militants of any ideology anyway.

Militant activities and double standards[edit]

Actions that can get an atheist branded as "militant" include:

  • Existing
  • Campaigning against public and enforced prayerparticularly in schools.
  • Holding rallies against religious figures.
  • Questioning public policy based on religion, such as running abstinence programs rather than teaching about contraception.
  • Questioning religious authority.
  • Stating openly that one does not believe in God.
  • Working against discrimination on religious grounds.
  • Writing books.
  • Stating non-belief in any sort of public fashion.

Basically, anything that an atheist or group of atheists says or writes will be called "militant" by some religious pundit or another. At the same time, religious groups and individuals are free to profess their beliefs and proselytize openly without much public outcry. So outspoken religious belief and atheism are held to a double standard, where religious criticism of atheism is seen as conventional wisdom, but atheist criticism of religion is controversial.[3]

The real deal[edit]

The League of Militant Atheists (Russian: "Союз воинствующих безбожников". In the Russian name, the word "godless" instead of atheist is used) was an anti-religious Communist organisation in Soviet Russia during the first half of the 20th century. It was disbanded in the 1940s, when Stalin decided to tone down anti-religious campaigning during the Second World War.[4]

Another group which can legitimately be referred to as Militant Atheists were the Hébertists during the French Revolution, as they were out to erase all religiousness from society by implementing the Republican Calendar, destroying and desecrating churches, etc.

Also, as of the current writing, the government of China has been performing violent crackdowns on organized religion, such as raiding Christian churches, ransacking its worshippers' homes as well as arresting them,[5] and sending Uighur Muslims to "re-education" camps, separating children from their parents to free them from their culture.[6]

But for anyone with half a brain, it can clearly be seen from the above that simply having one's beliefs criticized or mocked in no way amounts to "militancy", and it would be moronic to say that these despots did what they did in the name of atheism and only atheism. It would be much more accurate to say that atheism was an integral part of Stalinist ideology, and most Communist thought in general, and saying that atheism played no part in Soviet persecution would be as bad as saying they persecuted people out of pure hate of religion. The leader of the Soviet's League of Militant Atheists, Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, stated at the 1929 Second Congress of Atheists:[7]

It is our duty to destroy every religious world-concept … If the destruction of ten million human beings, as happened in the last war, should be necessary for the triumph of one definite class, then that must be done and it will be done.

Dimitry V. Pospielovsky, in his book "A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice and the Believer" also documents:[8]

A group of geologists, surveying in the Siberian Taiga in the summer of 1933, had camped for a night...(and) saw a group of prisoners being led by camp guards and lined up before a freshly dug ditch... the victim was told that were he to deny God’s existence this would be his last chance to survive. In every case, without exception, the answer was: ‘God exists’. A pistol-shot followed. This procedure was repeated sixty times.

To brush aside evidence of NKVD goons asking people if they believed in God and then shooting them in the head if they said “yes” as if this has nothing to do with Soviet ideology’s intrinsic atheism is patently ridiculous, and it is also patently ridiculous to say they did this only in the name of atheism. There was a particularly violent antitheism bound up with Communist ideology, something many other atheists then and now completely reject.

See also[edit]

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