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Militant Atheism

April 3, 2008 “militant atheist” epithet has been coming up in the media and in personal discussions more and more lately, it seems. Prominent atheist spokespeople like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Myers are described as militant, fundamentalist, angry, and dogmatic god-haters. Militant atheists are not alone, of course; feminists, homosexuals, vegetarians, and virtually any other non-mainstream group has had this pejorative applied to them. Describing someone you disagree with, particularly if they belong to one of the above groups, as militant has come to be a bit of a cliché. Jeffrey over at Recursivity discusses the Militant Atheist cliché beautifully:

From the meaning of “militant”, you might expect that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are burning down churches, or at least leading protests, stirring up crowds with their fiery rhetoric. You would be disappointed, of course. What Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have done is write books. Hitchens is more of a curmudgeon than a militant, and Dawkins and Harris are both rather mild-mannered. Nobody is leaving their public events carrying torches and singing the atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song.

Whatever the origins, the term “militant atheist” eventually became a description to be used whenever the writer wanted to express disapproval about nonbelievers. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was often so described; a 1970 article in Time sneered at her attempt to found a new church. True, O’Hair was, by all accounts, a nasty person. However, when she was killed in 1995, obituaries routinely referred to her as “militant”. Her murderer, however, was not so categorized.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.For some reason, calling atheists militant often goes along with calling them fundamentalists. “Atheism is a religion too,” the argument goes, “atheists believe that there is no god, and they are fundamentalists about it.” Austin at intelligently responds to this by referring to the meaning of fundamentalist: it is a term that was coined to describe a particular Christian movement which aimed at getting back to fundamental beliefs. Fundamentalist does not mean uncompromising and absolutist.

If fundamentalism is primarily about the promotion of “fundamental” beliefs, it’s not possible for this to be applied to atheism because atheism has no beliefs, much less “fundamental” beliefs. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods, nothing more and nothing less, so there is nothing “fundamental” for atheists to “get back to” in order to achieve a more pure or original atheism.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.So, atheists aren’t militant, and they aren’t fundamentalists. They certainly are angry, am I right? Those angry atheists getting all worked up over things they don’t even believe in. Well, this blogger is angry. So is this one. So are many many others. So? For one the fact that some atheists get angry, that some are emotionally invested in the issues and sometimes lose their tempers, does not discount their points. Did you get that? The fact that atheists are angry does not mean they are wrong. Besides, they aren’t all angry, and the ones who are also experience many other human emotions, I’m sure.

Why are (some) atheists (sometimes) angry? I think it comes down to three specific issues:

1) After leaving their religions, some atheists may be angry at their family members and spiritual leaders for misleading them. They may feel they have been lied to and taken advantage of. They may also be angry with themselves for not getting out sooner or for actions they engaged in while they were religious.

2) An atheist who leaves a religion may feel that a religious worldview is harmful or destructive, and to see other people using that worldview to control others, to influence politics or education, makes them angry. Why? Why do people still have to act this way? If they didn’t believe a fertilized egg has a soul, they wouldn’t have bombed that clinic! If they didn’t believe God hates fags they wouldn’t have pushed their son to suicide.

3) Atheists face discrimination, and this may make some angry as well. I’ve actually had worse reactions to my coming out as a godless non-believer than as a lesbian (although, to be fair, the worst reactions I’ve gotten were to my (now-defunct) vegetarianism. Yay, Cowtown!). I won’t get into detail on this, but this blog post by the always fabulous Greta Christina describes several instances.

So, maybe atheists have some reasons to be angry. Then again, maybe the anger is something you can deal with and grow out of. One writer described his experiences thus:

The anger, the “hatred” (if indeed that’s what it is), even the jokes, are all part of the severance package that comes with leaving a faith behind. Make no mistake – religion’s grip on a person can be very, very strong. And even those of us who break free of the bonds occasionally still feel the ghost of that grip. And we lash out at that, too.

But most atheists, I like to think, as they grow comfortable in their atheism, eventually lose the desire to be so spiteful. The anger subsides. The hatred, generally, vanishes. Friendly Atheist has been questioned on his lack of anger, his refusal to lash out, his tolerance and, well, friendliness. He responded to these criticisms with a sentiment that I have heard many religious folk use too: we aren’t going to scare people into coming over to our side. If we project an attitude of happy, friendly, kind, approachable, and caring, then maybe people will understand that we aren’t how we have been portrayed. As long as our rights aren’t being violated, let’s just try to get along and do whatever good we can accomplish.

I guess I come down in the middle, as usual. I think the “militant atheist” rhetoric is meaningless bullshit. Atheists (and feminists, and vegetarians, and homosexuals) don’t tend to be militant in the actual definition of the term, instead the word is just used to disparage us for being active. For standing up for our beliefs and rights. If Christians are allowed to do that, we can too. Sorry. sympathize, however, with angry atheists. Sometimes I find myself among them. It does make me angry when people tell me to my face that I can’t possibly be a moral person because I don’t believe in god. It makes me furious when people work to deny me the right to be married to my partner of nearly a decade, because they believe God wouldn’t approve of the type of sex we have. I am angered by the fact that my taxes go to support state-run religious schools where the students are taught that the world was created in six days, and that homos will burn in hell. I think I have a right to be angry.

But I also know that name-calling and combativeness won’t get us anywhere. There might be a place for combativeness, but usually a kind demeanor and a firm stance will do the trick. There is never a place for name-calling. Yes, they are calling us names, but to cite my mother (and yours too, probably) “Don’t lower yourself to their level.” Bees and honey, sun and overcoats, and all that.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2008 10:59 am

    The problem with strong beliefs and attached dogma whether it be of a Non-Entity or a Divine one, is that the mass mentality draws individuals together to put others down to supplant their own insecurities about what they believe. For example, if one has truly reached a peace within for whatever one believes, then the need to be combative or resort to name calling becomes moot. Tolerance and acceptance are not a sign of vunerability but of superior intelligence and understanding that each person has their own image of what is, and what is not.
    Take a read of this if you would like:

  2. Samuel Skinner permalink
    April 3, 2008 7:44 pm

    Tolerance is a weakness when you are tolerating evil and the only reason you don’t act is you don’t want your windows mashed in. People seem to think religion is so… benign. Open your eyes onlymoments- this world still has people dying because of faith- even in the “enlightened” US of A.

    Tolerance should only be used for things that aren’t fact statements about reality- there can be many preferances; there is only one reality.

  3. April 3, 2008 8:17 pm

    The fact that I tolerate other beliefs has nothing to do with evil or your intrepretation of it. My eyes are very open to bigots one-way points of view. I have no control over people who think they have to be devoid of spirit because men decide to kill each other over organized religion. I do not condone or support it but I cannot condemn everyone for the violence of the minority of religious freaks. There are indeed multiple realities and multiple points of view (study your physics)and I can easily tolerate words of yours, however violence will beget violence and I have no qualms about defending myself physically to the death should that ever threaten me. Let me say only this… know only one reality and your reality isn’t anyone else’s and that’s the point of the post.

  4. Dr. Jim permalink
    April 5, 2008 8:46 am

    What makes me an angry atheist is the fact that churches, bible schools, religious TV stations and such can get tax breaks simply for preaching (institutions of other religions, of course, can have the same). How is preaching “charitable”? The Bible, Quran and other religious writings often ridicule and then justify the consigning to hell of atheists, heretics, etc. Individuals may be tolerant, but the ideology of exclusivity religions typically is not.

    I will be tolerant to theists who are decent enough to others, but I will become very intolerant of already privileged ideologies when people advance them as the “natural” or only way to run the country, etc. That makes me angry.

    Oh, yeah, and great post as usual, Natasha!

  5. April 5, 2008 5:14 pm

    Right on.

    I’ve hated dealing with the accusation that atheists are some militant fringe group with a radical agenda. Unfortunately, there are some atheists that put forth a very (often needlessly) hostile demeanor. For example, I think the “Blasphemy Challenge” group uses incredibly poor ‘marketing.’

    Since I de-converted from Christianity, I’ve experienced anger at various times in varying degrees. At first I was angry that I had been lied to for seven years, though I soon moved on. Often I become angry at the behavior of particular religious people, though I try to deal with it in a mild mannered way.

    An interesting note, I don’t think anger is always a bad thing. As a Christian, I often heard the term “righteous anger” in regards to certain evils in the world. When I read about Westboro Baptist Church, I become angry. That doesn’t alleviate the wrongness of their actions or demean my emotional response. Anger is natural, what is important is what angry atheists do with their anger.

    Anyway, good thoughts!

    • Seth permalink
      November 7, 2009 5:06 pm

      … You said: “…I was angry that I had been lied to for seven years…”

      Please, don’t call us liars. That isn’t very kind. We’re not lying. I mean, I’m a 14 year old Catholic who can prove that Catholicism is true. Go visit a Catholic church and ask the priest to answer some of your questions. I guarantee that things would go great for you!

  6. April 13, 2008 9:12 am

    Sadly it seems any atheist who speaks up for his/her rights risks the “militant” label. We’re supposed to just sit down and shut up like good little minorities and let others have their way.

    Dr. Jim:

    I agree. The notion that preaching religion gets an automatic tax break really gets to me. I also cringe when people assume that anything they put forth under the guise of their “deeply held religious beliefs”–no matter how absurd or hateful–should be accepted and held as the gospel truth because it’s *religious*. It’s simply wrong and often causes great harm.

  7. Freak permalink
    April 14, 2008 10:50 am

    Didn’t Gandhi refer to his methods as “militant nonviolence”?

  8. GOD HUNTER permalink
    June 27, 2009 8:21 am


    • Seth permalink
      November 7, 2009 5:03 pm

      Oh really now? Science can’t prove everything you know. Such as all of those miracles performed by Jesus and the saints.

      Just pointing something out there.

      Oh, and a bit of advice. Practice what you preach before you preach what you practice.

  9. July 27, 2009 8:56 pm

    I´m an angry atheist too. I just posted 8 reasons why I´m angry in my blog. Religions are just a method of control over the weak minded, the power of one is the only thing that´s real, the world would benefit so much if people only knew their potential.

  10. DMT permalink
    July 2, 2011 8:26 pm

    I think many people misinterpret Atheists. Atheist do has strong opinions, mainly because most Atheist spend a lot of time learning and educating themselves the world. Furthermore, many theist can’t seem to recognize the difference between opinion and dogma.

    Funny, but for me, it was religion wars that drove me away (agnostic) when I was only 10 years and it was the accumulation of scientific knowledge (especially Genetics) that turned me Atheist.

    As for being angry or militant, only 3 religious behaviors can accomplish that:

    1. Religious people trying to force there own dogma onto other people children, I consider that a form of child abuse.

    2. Religious people attempting to use politics and law as a religious tool..

    3. Expecting me to fight any religiously motivated war, that includes Muslims, Christians and Jews..

    That being said, I think most Atheist would agree with this statement: If you want to get along with an Atheist, all you need to do is leave them alone.


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