The “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.
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 About.com 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.
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.
The 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.
I 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.