Monicks: Unleashed

Thinking Critically

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“Militant Atheism” — I don’t think that means what you think it means.

There is this new tendency to label outspoken atheists as “Militant Atheists.” Here’s why I think it’s wrong.

I wish I could renounce the label Atheist, to begin with. In case you didn’t know, “atheist” is a label given to us by believers. It used to be a derogatory label, a Christian slur against us coined used in France in the 16th century as a reaction to growing free thought, skeptical inquiry, and intellectual criticism of religion. When someone called you an atheist it was not a good thing. “Atheist” was used exclusively as an insult. 

Nobody in their right mind would have called themselves an atheist back then, if you were an atheist, you were an outcast.

No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

— Sam Harris,  The End of Faith

I concur.

I can’t singlehandedly ditch the label entirely, as it is a way to identify our lack of belief in deities. Until we unbelievers get to a consensus on what would be the best term to describe ourselves, I am in some way forced to keep it, sadly.

But on top of that, now I am labeled “militant.” This is totally inaccurate, and I – and hopefully you – won’t take it silently.

Let’s look it up. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Militant:
1. engaged in warfare or combat
2. aggressively active

We might be loud, we might be strident, we might be angry, but we are not militant. Advocacy, rational inquiry, is not militancy. We are not aggressive, we are not violent, we are not at war, we are not fighting, we are not blowing ourselves and our detractors up to make a point, we don’t fly plains into buildings. Heck! we don’t even knock on anyone’s door to dis-indoctrinate them. Our only weapon is our rationality. We have rational discussions, we challenge irrational beliefs. That is what we do.

We have to speak up — we need to! It is the only way to normalize a concept that has been considered taboo for ages; that’s how we de-demonize a label. Furthermore, it’s been scientifically proven that the more we force people to think about their beliefs, the more we force them to justify their ideas, the more cognitive dissonance we generate, more and more people will break free from their dogmas. Once they abandon one dogma, there goes the rest of their belief system, and they start walking their path toward rationality.

That feeling of discomfort when an atheist points out facts and evidence that obviously contradict your strongly held beliefs, is not us hurting you, it’s your cognitive dissonance at work.

But there is more to it, it has an ulterior motive. It’s the fallacy of disambiguation, or poisoning the well: a technique that by disparaging the source deems all that comes from it worthless and unreliable.

There isn’t any inherent dogma in atheism that advocates any violence in the defense of non-belief; so, no, I won’t take it. I am not militant. I am not violent.

Next time you want to come up with yet another derogatory term to label us unbelievers, check your facts before applying your unsolicited labels wrongly.

45 Responses to “Militant Atheism” — I don’t think that means what you think it means.

  1. Colin Mackay says:

    Labels don’t matter, we’re getting under their skin:)

  2. Words aren’t literally weapons.
    Spokesmen don’t constitute a militia.
    And a disagreement isn’t a declaration of war.

    Unless…

    Divine words aren’t just words.
    God’s spokesmen aren’t just men.
    And religious disagreements aren’t merely a battle of ideas.

  3. Pingback: Respect. « Loftier Musings

  4. espressofrog says:

    What about describing oneself as non-theist? People aren’t too used to it and when they ask me what I think I just tell them I don’t believe in supernatural explanation. Sometimes they think “oh he’s just a bit skeptical but he accepts the philosophy bit of the bible” which isn’t something I’ve said. But I don’t get that knee-jerk reaction of “you atheists believe you know it all”.

  5. hiphopatheist says:

    Very well written ! but I kind of like being labeled an atheist its like a badge of honor I know some people view it as militant & just bad like I’m an evil person even though I never am the one to bring up religion in any conversation but if asked the question i am honest about it & the look on people’s faces when I tell them that a near death experience is what made this way is priceless

  6. Would it be ok if I posted this (with due credits) on our blog The Flying Teapot Project – http://flyingteapot.haaan.com/ – ?

  7. Monicks says:

    Absolutely! Thank you, Åsa.

  8. Monicks says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud atheist. Like I said in the post, it is the only way we have to remove the negative connotation of the term.

    But “Atheist” is a term defined by the negation of a presumed baseline. It says what we are not, instead of what we are.

  9. Monicks says:

    Thank you, hiphopatheist. Wear the badge proudly.

    You need to tell us all about this NDE. You can post something on Think Atheist! Let me know if you need any assistance.

    I had one of those myself, but it didn’t change my views, I was never a believer, although I was raised Catholic.

  10. Monicks says:

    Thank you for your comment, Espressofrog. I think non-theist is just the same as atheist, in the sense that it states what we are not, instead of what we are. I would probably call myself a post-theist, but I was never a theist!

    I don’t mind using the word atheist, but “militant”? No, I’m not militant, and neither are you, nor are the thousands of people who advocate for free thought and rationality.

  11. Monicks says:

    Labels do matter, even more so when they depict the labeled subject as unworthy or inadequate.

  12. miker42 says:

    I think Activist Atheist is a more accurate description than Militant. Along with the militant label, theists seem to come up with their own definition for atheism that I don’t think any atheist agrees with. They define atheists as angry, or that atheism requires faith or deifies science. They make up this scary monster that has nothing to do with atheism. I’m becoming a fan of referring to this mythical monster of an atheist that theists create as “Goblin Atheism” to show how their definition is so misinformed and superstitious.

    If you don’t mind, I wrote some more about atheism here: http://darkorifice.com/2011/11/26/does-atheism-have-denominations/

  13. James says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Militant is definitely the wrong word. I think there is definitely a group of atheists who are angry, or upset with things that happen because of religion but they have been extremely peaceful. I’d compare them to Martin Luther King. Angry, but protesting peacefully. On a similar note there are just as many young evangelicals that are just as pissed about many of the same things. I’m one of them and I’m seeing many of my friends and peers walking away from the church not cause they are upset with God but because they’ve had enough of his people and their religion.

    I just finished a post on angry atheists. http://www.goddamblog.com If you’re interested.

    James

  14. unkleE says:

    “In case you didn’t know, “atheist” is a label given to us by believers. It used to be a derogatory label, a Christian slur against us coined in France in the 16th century as a reaction to growing free thought, skeptical inquiry, and intellectual criticism of religion.”

    You might be right, but it certainly isn’t the first use of the word. In the first century, christians were called atheists because they refused to worship the pantheon of Roman gods. Imagine that! : )

  15. tobeforgiven says:

    Thank you for your post. I think that many Atheist, seem to like that label and take pride in it. It seems to define them as being against theism, which for many seems to be just as they want to be defined. I hope though, that on both sides we can move away from what we are against, or not, and move to what we are for.
    I hope you actively speak out what you believe, as long as you realize that I too will actively speak out the way I believe. I think all of us should carry that title activits. I am an activist Christian, while you are an activist non-believer, I should also be an activist husband and father, etc. If we are not active in who we are we are (as Kierkagaard would say) “Flabby” and useless.
    Colin- what do you mean “we are getting under thier skin.” is that what it’s about?
    Blamer- Perhaps I am not understanding you. “Divine words are not just words.” I agree, but if you believe that there is no divine (which I not know at this point, so please clarify) then why would they not be just words?

  16. Pingback: What do Angry Atheists and Young Evangelicals have in common? « GodDam Blog

  17. 2 questions atheists refuse to answer:

    Do you have a soul or are you just an empty shell? Is there more to you than meets the eye, or is your body just a facade with nothing residing behind the eyes?

    I know that I have an eternal soul. There is more to me than meets the eye. I believe the Lord created my soul as well as my body. I acknowledge Him gladly as GOD with the soul that is within me.

    With this knowledge, I’m blessed. Thanks for sharing.
    Connie
    http://7thandvine.wordpress.com/

  18. I think, just as there are “militant, fundamentalist Christians” that there are also militant, fundamentalist atheists.” Both are rather fundy in their aggressiveness and ardor; I say this tongue in cheek, of course.

    Because passion is felt for a cause, one can be accused of being fundamentalist or militant. This mockery and namecalling is not just for Christians anymore. ;)

  19. tobeforgiven says:

    Yeah, unfortunatly the word Atheist, come from the Greek Atheos, and has been used often.
    In fact it was used by Atheists as a term for themselves begining in the 18th century.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

  20. Matt Tapp says:

    Monicks,
    I enjoyed reading your post, it helped me acknowledge that too often I and the majority of society group “atheists” into a stereotypical subculture. I think that some individuals may be referred to as “militant” “atheist” because they are aggressively active in the advancement of their beliefs. This does not describe all atheist as you have made clear. And I am sorry If you have been referred to in this way because I can see how this can be incredibly insulting, considering its negative connotations.
    Just some thoughts though:
    While militant may have roots in military terminology, it has evolved in meaning. When used in reference to a cause, it does not necessarily indicate violence. So militant can have a positive connotation; it may simply mean that one is committed to their cause and passionately active about advocating it. Do I think this is what most are thinking when using the term? Probably not, but just another way to consider it.
    Also, in a previous comment you state, “But “Atheist” is a term defined by the negation of a presumed baseline. It says what we are not, instead of what we are.” That is an interesting point. You said you have not found another term that would function as a proper label for an individual such as yourself. But I’m assuming that you want a label that describes “what you are”? So, what are you? Atheist means you are a person who does not believe in deities. Would you say that you are a person who believes in or practices rational thought and logical reasoning?
    If that is the case, would that mean that in contrast “theist” do not believe in or practice rational thought and logical reason?
    Just wanted to throw some ideas out there and hopefully build upon what you are discussing?
    Thanks!

  21. I am not a hippopotamus. I am Ahippotomist.

  22. Funny – I consider myself a Christian because it is my desire to try to be more Christlike. I believe that is by definition what a Christian is supposed to strive toward. It’s actually rather humorous that the term Christian was actually coined for the first time by believers in Christ in Palestine!

    I believe this probably terms me as Theist also. However, if you read the following, I do not believe you will find me to be devoid of rational thought or logical reason. :-}

    On the other hand, the church removed itself from true Christianity a long time ago with events such as the Spanish Inquisition in which they branded their own as heretics and killed them. Then there was the Crusades where they killed millions of Muslims who just happen to worship the very same God! Most people don’t even know that the Catholic Church is based on paganism and not even remotely based on true Christianity! It was born from a pagan religion that the Jews at the time termed as an abomination! And, yes, there is a complete, albeit somewhat covered-up history behind this statement.

    I do not associate myself with any Christian church and try to simply live life by the teachings of Christ. As simple as it sounds – obey the ten commandments which is basically saying to love God and your fellow man as you would love yourself and treat them as you would like to be treated by them – it never seems to be quite that simple.

    I personally find non-believers (“Atheists”) and their questions and doubts with regard to Creationism and Theism quite refreshing. It makes me have to think and actually ponder these questions and doubts. It forces me to find real answers to defend the reasons for my beliefs as opposed to blindly following any religion simply because it may have been handed down over generations. That’s too easy and doesn’t satisfy the thirst for knowledge.

    However, people don’t generally like to be challenged and groups of like-minded people like it even less. They don’t like the idea that they might have to extend themselves outside of their comfort zone. If you are getting threats and anger toward the way you believe, that could very well be the reason more than anything else. People generally don’t like change and don’t like challenges that might perpetuate any kind of change on their part.

    Personally, I applaud you and others who believe as you do regardless of the fact that I do not. I used to be a non-believer until I began digging a little deeper and not finding the “why’s” I was looking for. The concept of Intelligent Design helped, but still didn’t explain everything.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I try to live my life as a true Christian – someone who tries to live the way he thinks Jesus would want him to live.

    Even looking at the beginning of the United States and its founding fathers, one would have to muse as to why they had a 3 hour prayer during the first meeting of congress, yet clearly wrote into the Constitution of the United States the separation of church and state. These men knew the difference between God and the church and knew that one didn’t necessarily support the other. They knew that God belonged with us and they knew this from their study of biblical history as recorded in the Old Testament of the bible.

    The chronological history recorded in the Old Testament clearly shows the ups and downs the Jewish people went through and how these periods were directly associated with their worship practices during the reign of each king.

    Our founding fathers knew that by maintaining a close relationship directly with God, that our country had the chance to excel. They knew by the same token that if the church with its overwhelming greed and desire for power ended up back in bed with government, the consequences to those being governed would be devastating.

    I have lived my life, like yourself and many other “Atheists”, asking questions and looking for answers. The only difference is that the answers I’ve found have led me to God, not away from Him. However, my answers have led me further away from the Christian churches with their greed, ignorance and alienation of others.

    I cannot support the Christian churches and what they have evolved into. They are filled with ignorance and hatred of others who don’t believe as they do. They are segmented into many different religious groups who cannot even agree with each other! How can a religion of this sort continue to exist? Only through lies and deceit.

    You want to talk about militant? A great example of militancy is that most Christians would gladly eliminate the Muslim population if they could – they even tried during the Crusades! Considering that the Muslims worship the same God, this doesn’t seem very Christlike to me and, in fact, seems rather narrow minded, ignorant and rigid.

    They actually seem to be the militants to me – ready to attack verbally or even physically at the drop of a dime.

    I do, however, understand the need to eliminate terrorists and those responsible for trying to start the Jihad who don’t care who they kill as long as they can kill as many Americans as possible.

  23. One more morsel food for thought – to live a life guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ does not necessarily have to define you as Christian!

  24. Just to toss my two cents in one more time, I felt that I should disagree with the speculation from Proof for God, about Allah being the same god as God; He is not, in my personal opinion. Scholars have their own takes on the matter as well.

  25. angrylion says:

    Concern over the label for atheism is unnecessary as Colin is pointing out. Depends on the stage of attack and type of battle we are fighting. At this point in time, I conclude, all forms of attack (nonviolent) are not only acceptable but warranted. Lets get at them however we can. Overwhelming them like a vicious hoard of army ants eating a cow.
    It is the theists that oppress us. I personally am militant (actively engaged), and I rant at whoever will listen.

  26. angrylion says:

    The word atheist does define what we are, and what we are not.
    We are humans who do not believe in “God”

  27. i would love to get together with a few people of varying degrees of faith and atheism and get to a point where we all agree. i KNOW that something created this universe we live in. it didn’t just happen. however, i think it’s pretty arrogant to assume that “god” would write a book for us and essentially fedex it through the minds and hands of a couple of men 2000 years ago so we could all know where we came from and where we’re going.

    if you look at all religions AND science, there are some things that make absolutely no sense and then others that seem pretty solid. there’s only a couple of laws in science, things that have been proven beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt. everything else is theory. the only difference between science and religion is that science begs you to prove the theory wrong as long as you prove something and religion shudders the thought of you even questioning what has been set forth.

  28. Several of the comments suggest that the writers feel that they are an irritant to religious believers. As a Christian I would challenge this view. I have no problem whatsoever with those who hold a different view to my own, provided they respect my right to hold my own religious beliefs. I have no need to feel threatened by other opinions, however strongly they are expressed and I value living in a country where we are allowed to openly express our opinions without fear of the consequences.

    I must say that I have never thought of the term “atheist” as derogatory but if it might be seen that way then I agree that a more suitable phrase needs to be found. Is the term “secular” not sufficient.

    Perhaps it would be inappropriate to say that we will pray for you all, but perhaps we just will anyway.

  29. I thought I would begin by pointing out that, ironically, the term Atheism was first applied, to my knowledge, to the early Christians because they lacked a belief in God. Granted it was pejorative then too, but it was not really coined in France (in fact, its etymological root is Greek, not Latin).

    I do find your argument interesting that you are not militant. However, I suppose when people use the term militant they are presuming that it, along with most colloquial language, is plastic. Perhaps all they mean is simply that somebody is being, in your words, a loud, strident and angry advocate.

    Now, don’t take this the wrong way; I much enjoy reading your blog and I do not mean to criticize or attack you, since I am much amused. However, don’t you think your post could have been more reasonable? What I mean is simply this: how does your post advance the discussion in a rational way? Somebody who rejects a label, such as the ‘new atheism’ and derides it as inappropriate cannot simply argue by stipulating an ad hoc definition of what the label means, and then demonstrating that they don’t fit the bill. Indeed, in the interest of intellectual honesty, would not it have been better to first examine what the label is intended to represent and then construct an argument proceeding from that?

    Allow me, if I may, to just share with you what I intend when I use the label ‘militant atheist’. I mean somebody who is an activist, and who is committed to the social project of undermining religion, eradicating its role in the political sphere, and deriding it as ultimately unreasonable or irrational. Would you be happy to accept the label if this is what I intended by it? Moreover, don’t the suggestions of Richard Dawkins and others (that faith schools should be illegal, that a parent sharing her faith with her children can be recognized as child abuse, and so on) make it difficult for a religious person to understand the social movement of militant atheism embodied in the ‘new atheism’ difficult to label as anything but what I’ve described? Let us also not be naive – it is difficult to see where the boundary is drawn for religion in a completely secular society, since every human activity inevitably effects the rest of mankind, and there is no such category as morally ‘private’ action. This has been argued coherently by everyone from John Paul II to William Clifford. Therefore, once one begins to push religion out, it eventually has to push it out completely.

    Finally, I would love to engage you in a real conversation on the rationality of religion if you think yourself game. I do not mean to be presumptuous in extending this invitation, but I cannot help but be attracted by the form your reasoning takes, and the rhetoric you seem to be all too happy to use. Let me know.

  30. unklee says:

    G’day ifoundmoneytoday

    “i KNOW that something created this universe we live in. it didn’t just happen. however, i think it’s pretty arrogant to assume that “god” would write a book for us and essentially fedex it through the minds and hands of a couple of men 2000 years ago so we could all know where we came from and where we’re going.”
    I agree that logic suggests that SOMETHING caused the universe. I think it would arrogant to assume God would write book for us, but not arrogant to see if any such claim might be true.

    “religion shudders the thought of you even questioning what has been set forth”
    I think that is only some religious people. Most religious people who comment on blogs like this are unafraid of questioning, and some of us do it all the time – how else would we learn and grow?

  31. “I thought I would begin by pointing out that, ironically, the term Atheism was first applied, to my knowledge, to the early Christians because they lacked a belief in God.”
    Embarrassing typo – I meant that they lacked the belief in gods (plural). This afforded them the label, and it is, as I said, the first time this label was used of a group of people.

    While I’m at it:
    “I do find your argument interesting that you are not militant.”
    – I do find your argument, that you are not militant, interesting.

  32. @tylerjourneaux – in your reference to Richard Dawkins, while I’m not familiar with his “suggestions”, I would like to point out the flaws behind them with regard to the couple you wrote of.

    If the teaching of biblical beliefs and values were outlawed, how would you then be able to make a true comparison and be able to come to your own decisions with regard to your beliefs. It sounds as if he simply wants to force HIS opinion on others and not allow them to come to their own conclusions. Force feeding children evolution, atheism, etc. without giving them “the other side of the coin” does not allow them to come to their own conclusions later in life. At some point many may begin to question what they have been taught simply because crucial questions cannot be answered satisfactorily.

    It sounds like, if Mr. Dawkins had his way, our society would return to the book burning ages. Too bad he seems to have such a narrow viewpoint and complete disrespect toward those who don’t see things his way.

  33. Barry Hill says:

    Just as a minor discrepancy militant has more than just that one meaning, Merriam Webster defines that as the first but others define it “aggressively active (as in a cause)” which I think many of us are. I’d like to refer to Richard Dawkins address regarding “Militant Atheism” at ted talks
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxGMqKCcN6A in case anyone is interested.

  34. Pingback: Atheism not a religion, it’s not even my hobby « Monicks: Unleashed

  35. Ilahe says:

    143Also, and I shloudn’t have to say this, a carriage and a Jag are both forms of transportation and illustrate advances that have been made in a particular field, while leeches and artificial hearts are both treatments for illness and represent advances in another field. Categorically similar? C’mon man.21

  36. stacygturner says:

    Reblogged this on stacygturner and commented:
    Poisoning the well.

  37. Reblogged this on Godless Living and commented:
    Great blog post!

  38. Nate Stokes says:

    I’ll happily answer those questions, as an anti-theist, atheist, scientist and rational thinker. But I answer on my own behalf, not on the behalf of any ‘Church of Atheism.’

    To the first question, I am neither in possession of a soul nor an empty shell. I am a carbon based, living, breathing mammal of the species Homo Sapiens. I am three dimensional, made of meat and water, and inside my shell, there are guts, organs, blood and my semi-digested dinner.

    In answer to your second question, there is far more to everyone than meets the eye. I have interests, hobbies, feelings and thoughts that would not be obvious based on mere visual inspection of myself. Also, you would be hard pressed to see my skeleton, for example, without scientifically based medical techniques and equipment.

    What lies behind my eyes is my ocular nerves, which connect my eyes to my visual cortex, which is located in the back quarter of my brain.

    You claim knowledge that you can not present any empirical evidence. And your farcical “questions they won’t answer” comment/post further refutes the validity of your statement.

    With this knowledge, I am glad that when my body dies, I won’t EVER have to line up again. Because I will be dead. I sleep soundly knowing this, because I am not afraid of dying. I am not afraid of dying because I am fairly convinced by the evidence available that I won’t be set of fire until the heat death of the universe. (You’ll have to google that one yourself…. :P )

    Love
    Nate

  39. Minnesota Power says:

    I just tell people that I have no religion. I think that calling anybody a ______-ist always has a negative connotation to it (i.e. socialist, leftist, anarchist, athiest). I almost always try to avoid calling anybody any label.

    Like Mitch Hedberg said, I don’t want to be known as a boating enthusiast… I’m just a guy who likes to boat.

  40. Juta Stokes says:

    Constance, what lies behind my eyes are my (atheist) thoughts and feelings. These, along with the physical body I have, make the sum of myself. Do I have a soul? Maybe you could call it that. But it’s nothing to do with any supernatural being, and when my body is gone, so will be my thoughts and feelings. I will cease to exist after death, which is why I relish life while I have it and seek to cause no harm while I’m here.

  41. Jesus asked the following question:

    “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26

  42. Juta Stokes says:

    Three things Constance.
    One. Jesus was (perhaps) a man like billions of others, who lived and died thousands of years ago.
    Two. Your bible is a book, written by men, of less interest and relevance to me OR reality than hundreds of thousands of others.
    And most importantly.
    Three. “2 questions atheists refuse to answer:” should probably be reworded to “Two questions I refuse to acknowledge the answers to:”.

  43. Anna says:

    a‧the‧ist-
    a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.
    That is the whole and complete definition of the word. I personally have never thought negatively of any atheists unless they were “aggressively active” (the second definition of militant.) If an atheist puts down, jokes theists… calls theists irrational, ignorant… and declares that only atheists are rational, then yes, yes they are militant, and I do think negatively about them. but not all atheists are this way.
    It seems that you would like for the definition of atheist to change to “rational thinker” based on how you describe it above. This would be an incorrect and bias definition.
    Certainly their are atheists and theists alike who study and think rationally about what they believe and those who do not.
    Atheism is not a higher thinking then theism. I get that you know you are right based on (I assume) study and inquiry; but there are lots and lots of theists also know they are right based on their own study and inquiry. To assume that theists are not rational or logical, is offensive and wrong.

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