Militant Atheists?

These two words, appearing in this order, are reliably able to set me into a fit of the scoffs: “militant atheists.” The phrase is something of a false equivalency. I’m sure there must be some authentically militant atheists in the world, but I know of no contemporary examples. Compare this to the idea of militant theists, where a litany of offenders come to mind. A number of artists and writers have addressed this particular cliché, but this response embodies the essence of what it means to be a militant atheist in today’s society. It is immediately apparent that these three interpretations of militancy (Islamic, Christian, and atheist, for the lazy non-link-clickers out there) are not equivalent. Let’s look at one dictionary’s definition of militant:

* * *

mil·i·tant   /ˈmɪlɪtənt/
1. vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause: militant reformers.
2. engaged in warfare; fighting.

3. a militant person.
4. a person engaged in warfare or combat.

Only the first two definitions are relevant because the latter pair represent the same idea, just with a different grammatical syntax. Based on this, I’ll consider only the first two definitions, which are clearly distinct. Let’s compare these to the above-referenced picture, asking with each, “Is this definition appropriate to the depicted image?”

Militant Islamist:
1. Yes
2. Yes

Militant Christian:
1. Yes
2. Yes

Militant Atheist:
1. Maybe not, but let’s just say yes for the sake of argument
2. No

Oh dear. We have a problem. If you’re familiar with the fallacy of equivocation, your danger warning light should be flashing with great verve right about now. Let’s demonstrate why with an analogy.

Pat Robertson is just about as vocal an advocate for Christian superiority as you can find. He has an active hand in politics, and his media network means he has no reason to fear poverty (except maybe unless that Jesus guy was right). Is Pat Robertson a militant Christian? Hardly. He is vocal. He is strident. He is influential. He may even be a fundamentalist, literalist collection of festering batshit, but is he militant? I rather think not.

Now let’s come back to our atheist. What does a “militant atheist” do? Well, given that my own response to religion likely groups me with these rabid anti-religious attack dogs in the minds of those who parrot this cliché, I think I serve as an excellent example. If I were to engage full-on “delusions of grandeur” mode, I would, at best, fall short of Pat Robertson style raucousness. I see myself as largely representative of the so-called New Atheist movement. I identify as an antitheist, meaning I believe religions have an overall harmful effect. Yes, there may be individual benefits, but these are outweighed by the societal costs. In spite of my position on faith, however, I see no reason to deny people the right to be religious. Neither I nor the bulk of atheists want to strip people of this essential freedom. Instead, all we want to see is a world in which being known as a nonbeliever is not a disadvantage.

Perhaps using myself as an example is unwise. Let’s turn instead to another vocal atheist who has recently come into some legal trouble over his actions in India, Sanal Edamaruku. Sanal has invoked the ire of the Catholic church, which has responded by filing a blasphemy complaint—a criminal charge—after he proved that a purported miracle in a local church was really the result of faulty plumbing. For this, he may very well go to jail. How’s that for militancy? What do you think? Does this qualify him to wear that label?

False equivalency seems to drive the political discourse these days, and it needs to stop. Someone who says something you do not want to hear is not automatically militant. The presence of perceived wrongs on “both sides” of an issue does not mean that these wrongs are equal in moral offense; to disregard this is to refuse the responsibility of rationality. When a group of atheists band together and engage in violent acts of terrorism, then and only then will we have an example of atheist militancy. If that were to happen, I would be among the first to condemn them for their actions. In this, believer and nonbeliever alike would unite against atheist militancy, which, just like theist militancy, has no place in this world. Raising arms against innocents would be an obvious case of militancy, but writing scathing articles and occasionally making fun of someone for professing silly beliefs? These things do not warfare make.

This kind of violent atheist is not what people generally mean when they say “militant atheist,” however. It’s hard to find any examples of atheists who authentically belong in this category. If we cherry pick from people in history, we can find the occasional outlier among the larger atheist population, but the modern New Atheist movement is approximately on par with the Jains in terms of violent tendencies. The accusation of militancy is absurd to the highest degree.

If you constrain yourself to the first definition of militant, “vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause,” then you can argue that some atheists are indeed militant, but this charge is far from derogatory. If my insistence upon secular values and laws makes me militant, then it is a badge I wear with pride, but I do not advocate the persecution of believers. I do not insist that only atheists be entitled to the full protection of the law. I insist only that my lack of belief speaks to my character no more or less than a theist’s presence of belief. If this meets your criteria for militant atheist as a pejorative, I wonder if we even speak the same English.

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