“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 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.

You can call it “militant atheism” when we start burning, torturing, imprisoning, & mutilating theists for their beliefs. #atheism #atheist

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

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.


Views: 648

Comment by Ceci on November 28, 2011 at 8:45am

i agree with you too. first of all, i wish i could call myself simply "normal" inspite of "atheist", because this is what i am; i wish i wouldn' be asked "why are you an atheist?", because it's me that shoud ask them "why are you believers?".

some weeks ago i scolded an atheist guy i knew in an italian forum: he made a video for youtube where he wrote "atheists mustn't behave like believers", claiming that militant atheism is bad because atheists are often intolerant... i asked him what did he meant with "atheist intolerance", and if he thought that affirming firmly that we should look at the truth of facts is the same of judging and deciding what is right and what is wrong in the lives of others, as the believers do. what is more, an atheist doesn't have to convince anybody, because he/she doesn't trust in any "belief", he has just EVIDENCE on his/her side, so the expression militant atheism is a silly nonsense for me too.

unfortunately, people seem often unable to make distinctions between these facts, probably because the germ of religion (and of idiocy too) sometimes infects also the non-believers.

Comment by Monica McGee (Monicks) on November 28, 2011 at 10:50am

I kind of agree with you, Matt Novak on gay people embracing the word queer, but once queer has been de-demonized, should they embrace the word "fag", as well? 

No, we should not accept silently that people call us whatever they want. If they want to apply labels on us, at least they must mean truthfully what we are, or describe adequately what we do, which as a group, is just rational noise.

Comment by Jeff Samuelson on November 29, 2011 at 12:47am

For me, atheist is an accurate label, and while it matters to me that others consider it a slur, I'm more inclined to take ownership of it than deny that it applies. Jason Thibault wrote a great post about owning slurs a little more than a month ago that's relevant: http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/2011/10/13/owning-the-slur/

Comment by Stephen Morris on November 29, 2011 at 12:12pm
Aye, I find it interesting that reasonable, non-religious folk are often branded as militant, when the religious poeple can't be called militant until they've taken some form of aggressive action. It's a double standard.

As far as the word atheism, I tend to embrace it. I think that in a world where theism is so prevalent as to be considered 'normal' it makes sense for a group to rise up and remove itself from that. Although I understand and respect people's reasons for avoiding the term altogether.

It was my understanding that the the word 'Christian' was initially derogatory too.
Comment by Dave Gibbs on November 29, 2011 at 6:18pm

"Christian" was a term originally used by the enemies or skeptics of the movement, though I would hardly call their usage of the term derogatory.

In the Bible the word "christian" is only used three times, in each case by an outsider or enemy to the followers. No alleged writing of an apostle ever has an apostle, Jesus, or any member refer to followers as "Christian"(s).


An example from the Cambridge KJV:

"Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

Acts 26:28

Comment by Philip Jackson Armstrong on November 29, 2011 at 6:18pm

Even though I tell people I'm an atheist, it's just so they can pigeon hole me in something they understand.  To me, I just am what I am. Not believing isn't something you do, it's something you don't do. I'm a vegetarian, should I be called an aomnivorist and/or acarnivorist? Really makes no sense to me. But then human behavior often makes no sense.

Comment by Dave Gibbs on November 29, 2011 at 6:22pm

Aomnivorist, eh?

The negative prefix 'a' doesn't work as well with words which are lead in by vowels, IMO.



Plus you're right, it's a stupid idea anyways :-p

Comment by Brett Arthur on November 29, 2011 at 7:38pm

I call myself a militant atheist of sorts... I prefer the term Antitheist because it removes that violent tendency of the word militant. Really atheist is just basic terminology though, prefix "a" meaning without and theist meaning a religion. It's not really derogatory at this point.

Comment by Dustin on November 29, 2011 at 8:00pm

I don't understand this argument.  Why does it matter where the word came from?  'Rape' used to mean abduction or kidnapping, but has a different meaning now.  


I'm an atheist because that's what the word generically means - lack of belief in gods.  I don't think it matters at all what we call ourselves as long as it means we lack a belief in gods.  


We should be putting more effort into getting Christians to understand what the term actually means than arguing amongst ourselves whether or not we 'like' a word. 



Comment by KaraC on November 30, 2011 at 12:48am

I think that followers of religion like to use "militant" since it carries the suggestion of aggression. I am fine with the "vigorous and active" meaning, but they construe us as aggressive because we challenge the privileged position that religion has and still has. They are not used to having to justify their activities and those of their church, so when they do get push back they reagrd it as aggressive behaviour. In reality the churches tend to be the one's restricting other people's freedom of choise or freedom to be who they are. We are normally forced into a stance of reacting because they attempt to introduce their dogma into law or education, such as trying to get creationism taught in schools, preventing marriage equality and so forth, with no justification beyond their particular book of myths.


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