Religion and Spirituality

You’re a Militant Atheist! (lolwut)

For most of 2012, I identified as not only an atheist, but an anti-theist because of my distaste for the practice of religion in general. Many of the atheists I’ve met are similarly distraught with the damage that religion can do to people, cultures, and the progress of science. Upon looking closer at this term, I’ve found that it actually doesn’t describe my views–or necessarily the views of the atheists who share my sentiments.

However, there is a gleeful term which I will be proudly wearing from now on: Militant Atheist.

Many nones join me in saying “What the hell is a militant atheist?” whenever the term gets thrown around. It’s nearly as extreme as Bill O’Reilly calling Dave Silverman a fascist. Conservatives who use these terms willy-nilly are showing their embarrassing ignorance to both the denotation and connotation of the phrases.

Merriam-Webster defines ‘militant’ as 1: engaged in warfare or combat, and 2: aggressively active (as in a cause) : combative. None of the atheists I know use warfare to further our cause, nor are they aggressively active or combative. Well, unless you count a thrill for debates as combative, then I know some of those. ;D

So, the people who call us “militant” have already gotten the denotation wrong. As for the connotation: when rational people say someone else is being militant, we’re generally referring to, for example, Muslims who shoot a bus full of children with the intent of hitting a fifteen-year-old peace activist. Calling someone ‘militant’ implies that they’re using military or combat means to further their goals. We’re talking about extremists who are willing to use violence to silence others. If you know of a single atheist that fits this description, point me to them so I can kick them in the crotch.

Then what do conservatives mean when they call us ‘militant’? After dismissing the accusation as stupid over and over, I decided to actually look for an explanation. And who would know better wtf conservatives are thinking than Conservapedia?

Militant atheism is a term applied to atheism which is hostile towards religion. Militant atheists have a desire to propagate the doctrine, and differ from moderate atheists because they hold religion to be harmful. Militant atheism was an integral part of the materialism of Marxism-Leninism, and significant in the French Revolution, atheist states such as the Soviet Union, and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The term has also been applied to political thinkers. Recently the term militant atheist has been used to describe the New Atheism movement, which is characterized by the belief that religion “should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”

(Bolding mine.)

If you hold that religion is harmful (which it is) and that it should be countered, criticized and exposed (which it should), then you’re a militant atheist. That’s got to be every single non-theist I’ve met via my involvement in the atheist movement, and most of them would baulk at the use of this word to describe them because the feelings it generates are very negative.

When I identified as an anti-theist, I associated the word with being against religion. However, that isn’t what the word means. An atheist is one who is without gods, but an anti-theist is someone who is against gods. To lay claim to this title is a wound to my skepticism. I can’t say “there isn’t a god” because I don’t have evidence that there isn’t. What I can say is that there isn’t any evidence to suggest the existence of a god.

Be that as it may, I’m still staunchly opposed to religion, the good and the bad. There are the obvious problems like endorsement of slavery and rape, and more tangible evidence like the Crusades. However, if someone believes because it makes them feel better–or even if they become a better person as a result of their belief–I still don’t think that’s justification for belief in the supernatural. It just doesn’t make sense.

Since I’d be a bad skeptic if I claimed to be an anti-theist, I’ve got to find another term. “Militant atheist” is fantastic because it’s absolutely ridiculous to use that terminology to describe what we do, but the meaning they intend is exactly right. I’ll be happily and casually using this phrase from now on to describe myself, connotation be damned.


Featured image from an adorable comic from The Oatmeal 

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Lux is a female genderqueer weirdo, writing from Kansas. They happily identify as a militant atheist(+), feminist and liberal. Their time is consumed with Doctor Who, reading, and playing WoW with a cat on their lap. If you're lucky, you might catch them smithing jewellery or cleaning something.


  1. January 22, 2013 at 12:55 am —

    I respect your position. It may be that most non-theists that you know believe that religion is harmful. However, I don’t believe that this accurately describes most non-theists. Certainly not most of the ones I know.

    The claim that some, perhaps even most, religion is harmful is easy to make. The claim that religion is a priori harmful is much harder to make.

    In my experience, it inevitanly requires either an unusual and unreasonable definition of “religion”, an unusual and unreasonable definition of “harm”, or ignorance (which, as Richard Dawkins rightly points out, is a compliment). I don’t rule out other possibilities, but these are the ones I’ve identified so far.

    I will note that this article was written a week before a US national holiday celebrating one the world’s most famous liberal theists, and it was on that day that I happened to read it. So perhaps the “religion is bad” sentiment seemed to me to be in slightly poorer taste than it was intended. I apologise in advance, but I can’t help noticing the juxtaposition.

  2. January 22, 2013 at 11:52 am —

    Wow. I’m a “militant atheist”, too! lol

    In response to Pseudonym, I’d say that while “all religion is bad” may be more of a philosophical argument, there are an awful lot of arguments to support it, coming from Dawkins himself (and Hitchens and many other atheists), beginning with a basic premise of skeptical thinking: if something is false, belief in it can be inherently harmful. (Not a guarantee of harm.)

    • January 23, 2013 at 8:36 pm —

      It’s probably unsurprising that I respectfuly disagree with both Dawkins and Hitchens on this point.

      To the extent that this is a philosophical argument, both of these otherwise fine gentlemen are (were) essentially unqualified to discuss it, and this is pretty obvious if you actually analyse their underlying arguments beyond the obvious “collection of anecdotes”-type reasoning.

      It’s useful to compare them to someone like Dennett, who is much more nuanced on the whole thing. You will never hear him claim that religion is evil. On the contrary, it’s an interesting (and completely natural) phenomenon.

      If what you’re saying is that religion “can be” evil, or even that it “often is” evil, then we can all agree with this. While we’re on the topic, governments can be evil, corporations can be evil… hell, humans can be evil. This claim carries a low burden of proof.

      Saying religion “is” evil has a much higher burden of proof. It is a claim about all religions, including the ones which don’t fit your template and all the ones you’ve never heard of. It includes religions based primarily on practice or identity rather than belief, so the issue of “false beliefs” never enters into it.

      • January 24, 2013 at 12:00 am —

        Most religions often involve various beliefs in things that may or may not be true–including things people who may not have existed may or may not have said. If the structure doesn’t involve belief, in what way does it qualify as a religion?

        I see those religions as being deceitful, whether intentionally or not. Deceit is, to me, at least questionably unethical if not harmful.

        Obviously someone’s faith can contribute to them doing good things in the world, and a lot of people tout their beliefs as the motivation behind their lives, careers and charity work. I just disagree with the part where belief in something without evidence is the foundation of their positions.

        There’s not a way to approach it that doesn’t bring me back to the unsettled-stomach feeling that accompanies knowing that they’re buying into someone’s bullshit. It trips my moral gut response, and I don’t see it as justifiable.

        • January 24, 2013 at 1:02 am —

          Just because you asked so nicely…

          If the structure doesn’t involve belief, in what way does it qualify as a religion?

          It’s true that almost all, if not all, religions involve belief. However, the “beliefs” of some religions (e.g. some forms of Buddhism, most forms of Confucianism) are no more specific than “this works, at least for me”, or “this practice is part of our shared identity”.

          You might want to read up on some comparative religion, and how sociologists and anthropologists define “religion”. It’s a very broad umbrella, and many are mostly based around cultural practice, not “beliefs without evidence”.

          I take your point about buying bullshit. FWIW, I feel the same way about most sports, which I think are total bullshit. Hell, most things we do are bullshit.

          I don’t feel that everyone in the world has to be like me. If I felt that way, that would make me an evangelist, and I really don’t want to be that.

  3. January 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm —

    I’d also argue that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man who used his belief to do good things, but was not necessarily good because his belief made him act that way.

    I don’t see MLK Day as an endorsement of the Baptist faith, so speaking about a different religion or lack of religion is not in bad taste. MLK is revered and honored moreso because of his actions and work in civil rights, not his religion.

    • January 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm —

      I’d also argue that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man who used his belief to do good things, but was not necessarily good because his belief made him act that way.

      I’d like to hear that argument, with references to his life and thought.

      Would MLK have been a good person without religion? Probably, though it’s difficult to say. If you change someone’s upbringing, you inevitably change the person.

      Had he shunned his religion, I’m sure he’d still be a good person and still would have worked for positive change. Plenty of non-religious people have, and plenty still will.

      Nonetheless, he constantly referred to his (very liberal) religious beliefs in his work. The distinction between “his beliefs made him do good” and “he used his beliefs to do good” is, I would think, an artificial one which oversimplifies human psychology. They’re very likely to be much more closely intertwined than that, such that separating them is difficult.

      FWIW, I also wouldn’t want to try to separate atheism from feminism in anyone who adheres to the nascent A+ movement. There are plenty of atheists who aren’t feminists and plenty of feminists who aren’t atheists, but if someone says their atheism helps their feminism, then I say good for that person. I’m not going to play armchair psychologist, I just applaud the good works.

      I don’t see MLK Day as an endorsement of the Baptist faith, so speaking about a different religion or lack of religion is not in bad taste.

      For the record, nobody is claiming that MLK Day is endorsement of a particular religion, and nobody is objecting to speaking about different religions or lack of religion. That would be a silly argument.

      This is entirely about claim that religion is evil.

  4. January 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm —

    I think it’s really brave to label yourself a militant atheist despite (or because of) its extremely negative connotations. It took me a while to even call myself an atheist just because I grew up hearing that word as synonymous to “hateful, selfish, and destructive.”

    • January 24, 2013 at 12:03 am —

      Thank you, Colleen! I had some of the same difficulty with using the term ‘feminist’ at first–I had the image of a mean, butch radfem thanks to socieettyy.

      Isn’t it so nice when we learn that atheism is actually more loving than hateful? Everyone I’ve met has been wonderful. The awesomeness of my friends completely outweighs all the jerkwads on the internet.

  5. January 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm —

    BTW, I’m going to bow out of this thread now unless there are any more factual errors that need to be cleared up. I don’t want to derail Lux’s piece. How you self-identify is up to you, and nobody else.

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