Militant Atheism: Good or Bad?

May 1, 2007 at 10:45 am 12 comments

Military AircraftWhile watching an old lecture from Richard Dawkins, who I’m sure you’re all familiar with by now, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride, excitement, and anticipation. He was speaking at a conference in front of some of the world’s leading scientists, and intellectuals. Dawkins urged them to be what he described as “militant atheists” — people who are open about their atheism, and not afraid to stop being polite to the religious. Many atheists, as Dawkins explained, are pressured and forced to keep their beliefs hidden. In a nation predominantly Christian such as the US, we are wrongfully labeled as “unpatriotic,” and distrustful. While we’re all aware that something must be done to promote awareness and tolerance for atheism, is being militant the best solution?

I feel excited about the prospect that people will one day be able to gather, and speak openly about their atheism at conferences like this more often. However at the same time I have to worry about the possible unfavorable consequences our nation might suffer to get there. Let’s face it, atheism isn’t for everyone. One of the risks we face is even more hostility, and intolerance from our religious counterparts than we experience now. One the plus side though, being open about atheism will undoubtedly produce more “deconverts” — those who leave religion behind — but are we ready to give them the support they’ll need?

Those who are comfortable with atheism often forget that for newcomers atheism isn’t easy, and in fact it can be quite scary. I remember after first being “deconverted” to atheism, I felt both a mixture of fear and excitement. I was excited because I could finally let go of the burden of religion. I no longer had to futilely attempt to reconcile its many fallacies and contradictions. Being atheist allowed me to throw away faith, and embrace science and reasoning. However, along with that also came the head-on confrontation with my own mortality. Since I no longer believed in an afterlife I was faced with the fear of what it meant to stop existing. Eventually atheism helped me realize just how fortunate I was to be alive, and I no longer took things for granted that I once did as a Christian. Even though I personally found new meaning to life in my friends and family, not everyone could do the same.

So why am I hesitant of militant atheism? I think we have to take into account that not everyone can lead what they’d considering fulfilling lives without religion. Some people were raised with it since birth, and have become too dependent on it. What I worry is that our nation is not yet equipped, or prepared for the affects militant atheism would have. Although I’d love to have the freedom to be as open about my beliefs in public as those who are religious, I wonder if now is the time and place for it. Are they ready? Will they ever be? Should I continue to keep my difference of opinion hidden? I’ve always been willing to share what I believed in if I were approached and asked, but do I have a duty as an atheist to be more aggressive? So those are the questions I leave you with. I realize that the consequences I’ve listed are a bit extreme, but nonetheless I’d like to hear your opinion on Dawkins’ call for militant atheism.


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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. agnosticatheist  |  May 1, 2007 at 11:49 am


    Here’s an Associated Press article “Atheists Split Over Message,” by Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University that addresses this subject. It’s a good read. I believe we should not be a reflection of the religious fundamentalist but we should set the standard for intelligent, respectful discourse.


  • 2. mysteryofiniquity  |  May 1, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Great post. I am one of those vacillating on the “fence” of agnosticism/atheism. I didn’t grow up with religion but I took to it pretty hard to begin with. Now it’s like trying to shed skin; it hurts like hell and I don’t have my new skin yet! 🙂

    I find, however, that atheists are the concerned voice of reason and if they can continue to respectfully engage religionists in dialogue without stooping to their hateful level, then the better off we will be as a society. Someone’s got to take the high “moral” ground and offer alternatives. I’ve found that a respectful and reasonable tone has won me over to many an argument.

  • 3. Mike C  |  May 1, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Dawkins description of “militant atheism” is “people who are open about their atheism, and not afraid to stop being polite to the religious”.

    That seems like two separate things: 1) being open about your atheism, and 2) being impolite to religious people. Is it necessary to be both? Couldn’t you be open about your atheism without being rude towards others? (Or by the same token, if I’m open about my Christianity, does that mean I should also be rude towards non-Christians?) It doesn’t seem to me that #1 necessarily requires #2.

  • 4. Karen  |  May 1, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Great post. I am one of those vacillating on the “fence” of agnosticism/atheism. I didn’t grow up with religion but I took to it pretty hard to begin with. Now it’s like trying to shed skin; it hurts like hell and I don’t have my new skin yet! 🙂

    MOI (and others here who are interested) you might be interested in a Yahoo group I help moderate for people leaving fundamentalist religion. Most of us are former Christians, but we have also had some former Orthodox Jews in the group.

    The idea is to be a sounding board and support group for each other, particularly those who live in tight-knit religious communities and are afraid to tell their family and friends that they are having doubts about fundamentalism. We discuss a lot of practical issues like “coming out” about one’s doubts or disbelief, how to handle holidays, proselytizing, etc.

    I’d say about half of us wind up atheists and the other half are now liberal Christians, pagans, Wiccans, Unitarians or generic theists. We have our quarrels (mostly over politics!) but generally there’s a lot of warmth and encouragement offered.

    Anyone who’d like to check it out can subscribe here: We control membership because we are sometimes targeted by evangelists who want to preach hellfire at us, and life is difficult enough as it is!

  • 5. beepbeepitsme  |  May 1, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    “Militant atheism”? I am quite sure that Dawkins is not suggesting that atheists take up arms against theists.

    If, however, you mean atheists who speak out about being atheists, then this is no different than theists who speak out about being theists.

  • 6. Karen  |  May 1, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    If, however, you mean atheists who speak out about being atheists, then this is no different than theists who speak out about being theists.

    The problem is that – for most of our lifetimes – someone daring to question religious belief was branded as extremely impolite! Religion was one of those ‘personal’ things not to be questioned, period.

    So, if you were at a dinner party (as I was recently) and someone at the table launched into a long story about god’s providence, and answered prayer, and how “there are no coincidences” and “It’s all part of god’s plan” – the POLITE thing to do is to nod and smile and remember what Mother taught you: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    Even if you could see enough logical holes in the story to compare it to a brick of Swiss cheese!

    In my case, instead of keeping the grin frozen on my face while everybody else at the table agreed with the storyteller, I became a “militant” atheist. What did I do? No, I didn’t call anyone names, or yell, or storm out.

    I just gently questioned the story and pointed out some alternative explanations for why certain things might have happened. It was very easy to do – I wasn’t dissecting anything difficult, just pointing out how preconceived notions might have affected how she viewed the circumstances of the story.

    That, according to a lot of people, is not very POLITE. Even though I spoke lightheartedly, it took the air out of the balloon of happy talk and self-congratulation at the table. I’m sure some people didn’t think too kindly of me, despite the fact that I was civil, and sweet, and very calm.

    That – I think – is what Dawkins and others are talking about when they say atheists need to speak up, not mutely sit and agree-by-default with all the talk of theism that surrounds us constantly. If that’s “militant” and “impolite” – so be it.

    Unless some of us start to question the religious mindset, instead of always shutting up and going along, people don’t get the idea that maybe their beliefs can and should be re-examined once in a while.

  • 7. mysteryofiniquity  |  May 1, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks Karen, I’m going to check that out.

  • 8. Heather  |  May 1, 2007 at 7:32 pm


    **Even though I spoke lightheartedly, it took the air out of the balloon of happy talk and self-congratulation at the table. I’m sure some people didn’t think too kindly of me, despite the fact that I was civil, and sweet, and very calm.** I think part of why you would also speak out is — if your experience is anything like mine — often when a fundamentalist/evangelical speaks to me about the Bible, there is a tone of superiority. As in, they are totally right, and anyone who disagrees is stupid, or hasn’t read the BIble or what-not. So that’s part of why I politely speak. Because I don’t fall into any of those categories, and it is possible to be incredibly intelligent and hold a different view from a fundamentalist. It’s more of the attitude I would be responding to.

  • 9. Robin  |  May 1, 2007 at 11:21 pm


  • 10. Brendan  |  May 2, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Militant atheism is neither “good,” nor “bad,” but a natural and expected response to reactionary religious fundamentalism. There are competing cultural narratives battling for supremacy and all is fair in love and war (especially where, as in cultural battles to “save” those who disagree “love” and “war” appear inseparable).

    When one attaches one’s identity to a particular ideology or set of concretized symbols (such that one is no longer growing through the ideas but stagnating in them), then someone else challenging those ideas is challenging one’s very identity and existence. Not surprisingly, the result is to stimulate irrational fear, which takes the form of militarism and hatred. As that process occurs, it’s very easy to forget that there are humans like me behind the ideas, trying to make sense of this wonderful being as best they can, trying to provide food and comfort for themselves and their families and trying to assuage the relentless hysteria of social power, sex and death. When we stop seeing that humanity and look out on those we perceive as different without trying to really understand their perspective, we’ve pretty much missed the point of whatever guiding world views to which we variously ascribe. Is there anything “wrong” with that? No. People have lived in fear of others since the first self-conscious human beings awakened on Earth and they will continue to do so. Whatever contextual “world view” one personally prefers though, each of us can break the cycle of fear and violence in our own dealings with others by becoming aware to the role that perspective plays in determining the “truth” one or another perceives.

  • 11. Jai  |  May 4, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    As a christian new to this blog, I’m struck by a possible dichotomy of “militant atheism”. Isn’t it possible that militant athiests can become guilty of the behavior that fundamentalist evangelical christians are accused of (not untruly so) on this blog. For instance the post “Why Do Christians Try So Hard To Convert Others?” we could simply scratch out christian and put in atheist. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anyone is doing that (although certainly the little I’ve read of Dawkins can border on that at times). Couldn’t militant atheism become another form of religious intolerance, that Christians are accused of (and are many times guilty of)? I just worry about my athiest friends becoming too militant, and turning into the very object they so despise.
    Also, (maybe a bit off topic) I’m curious about 1st ammendment, the “separation of church and state” and the supposed upsurge of Christianity in politics. Is it so bad if *everyone* is given a podium, to speak just so long as it is equal? i.e. is it so bad to have a nativity on courthouse grounds set up by a local church as long as the synagoge can set up a manorah, the local mosque can set up a display about Islam, and the athiests can set up a display highlighting the humanist manifesto? From what I know of Dawkins, this would obviously be unacceptable to him because it is promoting religion and therefore violates the separation of church and state. Is this unacceptable? As long as there’s equal access doesn’t this actually allow for the free excercise fo religion?
    I personally believe that we don’t have a right not to be offended in America (Christians included), but this doesn’t give anyone the right to go out of their way to offend others.

  • 12. Mark  |  February 5, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    “Dawkins was the first to sign two petitions in the UK. One was to ban any faith-based schools in the UK, regardless of the funding (i.e., this would include private schools). The second, which he later retracted because “the wording wasn’t right,” was to ban all forms of religious “indoctrination” or “identification” of children under the age of 16.

    Petitioning the government to enforce one’s own beliefs, as Dawkins did, is a form of militarism. Presumably the government could resort to the force of arms to enforce its bans. Parents who had their children circumcised, baptized, confirmed, bar or bat-mitzvah’d, would be prosecuted as criminals; presumably children could be removed from such homes and made wards of the state.

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