Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why Are Atheists Always Described as Militant?

Gustave Flaubert wrote a lovely book, Dictionnaire des idées reçues, published posthumously in 1913. (The title roughly translates as "Dictionary of Platitudes".) In it, he poked fun at, among other things, nouns that are nearly always accompanied by certain adjectives. Germans, he noted, are always described as "blond", a professor is always "learned", and jealousy is always "unbridled".

In a similar vein, the comedian Robert Klein once noted that President Garfield is nearly always described as "shot by a disappointed office-seeker". Klein went on to claim that if you look up Garfield in the dictionary, it says "See office-seeker, disappointed".

The intelligent design crowd plays the same game with "Darwinists". They never refer to their ideological opponents as scientists or biologists; they are nearly always "Darwinists", or, as Wesley Elsberry has pointed out, "dogmatic Darwinists".

Now look at this otherwise unnoteworthy article by Associate Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll, about the reaction to recent books by atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Notice anything, well, trite about the title? Yes, it's the "militant atheist" platitude. Atheists must never be described as intelligent, thoughtful, friendly, questioning, or thought-provoking. Instead, they must be described as "militant".

From the meaning of "militant", you might expect that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are burning down churches, or at least leading protests, stirring up crowds with their fiery rhetoric. You would be disappointed, of course. What Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have done is write books. Hitchens is more of a curmudgeon than a militant, and Dawkins and Harris are both rather mild-mannered. Nobody is leaving their public events carrying torches and singing the atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song.

I'm not sure when the juxtaposition of "militant" and "atheist" became a cliché. The earliest citation I've been able to find so far is a 1928 book review of Edward Lucas White's book Why Rome Fell by Elmer Davis. Davis wrote, "Militant atheists ought not to read it; they will be too likely to swallow it all uncritically."

Whatever the origins, the term "militant atheist" eventually became a description to be used whenever the writer wanted to express disapproval about nonbelievers. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was often so described; a 1970 article in Time sneered at her attempt to found a new church. True, O'Hair was, by all accounts, a nasty person. However, when she was killed in 1995, obituaries routinely referred to her as "militant". Her murderer, however, was not so categorized.

When Jerry Falwell died recently, newspaper obituaries rarely described him as "militant", even though the adjective fit him much better than mild-mannered atheists like Harris. Ironically, however, the Associated Press obituary by Sue Lindsey, referred to Falwell's father and grandfather as "militant atheists".

Flaubert would have appreciated the "militant atheist" cliché. In Dictionnaire des idées reçues, he reported the following platitude about atheists: "A nation of atheists could not survive." Sadly, that cliché is still prevalent today among the morons of the Religious Right.

Added June 6 2007: over at Pharyngula, commenter Jurjen S., whose command of history is evidently better than mine, tells me about the League of Militant Atheists, an anti-religious group in the Soviet Union from 1925-1947. Probably this is the source of the term "militant atheist"; indeed, many of the 1920's citations for this phrase discuss actions in the Soviet Union.

Added January 4 2011
Google's n-gram viewer


has now revealed some earlier uses of the term: the earliest I have found is from Progress: a monthly magazine of advanced thought, Volume 6 edited by George William Foote, in 1886. On page 466 he writes "He was not only an Atheist, but a militant Atheist..." Perhaps this is the earliest usage of the term. But as the google n-gram viewer indicates, the term really took off in the 1920's, with the rise of the "League of Militant Atheists" in the former Soviet Union.

Oddly enough, the term "militant theist" gets no citations at all.


Anonymous said...

As a side note about the term "militant atheists", I believe Dawkins himself wouldn't mind being called as such. In fact, he urges all the atheists to be more militant:


Maverick Woo

Unknown said...

The atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song would of course be the International. Godless communists and all that. Theists are so hopelessly clichéd.

Anonymous said...

z *F *F *Eb | Do. F* | Bb*. A' G* D* | Fo Ebo
Without a God, we march hu-mans un---it--ed

z Eb* Eb* D* | Co. F* | F*. F' G* F* | Do. z
Em--bracing doubt, we seek the truth thats true

Anonymous said...

Theo Hobson, whom no one will ever refer to as a "public intellectual", seems to like the phrase "militant atheist" a great deal.

Anonymous said...

Having grown up in this country as a member of a religious minority, I believe in a secular society, but I'm not an atheist. I'm a practicing Hindu.

I'm a pro-life Democrat. I am pro-life but also believe in a complete separation of church and state. I gave $1,008 to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, while asking Rev. Barry Lynn (Executive Director) to keep the organization neutral on this divisive issue, rather than take a pro-choice stance.

I have no problem with atheism. Thomas Jefferson, the architect of American democracy, said, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others, but it does no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pockets nor breaks my legs."

Under Jeffersonian democracy, monotheism, polytheism, agnosticism, atheism and even victimless crimes are all tolerated. This conception of democracy appears to me to be closer to the Vedic conception of government, because under Vedic civilization there was tolerance of different philosophical schools of thought, different yoga systems, demigod worship, ancestor worship ("pitas" or forefathers in Sanskrit), pantheism (advaita vedanta), and even atheists like Charvaka.

The American Left is open to the idea of a tolerant multicultural, multireligious, multiracial and possibly even a multilingual society, whereas the right is not.

Jefferson stated that "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others." Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in "The Notebook of Lazarus Long", also wrote that sin lies only in harming others--all other "sins" are concocted.

In Vedic civilization, victimless crimes such as intoxication (rice wine was offered to goddess Kali) and even prostitution (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.11.17-19) were legal and regulated.

I agree that religion has no place in the secular arena and therefore oppose government instituted prayer in the public schools, but must simultaneously oppose the teaching of modern myths such as the theory of evolution in the public schools as well.

According to Vedic civilization, people fall into four different classes: educators, military, mercantile, and laborers. Only a certain class of people will have military inclinations, and a military draft forces people from the working classes to take up arms against their will. The American Left generally recognizes the immorality of a military draft.

Writer and activist Jean Blackwood, in the July 1993 issue of "Harmony: Voices for a Just Future", a peace and justice publication on the religious Left, notes:

"Many of the young people who make up the animal rights and environmental movement grew up with pro-abortion rhetoric in their ears. They can make the mental shift from banning CFCs, outlawing whaling, and abolishing clearcuts to 'a woman's right to choose' with such alacrity that one might suspect no self-contradiction was involved."

For many young people today, abortion is just another choice; just another form of birth control. Will they be more inclined to listen to a secular moral philosophy that doesn't dictate their sexual behavior or intrude upon their private life, or a set of unprovable religious beliefs that does?

There are non-traditional pro-life groups that make up "The Left Side of the March" on the March on Washington, every January 22nd, in D.C.: Vegans for Life, Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL), etc.

I'm not sure if Atheists for Life is included, but Rachel MacNair, a Quaker pacifist, vegan, and past president of Feminists For Life, once pointed out that there are pro-life atheists who argue that since there is no afterlife, life is especially precious.

Had Dennis Kucinich remained pro-life, I would have voted for him. Atheists and agnostics have nothing to fear: we really live in a secular society; one in which people merely pay lip service to religious ideals.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Vasa Murti:

While there may some points of agreement between us, calling evolution a "modern myth" and opposing teaching this cornerstone of biology in public school strongly suggests that you don't know what you're talking about.

Evolution is a fact. The theory of evolution, which explains how evolution occurred, is a very well-supported theory that has withstood 100 years of tests.