Atheism and Society

I have followed and participated in numerous net debates on science, religion and atheism over the years (and in many more off-line) and am increasingly of the view that our culture is ill-equipped to cope with people who publicly profess their atheism.

The term ‘militant atheist’ is frequently bandied about. As far as I can see, anyone who publicly professes atheism is going to be stuck with this label. The insult is three-fold:

First: political and religious extremists are often called ‘militants’. The implication is that anyone publicly professing atheism is an extremist.

Second: the christian church during its period of expansion, enforced conversions and suppression of ‘heresy’ (ie internal dissent) is referred to as the ‘Church Militant’. The use of the term ‘militant atheism’ seems to me therefore to be an attempt to liken public atheism to this period of the Church’s history i.e. anybody who professes atheism must be some kind of godless Inquisitor.

Third: when christian priests talk about their beliefs, they are not dismissed as ‘militants’. The implication is that atheists should keep quiet.

Even some atheists seem confused on this point. In a recent thread on Science and Atheism on Bad Science, one contributer stated that she kept quiet about her atheism, even if asked her views, because she did not want to be associated with Richard Dawkins. In my opinion, if she finds Dawkins’ views (or his way of expressing them offensive) all the more reason to state she is an atheist if asked her views in order to demonstrate that atheism is not a single strand of opinion.

And this is the point. There is no Book stating exactly how we must not-believe. There is no atheist heirarchy enforcing some sort of atheist orthodoxy. People seem to assume because catholics or the UCKG, for example, are part of a single organisation with a heirarchy and set of beliefs, atheists must be too. It certainly suits the churches to believe this; much easier to believe that ‘militant atheists’ are campaigning to take their congregations from them rather than believe that they are driven away by the churches’ grasping greed, their misogeny, their homophobia, their AIDS-encouraging views on condoms and their disgusting protection of paedophile priests.

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14 Responses to “Atheism and Society”

  1. Adam Says:

    I agree – the term is over used and there’s clearly a bias against atheists. Just as how the existence of Catholic pedophiles doesn’t make every Christian a child molester, the existence of Dawkins doesn’t make every open atheist a militant.

  2. brainduck Says:

    Um, thanks. Not all religious organisations are as top-down as you seem to think, nor do all of us engage in ‘grasping greed, their misogeny, their homophobia, their AIDS-encouraging views on condoms and their disgusting protection of paedophile priests’.

    This is exactly my problem with the shoutier end of atheism. It’s hard to campaign for eg women’s rights within the church or more widely, if by doing so you are seen to associate yourself with people who say all religions promote extreme fuckwittery. It’s really unhelpful to be told by both the fundies and the Dawkins-ites that the only way to be a Christian is to engage in ‘grasping greed, their misogeny, their homophobia, their AIDS-encouraging views on condoms and their disgusting protection of paedophile priests’. Nope, that’s doing Christianity wrong.

    Also, please not to conflate the faults of the Catholic church with all Christianity or religion in general? It makes your argument look daft.

  3. jaycueaitch Says:

    Fair point, brainduck. FTR I accept that the comments I made do not apply to branches of christianity such as the Quakers (who seem to be more pro-humanity than many Humanists).

    I was giving those faults as examples of how the churches are driving away believers with their own behaviour. I did not mean to suggest that all christians (or other believers) have these faults. I should have worded it better. I just get more than a little sick of shouty christians blaming everything on atheists. There was even a twat on Conservapedia blaming England’s World Cup performance on atheism ffs.

    Editted to add: and what I think is obvious is that my comments are directed at the priests, not practitioners (is that the right word?) of religion. Another reason to like Quakers: they don’t bother themselves with priests.

  4. Christian Says:

    Two of the points you make are excellent observations, but I’m not sure I quite agree with the second of your three points. While a small minority of people using the term “militant” may be using it in this context, in my experience I haven’t sensed anything quite as deep. It’s an expression of outrage that I’m questioning beliefs that (in their opinion) should be held sacred rather than a subtle and clever historical comparison. I’d like to think that people who accuse others of militant atheism know enough about the history of the church to be able to make this link, but I’m not sure these days it holds in most public debates.

  5. brainduck Says:

    See, even quite a lot of ministers don’t agree with ‘their’ church on everything, either. The institutions can be atrocious, but most people don’t take up full-time God-bothering out of a desire to screw people up. It’s just that somewhere there, the institution starts being more important than the people it was set up as a tool for. That’s where I start using words like idolatry.

  6. Michael Kingsford Gray Says:

    All and any religious types, however weak, provide cover & comfort, succour & support for the genocidal pederasts-in-palaces.
    Without the moderates, the extremists would be labelled as they are: mentally deranged.

    No quarter.

  7. jaycueaitch Says:

    And Brainduck thinks I’m shouty!

  8. Patmos Pete Says:

    Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

  9. Michael Grayer Says:

    Reading this post gave me plenty of food for thought, particularly the paragraph about the Bad Science forum contributor keeping quiet about her atheism for fear of being labelled with the Dawkinsesque stereotype. And I agree with your conclusion.

    It works both ways though. I find it difficult to openly express my Christianity for exactly the same reason – that I don’t want to be immediately labelled as an evangelist fundamentalist moron, which seems to be the predominant stereotype within my immediate social circles. Perhaps I should be more forthcoming about it and trust the rest of my personality (not defined by my religion) to persuade others that that’s not who I am and that, similarly, Christianity is not a single strand of opinion.

    Unlike atheism, there is a Book, but there is no single interpretation of the text of that Book, and opinions differ on its application to everyday life. There are some who think it’s a literal history of the world, for example, and I disagree.

    As jaycueaitch is a little fed up of shouty christians blaming everything on atheists, I’m similarly fed up of shouty atheists blaming everything on Christians. Or at least the outward appearance of it. I think, though, there is something to be learnt from our conflicting testimonies. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a media culture where the shoutiest people (theist or atheist) are given most prominence, because they shout the loudest, not because they’re the most thoughtful. I’m reminded of the phrase “the meek shall inherit the Earth”. I long for a time when that will come to pass.

  10. Michael Grayer Says:

    by the way, this is my real name, and the similarity of my name with a previous commenter’s is a pure coincidence.

  11. Michael Kingsford Gray Says:

    Quite.
    Similar nomenclature: utterly & completely opposite views.
    I prefer reality & truth, and a dearth of manufactured ‘straw men’, such as the bogus: “shouty atheists blaming everything on Christians”.

    Name them please, and quote all of them as to support your curious assertion.
    Now: don’t forget that in your quotes, they BLAME EVERYTHING on Christians.
    Methinks that one’s sensitivities to being challenged on demonstrable bollocks has affected ones hyperbole control.

  12. Michael Grayer Says:

    I think it should have been clear from the context from which that quote was taken that I’m talking about my own personal experience from social interactions that I’ve had. You’re essentially asking me to provide a list of friends, colleagues, people I’ve met in the pub, blog and forum commenters from random websites I’ve visited in the past, and so on. Mea culpa for not meticulously collecting and synthesising the data from such experiences.

    To do so would also entirely miss the point. Whether that statement was hyperbolic or not, its point of emphasis was not “blame everything” but “Christians”, and by that I mean the conflation of fundamentalists with moderates in the same term, as though the group is homogeneous.

    It is perfectly fair to say that there are those (quite a lot actually) who fundamentally treat statements in the Bible as historically and factually accurate, to the point that their interpretation thereof is infallible and not open to question. Such people are fundamentalists and I share your derision of this practice. Others, however, are able to understand the difference between story and fact, and their interpretation as to the meanings of such stories with reference to what we know in the present day evolves as they learn more over the course of their lifetime. The two often become conflated, and this is where I object, in the same way that JQH argued that atheism should not be typecast as a single strand of thought.

    To be fair, you don’t conflate them, but suggest that the acceptance and tolerance of the latter legitimises the former. I don’t agree: I think that to make fundamentalism go away, the latter group needs to be supported and encouraged to engage the former in debate, and tell them where to get off, which I accept they have not done with great effectiveness to date. I don’t think that the “religion vs atheism” debate is particularly helpful, rather a “stubborn fundamentalism vs challenge and enquiry” debate would be aligned along more appropriate dividing lines. I would accept the assertion that these dividing lines would currently result in highly correlated groups but I don’t accept that this is a causal relationship.

  13. Malcolm Mowbray Says:

    When asked by nosey-parkers to state my religion, I always use the term “Militant Agnostic”.

  14. Stuff Benedict XVI « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] the fact that folks like Richard Dawkins are prepared to say publicly why they are atheists. I have fisked this attitude previously and won’t repeat that post here. The abolishing Christmas bit appears to have been obtained […]

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