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← The Myth of Militant Atheism

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Jos Gibbons

This article may be over a year old, and I may have detected this phenomenon long before it was written, and I may be far from alone in that respect, but its message isn’t outdated. It won’t be until this double standard is only a memory. It is a very dangerous double standard. It makes it impossible for atheists to have any kind of voice at all without literally anything they say in their capacity as atheists being treated as not only highly controversial, but the sort of thing it is only wished were even rarer. You know, like Holocaust denial or hate speech. Perhaps if our civilisation held contempt for evidence in contempt of its own, rather than holding evidence in as much contempt as it does, we would feel that angry about, say, climate change denial or creationism. But if even the word “atheists” and a couple of groups’ contact details is “too much” for an ad, you have to wonder whether there are even limits to this double standard’s scope. Student groups at universities have a tough time of it too.

This article has a plausible suggestion for the motivation for the “militant atheism” lie, but at least one other cause is present as far as I can tell, namely the centrist fallacy. If an opinion has its objectionable defenders, a contrary opinion must do, or being fair might mean being one–sided, and we can’t have that! Next thing you know we’d be no more nuanced than the scientific consensus on something we understand well. I said I’d noticed this at work before. A few years ago at a barbecue I was talking with a self–described Unitarian. I’ve found in my experience even the emptiest religious labels are only held by people who object to religion being criticised. She’s a good friend of mine, but she said something rather silly during our conversation. She said she felt there are extremists everywhere. I immediately explained the problem with that assessment was she had to give the word “extremist” a different meaning in each case; I made much the same case–by–case example as the article’s cartoon (which is from, an apparently now non–publishing web comic I recommend). But her first “there are extremists everywhere” comment wasn’t the silly part; the silly part was when she replied by saying she took my point, but nonetheless still felt there are extremists everywhere. I wonder what her view on abolitionists would have been had she been alive in the US c. 1860; what would constitute abolitionist extremism? The trouble is any sufficiently good cause can’t really be extremised because, even if in theory people (say) killing in its name would seem like a prime example, in practice they never do it anyway.

I think a good way to tell whether a view is right is whether the word militant is inaccurately used to describe its defenders. In this way, atheism is like feminism. Call me a literalist if you must, but to me someone is only militant if their behaviour has a military character to it – they should commit, threaten or advocate violence, war or occupation, either explicitly or implicitly, or should carry weapons, or something like that. What is it that “militant atheists” or “militant feminists” do? Talk, isn’t it?

Thu, 01 Mar 2012 16:13:12 UTC | #923483