A wonderful attack on the “militant fundamentalist atheism” trope

September 8, 2014 • 10:30 am

I’ve often wondered why atheists, even liberal ones, often attack “militant” atheism while completely ignoring the perfidies of religion. After all, it’s not like atheism threatens the well-being of the world, nor do atheists kill people or tell them what to eat, how and when to have sex, or threaten others with damnation in the afterlife.

Nevertheless, there is in some quarters of liberal journalism—and I’m thinking of the Guardian and the New York Times—a tendency to go after atheists as being like religious fundamentalists, and to ignore the perils of Islam or Catholicism—even accusing critics of the former as “Islamophobes.”  At the Guardian, Andrew Brown is, of course, one of these “atheist butters” who seems to have little to do beyond slinging mud at people like Richard Dawkins while ISIS cuts the heads off his fellow journalists.

But it’s all good today, because Nick Cohen, writing in the Guardian, has produced a wonderful riposte to the “atheists and militant and fundamentalist” crowd, an essay called “The phantom menace of militant atheism.” It’s extremely well written and full of bon mots. Although I and others have made some of his points before, they’ve never been combined in such an engaging piece. (Thanks to the several readers who sent me the link.)

Allow me to quote just a few bits of his piece. Here’s the beginning:

My family went into central London last week. After they’d gone, I found myself checking the web for reports of bomb blasts. Absurd and paranoid of me, of course. Rationally, I know that a motorist is more likely to kill you than a terrorist. Ever since Iraq, I have also known that the intelligence services’ “threats” can be imaginary. But I know this, too, and so does everyone else: if a bomb explodes, no one will think that a “militant atheist” has attacked his or her country. No one will mutter: “I wonder if someone has taken this god delusion argument too far.” Or: “Atheists should have known that violent words lead to violent deeds.”

The police don’t send undercover agents into sceptic societies and parliament doesn’t pass emergency laws to combat atheist violence. Fanatics threaten European Muslims if they abandon their faith but no atheist will attack them if they keep it. No one thinks that atheists threaten the lives of their fellow citizens anywhere in the west.

And yet across what passes for the intelligentsia, moral equivalence holds sway. There is militant religion on one side and militant atheism on the other. We’ve no obligation to make a choice between them. Indeed, we should devote our energies to attacking atheism rather than religion.

And this (be sure to click the link):

An intellectual climate, which is so pervasive that you can be forgiven for not noticing its strangeness, reinforces the persecution complex. Across left and right, in the BBC, academia and the supposedly serious press, atheism and “aggressive secularism” are attacked as a matter of course. When they are at their crudest, intellectuals (and I am using that term crudely too) uphold moral equivalence by claiming that atheists and humanists mirror the behaviour of religious believers. As atheists have nothing in common beyond an inability to believe in a god or an assortment of gods, the argument comes down to a critique of the minority of atheists who decided that, what with 9/11, Hindu nationalism and genuinely militant strains of Christianity and Judaism, the times required us to dispense with politeness.

The occasional dogmatism that followed apparently makes atheism “like a religion”. It’s not a charge I’d throw around if I were seeking to defend faith. When people say of dozens of political and cultural movements from monetarism to Marxism that their followers treat their cause “like a religion”, they never mean it as a compliment. They mean that dumb obedience to higher authority and an obstinate attachment to dogma mark its adherents.

Andrew Brown isn’t going to like that link! Fortunately, the Albatross also contains a bit about the irony of religionists or faitheists saying that science is just like a religion, since it supposedly depends on faith.

And I like this response to those who say that atheists (or countries that are largely atheistic, like Sweden) are only moral because of their “Christian heritage”:

Meanwhile, I’m losing count of and patience with the apologists who tell me there would be no morality without religion. The failure of the serious press and BBC to question this is as shocking as it is depressing. We are almost 150 years on from the moment in 1867 when Matthew Arnold heard the sea of faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” on Dover Beach. Are religious writers suggesting mid-Victorian Britain was a more moral country in its treatment of women, homosexuals and the poor?

Few dare maintain that immorality has increased as religious observance has collapsed. Instead, they say that everyone’s morality, whether they are religious or not, is rooted in our common Christian culture, or our common Judaeo-Christian culture or, as an opponent in debate told me last year, our common Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture. Forget if you can that there is much in religious culture that is immoral, not least a willingness to slaughter each other, and consider that if everyone is religious then no one is religious; religion is emptied of meaning and just becomes a vague cultural inheritance, like driving on the left or letting off fireworks on bonfire night.

Now that is good writing, and makes the point very clearly.

Oh hell, I’ll quote the rest (I haven’t quoted it all), as Cohen goes after what reader Sastra calls the “little people argument”:

The bad faith of religious apologists is best seen in their theological emptiness. Scour their writings and you’ll be hard pressed to find the one honest argument true believers from earlier ages would have recognised: you must reject atheism to save your soul. In my experience of intellectual London, those who shout loudest against militant atheism do not believe themselves. Faith isn’t for our sort. We need it to discipline the lower orders and keep the natives happy.

Since 9/11, western intellectuals have had a choice. They could have taken on militant religion, exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young British men not to go to Syria and slaughter “heretics”. But religious fanatics might have retaliated. Instead, they chose the safe option of attacking the phantom menace of militant atheists, who would never harm them. Leaving all philosophical and moral objections aside, they have been the most awful cowards.

I think he’s talking about you, Andrew Brown. . .

I wish I had written this piece. It’s almost Orwellian in its straightforwardness and clarity.

83 thoughts on “A wonderful attack on the “militant fundamentalist atheism” trope

  1. This is a great article. There’s one good reason to focus criticism on Atheist thinkers: Atheism is likely closer to the truth, hence criticism has a chance at being productive. Religious thinking is difficult to criticize because it contains a huge amount of gibberish.

      1. I think there is a lot of understandable criticism aimed at Atheists (by “understandable” I don’t necessarily mean “fair” or “correct”). While I think Prof. Coyne has pointed out some egregious cases on this site, I also think it’s easy to overreact. This article is very careful to qualify its claim that Atheists pose no threat; this is true for the west, in recent history. But there were times and places when secularists behaved very badly.

        Some religious groups maintain a folklore surrounding the forced de-Christianization of France during the “Reign of Terror” (at least my church circulated these stories when I was religious). During that period, the “Cult of Reason” played a brief but violent role in the effort to upend traditional religions. These events coincided with the origin of the US Bill of Rights, and probably played a role in the interpretation of “freedom of religion” as a protection of religious practice (i.e. to protect against any possible recurrence of the Reign of Terror). When some people see what the “New Atheists” have to say, I suspect they are reminded of the Reign of Terror or the Soviet Revolution, and perhaps they feel a need to protect themselves and society from those revolutionary impulses. This doesn’t mean that religions are any less culpable for their roles in human suffering; but it would be wrong to claim that Atheists have never posed any threat, or that we are safe from (some day, somewhere) becoming a threat.

  2. I avidly read everything Nick Cohen writes. He’s refreshingly sensible and tireless in pointing out the gutless but popular nonsense sometimes espoused by those who proclaim themselves the mouthpiece of liberal left, when in fact what they are pontificating on is illiberal and inaccurate.

  3. “After all, it’s not like atheism threatens the well-being of the world, nor do atheists kill people or tell them what to eat, how and when to have sex, or threaten others with damnation in the afterlife.”

    But it MIGHT! Some day, if it spreads. You know how those atheists are.

    Or, Are you KIDDING?!? Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot? Atheists make Pagans look like pikers!

    1. Oh Great! Are you saying we’re going to have to start killing the people who disagree with us?? Well I’m mildly against this but if the atheist community goes ahead with this idea here are my suggestions for the crimes that could be committed by the infidels ( or should it be fidels? )
      1. Bashing atheists in print
      2. Drawing an unflattering picture of Charles Darwin
      3. People who weren’t personally aquainted with Christopher Hitchens refering to him as “Hitch”
      4. Putting bacon on a donut or cupcake. ( these peoples demise should be particularly gruesome)

      1. But I read a Christian on the internet who said Hitler was really an atheist pretending to be Catholic! Why would a Christian lie about that? It must be true…

  4. “Fear is the path to the intellectual side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to shouts of “militant atheism”. Shouts leads to hurtful ripostes. I sense much fear in Andrew Brown.”

    Indeed, Brown’s response was that shouts of “militant atheism” are meaningless:

    “Nick, I know that space is limited in these comment boxes, but could you just find room for the names of a few of the young men who have been persuaded by your arguments since 9/11 not to take up Jihad?”

    Brown: ‘Look, it’s just words. It doesn’t matter if I write about jihadists. Or anything else – I’m not persuasive.’

  5. The comments section includes a “staff reply” from Andrew Brown:

    07 September 2014 5:15pm
    Nick, I know that space is limited in these comment boxes, but could you just find room for the names of a few of the young men who have been persuaded by your arguments since 9/11 not to take up Jihad?

    What a lame attempt to change the topic.

    1. Indeed. I’d pose the very same question to Brown:

      “Could you produce the names of just a few young men who’ve been persuaded not to take up jihad by your atheist bashing?”

    2. But that is what he always does. It was clearly evident in the conversation he had with Sam Harris re Israel and Palestine.

  6. The apologists Cohen is criticizing apparently agree with “the little people” argument as advanced by Napoleon 200 years ago:

    “How can you have order in a state without religion? For, when one man is dying of hunger near another who is sick from overeating, he cannot resign himself to this difference unless there is an authority which declares: ‘This is god’s will.’ Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

    1. What’s so bad about the poor murdering the rich? We need at least a credible threat of such violence to keep them in line.

      And if you think the rich can be appealed to by moral arguments and the like, the rich and their agents will just keep killing the poor as a pace faster than they already do.

      1. Indeed, the only thing the rich truly fear is a mass uprising. It is our only real weapon and the reason we have democracy today.

  7. Andrew Brown’s response is amusingly tepid. One gets the image of hands flapping in the wind. Near as I can gather, he’s justifying his attacks on vocal atheism by saying de doesn’t think social commentary on violent religious sects would reduce their attacks.

  8. I am impressed with Cohen’s article too. Nicely done.

    Poor Andrew Brown. Out of his league, both technically and ethically. And as is so often the case with humans, he will continue to prove it even more emphatically the more he is confronted with his behavior.

  9. Andrew Brown’s arguments are terribleness wrapped up in smugness. Would love to see someone quick and sharp (Ricky Gervais or John Cleese or Stephen Fry) debate him and deflate him.

    1. John Cleese has some rather bizarre ideas on religion himself. He will attack “organised religion” but is certainly not an atheist.

    1. Typically her pieces are terrible, but this one is not bad at least at revealing how prejudicial non-atheists can be towards atheists sense of awe. I always thought Oprah was dense, but she is not only dense, but maliciously uninspired and perspectiveless.

    2. Would be interesting to hear what you think of her essay.

      I’ve never understood the claim science doesn’t inspire awe.

      A universe 13.7 billion years old and possibly of infinite extent is way more awesome than a universe centred on one world and only 6,000 years old.

      And a guy who comes back from the dead? So what? Our cats can be dead and alive at the same time!

      1. Yeah it seems to just be the argument from personal incredulity. Its “it doesn’t inspire awe in me, so it doesn’t inspire awe period.”

        1. To say “You can’t experience awe if you’re an atheist” is just like saying “You can’t be a good person if you’re an atheist.” It makes believers feel better, but it simply isn’t true.

          1. Not only that, it’s grossly dehumanising in that it asserts that those without religion are without emotion and immune to inspiration. I’d have some harsh words for someone who depicted me in such a manner.

      2. Indeed. There is so much to be in awe of. I just came back from visiting the museum in Toronto and I was very awed by so many things.

        1. Diana, if you mean the ROM, I am envious. I love the ROM (and the Ontario Science Center).
          As a kid, my favorite part was Egyptian Room, then to Greco-Roman gallery with a diorama of Athena’s Temple.
          Alas, the last time I was there (possibly 20 years ago) the Egyptian Room was under renovation.

          1. Yes it was the ROM and they have a much nicer dinosaur display as well. I was sad to see that the Greek and Roman stuff is poor. They have some lovely new pieces that I actually studied in school but they don’t give enough context and information. If I lived closer, I’d volunteer to fix it for them as the way it is now, to most people it will just look like old pots where those pots could be used to show funerary rights, trade routes etc.

            I saw they had more little funerary votives which were very cute.

      3. The problem is that, in order to be awed by science, you have learn more about the world than can be taught on your mother’s knee. To look for better answers to your questions than “I don’t know why. Goddidit!”
        And it’s work learning that the Universe is over 14 billions years old; that blue whales are the largest animal that ever lived; how evolution works and that the Solar System was born from the deaths of two or three previous stars.
        I mean, that stuff is AWESOME! But you’ve got to work for it.

        1. I think you’re right.

          And you can see it in all sorts of different areas of human activity: science, cuisine, art, music. People convince themselves that the examples of the above endeavors which they can wrap their brain around are as awesome as it gets. Because they don’t know how much they don’t know.

  10. Since 9/11, western intellectuals have had a choice. They could have taken on militant religion, exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young British men not to go to Syria and slaughter “heretics”. But religious fanatics might have retaliated. Instead, they chose the safe option of attacking the phantom menace of militant atheists, who would never harm them. Leaving all philosophical and moral objections aside, they have been the most awful cowards.

    I wigs that was true. I wish these writers really we’re taking on atheists out of physical cowardice. I could understand that. I could sympathise. It’s not cowardice to refuse to put yourself in the firing line.

    But it’s not that. The fear is of looking racist if you criticise Islam. The fear is of looking snobbish by telling uneducated people they are wrong. The fear is of looking bad in front of fellow liberals.

    That’s true cowardice.

    1. It’s not cowardice to run from a firing squad. But it is the worst breed of cowardice to instead run straight towards the firing squad, point at someone else, and say “Him! He’s the infidel!”

    2. I think there is both.
      In the UK Islam is protected by a wall of multi cultural “respect” that has led liberals to ignore a whole raft of dangerous, irrational and criminal activities from the wearing of niqabs to FGM and the recent events in Rotherham.
      Even to criticise the wearing of a headscarf as irrational would be seen as the height of disrespect and would contravene a dozen equality policies.
      I think it’s also related to the way the manifest dysfunction of Islamic societies is blamed solely on “neo-colonialism”.
      Nevertheless, I think there is also fear as well; angry muslims can and do kill.
      Nick Cohen’s earlier book “What’s Left” has some very good chapters on the the numerous left wing apologists for muslim crimes.

  11. Great article. People who are against militant atheists are irrationally insecure about something.

    Militant atheism is, at most, as dangerous as a physicist who believes in dark matter or energy. Is there any harm? No. There is no direct evidence for either, but there are observable constraints which give us little option except to posit that something like dark energy and dark matter must exist in order to explain what we see and make those observations consistent with everything else we know.

    1. I think, as many do, that there is plenty of evidence for dark matter, and there is evidence for dark energy. I think we should be open to being wrong about what their effects represent, but the evidence right now leaves us with little choice to think that they exist. Especially dark matter.

  12. But we are dangerous: We murder dreams, and blow up illusions! As we know, they, like many sects before them, can excuse actual murder, where they cannot bear the though of being disillusioned.

  13. The New Atheism suffers from the same problem as Barack Obama. There are so many idiotic criticisms of it/him- it’s impossible for even a moderately sane one to gain a hearing.

    “Fundamentalism” is a false equivalency. No matter how critical one is of the New Atheism, the term “fundamentalist” is in no sense appropriate to apply to anyone in the atheist movement, even if they are overly dogmatic or sure of themselves.

    There are however, !*self-described*! “militant atheists”.
    Worse examples include Soviet Russia’s “League of Militant Atheists” and one who violently attacked a pastor in Ohio in October 2013.
    On the brighter front, Madelyn Murray O’Hare was !*pleased*! to call Charles Bradlaugh the first “militant atheist”
    (Source: http://infidels.org/library/modern/madalyn_ohair/agnostic.html)
    and she called herself a “militant feminist” in her Playboy interview.

    Nonetheless IMO the term is now woefully over-used, as there is no equivalency between a militant atheist who appeals to the US courts and a militant Muslim who relies on force of arms.

  14. Perhaps “militant atheism” shouldn’t get as much criticism as “militant religion” (which I doubt is the case anyways) since it hasn’t caused any violence (yet) but I do believe it still deserves criticism. Militant atheism can still damage our culture and damage the way people think. If you profess the greatness of logic but then go on to simply laugh at religious people with no explanation, people will rightly assume you’re a hypocrite. I’m thinking of people like “The Amazing Atheist” here and perhaps some of Dawkins’ tweets apply. Plus, being a militant anything is bound to create a dogmatic hivemind, the antithesis of rationality. Let’s be realistic here, not all atheists are atheists because they gave a lot of genuine thought to the issue of religion.

    Also, I said earlier that militant atheism has not “yet” given rise to violence. What I mean by this is that people are fundamentally violent and irrational no matter what beliefs they have. I believe we haven’t had any violence in the name of atheism simply because we don’t have many atheists yet. Atheism is still a relatively small subculture made up of, to be blunt, “nerds”. Certainly not the type of people who would work up the rage to go kill others. However, if atheism was ever to become the belief of the majority I don’t think that would suddenly convince people to be more rational. Most people would probably just accept it for roughly the same reasons they accept religion and we’d be back where we started. Lots of wars, lots of bigotry, lots of stupidity. There would be no fundamental change in society.

    1. In your first paragraph, what do you mean when you say “militant atheism?” The only examples you give are The Amazing Atheist’s videos (awful guy, him) and Richard Dawkins’ tweets. Tweets are so far from anything I associate with the word “militant” that it’s hard to make sense of your argument.

      In the second paragraph, while I can agree that there would still be some stupidity, some violence, some bigotry, in a world without religion, I don’t agree that there would be no fundamental change. Perhaps not everyone comes to atheism by way of argument, but a severe difference between atheism and religion is that religion can actively vilify doubt and educated criticism while atheism actively encourages them. Another is that religion can devalue the import of this life by comparison to the eternity of the afterlife, which opens the door for a skewed moral calculus that tolerates physical harm if it might reduce spiritual harm. Yet another is that religions can overpower mortal authority by recourse to divine authority – no human can win an argument with God. That’s potential for any conflict to devolve into an irresolvable ultimatum.

      Sure, there is potential for harm in human nature, but religion has many features that are *uniquely* capable of exacerbating that potential.

      1. And one of the changes the displacement of religion would usher in would be more rigorous critical thinking and less of the mysticism, romanticism, and fideism that sustains even the more moderate religions. Society as a whole would at least get smarter and more efficient with one less drain on its resources and no “scientistic” attacks on using actual science more often in fields like politics and social policy.

      2. I realize “militant” is probably more extreme than what I was going for but it seems to be the go-to word for what I’m getting at. Perhaps “aggressive” atheism would be better. I’m referring to atheists who feel the need to be harsh towards religious people.

        1. Perhaps some specific examples of such harshness would be clarifying. Usually when people say things like that they are failing to differentiate religious people from religion itself. People and ideas aren’t the same. Bad ideas deserve no respect, whether they are religious, political, or any other kind of ideas.

  15. What defines “militant” individuals or groups? Not being a regular participant or reader of atheist blogs, I would guess that we’d agree that militants are non-state actors who support a cause using violence against human lives or property. This would not include verbal attacks unless fellow militants were likely or urged to carry out physically violent actions.

    Yet I also guess that religionists use the term to include those atheists that threaten the cohesiveness of society through their verbal attacks on faith, including ad hominem attacks.

    I’m not aware of any Christian religionists who are real militants (except in regions engaged in civil wars). Likewise for atheists. Yet both groups carry out verbal attacks against their perceived or real opponents in order to undermine their power and influence.

    And members of both religionist and atheist groups exert their power through prejudicial actions against their opponents.

    So this debate would make more sense if we didn’t compare these kinds of militants to Islamists. By eliminating Islamist groups from the discussion we don’t seem to have any militants worldwide who actually physically threaten human lives or property. (Note that I earlier eliminated civil wars and tribalism from consideration.)

    By understanding militant atheism to be a reference to atheists whose activists threaten to undermine society we can begin a “real” discussion of the topic, I think.

    If atheists impede parents in educating their children with the values they believe come from faith, then the religionists have grounds for organizing a campaign to reduce the power and influence of atheists in society. If I understand things correctly, atheists are perceived as supporting post-modern ideologies that weaken family ties and contribute to social decay. Conversely, religionists are perceived as supporting anti-science mindsets and authoritarianism. Obviously, society is plagued by both these trends. Yet true atheism and true religion both make strong arguments against immorality, in favor of strong families, against repressive government and in favor of justice and democracy.

    The problem is that most people are just plain bad. Given the chance they will threaten society and use whatever rationales they have learned to support their selfish actions. And that’s as individuals. People are also susceptible to demagoguery. Some become demagogues and others follow them. Ad that brings us back to the verbal warfare we see in political, religious and atheist circles.

    1. Where to start?

      How about here… A militant Muslim is one who cuts the head off of an infidel. A militant Christian is one who bombs a women’s health clinic or murders a doctor who performs abortions. A militant atheist is one who advocates for an intellectually honest position in print, or maybe makes a youtube video.

      Do you think these things are similar?

      Now, as to the claim that militant atheists “undermine society”, I can do little more that laugh. What complete and total hogwash. You clearly know nothing about atheists or atheism.

          1. Ha ha!

            I wonder GBJames if it is because you are using different emails – I notice the image is different sometimes & Word Press creates the default images based on your email so that it is unique.

    2. I’m not aware of any Christian religionists who are real militants

      In the US, one could think of the KKK and Anti-Abortion groups.

      Outside the US, there’s a host of clubs that will defend their Christian faith by the sword.

      And what should we think of The Fellowship (aka The Family), that infamous American organisation which inspires and supports persecution and killing of homosexuals in e.g. Uganda.

    3. “I’m not aware of any Christian religionists who are real militants (except in regions engaged in civil wars)”.

      That sounds like a cheap and arbitrary cop-out.

      So if Christians in Northern Ireland or former Yugoslavia or the CAR are militant enough to actually start a terror campaign or outright war against fellow citizens, that somehow doesn’t count as “being really militant” anymore?

      Why this exception, pray do tell?

  16. “consider that if everyone is religious then no one is religious”

    I don’t think this is true. If everyone is religious then the priests and mullahs have more control over the world, which no doubt is their goal. In Victorian times everyone was religious and it resulted in an escalation of observance and prudishness as everyone tried to out-religion everyone else. When everyone is religious things just go from bad to worse.

    Great article though.

    1. I read ‘everyone is religious’ as referring to the idea that even atheism is a religious belief, i.e. where the standard of piety is completely absent, rather than being strongly enforced by social pressure as in the (middle-class) Victorian condition.

      1. I’m afraid that’s not how I see it, though he may be referring to a situation like England where there is a state church. His conclusions follow rather more from that reading, but still doesn’t seem to me to be true.

  17. Of course, the real annoying thing about those who criticize “militant” atheists is that none of the atheists behavior is really “militant” – obnoxious, smug, rude, maybe, but not “militant”.
    Sorry, but if you call someone “militant” who isn’t throwing bombs, then you are an ass. You aren’t building your case on the flaws atheism but on some strawman you are creating in your readers’ minds.

    1. obnoxious, smug, rude, maybe, but not “militant”

      Religions have been so pampered and privileged throughout history that their defenders and supporters are bound to demonize – to a ridiculous degree – anyone who criticizes their foundations. It certainly doesn’t help that religious people consider it OK to emotionally invest in their beliefs, in a way that would be considered ludicrous and disreputable in any other field.

      In some ways, it might be a good sign that they demonize us so. For one thing, they inadvertently put egg on their faces that future generations will notice and ridicule. For another, it shows we’re really shaking them up. They weren’t expecting the attack, and their response is revealingly desperate and poorly organized. When you find a weak spot, don’t mind the feeble retorts: hammer away until it comes crashing down!

      Honestly, I think the bigger problem is the strains of romanticism, fideism, and mysticism that infect so-called “moderate” religions and accommodationism. If the number of atheists is going to increase relative to the global population as a whole, those things had better be marginalized at best.

  18. On a very small pedantic note, Cohen was writing not in the Guardian but in the Observer, the Sunday newspaper that is… I think merged with the Grauniad.

    It ended up in the Guardian’s comment section online because… I don’t know. More traffic?

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