June 21, 2008

Militant Atheism

Since the media began to popularize "the new atheism," the subject of atheism is cropping up everywhere. Reports of declining church attendance and increases in the number of people indicating that they are not affiliated with any religious tradition, many commentators have found themselves faced with reporting on a poorly understood group of people describing themselves as "atheists," "freethinkers," and "secular humanists." In this post, we will explore the meaning of "militant atheism" and try to help the reader understand how it is commonly misused.

Before addressing militant atheism, we need to review the meaning of atheism and correct one of the most common misconceptions about what atheists believe. Failure to do so will prevent us from understanding militant atheism.

What is atheism?

Atheism comes from the Greek "a - theos," and since the "a" prefix means "without" or "the absence of," we must first make sure we understand theism. Theism refers to the belief that some sort of god or gods exist. A theist is one who accepts the theistic claim (i.e., some sort of god or gods exist). An atheist is one who does not accept the theistic claim. That is, atheism means "without theism" and refers to the absence or lack of theistic belief.

What do atheists believe?

This question brings us to the central misconception many uninformed theists have about atheists. You see, the atheist differs from the theist in only one crucial way: The atheist does not accept the theistic claim. Some atheists actively deny the existence of god(s); others do not. Many atheists simply do not accept the theistic claim. No active denial, rejection, or criticism is required.

This has two important implications. First, theists making statements about how atheists "deny the existence of god(s)," they are distorting the meaning of atheism (see a typical example here). Some atheists do actively deny the existence of god(s), but this is not what atheism means. Remember, atheists are simply those without theistic belief. In a nutshell, an atheist is someone who answers with anything other than "yes" to the question of whether he or she believes in god(s).

The second implication reminds us about the burden of proof in discussions of the existence of god(s). The theist is making a positive claim in that he or she is claiming that something, namely god(s), exists. The atheist is not necessarily making any claim whatsoever, although it should be recognized that some do. Typically, the atheist is saying little more than that he or she does not accept the theist's claim. The burden of proof rests solely with the theist.

In fact, knowing that someone is an atheist tells you precious little about what that person believes. It simply tells you that he or she does not accept the theist's claim that god(s) exist.

Militant atheism

Now that we've clarified the meaning of atheism and it is clear what it means and what it does not mean, we can examine militant atheism. Since atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief, militant atheism must be something like an aggressive or impassioned lack of theism. Confused yet? Yeah, me too. Once we understand what atheism is, it becomes evident that "militant atheism" is meaningless, at least in this context.

Most theists seem to use the phrase "militant atheism" when describing a broad worldview that includes atheism, Greek materialism (i.e., nothing exists outside the natural world), skepticism, and at least a moderate degree of anti-theism (i.e., hostile attitudes toward theism). That last ingredient, a certain amount of anti-theism, is usually what leads theists to attach the "militant" label.

It is beyond the scope of this post to consider whether "militant" is warranted in cases of anti-theism, however, I hope that it is clear to the reader that atheism is not synonymous with anti-theism. There simply is no such thing as militant atheism unless one adds many ingredients which take us well beyond the definition of atheism.

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