THE BLOG

The Usage of the Term "Militant Atheist" Is Fatuous

24/04/2014 11:37 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

David Cameron recently characterised Britain as a Christian country. In response many prominent atheists penned a letter to dispute this characterisation, highlighting Britain's pluralistic composition. Indeed Britain is only 59% Christian with the remaining 41% comprising of peoples of numerous different faiths and none. The letter writers acknowledged and respected David Cameron's right to his religion but felt his comments unnecessarily alienated non-Christian British citizens.

Then the inevitable happened. These letter writers were labelled "militant". The Telegraph columnist Charles Moore wrote an article entitled "Our Christian Beliefs are Under Attack From Influential and Militant Atheists" which criticised the signatories of the letter. Leaving aside the glaringly obvious flaw that the letter did not contain any criticism of Christian beliefs whatsoever, the tone and phrasing is odd. "Beliefs under attack" presumes beliefs are above question, something fragile and precious that needs protection from enquiry. It treats rational debate as something violent and portrays atheists as the aggressors.

Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, also branded atheists "militant".

I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others.

There are many atheists and non-Christian people in government and it is perfectly reasonable to not want to participate in praying for a god you do not worship. The equivalent would be forcing Christians to say there is no god before each council meeting, but atheists would never subject Christians to that; yet it is atheists that are considered militant.

It's a term often bandied about in a disparaging manner in reference to atheists who happen to be vocal about being atheist and/or actively campaign against religious influence in public life. It is used on atheists for even the most benign actions: vocally expressing disbelief, critising a religion, criticising a religious leader, peaceful protest, writing books and letters, and any other form of social activism.

It is simply a demonisation tactic. The term militant carries the connotation of being violent or oppressive, which none of the actions listed above are. Even if these actions are carried out with extreme vigour and passion, to describe them as militant is simply fallacious. Such labelling is intended to portray atheists in a negative manner. It is a strategy often used to provoke ire towards a certain group and depict them as somehow threatening.

It's an old, much applied tactic used by those who rather attack their opponent instead of their opponent's argument. It is simply a form of ad hominem fallacy. Labelling atheists "militant" ascribes malevolency where there is none in an attempt to invalidate any criticism and arguments proffered by atheists.

The ludicrousness of such labelling is further exposed when it is equally applied to religious people: any time a priest preaches the bible from the altar? Militant. Disseminating religious pamphlets? That's militant. Criticising atheism or another religion? That's militant too. Praying in public? Absolutely militant. Arguing for the equal rights of Christian minorities in other countries? Militant.

In fact, it is a wonder why Moore did not label this other letter writer, which appeared under the atheists' letter, as a militant Jew.

David Cameron should be more careful when pontificating about Christianity, given that he does not speak for those (such as myself, a Jew), who are not necessarily of his faith and beliefs.

But nobody would ever describe people of faith as militant for the above actions, which amounts to nothing more than their right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. However, people such as Charles Moore have no qualms in maligning atheists with the term simply for expressing their freedom from religion and freedom of speech.

Religion is a topic which is a constant in the national discourse. Using vitriolic terminology to describe atheists is not conducive to respectable debate and will only serve to sow animosity between religious and non-religious people. Due to the passionate nature of the topic a rational, respectable debate is difficult to nurture, but if it is to be nurtured then such fatuous labeling needs to be rid of.