Bryan Appleyard recently reviewed Anthony Grayling’s new anti-religious book and since his review was not entirely composed of cheerleading, Gnu activist Jerry Coyne comes to Grayling’s rescue. Coyne quotes Appleyard:
There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” In other words, not to be a stamp collector “denotes only the open-ended and negative state of not collecting stamps”. Equally, not being a theist is not a positive condition; it merely says this person “does not even begin to enter the domain of discourse in which these beliefs have their life and content”. The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.
This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail and, of course, this particular superstition is also dangerous and should therefore be exposed as well as refuted, if not in detail.
Coyne then replies:
I am not sure what Appleyard is banging on about here. “Militant” has nothing to do with dismissing the truth claims of religion or pointing out its dangers; it’s an adjective used by people like Appleyard to dismiss New Atheism without addressing its claims. (See Grayling’s previous dismissal of that adjective.) The only “militant” atheists I know are ones who try to promote their views with undue hostility or even violence—i.e., almost nobody. How come we never hear the terms “militant Labour party member” or “militant Democrat”? Political views are, after all, often held with as much tenacity as religious ones. “Militant” is reserved for “atheists” because religion is supposed to be treated differently from other views: off limits to criticism. And that’s what Grayling—and many of us—wants to dispel.
If you pay close attention to the arguments, Appleyard is not really responding to what Grayling wrote and Coyne is not really responding to what Appleyard wrote. It’s weird. Anyway, notice how Coyne’s brain perceives the world. In his brain, Coyne and his allies are merely dismissing the truth claims of religion or pointing out its dangers and for offering up such reasonable criticisms, they are being victimized by being labeled militant. And course the New Atheists cannot be militant, because they are not violent.
Now, let’s turn to reality.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the word ‘militant.’
The English word militant is both an adjective and a noun, and is usually used to mean vigorously active, combative and aggressive, especially in support of a cause, as in ‘militant reformers’.
However, the current meaning of militant does not usually refer to a registered soldier: it can be anyone who subscribes to the idea of using vigorous, sometimes extreme, activity to achieve an objective, usually political. For example, a “militant [political] activist” would be expected to be more confrontational and aggressive than an activist not described as militant.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, defines militant as “Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines militant as “aggressively active (as in a cause)”. It says that the word militant might be typically be used in phrases such as ‘militant conservationists’ or ‘a militant attitude’.
An example of the adjective usages is demonstrated when The New York Times ran an article titled Militant Environmentalists Planning Summer Protests to Save Redwoods describing a group that believes in “confrontational demonstrations” and “nonviolent tactics” to get across their message of preserving the environment. Another usage example includes ‘a militant political activist’, drawing attention to behaviours typical of those engaged in intensive political activism. The political protests headed by the Reverend Al Sharpton have been described as militant in nature in The Washington Post.
So as we can see, the term militant is not reserved for atheists and is not restricted to those who commit violence. The reason many theists, agnostics, and atheists refer to the New Atheists as militant atheists is because reason and evidence tell us that New Atheists are militant atheists. The evidence clearly shows that Coyne, Dawkins, and all their followers, are part of a movement that has a cause – to rid the world of religion. And the evidence clearly shows that to carry out their cause, the New Atheists leaders and their followers are combative, extreme, confrontational, and aggressive. Thus, reason tells us that these New Atheist activists are militant.
So Dr. Coyne is just plain wrong. No one is using the adjective militant as a way protecting religion from criticism. No one is insisting that the truth claims of religion cannot be challenged. The reality here is that Coyne and his followers are vigorously active, combative and aggressive, especially in support of their cause. It simply means that Coyne and his followers have a combative character and are aggressive, especially in the service of their cause.
It is therefore ironic that a group of people who preach about the importance of reason and evidence would insist that we deny reason and evidence and not notice their militancy.
Furthermore, it is important, for the purposes of clarity, to accurately define people like Coyne as militant as there are many atheists who do not share his cause and/or his tactics. As such, it would be a mistake to stereotype all atheists as being New Atheists/militant atheists. Thus, when we criticize someone like Coyne and his followers, by accurately labeling them as militant atheists, we are helping to insure that readers don’t make the mistake of thinking we are talking about all atheists.