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Militant atheism

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The terms militant atheism and militant atheist are sometimes pejorative designations applied to atheists who are seen as hostile towards religion. They have a history going back to at least 1894 [1] and have been applied to people from Thomas Hobbes onwards. Recently, the term has been used to describe atheists such as Richard Dawkins[2] and Sam Harris[3].

Julian Baggini defines militant atheism as "Atheism which is actively hostile to religion", which "requires more than strong disagreement with religion - it requires something verging on hatred and is characterised by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief. Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that moderate atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense and the second is that it is usually or always harmful"[4]


  • Engels is considered a militant atheist by Oscar J. Hammen [5]. The belief that Marx was a militant atheist has been challenged [6]. The ascent of the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 "meant the beginning of a campaign of militant atheism"[7] and in 1922 Lenin referred with approval to "militant atheist literature" and demanded that the journal Pod Znamenem Marksizma "must be a militant atheist organ", explaining that he meant militant 'in the sense of unflinchingly exposing and indicting all modern “graduated flunkeys of clericalism”, irrespective of whether they act as representatives of official science or as free lances calling themselves “democratic Left or ideologically socialist” publicists'[8]. In 1959 the Znanie Society (a successor to the League of the Militant Godless) produced a monthly journal called Nauka i Religya which described itself as "a fighting organ of militant atheism", rejecting the view that religion would disappear of itself, and in 1961 the Ukranian branch produced a similar journal called Militant Atheist.[9]


Examples of the usage of these terms include the following:

  • Rodney Stark describes Thomas Hobbes and the other originators of 'The social "scientific" study of religion' as "militant opponents of religion" whose "militant atheism...was motivated partly by politics"[10].
  • Some participants in the French Revolution have been described as militant atheists, as have some of their international sympathisers, such as Thomas Holcroft.[11]
  • The 19th-century political activist Charles Bradlaugh has been described as "the first militant atheist in the history of Western civilization",[12] and the term has also been applied to other 19th-century thinkers such as Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach[13] Annie Besant.[14] and Schopenhauer[15]
  • Figures in the 20th century in the USA and the UK who have been described as militant atheists include Michael Newdow.[16][17] and Joseph McCabe[18]. McCabe wrote that "Russia is doing the finest and soundest reconstructive work of our time, and it is doing this, not only without God, but on a basis of militant Atheism."[19]
  • The Polish religious leader Stefan Wyszynski decided during his imprisonment (1953-1956) "to defend the faith of the nation against militant atheism"[20]
  • In 1965 Francis Crick explained that some lectures of his "will not be militantly anti-Christian, but nevertheless will be directed against the sort of ideas at present held by many religious people." [21]
  • More recent examples of the use of the term include an opinion piece by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph entitled "Militant atheists: too clever for their own good",[22] and an article in the same newspaper by Raj Persaud, who applies the term to Richard Dawkins.[23] The editor of Quadrant Magazine also refers to Dawkins in these terms, and suggests that Dawkins' views are an extreme example of intolerance.[24] Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly applies the term to Polly Toynbee.[25] RJ Eskow in The Huffington Post refers to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, saying "I believe most atheists are progressive, enlightened people who are simply 'nonbelievers.' My quarrel is only with those who advocate the elimination of religion based on grandiose and unsubstantiated claims."[26] Theo Hobson in The Guardian claims that "criticisms levelled at religion by militant atheists are often crude and short-sighted"[27]. Dawkins has responded to criticisms that he is hostile towards religion, saying "such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice toward religion is limited to words" and "It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own."[28]
  • The Argentinian Supreme Court Judge Carmen Argibay apparently describes herself as a "militant atheist",[29] and the journalist and campaigner Paul Foot has been praised as a "militant atheist".[30] Comedian Kathy Griffin identifies herself as a militant atheist.[31]

Melanie Phillips suggests that ‘militant atheism’ "in junking religion, has destroyed our sense of anything beyond our material selves and the here and now" and "paved the way for the onslaught on bedrock moral values ... and intimidation and bullying to drive this agenda into public policy".[32].

Amongst professional philosophers who use the term:

  • Simon Blackburn writes that "many professional philosophers, including ones such as myself who have no religious beliefs at all, are slightly embarrassed, or even annoyed, by the voluble disputes between militant atheists and religious apologists"[33]
  • Andrew Fiala in his paper "Militant atheism, pragmatism, and the God-shaped hole" begins by referring to "Militant atheists such as Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens"[34]

Concerns about the use of the term

The term militant atheist is sometimes used pejoratively by theists to describe people believed to campaign actively or outspokenly for atheism and against religion. Catherine Fahringer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation suggested that the label militant was often routinely applied to atheist for no good reason–"very much as was the adjective 'damn' attached to the noun 'Yankee' during the Civil War."[35]

The linguist Larry Trask suggests that the word militant "is used all too freely in the feebler sense of 'holding or expressing views which are unpopular or which I don't like'." He notes that Richard Dawkins is "accused by tabloid newspapers and other commentators of being a 'militant atheist'", although, according to Trask, the adjective is never used of Christian activity. Trask concludes, "if you find yourself writing this word, stop and think whether it has any clear meaning, or whether you are just using it as a swearword." [36]

Notes & References

  1. Extract from Flowers of Freethought: Vol 2 by George William Foote
  2. M. Paulli, Spoils split at 'Nibbie' awards
  3. Johann Harri in The Independent
  4. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction OUP p 101
  5. Freidrich Engels Encyclopedia Britannica 2008
  6. Lobkowicz, N (1964). "Karl Marx's Attitude toward Religion", The Review of Politics, Vol. 26 (3), July, pp.319-352. [1], see also [2]
  7. John F. Pollard Benedict XV: the unknown pope and the pursuit of peace p199
  8. On the Significance of Militant Materialism Lenin 1922
  9. Religion, state, and politics in the Soviet Union and successor states John Anderson CUP p 44
  10. Rodney Stark "Atheism, Faith and the Social Scientific Study of Religion" Journal of Contemporary Religion Vol 14 No 1 1999 pp 41-62
  11. Review of The French Revolution and the London Stage 1789-1805. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  12. Charles Bradlaugh was the first militant Atheist in the history of Western civilization
  13. The Debate Between Feuerbach and Stirner: An Introduction, in The Philosophical Forum 8, number 2-3-4, (1976)- available on the web here
  14. entry
  15. Though is Schopenhauer, Religion and Morality: the Humble Path to Ethics Gerard Mannion disputes "the textbook assessment of Schopenhauer as militant atheist and absolute pessimist." Ashgate book description
  16. The New American Vol. 18, No. 15 July 29, 2002
  17. Commentary by Les Kinsolving here
  18. A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism
  19. Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger by Joseph McCabe (1936)
  20. George Weigel The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism p114
  21. Letter 14 December 1965 PP/CRI/E/1/14/5 cited in Wellcome Trust biography of Crick
  22. "Militant atheists: too clever for their own good"
  23. "Holy visions elude scientists"
  24. Science versus Religion. Quadrant Magazine February 2007
  25. Huffing over Narnia
  26. 15 Questions Militant Atheists Should Ask Before Trying to "Destroy Religion"
  27. Atheism is pretentious and cowardly The Guardian 6-June-2007
  29. see refs in her Wikipedia article
  30. Nick Cohen pays homage to his friend Paul Foot in The Guardian
  31. Blase DiStefano (June 2007). "Foul-Mouthed and Funny". OutSmart. Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  32. The culture war for the White House Melanie Phillips The Spectator 17-Oct-2008
  33. Divine irony Times Higher Education 5-Mar-2009
  34. "Militant atheism, pragmatism, and the God-shaped hole" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Volume 65, Number 3 / June, 2009
  35. Catherine Fahringer, The militant atheist, Freethought Today, October 1997.
  36. "Militant", in Trask (2001, pp.186-187)


  • Trask, R.L. (2001). Mind the gaffe: the Penguin guide to common errors in English. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-051476-7.

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