Atheism has been one of the most unpopular points of view throughout Western history. For years, an atheist could not hold a seat in the English Parliament. Even today, there is a significant level of distrust when it comes to unbelievers. For instance, most people in the United States would not favor voting for an atheist in a presidential election.
Unbelief is not monolithic – many different types exist. Perhaps the most easily identifiable is its most militant form. This “muscular atheism” combines a variety of qualities often seen as unsavory: arrogance, condescension, and antagonism. All three appear in a story told about Madalyn Murray O’Hair. A chaplain came to visit her in the hospital and asked if he could do anything for her. She replied, “Drop dead.”
Most atheists do not spout venom and vitriol. They may disagree with their religious neighbors but are content to live in peace and harmony. Christians and atheists have many more points and agreement than not. But one important remains: how do we tell the difference between militant atheists and the garden-variety unbeliever, and how should Christians respond?
Characteristics of Militant Atheism. Exercising discernment is key to understanding any point of view, including unbelief. Atheists differ widely concerning their certainty about God’s supposed non-existence, how accepting they are toward religious viewpoints, what political views they advocate, and what actions they feel are necessary concerning the presence of religion in society. An atheist may even practice some form of religion without having any belief in the divine (such as Buddhism). Whether Christendom, Islam, Hinduism, or any other world religion, any sufficiently popular system of thought will have many different kinds of adherents. Atheism is no different.
Militant atheism features a level of aggression that goes far beyond the normal behavior of a garden-variety unbeliever. Militant atheists bristle at the mention of the term, decrying it as a pejorative used to insult, denigrate, and even dehumanize unbelievers. A 2011 Psychology Today article titled, “The Myth of Militant Atheism” called the phrase “slander” in spite of the fact that noteworthy public figures such as biologist Richard Dawkins and actor Daniel Radcliffe have applied the terms to themselves.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of militant atheism is a pronounced intolerance toward all things religious. While most atheists are good-hearted people—many of whom have no problem with Christianity as long as believers leave them alone and do not try to evangelize them—the most militant unbelievers want no compromise with Christianity. Anything spiritual is considered offensive and intolerable. They condemn belief in a higher power as dangerous, delusional, and a threat to the well-being of humanity.
Second, militant unbelievers usually demonstrate a lack of interest in understanding the religious viewpoints they oppose. Regardless of personal beliefs, most people rarely spend adequate time understanding the opposition, whether political, philosophical, ideological, or spiritual. This is undoubtedly true for atheist apologists, who very rarely have any background in either theology or philosophy and often openly admit to having no interest in learning anything about these subjects. They usually operate on the assumption that the field of religious studies is not one worthy of serious inquiry, and that it is harmful (something easily seen in the title of the NT Times bestselling book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).
Third, militant atheists frequently distort history either to disparage Christianity or to redeem the activities of infamous nonbelievers. For example, militant atheists argue that Hitler was a devout Catholic because some of his early speeches contained religious language and he never officially left the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, they claim Stalin was a devout Christian because he trained briefly in seminary to be an Eastern Orthodox priest. Never mind the fact that these two leaders led regimes that either confiscated the property of or destroyed thousands of churches, and murdered tens of thousands of clergymen. Hitler planned to replace Protestant and Catholic churches with a state-operated Nazi church stripped of any vestige of Christianity. Stalin followed his mentor Vladimir Lenin in forcing atheism onto the Russian people. For many militant atheists, details such as these seem irrelevant.
In the harshest material available, whether in recorded interviews or published books and articles, atheists like Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens offer criticism that is biting, sarcastic, and peppered with insults and offensive language. High-profile atheists such as Dawkins, P. Z. Meyers, and others argue that faith and religion are inherently nonsensical and should be mocked, scorned, and ridiculed. In the view of these thinkers, religion does not deserve any respect and should be stripped of whatever honor it has been accorded.
It is important to note that most atheists do not espouse these hostile views and believe it important to live in harmony with their religious neighbors. Further, the outrageous behavior of militant unbelievers has been denounced even by their fellow atheists. Moderates have often pointed out that some of the most severe denunciations of militant atheism have come from atheists themselves.
Problems with Militant Atheism. Militant atheism is rightly seen as reactionary and undignified. The unbelief of generations past had confidence without condescension, with writers who could engage their opponents with philosophical arguments. This is not the case with the aggressive atheism of the 21st century, which often relies on insults, caricature, and fearmongering.
Perhaps the most apparent problem of militant atheism is the hypocrisy in some of its most outspoken adherents. For instance, numerous writers will denounce the supposed horrors of religious violence, claiming that the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and Salem witch trials combined have a body count in the millions (which is demonstrably false). Yet they will neither recognize nor denounce violence from atheistic movements in the last two or three centuries. The French Revolution sparked a reign of terror that violently sought to de-Christianize France in the late eighteenth century. Along with the efforts of Lenin and Stalin, the League of the Militant Godless did something similar in Russia in the mid-1920s to the 1940s in their attempt to eradicate Christianity. Currently, Communist China places strict controls on religion, and its government has increased efforts to curtail Christianity in the 21st century. The government has confiscated Bibles, demolished churches, and replaced posters of Jesus with those of the Chinese president.
A common tactic is the attempt to whitewash history and disconnect atheism from violence and destruction. A popular objection offered is, “But 20th-century dictators didn’t kill in the name of atheism!” This is both true and false. Mass murderers in history did not stand up in front of their nations and credit their unbelief as the specific cause for the policies they implemented. But only a person either very biased or very foolish could believe that atheism was not a primary motivating factor in the horrors perpetrated upon believers.
The Christian Response. Perhaps the Christian response to militant atheism should be the same as our response to any fundamentalist point of view. Militant atheists would take offense at the notion that they have any similarities to radical religious fundamentalists, but even a cursory glance reveals distinct parallels between the two. Both seek to have everyone accept their point of view and work to undermine or eradicate opposing ideologies and see that their worldview becomes the only acceptable one.
Every human being needs the saving grace of God. The common ground between the godless and the religious (including Christians) is that all have sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). No human being can stand before God on his or her merit. In this sense, both Christians and atheists stand on common ground.
Peter wrote that Christians should be ready to tell others about the hope in Christ that each of us has (1 Pet. 3:15-17). Not only should we be prepared enough to answer questions regarding the faith, but Peter also says that we must do so with gentleness (Prov. 15:1). Christians must be able to tell the difference between those genuinely looking for a real conversation about spiritual matters and others only looking for a fight. In a sense, encounters with militant unbelievers allow the faithful to exercise patience, understanding, and discernment.
Dewayne preaches at the New York Ave. congregation in Arlington, TX.