Engaging Today’s Militant Atheist Arguments

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March 2, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In November 2010, a small group of leading pastors, scholars, scientists, public intellectuals, and informed laypersons gathered in New York City to consider several pressing questions at the interface of science and faith (see summary statement ). Three papers, each addressing a different question, provided the framework for our discussions at the meeting. These were presented by Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander (see paper), Oxford theoretical biophysicist Ard Louis (see paper), and MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson. Hutchinson's paper addresses the question of how to engage arguments put forward by the New Atheists by offering a critique of scientism, the assumption that scientific knowledge is all the real knowledge there is.

Editor's Note: After some discussion surrounding the use of the world "militant" in the last video from Ian Hutchinson, we've asked him to clarify his use of the word in the accompanying paper. He responds in this video:

What do I mean by Militant? Nothing different from what the dictionary says. 'Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause' (Free Online Dictionary). The Pocket Oxford Dictionary says 'engaged in warfare (Church militant, Christians on earth), combative,' So this ephithet has not historically been considered an insult and is not intended by me as one. Militant atheists is a factual description of those who are active and aggressive in support of their atheist cause. If they wish to return the compliment by referring to militant Christians, they will have some historical precedent and I shall not complain, but I am personally less aggressive, even if perhaps not less vigorous, than the likes of those who are often called New Atheists!

For more, see Ian Hutchinson's full paper Engaging Today's Militant Atheist Arguments

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Mike Gene - #53289

March 5th 2011

Let’s consult Merriam Webster when it comes to term ‘militant’:
1. engaged in warfare or combat : fighting

Clearly, the Gnus represent a movement that is engaged in a culture war.  They, as a movment, embrace the warfare model of the relationship between science and religion and see themselves as being at war with religion.  Richard Dawkins himself made this clear early on.  What we now think of as the New Atheists and the Accomodationists was originally framed as the Churchillians and Chamberlainites.  

As Dawkins explained:

Scientists divide into two schools of thought over the best tactics with which to face the threat. The Neville Chamberlain ” ‘appeasement’ school, as I have called it in my book, focuses on the battle for evolution. Consequently, its members identify fundamentalism as the enemy, and they bend over backwards to appease ‘moderate’ or ‘sensible’ religion (not a difficult task, for bishops and theologians despise fundamentalists as much as scientists do). Scientists of the Winston Churchill school, by contrast, see the fight for evolution as only one battle in a larger war: a looming war between supernaturalism on the one side and rationality on the other. For them, bishops and theologians belong with creationists in the supernatural camp, and are not to be appeased.

So as you can see, the Gnus view themselves as fighting “a larger war: a looming war between supernaturalism on the one side and rationality on the other.”  Evolution is only one battle in a larger war.  Seen from this perspective, we can easily see how the term “accomodationist” originates from appeasement and Chamberlain.  That, in turn, makes it easy to see the New Atheists, in contrast, representing the warfare and Churchillian side of atheism.  Thus, militancy naturally emerges as one the defining traits of the New Atheists.

Mike Gene - #53290

March 5th 2011

The second definition applies in a very straight-forward manner:

2. aggressively active (as in a cause) : combative <militant conservationists> <a militant attitude>

Yes, the Gnus are aggressively active in their cause.  Yes, they are like “militant conservationists” and yes, they have a “militant attitude” when it comes to religion (for example, they accuse parents of being child abusers for sending their children to church and call for the eradication of Christianity).

The dictionary gives “Examples of MILITANT”

   1. an angry and militant speech
   2. <political radicals with a militant unwillingness to compromise on any issue>

Yes, a mere speech can be militant (and Coyne advocates for a permanent state of anger among the Gnus).  A militant unwillingness to compromise on any issue defines the posture the Gnus take with religion, as seen in their constant battles with “accomodationists” who are accused of compromise and appeasement.

Mike Gene - #53291

March 5th 2011

Finally, here are the synonyms:

aggressive, agonistic, argumentative, assaultive, bellicose, brawly, chippy, combative, confrontational, contentious, discordant, disputatious, feisty, gladiatorial, belligerent, pugnacious, quarrelsome, scrappy, truculent, warlike.

All of these apply to the Gnus as a movement.  

To summarize, I don’t expect people like Daniel and Alan to perceive the Gnus as militant, as perception here is ultimately subjective.  But they have failed to show that the term ‘militant’ must always have a violent connotation and the use of the term is unreasonable or inappropriate.  On the contrary, the dictionary, the authority on describing the way a word is commonly defined, shows the opposite.  

Alan Fox - #53292

March 5th 2011

Coyne advocates for a permanent state of anger among the Gnus.

Rubbish!  Where’s your evidence?

Alan Fox - #53294

March 5th 2011

To summarize, I don’t expect people like Daniel and Alan to perceive the Gnus as militant, as perception here is ultimately subjective.  But they have failed to show that the term ‘militant’ must always have a violent connotation and the use of the term is unreasonable or inappropriate.

I don’t speak for Daniel but I am not interested in semantic games. Use of “militant” is pejorative in this context. I suggest the distinction between Coyne and,say, Mooney is unapologetic atheist or apologetic atheist.

Alan Fox - #53295

March 5th 2011

I’d agree that individuals -not Coyne, Dawkins or Hitchens, maybe PZ-could be described as militant. The issue is to pretend there is a club of militant atheists.

Mike Gene - #53296

March 5th 2011

Alan (#53292),

A couple of months ago, Jerry Coyne wrote:

What is the proper response to all this religiously-inspired nonsense? Anger, of course. No, you don’t have to be a red-faced, sputtering jerk when confronting the faithful, but controlled anger is without doubt the right response to a form of superstition that wreaks uncountable harms on humanity. And not “transitory” anger, either—permanent anger.

Alan Fox - #53298

March 5th 2011

Link, Mike?

Mike Gene - #53299

March 5th 2011

“I don’t speak for Daniel but I am not interested in semantic games. Use of “militant” is pejorative in this context.”

So now you are switching arguments midstream.  The original complaint was that the term implied violence.  Now, you have walked it back to being “pejorative.”  But given that so much of the language of the Gnus is pejorative, and you have never criticized this in the past as far as I can tell, I can’t take your new position very seriously.

“I suggest the distinction between Coyne and,say, Mooney is unapologetic atheist or apologetic atheist.”

Use of “apologetic” in this context is pejorative.  So you object to pejorative terms being applied to Gnus, but advocate that pejorative terms be applied to accomododationists. 

Mike Gene - #53301

March 5th 2011


I tried to provide the link above, but the system treated it as spam, sent it to moderation and posted “This comment has been closed.”  It’s in an entry on Coyne’s blog that was posted on 1/12/11.  It’s a reply to Pigliucci.

Steve Ruble - #53311

March 5th 2011

I’ve found a way to inject some facts into the discussion of the word “militant”! It turns out that Google Labs has something they call the “Ngram Viewer”, which lets you compare the relative frequency of phrases used in books over time.  I entered a few variations on the phrase “militant X” and found the resulting chart to be very interesting. It’s pretty obvious when the civil rights movement occurred - lots of “militant blacks” written about at that time - and the modern feminist movement shows up too, with all those “militant feminists” and “militant women”. More recently, as you might expect, “militant Muslims” is on the rise. I suspect that this last is the reason atheists object to the phrase; certainly that’s the association that is strongest for me. 

Oddly enough, “militant Christians” and “militant men” are phrases which are consistently infrequent. I guess Christians and men are rarely “aggressively active” or “engaged in warfare or combat”.

Steve Ruble - #53315

March 5th 2011

While exploring the Ngram Viewer, I noticed sudden increases in the frequencies of “militant atheist” and “militant atheism” starting in the early 1930s, and eventually I discovered that the reason was the founding of the Society of the Godless - also called “The League of the Militant Godless” - a organization created by the Communist Party in Russia with the goal of stamping out religious belief throughout the country.  If you want an example of militant atheists, there you go! I’ll happily join you in describing their actions as militant, and I’ll be just as happy to describe them as repugnant and immoral.  Needless to say, the modern “militant” atheists aren’t in the same league, although I’m sure the same fools who brought up Stalin in the first place will be happy to tar us all with the same brush. If you are tempted to draw conclusions about atheism in general or modern atheists in particular from the actions of the Soviets, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the history of the Reformation before you call the kettle black.

Papalinton - #53322

March 5th 2011

In the brain of every christian is a god-shaped vacuum.

sy - #53323

March 5th 2011

I guess I was raised to think of the word militant as a compliment. I cant understand why anyone would object to this description. I would love to be called a militant Christian, but I dont believe I am worthy of it. I have been a militant on other matters, when younger.

Militant atheists have all the qualities of other militants, perhaps the best word to use is fervor. A regular atheist is someone (like me a couple of decades ago) who doesnt believe in God, and doesnt much care about the subject. That description certainly cannot apply to Coyne or Dawkins. Fervent is an understatement for them.

Mike Gene - #53327

March 5th 2011


That’s a very interesting find.  Here is how the Society of the Godless is described on Wikipedia:

S.o.G. aimed at fighting religion in all its manifestations and forming scientific mindset among the workers. It popularized atheism and scientific achievements, conducted ‘individual work’ (a method of sending atheist tutors to meet with individual believers to convince them of atheism, which could be followed up with public harassment if they failed to comply) with religious people, prepared propagandists and atheistic campaigners, published scientific literature and periodicals, organized museums and exhibitions, conducted scientific research in the field of atheism and critics of religion.


The League was a “nominally independent organization established by the Communist Party to promote atheism.” It published newspapers, journals, and other materials that lampooned religion; it sponsored lectures and films; it organized demonstrations and parades; it set up antireligious museums; and it led a concerted effort to persuade Soviet citizens that religious beliefs and practices were “wrong” and harmful, and that good citizens ought to embrace a scientific, atheistic worldview.

Sorry, but that sounds remarkably like the New Atheists of today. 

Mike Gene - #53328

March 5th 2011

What’s more, it looks like the League of Militant Atheists had their own battles with the accomodationists of their day:

The Moscow group tended to support the leftist side of the debate on how to destroy religion (i.e. in favour of attacking religion in all of its forms rather than moderation), and in 1924 it attacked Lunacharsky, Yaroslavsky and Bonch-Bruevich for differentiation between different religions, instead of genuine godlessness.


The League not only attacked religion but also attacked deviations from what it saw as the proper line to combat religion

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53336

March 5th 2011

If the Nazis were really anti-communists instead of rabid racists, they would have been received with open arms by Christian Ukrainians and Russians.  Instead the Nazis made clear their intent to enslave all non-Germanic Slavs.  

Then the Orthodox Church joined the fight against the Germans, who were the most advanced scientific nation of its time, and helped Stalin defeat the Aryan super race in return for the end of open persecution.  Even so the Communists still used the schools, the Komsomols, the Party, and every possible social pressure to discourage Christian faith with little success.  

Gregory - #53343

March 5th 2011

On the topic of ‘scientific atheism’...


St. Isaac’s Cathedral is now again a ‘living church’, for those interested (and one of the best views of the city from its collonade).

Gregory - #53347

March 6th 2011

Hey Steve Ruble,

Thanks for that ‘Ngram Viewer’ link. Cool stuff! A handy reference source.

So, related to this blog, I tried this combination out:

This may help some people understand who have visited here & asked why BioLogos writers have placed so much focus on ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’ (& also on theistic evolution &/or evolutionary creation). It’s pretty big on their screen of concerns right now in terms of ‘visibility’ among evangelical Christians.
The visual courtesy of google labs helps to sharply clarify the situation, to see what the term ‘biologos’ is up against, as it enters the field near the end of the 2000s (google labs stats only to 2008).

Mike Gene - #53348

March 6th 2011

From Gregory’s link:

Scientific Atheism also promoted the idea that bringing up your kids in the Christian tradition was a form of child abuse. Inevitably, many children of militant Christians were taken into care by the State, to be brought up in vast orphanages.

Whoa!  Is this true? The idea that bringing up your kids in the Christian tradition is a form of child abuse is one of Dawkins’ major arguments and is quite popular among the Gnus.

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