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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 BioLogos. 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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Papalinton - #53358

March 6th 2011

Re German christians:

Doris L. Bergen “Nazism and Christianity: Partners andRivals? A Response to RichardSteigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich. NaziConceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945(Journal of Contemporary History Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA andNew Delhi, Vol 42(1), 25–33. ISSN 0022–0094.DOI: 10.1177/0022009407071629):

...“Richard Steigmann-Gall has vigorously argued (following here some other scholars) that ‘the insistence that Nazism was an anti-Christian movement has been one of the most enduring truisms of the past fifty years’.
Bergen mostly agrees but identifies certain weaknesses both in the analytical framework and the empirical adequacy of Steigmann-Gall´ work.  Bergen also stresses the following very crucial point:
“The overwhelming majority of Germans remained baptized, tax-paying members of the official Christian Churches throughout the 12 years of nazi rule. In hindsight, it may seem impossible to reconcile the vicious hatreds of nazism with Christianity’s injunction to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to square the circle of nazi antisemitism with Christianity’s obvious origins in Judaism. But the vast majority of Germans — over 95 per cent by the last count in 1939 —evidently had no problem doing so.”
Indeed, the Nazis could never have overrun Germany except by appealing to interests, beliefs, hopes and fears of Germans who viewed themselves as good Christians. The Nazis did not come to power thanks to some imagined ideological void following the acceptance of “God is dead”.  They came to power on the shoulders of German Christianity.
Papalinton - #53361

March 6th 2011

Hi Roger Sawtelle

You say: “Please do not treat mass murders lightly.  Mao and Stalin are responsible for millions of deaths.”  and   “Many say Communist Marxism is a religion, but it is one based on “scientific atheism.” “

This nonsense and you know it.  Communism did not exact its butcher toll to impose atheism, it did so to impose communism as a complete belief system, which meant eliminating competing belief systems.  

But don’t take my word for it.   Google “communism as religion”. On the first page, you will find this quote from the East-West Church & Ministry Report: 

Communism as Religion 

” Of course Communism itself was a religion.  Perhaps no system could have become so “total” without taking on a religious character.  Russians are a deeply spiritual, emotional, intuitive people; Marxism could hijack or distort this spirituality, but it could not amputate it.  I do not believe that a Russian could have written Das Kapital, with its monstrous, arid rationalism.  Instead, Russians turned Marxism into a religion.  “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live” ran the often-quoted words of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky.  Children’s propaganda that still decorated schools in the 1990s presented Lenin as a bearded, gentle Christ-figure, kind to birds and little children.  “He was my grandfather, they told me at kindergarten,” a friend said recently, “and I loved him.  He was my god.  He was everywhere.”  And when Lenin died he was kept in Red Square as close as Communism could bring him to resurrection.  It was that schizophrenia—trapped between the desperately inadequate materialism of Marxism, and the Russian soul’s religious intuition of the real universe—that made Soviet Communism so impossibly self-contradictory.  Russians are living with the resultant chaos of belief today.”

Jon Garvey - #53367

March 6th 2011

@Mike Gene - #53348

Of course, there’s no connection at all (!), but this is a recent case  from here in the UK.
You’ll note that the issue had less to do with the risk of sexual discrimination against 5-8 year olds, but of potentially “poisoning their minds” to make them discriminatory. In other words, it was the “abusive” nature of their faith-commitment that made them unsuitable to care for children.

My blog comment here.

Mike Gene - #53384

March 6th 2011


Yes, communism is a belief system that postures as being scientific, is built around atheism, and is anti-religious.   

From Nikolai Bukharin:

Many weak-kneed communists reason as follows: ‘Religion does not prevent my being a communist. I believe both in God and in communism. My faith in God does not hinder me from fighting for the cause of the proletarian revolution.’

This train of thought is radically false. Religion and communism are incompatible, both theoretically and practically.

Every communist must regard social phenomena (the relationships between human beings, revolutions, wars, etc.) as processes which occur in accordance with definite laws. The laws of social development have been fully established by scientific communism on the basis of the theory of historical materialism which we owe to our great teachers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This theory explains that social development is not brought about by any kind of supernatural forces. Nay more. The same theory has demonstrated that the very idea of God and of supernatural powers arises at a definite stage in human history, and at another definite stage begins to disappear as a childish notion which finds no confirmation in practical life and in the struggle between man and nature.

The general happenings throughout nature are, moreover, in no wise dependent upon supernatural causes. Man has been extremely successful in the struggle with nature. He influences nature in his own interests, and controls natural forces, achieving these conquests, not thanks to his faith in God and in divine assistance, but in spite of this faith. He achieves his conquests thanks to the fact that in practical life and in all serious matters he invariably conducts himself as an atheist. Scientific communism, in its judgements concerning natural phenomena, is guided by the data of the natural sciences, which are in irreconcilable conflict with all religious imaginings.

Steve Ruble - #53389

March 6th 2011

Mike Gene,

You said that the following partial description of things done by the League of Godless sounds “remarkably like” things the New Atheist do today.

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. 

With the exception of the “individual work” stuff, and the fact that I’m not aware of any explicitly “atheistic” museums, I agree. We do things like those described.  But I fail to see how this substantiates your claims, Mike.  Which of those things is “militant”? Which of those things is unique to the New Atheists, as opposed to any other group which wants to change society? Which of those things (including “individual work”) is not practiced by any number of Christians?

What, exactly, is your point?
Alan Fox - #53390

March 6th 2011

What, exactly, is your point?

Distraction, maybe.

@Mike Gene:

Followed your link, Mike. It seems there are still several circumstances in the US where atheists are treated as less than equal citizens. following the links in Coyne’s article I see George  Bush quoted as saying:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.

No wonder Coyne can find himself angry at issues like these.
Alan Fox - #53391

March 6th 2011

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.

So militant atheists are guilty of saying what they think instead of maintaining a respectful silence. Are you in favour of some sort of restraint on the free exchange of ideas?
Roger A. Sawtelle - #53420

March 6th 2011

Papalinton wrote:

Communism did not exact its butcher toll to impose atheism, it did so to impose communism as a complete belief system, which meant eliminating competing belief systems.  

Okay, Papa.  I will agree with your view that Marxist-Leninism is a complete belief system, but it is cleary according to both Marx and Lenin an atheistic complete belief system.  How does that make it a religion?

If a religion is defined as a complete belief system, then it would seem that atheism is not compatible with a world view which is complete.  Is scientism, based on a monistic physicalist understanding of reality, a complete worldview and thus a religion?
Yes, the Communists felt compelled to give their atheism some “religious” aspects because atheism does not meet the spiritual needs of human beings.  This does not make atheism a religion, or does it?           

Mike Gene - #53425

March 6th 2011


I do not need to “substantiate” any “claim.”  I need only demonstrate that my perception is reasonable and supported.  I, and many other theists and atheists, perceive Gnus to be militant.  And I have successfully defended our perception above (#53289).

As for the Society of Godless, I am sincerely struck by the vast amount of apparent overlap between the New Atheists and the League of Militant Atheists.  Both movements adopt an extreme anti-religious posture, engage in anti-religious propaganda, and cloak themselves in “science” to promote their agenda for social change.   Given their militancy, it’s not surprising to me that the Gnus would come across as the modern day version of the League of Militant Atheists.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Mike Gene - #53426

March 6th 2011


Glad you followed the link.  When I pointed out, “Coyne advocates for a permanent state of anger among the Gnus,” your knee jerked and you exclaimed “Rubbish!”  So rather than acknowledge I was right, you attempt to distract with a change of topic by playing the Atheist-As-Victim card. But before trying to justify Coyne’s militancy/anger, we should first acknowledge that it exists.  We could also discuss the relationship between militancy and anger. 

Mike Gene - #53427

March 6th 2011

Up above, I have refuted the notion that the word ‘militant’ always connotes violence.  But let’s take it to another level.  Have people on BioLogos ever heard of Philip Kitcher?  He is a philosopher of science based at Columbia University and is the author of the book, “Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism” published back in 1983.  

Well, Kitcher just published a scholarly article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy.  In it, he surveys the Gnu’s approach, using Dawkins and Dennett as lead examples.  It turns out that he can’t entirely agree with the Gnus, but finds himself in agreement with many of their points and treats them very sympathetically.  The title of his article?  

Militant Modern Atheists.  

Here’s a quote:

As a secular humanist, who shares many of the conclusions of the Militant Modern Atheists, but also agrees with the critics that valuable options are being foreclosed, I shall try, in what follows, to work through the issues involved.

When a mainstream philosopher labels the Gnus as militant atheists in a scholarly journal, we should be able to clearly see that the complaints about the use of the term are without substance. 

Mike Gene - #53429

March 6th 2011

In attempt to deny the militancy of the Gnu Movement, some have held up philosopher Daniel Dennett as a counter-example.  Yet Philip Kitcher includes Dennett as a “Militant Modern Atheist.”

Last year, Dennett wrote the following for public consumption:

I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty. Telling pious lies to trusting children is a form of abuse, plain and simple. If quacks and bunko artists can be convicted of fraud for selling worthless cures, why not clergy for making their living off unsupported claims of miracle cures and the efficacy of prayer?

Fantasizing about arresting clergy for “charges of dishonesty” and recklessly throwing around accusations of child abuse is not only sloppy thinking, it is militancy. 

Papalinton - #53467

March 7th 2011

Hi Roger Sawtelle

Yes, the Communists felt compelled to give their atheism some “religious” aspects because atheism does not meet the spiritual needs of human beings.”

Oh pooh, Roger.  Where do you think Lenin/Stalin borrowed their methodology from? From Catholicism/the Russian Orthodox Church.  Stalin WAS god.  Stalin’s regime was based on an irrational dogma, from an infallible authority figure, that had to be followed without question and whenever dogma conflicted with reality - it was reality that was wrong. Doesn’t that rather remind you of another form of totalitarian governance [organised religion]?  Indeed he was the ‘father’ of the Soviet Union, he had his sheep, and he controlled life and death at a whim, pretty much as you tell us your god controls everything.

The Russians were traditional, conventional conservative peoples with religion a synonymous part of their life.  The Russian Orthodox church was competition and required subjugation to the worldview of communism [the very word is about strong paternal forms of social structure akin to that on which the highly ritualized church structure was based, with the strong father figure at the apex of the pyramid].  

Unlike sharia law in a number of countries today, or canonical law, as would a theocratic USA  be based, atheism was not the driver of the Russian revolution, is was the notion of ‘communism’ which was the central worldview.

Papalinton - #53468

March 7th 2011

@ Mike Gene

Re Daniel Dennett:

Fantasizing about arresting clergy for “charges of dishonesty” and recklessly throwing around accusations of child abuse is not only sloppy thinking, it is militancy. “

So it is OK by you, ethically, morally, spiritually, that clergy can spin and lie as much as they want without being called to account?   So it is perfectly legitimate  ”when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution ...”  can do so with impunity.

Where did you say you acquired your moral compass from again?

Mike Gene - #53480

March 7th 2011


So are you saying that Dennett’s militant stand is justified? 

Mike Gene - #53481

March 7th 2011

Papa: “So it is perfectly legitimate  ”when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution ...”  can do so with impunity.”

Impunity defined: Exemption from punishment, penalty, or harm.

So let me get this straight.  You want to monitor what is said in the pulpit so that pastors can be punished, penalized, or harmed for “misinforming” their congregations?  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53484

March 7th 2011


I hope that you have heard of dialectical materialism, which is basic world view that Marx and Lenin used to arrive at both the economic theory of Communism and the view that there is no God.  So you are mistaken in your statement that there is no connection between Communism and atheism.

Now if you want to say that materialism does provide a suitable base for an atheist philosophical world view, but that Marxism does not, you are free to do so.  However this seems to be the true challenge for the atheist point of view.  You can reject Marxism and Christianity and whatever, but until you produce a positive understanding of life, you have nothing to offer.

If you are arguing that atheism has no ethical, moral, or worldview significance as some do, then why argue that it is desirable?  Atheism is an important part of Marxism-Leninism and until atheists can deal with this fact, their argument is deeply flawed.   

Alan Fox - #53490

March 7th 2011

Mike Gene’s claim:

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

But what Mike takes out of context;

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.

is in response to remarks by Massimo Pigliucci whome he quotes:

I get it, a lot of atheists are recovering from religious indoctrination, often of the harshest fundamentalist kind, and they are therefore angry about all the time they have wasted and all the emotional suffering they have endured. I went through my own short anger phase in atheism after I moved to Tennessee (where religion was as in your face as it could possibly get, the place priding itself in being the buckle of the Bible Belt). Anger is good as a transitory psychological state, because it gives us the energy to reexamine broad aspects of our lives, laying the ground for a more thoughtful future self. But if it stays in our system it quickly becomes both corrosive at the personal level and undermines our overall goals as a community.
Alan Fox - #53491

March 7th 2011


And Coyne responds with:

I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation.  I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks.  I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur.  I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock.

And he continues with more examples.

He is angry about specific issues. Issues that Mike Gene sweeps aside with an airy “playing the Atheist-As-Victim card”.  
Gregory - #53494

March 7th 2011

From Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky:
“A Russian revolution will unfailingly start with atheism.”

“An atheist can’t be a Russian; an atheist ceases at once to be a Russian.”

“The cardinal could no longer believe in man because he had given up believing in God. Even so did the dictators of recent history reduce or eliminate their scruples about the treatment of their fellow beings by first removing religious considerations from their hearts.”

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