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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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Steve Ruble - #53521

March 7th 2011

Mike Gene, you wrote:

I do not need to “substantiate” any “claim.”  I need only demonstrate that my perception is reasonable and supported.  

I fail to see the distinction, but I’m sure you perceive there to be a difference, and that’s all that matters, right?

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.

Only if you think the phrase “nothing less” means “except that they aren’t communists, aren’t able to shutter churches, aren’t able to send anyone to prison camps, and in fact present no physical threat to anyone at all”.  That’s certainly not what I think “nothing less” means, so I perceive your statement to be absurd.

Mike Gene - #53524

March 7th 2011

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

No, I swept aside that complaint about President Bush (#53390) because you attempted to change the topic.  Yes, “he is angry about specific issues.”  And he advocates for a permanent state of anger among the Gnus.  Why is it so hard for you to acknowledge that I was right?

Anger tends to go hand-in-hand with militancy.  This is because militants need their followers to remain angry to serve the cause.  But there is a Catch-22.  The same anger causes the militants to abandon a scientific approach to reality and substitute it with propaganda. And that’s bad news for a movement that postures is if it incarnates Science.   Witness Jerry Coyne.  He claims “I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell.”  Does the scientist, who demands theists provide him evidence, himself have scientific evidence that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell?  What happened to all that posturing about the need for “evidence?”  Gone….in a fit of anger.

Alan Fox - #53527

March 7th 2011

Mike Gene:

No, I swept aside that complaint about President Bush (#53390) because you attempted to change the topic.

From your continual efforts to broad-brush all unapologetic atheists as routinely mean, rude and angry.  I just wonder why it matters to you what Coyne thinks about religion. Surely your chance of salvation is unaffected by whether others share your beliefs. Coyne has his opinions and he doesn’t worry about expressing them. You agreed in an earlier comment that you believe in a free and open society; Why can’t  you “disagree with what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it”?

And do you still dismiss complaints of discrimination against atheists as “playing the victim”?

Mike Gene - #53539

March 7th 2011


My first reply in this thread was to address the substance of Hutchinson’s arguments about scientism.  The Gnus in this thread instead wanted to again raise his use of the term militant.  So I played along and demonstrated the Gnus’ complaints were not justified. 

Of course I believe in a free and open society.  I’m not like Daniel Dennett in wanting to police my opponents and treat them like criminals and child abusers.  I’m not like Jerry Coyne in calling for the eradication of atheism, considering dialog with atheists as something that only enables delusion.   I’m not the one who advocates a permanent state of anger against atheists.  Because we live in a free and open society, I can point out militancy when I see it.  I have my opinions and don’t worry about expressing them.  I wonder why it matters to you that I think the Gnu movement is a militant anti-religious movement.   

Papalinton - #53573

March 8th 2011

@ Roger Sawtelle

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.”

This is rubbish.  Atheism is not a product of Marxism and has never been a function of the economic foundation on which communism is founded. It was simply a convenient  political vehicle or strategy by which communism could compete with the Russian Orthodox church  with a compelling alternative for the hearts and minds of the Russian people.  Communism sought to supplant the Orthodox church and itself became a religion, a worldview based around the communal collective in competition with market capitalism.   Indeed the understanding of atheism has been around as long as humans have been in existence, though in significantly increasing numbers as homo sapiens emerged from the primordial soup of primitivistic superstition characterized by the invocation of  supernatural entities with which humans can socialize.  Equally the increasing state of atheism in contemporary society is a direct result of, in this case the christianities, being dragged kicking and screaming into modernity in which capital punishment for apostasy and heresy is simply a no-no.  “Divine’ murder was de rigeur not too long ago in human history.  Or have you forgotten?  It was  the clergy’s god-given right and responsibility to put the heretic to death, or torture them to recant.  Nothing strange about that, Roger.  That is what religion did. , as a matter of course.  [cont]
Papalinton - #53575

March 8th 2011

@ Roger Sawtelle  [cont.2]

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.”

I do, Materialism does provide a suitable base for an atheist philosophical worldview.  Of course, your  pious definition of ‘materialism’ is in stark contrast to the conventional notion of a worldview based on materialism, which is all that is encompassed within the natural realm of the universe.  And I do say, Marxism is not a part of that worldview.  Simply because I am an atheist is in no way suggestive that I am by default, a Marxist.  Such a viewpoint would be stupid and childlike in the extreme.

I contend atheism  is the one worldview that is so aligned with humanism and the upholding of universal humanitarian values, significantly more value than any theist worldview can ever offer. Theism is based primarily on a club mentality, a tribal predilection, in the case of christianity, that people can only be saved from eternal hellfire and damnation if they recognise jesus as the sole spectral entity through whom they can be saved.  Now, even the almost ineducable can spot that any person, who by dint of social circumstance or historical or geographical happenstance never even heard of jesus, will be eternally damned through no fault of their own.  How f@#$%&^ stupid is that?

[cont 2]

Papalinton - #53580

March 8th 2011

@ Roger Sawtelle  [cont 3]

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.”

To suggest atheism has no moral, ethical or worldview significance is just pious silliness.  Taken from the analysis of total prison population of the USA at website:


the following statistics:  
Response              Number      %
—————————————— ————
Catholic                  29267   39.164%
Protestant                26162   35.008%
Muslim                      5435    7.273%
American Indian        2408    3.222%
Nation                        1734    2.320%
Rasta                          1485    1.987%
Jewish                        1325    1.773%
Church of Christ        1303    1.744%
Pentecostal                 1093    1.463%
Moorish                      1066    1.426%
Buddhist                       882    1.180%
Jehovah Witness           665    0.890%
Adventist                      621    0.831%
Orthodox                      375    0.502%
Mormon                        298    0.399%
Scientology                   190    0.254%
Atheist                          156    0.209%
Hindu                           119    0.159%
Santeria                        117    0.157%
Sikh                                14    0.019%
Bahai                                9    0.012%
Krishna                             7    0.009%
—————————————— ————
Total Known Responses  74731  100.001% (rounding to 3 digits does this)

Judeo-Christian Total  62594   83.761% (of the 74731 total responses)

Total Known Responses  74731

Christians made up 83.761% of the total prison population. Note that atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less in the prison populations (0.21%).

So much for the nonsense about morality and ethics and such.



Papalinton - #53581

March 8th 2011

Hi mike Gene

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

If your term of ‘militant’ as applied to Dennett means ensure that carpetbaggers don’t get away with taking money away from poor parishioners through the illegal tithing,  and lie ‘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?’

I say why should the clergy be exempt for such outrageous behaviour?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53583

March 8th 2011


I have made this challenge before and no one yet has responded to it.  The question is human rights.  A theistic basis for human rights is found in the understanding that God created humans in God’s own image, so that Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  

Lenin said that error has no rights.  In a sense he was right in that only people have rights.  The challenge I give to you is, “How do you or anyone else dtermine an intellectual foundation for human rights from a materialistic, atheist, scientism world view?”   

Granted it took a while for Christianity to learn this lesson, but now we have. Lenin- Marxism in all its varieties, including the current Chinese form has not.  Please back up your claims with more than rhetoric.    

Mike Gene - #53585

March 8th 2011

Papa: “I say why should the clergy be exempt for such outrageous behaviour?”

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? 

Jon Garvey - #53588

March 8th 2011

@Papalinton - #53580

Interesting stats, Papa. But bankers are also under-represented in the prison population. Does that too imply they are especially moral?

Christine S. - #53590

March 8th 2011

Jon Garvey
<blockquote>But bankers are also under-represented in the prison population. </blockquote>

Only by sheer oversight of the judicial system

Louis - #53593

March 8th 2011

Ouch. This is somehwhat overheated. So lets fan the embers some more

Fact is, atheism is a religion, in that it presumes a unproveable thesis (there is no deity), and then makes it the fundamental linchpin of their philosophy. This is also the source of militancy, in that radical attachement to a central, unproveable thesis, in the face of opposition, is conducive to feelings of anger and hatred. This is separate from the anger towards wrongdoing by religious institutions - because, when examined closely, one can find multiple examples of righteous anger against virtually every human institution - just take government, any government, for instance. I myself suffered intelectual and emotional abuse for years within a religious sect. That did not lead to either atheism or agnosticism, yet I know other who did experience that result.

Thus I think that the “militancy” discussed here, could be seen as a combination of two separate phenomena. The first is a PTSD-like psychological phenomena. The second is a particularly acute version of Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory. Mix the two, place it within the adverserial climate of the “culture wars”, and you have one militant baby!

Alan Fox - #53597

March 8th 2011

 I wonder why it matters to you that I think the Gnu movement is a militant anti-religious movement.

Like Elizabeth Tudor, t “have no desire to make a window in men’s souls”. It matters not what you think but when you commit yourself to public assertion, you incur the possibility of being challenged. But, of course you are right. The Gnu atheists are against religion.  That is the whole point. All religions are human constructs. You differ from an atheist only in thinking one of those human constructs is true. What Gnu atheists don’t generally want to do is to band together and impose their will on others by force, political or otherwise.
Mike Gene - #53604

March 8th 2011

Roger wrote, “So you are mistaken in your statement that there is no connection between Communism and atheism.”  Papalinton replied, “This is rubbish.”

Roger is right; Papa is wrong.

To see this, let’s consult Nikolai Bukharin.  According to Wiki, he was a Russian Marxist, Bolshevik revolutionary, and Soviet politician. He was a member of the Politburo (1924–1929) and Central Committee (1917–1937), chairman of the Communist International (Comintern, 1926-1929), and the editor in chief of Pravda (1918–1929), the journal Bolshevik (1924–1929), Izvestia (1934–1936), and the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. He authored Imperialism and World Economy (1918), The ABC of Communism (1919. co-authored with Yevgeni Preobrazhensky), and Historical Materialism (1921) among others.

Mike Gene - #53605

March 8th 2011

According to Bukharin’s The ABC of Communism:

“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.”

Do you think the “weak-kneed” communists would have been labeled “accomodationists” or “apologetic?”

Papalinton - #53610

March 8th 2011

Hi Roger Sawtelle
“I have made this challenge before and no one yet has responded to it.  The question is human rights.  A theistic basis for human rights is found in the understanding that God created humans in God’s own image ...”

1. God will kill men, have their children smashed, and have their wives raped [Isaiah 13:16-16]
2. God will punish children for the inequities of their fathers and distant ancestors [Isaiah 14:21
3. God will lay waste to entire cities and make the lands desolate [Jeremiah 4:7]
4. God will set people, animals, and even plants on fire because of his anger [Jeremiah 7:20]
5. God will send so much evil that people would rather be dead than suffer [Jeremiah 8:3]
6. God will give away the property of men, including their wives, to other men [Jeremiah 8:10]
7. God will kill young men, and their children will die from a famine [Jeremiah 11:22
8. God will cause everyone to become drunk so that father and son will kill one another [Jeremiah 13:14]
9. God will make people hungry enough to eat their own children and friends [Jeremiah 19:9]
10. God will burn entire cities with the inhabitants still inside [Jeremiah 50:32
11. God will break people’s bones and knock out their teeth with stones [Lamentations 3:1-16]
12. God will force fathers and sons to eat each other and scatter their remembrance [Ezekiel 5:10]
13. God will be comforted by killing everyone with pestilence, plagues, and swords [Ezekiel 5:12-13]
14. God will kill righteous men and forget their good deeds if thy ever turn to sin [Ezekiel 18:24]
15. God will turn daughters into whores and wives into adulterers [Hosea 13:8]
16. God will kill children and unborn fetuses because their parents worship other gods [Hosea 13:16]
17. God will sell children of Israel into slavery in a far away land [Joel 3:8]
18. God will kill inhabitants of entire cities if they have a corrupt government [Micah 3:9-12]
19. God will consume every living thing from the face of the earth [Zephaniah 1:2-3]
20. God will send people to steal Jerusalem, rape the women, and enslave the rest [Zechariah 14:2]
21. God will send plagues on people and animals to rot away their tongues and eyes [Zechariah 14:12-15]

So Roger, where are human rights extrapolated from this format of foundational theistic truths?

Additionally Roger,  the prophets warn us of the OT god’s frightful, futuristic return to the earth, at which point he’ll initiate every category of curse imaginable on the people who ignore his commandments, refuse to worship him, or commit acts that he arbitrarily deems evil. It’s remarkable that he can dish out such unfathomable punishments for reasons a typical person would consider lacking in foundation, yet he becomes terribly enraged when one of us follow suits.
And remember jesus did not invalidate any of these with his teachings. They were never to be cast aside. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill the law” [Matthew 5:18]

So, tell me again Roger, what was this you are saying about ‘human rights’?

Papalinton - #53611

March 8th 2011

To Mike Gene
“Do you think the “weak-kneed” communists would have been labeled “accomodationists” or “apologetic?”

And so what is your argument?

Louis - #53612

March 8th 2011

Papalinton - you are reading a premodern, eastern text through modern, Western eyes. As such you have much in common with those Creationists you despise. Overt literalism is an infantile approach, not worthy over serious intellectual consideration (yes, I mean that).

The text arose within a definte context. As such it is written in terms and requirements most familiar to its primary audience. Also, the ultimate goal of that text is a spiritual message, a message about the human condition, if you will. It is a message about redemption.

Thus simplistic prooftexting, such as what you are doing, without any context, is, as the fellow says, merely a pretext. As such I think it is safe to say that your intermittent anti-Christian outbursts here appear to be more psychological phenomena than serious intellectual engagement. Actually, your comments fit very nicely with what Tajfel identified as the central hypothesis of Social Identity Theory, which is that “group members of an ingroup will seek to find negative aspects of an outgroup, thus enhancing their self-image.” (http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html)

I say this because your coments come across as “targeted rants” rather than dialogue/debate/arguments.

Steve Ruble - #53623

March 8th 2011

Louis, that’s the most general definition of religion I’ve ever heard.

Fact is, atheism is a religion, in that it presumes a unprovable thesis (there is no deity), and then makes it the fundamental linchpin of their philosophy.

Pretty much every philosophical theory presumes the unprovable thesis that we’re not dreaming (and most of the rest others presume that we are) and uses that as a fundamental “linchpin”, so following your usage every philosophical theory is a religion. That makes the word pretty useless, doesn’t it?

Overt literalism is an infantile approach, not worthy over serious intellectual consideration (yes, I mean that).

I agree, but I also think that covert literalism is a rather childlike approach, similar to the approach a child might have to Santa Claus at the point when they know that the man at the mall isn’t Santa Claus, but they still think that somewhere there is a Santa Claus. Of course, the truth of the matter is that the whole idea of Santa Claus is a fiction from the ground up, and any “truths” that might be got from it are very different than the claims made in the story itself.

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