The myth of militant atheism

By Dave Niose, Open Salon

Nine bullets fired from close range ended the life of Salman Taseer on Tuesday, making the Pakistani governor the latest high-profile victim of religious violence. Taseer had the audacity to publicly question Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for this transgression he paid with his life.

Taseer joins a list of numerous other high-profile victims of militant religion, such as  Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion doctor killed by a devout Christian assassin in 2009, and Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmaker whose provocative movie about Islam resulted in his being brutally murdered in Amsterdam in 2004.  And of course, several thousand innocent people became victims of religious violence on September 11, 2001.

With this background, it is especially puzzling that the American media and public still perpetuate the cliché of so-called “militant atheism.”  We hear the disparaging term “militant atheist” used frequently, the assumption being that of course militant atheists are indeed roaming the streets of America.

In fact, however, while millions of atheists are indeed walking American streets, it would be difficult to find even one who could accurately be described as militant.In all of American history, it is doubtful that even one person has ever been killed in the name of atheism. In fact I would challenge religionists to present evidence that any American has ever even been harmed in the name of atheism.  It just does not happen, because the notion of “militant atheism” is entirely fantasy.

When the media and others refer to “militant atheist,” the object of that slander is usually an atheist who had the nerve to openly question religious authority or vocally express his or her views about the existence of God. Conventional wisdom quickly tells us that such conduct is shameful or, at the very least, distasteful, and therefore the brazen atheist is labeled “militant.”

Religious groups, meanwhile, are not subjected to such standards. They can publicly declare that you are a sinner and that you will suffer in hell for eternity if you do not adopt their supernatural beliefs, but they will almost never be called “militant” by the media or the public. Instead, such religionists are called “devout” and such churches are called “evangelical.”

The lesson here is clear. If you’re an atheist, shut up about it.  If you are open or vocal about your atheist worldview, you are a “militant atheist.”  Be silent, even though that same standard does not apply to those who passionately disagree with you.

This, to be sure, explains why so few Americans openly identify as atheist.  The American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, indicates that only about 81 percent of Americans affirmatively believe in a god (about 69 percent believe in a personal God, while about 12 percent believe in some kind of “higher power”), meaning about 19 percent do not. Yet despite the fact that almost one in five Americans don’t affirmatively believe, only a tiny fraction of those dare to identify openly as atheist.

Analyze those numbers all you want, but the inescapable conclusion is that millions of Americans are in the closet about their religious skepticism. This, in turn, only serves to validate and legitimize the religious right, because it suggests that there is something wrong with a secular worldview. By keeping atheists closeted, the religious right can claim the moral high ground and influence public policy more than it should.

Therefore, maybe it’s time to end the myth of militant atheism?

David Niose is president of the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based nonprofit.  Visit AHA at for more information. For more articles by this author and others, please visit Open Salon

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