The phantom menace of militant atheism

Save our soles: the 2014 World Humanist Congress in Oxford. . Photograph: Martin Godwin
Save our soles: the 2014 World Humanist Congress in Oxford. . Photograph: Martin Godwin

Nick Cohen has written a fabulous article in the Guardian today. In it he attacks the very idea that there is some moral equivalence that holds sway, and that there is militant religion on one side and militant atheism on the other.

He makes reference to some recent cases …

the Christian right is rallying opposition to equality with the cry that the “intolerance of aggressive secularism”, in the words of the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, is threatening faith. You get a taste of the hysteria on the right when you discover that the cause of the anger was a court ruling that a local council could not include Church of England prayers in its formal meetings. (As a public body, it had to respect the views of councillors and voters of other faiths or none.)

To a large element in modern conservatism, equal treatment for all is nothing less than the “aggressive intolerance” of Christianity, as is the legal requirement that hotel owners cannot ban gay couples from their rooms just as landlords once banned blacks, dogs and Irish from theirs. Do not underestimate the danger of their wails. One day, they could encourage a future Conservative government to repeal the Human Rights Act.

… and here are a few sound bites that truly do resonate with me …

I’m losing count of and patience with the apologists who tell me there would be no morality without religion. The failure of the serious press and BBC to question this is as shocking as it is depressing.

… Few dare maintain that immorality has increased as religious observance has collapsed.

… The bad faith of religious apologists is best seen in their theological emptiness. Scour their writings and you’ll be hard pressed to find the one honest argument true believers from earlier ages would have recognised

… and he then nails it like this …

Since 9/11, western intellectuals have had a choice. They could have taken on militant religion, exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young British men not to go to Syria and slaughter “heretics”. But religious fanatics might have retaliated. Instead, they chose the safe option of attacking the phantom menace of militant atheists, who would never harm them. Leaving all philosophical and moral objections aside, they have been the most awful cowards.

Militant Atheists

The term Militant Atheist was once utilised to describe a gang of political thugs in 1930s soviet Russia where a league was composed of party members who aided the Soviet government in killing clergy and committed believers.

Today in China we can also find something similar. There we see supporters of Falun Gong being sent to its black jails and the destruction of Catholic churches.

Within both of the above contexts what we have are political fanatics who embrace an ideal that does not have a single jot of evidence, and also strike out aggressively against organised religion because it threatens their power base.

In a rather stark contrast, atheism itself is simply the rejection of god claims due to the complete lack of evidence. When those who do not believe dare to point out the lack of evidence or criticise the intolerance, misogyney, homophobia, violence and murder committed by those who do hold fanatical religious beliefs, then that criticism itself merits the completely unwarranted term “militant atheism”.

To translate that into a rather graphical image, Mr Cohen puts it like this …

The police don’t send undercover agents into sceptic societies and parliament doesn’t pass emergency laws to combat atheist violence. Fanatics threaten European Muslims if they abandon their faith but no atheist will attack them if they keep it. No one thinks that atheists threaten the lives of their fellow citizens anywhere in the west.


Islamophobia is rather sadly real, in the sense that there are extreme right-wing groups that openly advocate discrimination against people who just happen to be Muslims. This can manifest itself as hate crimes or personal attacks.

However … the above reality does not in any way describe valid fact-based criticism against ideas. So let me illustrate what I’m getting at by listing some shameful examples of hate speech directed at a specific group of people … (these are all quite real quotes) …

  • “Muslims are the vilest of animals”
  • “Be ruthless against Muslims”
  • “How perverse are the Muslims”
  • “strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”
  • “Attack Muslims who are near to you”
  • “Those Muslim mischief makers should be murdered or crucified”

Are any of the above examples acceptable? No, of course not, they don’t criticise an idea, but rather attack individuals for holding a belief and also incite violence.

Now it is time to confess, I’ve deployed a well-known trick here, the examples above are all quotes that I have lifted directly from the Qur’an, I simply replaced the word ‘Christian’, ‘Jew’ or ‘unbeliever’ with the word ‘Muslim.’. Here are the original quotes along with the references:

“Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve” – 8:55

“Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard (ruthless) against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves” – 48:29

“And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah… Allah (Himself) fights against them. How perverse are they!” – 9:30

“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” – 8:12

“you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness” – 9:123

“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement” – 5:33

My point is obvious, if you deploy the above against Muslims, it stands out for what it is – hate speech – and is ethically unacceptable, yet when dressed up as a religious text it suddenly becomes acceptable, why is that?

The Qur’an is not just a collection of harmless religious poetry, it also contains some really bad ideas and hate speech, and so anybody drinking a constant stream of such rhetoric as literal truth would indeed begin to accept the thought that actual acts of violence deployed against those who reject their belief would not just be a good idea, but also a divine command – and that is why the deployment of criticism of such ideas truly does matter.

To sum that up …

  • Discrimination against individuals who hold a belief is not appropriate … that is Islamophobia. Most Muslims are in reality decent honourable individuals and don’t buy into the bad ideas as “truth” to be acted upon
  • Fact-based criticism of bad ideas and hate speech contained within religious texts is wholly appropriate and is not Islamophobia

The Phantom Menace

To label those that deploy fact-based criticism against bad ideas as “Militant” is not simply a gross abuse of the english language, but is also an act that potentially enables those that promote intolerance and violence to have a criticism-free ride.

Leave a Reply