What does it mean to be militant atheist? This is the adjective that is increasingly in vogue among Christians these days when applied to vocal atheists. The word is defined in Merriam Webster as "having or showing a desire or willingness to use strong, extreme, and sometimes forceful methods to achieve something". So the term "militant atheism" seems to imply the use some kind of undue coercive measures to remove religion from society against the will of believers. It is therefore pejorative. A distinction is drawn between the ordinary atheist, who is tolerated, and the militant atheist, who is seen as a plague upon society. The ordinary atheist remains meek and silent, and poses no threat. If he speaks up at all, it is only with deferential respect. The militant atheist, on the other hand, says what he thinks, and in so doing, threatens to ruin everything for the believer. And what is his method of forcing his odious beliefs upon the rest of the world? Free speech.
That's right. There are no jack-booted thugs carting Christians away in the middle of the night, no guns, no violence, no threats. There are no laws being enacted against religious belief. No barriers being erected to discourage worship in any homes or religious institutions. But more than ever before, there are atheists who speak up. They use words, and nothing more. Never was there a more potent weapon to bring about societal change. And this is what strikes fear into the hearts of the religious. This is what has earned many the title of "militant atheist". It's a title that is often used interchangeably with "new atheist", but it seems to place greater emphasis on the supposed forcefulness of the atheist movement.
But when it comes to actual militancy, you just don't find that among atheists in modern western society. Sure, there was the League of Militant Atheists that existed for about two decades in Soviet Russia. But their agenda was to promote the state's Communist ideology. They were anti-religious only because the communist regime needed to eliminate ideological competition. This was not done for the sake of atheism itself. It was purely political. Nevertheless, many Christians today insist on equating atheism in modern democratic countries with the worst elements of the communist totalitarian regimes. This only shows that Christians will lie to promote a distorted view of atheism.
Do atheists actively promote atheism the way Christians promote Christianity? Of course some of them do. Yes, they see religion as being harmful to society. They see it as being antithetical to scientific understanding. Or they simply want to convince others of what they see as the truth. This is just human nature. Christians have been doing this for two millennia. What is the difference between atheists and Christians who argue passionately for what they believe? The atheist is called "militant", and the Christian is called "evangelist". But when it comes to using forceful tactics or even violence to push their beliefs on others, or to silence the voice those who don't share their beliefs, I think there's no question that genuinely militant religious believers take the prize for that.
But what about all that mocking and ridiculing that atheists engage in? Yes, sometimes we're guilty of that. So what? Does that constitute militancy? It's called free speech, and Christians do it with a zeal unlike anything I have ever heard from atheists. They mock, ridicule, deride, and freely express their contempt for atheists. There's nothing wrong with that unless you use a double standard to condemn atheists without condemning even worse behavior on the part of Christians. We don't call these Christians militants. Free speech is not coercive. I don't often see atheists whining and crying about being mocked, but thin-skinned Christians seem to be very upset about it. And this appears to be the worst charge they can legitimately level against atheists they describe as "militant": Those mean militant atheists. They mock us and hurt our feelings. Oh, the horror.
The fact is that the idea of militant atheism in today's democratic society is just a myth. British writer Nick Cohen, who doesn't hold back on his criticism of liberals, describes the issue clearly in this fine opinion piece in The Guardian. He concludes:
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 cowardsWell said.