Militant, adj. and n.

PZ Myers points to a governor of Pakistan’s assassination, and insists: “Don’t ever call atheists militant, except where they do something like this.”

Which is all well and good, and I suppose I wouldn’t want to be called militant either. But I also wouldn’t want to contradict the dictionary. Here’s the OED on “militant”:

A. adj.…3. a. Combative; aggressively persistent; strongly espousing a cause; entrenched, adamant.

b. Aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause, and often favouring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.…

B. n. 1. a. A person engaged in war or conflict; a combatant. Chiefly in extended uses or in metaphorical contexts. …

2. a. A person who strongly espouses a cause, esp. one who is aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause. In later use also: spec. a member of an ideologically or politically motivated faction or force. Cf. sense A. 3b.

Are there atheists who see themselves embroiled in a metaphorical war? Who are combative? Aggressively persistent? Who strongly espouse a cause? Who are entrenched and adamant? Who aggressively pursue a social or political cause, and who specifically belong to an ideologically or politically motivated faction?


If PZ doesn’t like being called “militant,” there are solutions other than redefining the word.


  1. #1 Jim Lloyd
    January 4, 2011

    If you’re going to play games with semantics like this, what about the word “violent”? And can we perhaps consider shades of the words “aggression” and “combative” here?”

    I think one can reasonably argue that you have bought into a redefinition of the word “militant”, and are now defending that redefinition.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    January 4, 2011

    Er…. If a “redefinition” of a word makes it into the OED, then it’s a generally accepted definition of that word.

    What really cracks me up is that the militant atheists get all annoyed when we call them “militant” or “fundamentalist”, but then get all semantically defensive when somebody like me objects to being called “not rational” or “intellectually dishonest”.

  3. #3 benjdm
    January 4, 2011

    So it would be fair to refer to the Pope as a militant Catholic?

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    January 4, 2011

    If I were to believe that the critics only intended the word to mean aggressive and persistent, I’d have no objection. But you use the word as a pejorative, and playing these kinds of games to hide your meaning is dishonest.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    January 4, 2011

    PZ, I’ve never used the word “militant” on this blog until this post, surprisingly, and I’ve never used that adjective to describe ahteists, so I assume you are referring to someone other than me when you talk about how “you use the word.” Nor is it obvious to me that those people who do refer to “militant atheists” aren’t using it in the senses listed above.

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    January 4, 2011

    Rob, Jim Lloyd: As I said, some of the definitions I listed above are used in that sense in the 1600s. That’s not “redefinition.” Newton and the Founding Fathers would recognize that usage.

  7. #7 Jeffrey Shallit
    January 4, 2011

    Here’s my take on the term:

    By the way, google’s n-gram viewer

    has now revealed some earlier uses of the term: the earliest I have found is from Progress: a monthly magazine of advanced thought, Volume 6 edited by George William Foote, in 1886. On page 466 he writes “He was not only an Atheist, but a militant Atheist…” Perhaps this is the earliest usage of the term. But as the google n-gram viewer indicates, the term really took off in the 1920’s, with the rise of the “League of Militant Atheists” in the former Soviet Union.

    Oddly enough, the term “militant theist” gets no citations at all.

  8. #8 BenSix
    January 4, 2011

    That’s because people use fundamentalist instead. (See how “religious fundamentalist” took off in the 1980s – like Bernie Madoff’s pulse when an accountant said, “We’ve been looking through your records and it’s interesting that…”)

  9. #9 Rob Knop
    January 4, 2011

    PZ, your critics can think mean things about you and say nasty things about you (and believe me, I think and say a *lot* of nasty things about you) without thinking you’re no different from extremists who behead other people. There’s a range even amongst extremists. Stay out of Godwin territory….

  10. #10 kevin
    January 4, 2011

    Yes, let’s talk common usage.

    Try google for “militant islam” or “islamic militant”. Now try “militant jews” or “militant jewish groups”.

    Is “militant” being used there as a synonym for “persistent” or for someone “embroiled in a metaphorical war”? No. It is pretty obviously means “militant” and “combative” in the sense of military tactics and physical combat.

    Nobody objects to “vocal athiest” or “assertive” or “persistent” or even “confrontational”.

    The so called “militant athiests” see themselves as embroiled in a metaphorical war, as you say. But many on the other side see themselves as embroiled in an actual, physical, suicide bombers and death threats kind of war.

  11. #11 kevin
    January 4, 2011

    edit: I meant to note that google for “militant catholic” seems to turn up a bunch of irrelevant stuff on catholic doctrine in latin. I would have expected something on N. Ireland, which does show up for “militant protestant”.

  12. #12 Matti K.
    January 5, 2011

    Mr. Roseanau:

    “If PZ doesn’t like being called “militant,” there are solutions other than redefining the word.”

    Such as? Moreover, it seems that he was objecting to the use of a word because it, in his opinion, is not descriptive. Just like a distinguished communication expert is annoyed by the “accommodationist”-label:

    Why shouldn’t people speka out when they feel the vocabulary generally used is not descriptive? Dictionaries are not the eternal word of God. They simply illuminate the temporal consensus of the meaning of words. These meanings change with time (f. ex. “gay”) and the dictionaries will be duly rewritten.

  13. #13 Jeffrey Shallit
    January 5, 2011

    I don’t agree that “fundamentalist” plays the same role for theists as “militant atheist” does for nontheists.

    “Fundamentalist” originally referred to someone who subscribed to The Fundamentals, a collection of books published in the early 1900’s.

    So a “fundamentalist Christian” is emphasizing a particular variety of Christian belief, whereas a “militant atheist” is ostensibly emphasizing to a particular kind of nontheist action.

    Furthermore, “fundamentalist” is not linked to “Christian” in the same way; it is perfectly possible to talk about many varieties of Christian, but “atheist” always seems to be preceded by “militant”.

  14. #14 Marnie
    January 5, 2011

    A word’s meaning changes in context. “Wise” means something different paired with “choice” than it does with “guy.” When we talk about a militant [insert religion here] we are not just talking about someone who is emphatic in their belief, we are talking about someone willing to act out violently and limit the freedoms of those who do not agree with and adhere to their beliefs.

    If we must compare atheism to religion, calling the vast majority of atheists “militant” is like calling one’s pious aunt Gertrude “militant” for insisting you need to say grace before dinner and your prayers before bed. In other words, the bar for “militant” with atheists is set far far lower than it is for the devout.

    I suspect there are atheists I would consider militant in this context. I don’t think it would always their atheism that is their motivation, but there are certainly people who encompass both qualities. However comparing someone who is publicly confident in her stance on atheism and willing to publicly defend and argue their point, to someone who would bomb a family planning clinic is intentionally alarmist and deceptive.

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