To be clear, my last post was not a defense of a phrase that I use. I searched my archives, and don’t see any instances where I referred to atheists as “militant.” Indeed, that post is the only one where I used the word “militant” without quoting someone else! I don’t think it’s the best term to use, I don’t think others should use it, and I don’t use it. I just don’t like people redefining words because they don’t like their implications.
I’m not sure when the juxtaposition of “militant” and “atheist” became a cliché. The earliest citation I’ve been able to find so far is a 1928 book review of Edward Lucas White‘s book Why Rome Fell by Elmer Davis. Davis wrote, “Militant atheists ought not to read it; they will be too likely to swallow it all uncritically.”
Whatever the origins, the term “militant atheist” eventually became a description to be used whenever the writer wanted to express disapproval about nonbelievers. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was often so described; a 1970 article in Time sneered at her attempt to found a new church. True, O’Hair was, by all accounts, a nasty person. However, when she was killed in 1995, obituaries routinely referred to her as “militant”. Her murderer, however, was not so categorized.
Now that’s a problem.
Shallitt notes that the term came into widespread use in the 1920s, probably because of the Soviet Union’s League of Militant Atheists. Red-baiters would have picked up the term as a subtle way to tar atheists as Stalinists, allowing the term to be used instead of an argument. That resonance is long past, but the phrase has become toxic to reasonable discussion.
Shallit also observes that Google’s n-gram viewer shows no comparable use of the term “militant theist (nor “militant Christian”), though another commenter observes that “fundamentalist” is often used as synonymous with “militant theist,” and that phrase is really common.