Militantly not militant

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 also wanted to point out a comment from Jeff Shallitt, who looked at the "militant atheist" meme back in 2007, including this gem of an observation:

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.

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I think that "militant" ought to be understood in some relation to "militate," as I have always supposed that the two are connected in the use of the word "militant" to describe proponents of various ideas. "Militate" isn't even all that strong a word, and if "militant" is considered in that way, it really needn't be very pejorative.

That it has not infrequently been used to suggest some sort of violence or propensity toward violence seems obvious enough. Nonetheless, I don't think that it's always meant or taken that way.

If, however, we tend to speak of "accepting" evolution rather than the reasonable "believing" evolution (as a justified belief), I think we would also tend to avoid a word like "militant" that has also been mistreated via equivocation. So yes, I agree that it's all very well to avoid that term for atheists, yet I think people ought to be careful not to misattribute ill-intent to the use of the word "militant" if it really was only intended to suggest "strong supporter" or some such thing.

Glen Davidson

Personally I like, and use, the term militant agnostic as it is a very descriptive oxymoron. What it means, I think, is that I really, really don't believe in faith.

Mr. Rosenau:

"I just don't like people redefining words because they don't like their implications."

Your opinion is duly noted.

However, there is a constant debate about proper vocabulary and this debate even leads to change in the usage of words and even the meaning of words. There is an evolution going on in the written and spoken language.

What are you going to do about it?

Matti K: "What are you going to do about it?"

Apparently I'm going to write a blog post illuminating the common uses of fairly common words, and complain when people try to redefine those words. Do you object?

It sounds a lot like you are using an apologetics approach to be able to say what you want about the vocal atheists from one side of your mouth while whining about civility and tone from the other side.

Only one "t" in my name. Thanks.

By Jeffrey Shallit (not verified) on 04 Jan 2011 #permalink

Mr. Rosenau (#4):

Why are you complaining? Are you a fundamentalist dictionarist? :-)

Do you really call it "redefinition" when someone expresses his displeasure about the use of a certain word? You even seem to agree that the phrase "militant atheist" is not very descriptive.

I have not heard that Myers is on any board that decides the "official" meanings of words and content of dictionaries. Thus your use of the word sounds odd.

I just don't like people redefining words because they don't like their implications.

Words are redefined all the time and their denotations are often broader and more nuanced than the common connotation. What do you think it means when I say "my uncle is gay"? Do you assume I mean that my uncle is happy? Language is fluid and how people understand it will depend not only on what the dictionary says but the region, year, culture and context. It is clear, when people use "militant atheist" that they are using it the same way a "pro-life" person is implying that someone who disagrees with their views is "anti-life." The language has meaning beyond a single instance of its definition that you find most palatable.

I commented on the previous post and I'll say it here. When "militant" is used in conjunction with a faith, it describes behavior and beliefs that are violent towards those who feel differently. There are almost definitely people who are atheists who would like to act out violently to people who don't share their beliefs, but the average atheist who is called "militant" has only ever argued for their view and/or against another view and has never argued for violence against people of different beliefs.

In this context, the word "militant" is used differently for believers and non-believers and on those grounds, I consider it a misuse.