Militant atheism

I’ve been pondering something Julian says in Atheism: a very short introduction (again). I think there’s something I disagree with; unless I misunderstand it, which is always possible.

It’s to do with his overall rejection of what he calls ‘militant atheism’ in favour of a less hostile or less noisy variety. I’m not saying there are no reasons to object to noisy and/or hostile atheism – people offer me such reasons often, and I can see that some of them have force. (There’s the fact that it can be boring, irritating and repetitive, for instance!) I’m just taking issue with a couple of particulars here.

On page 106 he says:

Nor do I believe that a firm belief in the falsity of religion is enough to justify militant opposition to it…I think my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values that I think inspire atheism: an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational enquiry…Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is, I think, antithetical to such values.

Agreed – except for this objection I have, unless it’s a misunderstanding. It’s the (crucial, I think) bit about ‘hostile opposition to the beliefs of others.’ I don’t think it’s beliefs we’re hostile to (we militant or noisy or hostile atheists). I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s statements, assertions, truth-claims, that we oppose, sometimes with hostility. Like Elizabeth I, we don’t really want to make a window into people’s heads. We (mostly)* don’t mess with people’s internal beliefs, we mess with the externalized version that comes out as assertions or arguments. I think that makes a difference. I could be wrong, but at the moment it seems to me that that makes a difference. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others may well be objectionable, but hostile opposition to the assertions or arguments of others? Is that objectionable? (Well, it partly depends on how you define ‘hostile,’ of course. If it descends to name-calling, yes; but if it’s just energetic disagreement, that’s another matter.) It seems to me that even militant atheists, even outright brawlers, don’t care about internal states of other people, it’s only external states that meet opposition.

The assertions and arguments are of course based on the beliefs, so that by opposing the assertions and arguments we are in effect also opposing the beliefs – but not, I would say, as such; we’re opposing them as a necessary part of opposing what flows from them. Of course that’s not obvious when these disputes are going on (or afterwards either) – but I think it’s true all the same, and I think it matters.

If that’s right, I think it’s possible that militant atheists get something of a bad rap, even from other atheists. Being (I take it) what is meant by a ‘militant atheist’ myself, of course I have a motivation for saying that, but I think it’s possible all the same.

On the other hand – it may be that by ‘beliefs’ Julian means assertions and arguments as well as mental states. He may mean ‘beliefs’ to cover that whole complex – in which case my objection becomes irrelevant. Or it may be that he would argue that hostile opposition is objectionable in any case. Or it may be both of those. If that’s the case, then I admit that I offer hostile opposition to the beliefs of people like Theo Hobson, Giles Fraser, Keith Ward, Madeleine Bunting, Phillip Blond. In a way I suppose it’s reasonable to call what they write in columns and articles their ‘beliefs’ – arguments and assertions are instantiations of beliefs, at least. I do often feel and express hostility to such arguments and claims – but is that because of ‘a dogged conviction of the certainty of [my] own beliefs’? Hmm. No, I don’t think so…At least, not a dogged conviction of the certainty of oppositional ontological beliefs. I might have a certain amount of dogged conviction that their way of reaching conclusions is wrong…Yes; that’s what it is. That’s what sparks the hostility. It’s not the substantive beliefs, it’s the way of thinking.

So the question becomes – Is a firm belief in the badness of woolly thinking (as opposed to ‘a firm belief in the falsity of religion,’ see above) enough to justify militant opposition to it? Well, yes, frankly; I think it is, at least when the woolly thinking is published in newspapers and on newspaper websites. I think that’s a different kind of thing – different from beliefs about the falsity of religion. Furthermore, it seems to me that if the woolly thinking is offered up in public media, then it is necessarily fair game, in a way that mere beliefs about the non-falsity of religion are not. I think that’s especially true when the woolly thinking is itself rather aggressive, as with Theo Hobson and Co it so often is. There is in fact something inherently aggressive and would-be coercive about conspicuously bad arguments – they have a whiff of force about them, at least to my aristocratic nose. A whiff of ‘believe or else,’ of ‘unbelief is not permitted,’ of ‘submit,’ of ‘how dare you.’

I think that’s what triggers the militant atheism. Not the basic beliefs, not internal states, but aggressively weak arguments delivered as public challenges. You don’t see a great many militant atheists invading churches or disrupting funerals, as far as I know. You see them disputing public claims. And perhaps upsetting dinner tables, but that’s an issue for Miss Manners.

It’s a swell book, by the way, as commenters (and I) said in the previous post on the subject.

*I’m generalizing throughout. I think what I’m saying applies to most militant atheists, but I don’t claim it applies to all. I’m extrapolating from myself, is what it boils down to, and I certainly don’t know that there are no exceptions.

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