Freethought Today, October 1997


The Militant Atheist

By Catherine Fahringer

At some point in history the adjective "militant" was attached to the noun "atheist," very much as was the adjective "damn" attached to the noun "Yankee" during the Civil War. The story goes that many children born in the south during that war grew up thinking damnyankee was one word.

Why the attachment of militant to atheist came about is not clear to me because I cannot recall in the course of my life reading about armies of atheists scouring the countryside for "good" Christians to round up for imprisonment and unremitting torture which might possibly culminate in a bring-your-own-stake barbecue.

If there do exist great groups of atheists joining together across the country in their various tax-exempt meeting houses to sing rousing militant songs about war and about being soldiers for their cause, I haven't read about them in their special section of the newspaper.

Neither have I seen these establishments on every street corner, as well as dotting the countryside, with their cherished symbol prominently displayed. In fact, I'm not even sure atheists have a symbol to adorn their edifices or to wear around their necks on gold chains. But I feel sure that they would have a far less gory symbol than a cross which is, after all, merely a replica of an instrument of execution. This symbol, with or without a man's body affixed to it, is held in deep affection and respect by Christians who display it proudly on their buildings and their persons.

Among other things I have not seen is any kind of atheist uniform. Some Christian officials have uniforms and are very proud of them even though, oddly enough, one of the most frequently chosen is a plain black dress with a tasteful touch of white at the throat. This is worn by the male Catholic, nuns having opted for more civilian attire following Vatican II. To relieve the austerity of the basic black, priests add a piece of jewelry called a pectoral cross. This ensemble is worn to all manner of places and events, including society galas to which they are often invited and where they are frequently photographed in the company of government officials and the rich, influential personages of the community.

Some Protestant officials eschew the black frock, but often wear black or gray suits with the touch of white. Others of the protestant persuasion tend to lean to polyester suits in unattractive colors, such as olive green, and their hair appears to be styled according to the rules of some Christian hairstyling manual. But, regardless of protestant or Catholic uniform, the wearers of them are welcomed into jails and prisons to press their literature on their captive audience. Accessible to them also are nursing homes and hospitals, and this identification allows them to dispense with tedious social conventions such as knocking on doors before entering.

I know of no atheist groups allowed to run amok in hospitals and prisons in this manner, or any who are allowed to distribute their literature in public schools. I have never found atheist literature in hotels or in doctors' and dentists' offices. The Gideon Society stocks all hotels with their famous bible, and also infiltrates public schools to dole them out to students.

To my knowledge, atheists have no political lobby. The Catholics rate high marks in this department, and they are always asked to testify at Senate hearing on the subject of abortion to which they are adamantly opposed. Chances are that on any TV program featuring a discussion of some important public policy, one of the guests will be either a Catholic priest or a Protestant fundamentalist. No guest will ever be identified as an atheist, humanist or freethinker.

The evangelicals/fundamentalists are also actively involved in politics. And there have been some Republican presidents who made it known that they were staunch supporters of these antiabortion groups. They have congratulated them and urged them to "keep up the good work." This good work involves flouting the law of the land in the form of protests on the private property of health clinics where they bully the patients and thrust their literature upon them, all the while screaming, "Murderer!" They block clinic entrances and must be removed by police at taxpayer expense. Their good works have extended to the bombing of clinics, but sometimes take the milder form of vandalizing expensive equipment or the general trashing of the interiors of these health centers. Extreme "good works" have involved shooting doctors and escorts in the back or clinic workers in the face.

I know of no atheist-owned radio or television stations which broadcast a message of hell and damnation to those who do not embrace the ideology of the broadcast group. In fact, to my knowledge, I have never heard an atheist commercial on radio or TV, or read one in any mainstream publication. I do know of one occasion when the Freedom From Religion Foundation produced a one-minute TV commercial, but after going to all that expense was unable to buy air time from more than three stations in the entire fifty states.

I have never had an atheist come to my door distributing literature or inviting me to a Humanist Manifesto study group; never had an atheist thrust tracts into my hand as I walked along a city street or across a college campus; and I know of only two atheist student groups in the whole country meeting in high-school rooms after school, and to my knowledge neither has organized (nor would be allowed to) a Meet Me at the Pole gathering (the school flag pole) to chant, "There is no God! There is no God!" Thousands of good Christian students celebrate Pole Day for the purpose of ringing the pole, holding hands and praying to, guess who.

So, how did the noun "atheist" wind up with the permanently attached adjective "militant"? I have several theories, none of which makes much sense, but which I put forth as some effort at explanation.

The "good" Christians (redundancy or oxymoron?) were quick to seize upon "the Russians are coming" propaganda dished out by our government which reached fever-pitch in the '50s. Russians were the enemy; the enemy was communistic; communists were atheists. Ergo, every American atheist was bound to be a communist and therefore the enemy! The Russians were militaristic, so atheists were militaristic. Of course!

To speak of God in this country is to win social acceptance. To speak of humanistic values and concerns is highly suspect. To plant religious symbols on public properties is considered an act of patriotism, providing those symbols are Christian ones. To object to them because they violate the First Amendment is considered an act of treason.

On occasion an atheist has dared to stand up and protest a breach of the wall of separation between church and state. This protest sometimes involves going to court. To Christian minds this is an insult to God and country, and it smacks of persecution, of denying them the right to express their religious beliefs in any setting. They cannot understand why city parks should not be filled with crosses and creches, or large statues or pictures of biblical figures, or bronze plaques of the Ten Commandments. The idea that these religious objects might cause a sense of discomfort to nonChristians, who are also paying the taxes to maintain that public property, does not penetrate their minds. And if those iconic objects should hint at government endorsement of religion, so what? This is a Christian country, isn't it? Government neutrality regarding religion is interpreted as hostility, and the defender of the Constitution is considered the militant, atheist enemy!

This sense of Christian persecution carries over into the public school arena when objections are made to organized prayers at graduations and other school functions. The howl goes up, "They're kicking God out of our schools!" Even people who do not attend church regularly or have any particular allegiance to organized religion, suddenly become highly incensed when it is suggested that public properties are not appropriate settings for religious rituals. To them, religious freedom is imperiled. "After all," they say, "this is a Christian country and we Christians are in the majority and the majority rules!" The fact that the First Amendment protects the rights of the minority is a concept they cannot grasp.

The self-designated Christian, with that one word, endows himself with first-class citizenship and societal respect. His character is above reproach, no matter what his behavior, and his patriotism unquestioned, even as he rides rough-shod over the rights of the minority and grinds the Constitution into the dust.

Militant atheists avail themselves of the one mainstream battleground available, sit down facing this one weapon and begin to type: "Dear Letters Editor . . ."


Catherine Fahringer is a longtime Foundation officer and activist living in Texas.