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Austin Cline

Theo Hobson: Militant Atheism means Wanting to Encourage Atheism

By October 6, 2007

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There has been a lot of criticism of the label "militant atheism." An important and common criticism is the apparent lack of any substantive meaning to the term. Atheists do not go around promoting armed revolution or encouraging violence, so what's so "militant" about them? Now we have an answer from Theo Hobson: atheists are militant because they actually want to change others' minds about being religious theists! That's right, "militancy" has been reduced from armed violence to merely promoting a viewpoint.
I have been chided in the past for referring to the "militant" atheism of Dawkins and his like. But the desire for one's creed to spread, in order to make the world a better place, surely merits the label.

Source: Guardian

So, something "surely merits the label" of "militant" if they desire their "creed" to "spread" in order to "make the world a better place." Liberals want their beliefs to spread in order to make the world a better place, so they must be militant according to Theo Hobson. The same is true of conservtives. Anglicans want their creed to spread in order to make the world a better place, so they must be militant. The same is true of Christians generally not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, etc.

In fact, just how often is it that someone accepts any political, philosophical, religious, or social ideology and doesn't argue for others adopting it as well? Any reasons you have for adopting an ideology it makes true statements about the world, it makes true predictions about the world, in creases happiness, reduces problems, etc. are also reasons for others to adopt it. Few people are zealots on behalf of their beliefs, but few people don't hold any beliefs which they don't think would lead to improvements if more would adopt them.

This has to include Theo Hobson as well. What, you don't imagine that he thinks the world would be better if atheists like Dawkins would accept his conclusions and go do something else? Theo Hobson must therefore be, by his own definition, as much a militant as Richard Dawkins and only because pretty much everyone in the world is equally militant. This is what happens when a person with an agenda redefines an otherwise sensible concept not to better describe reality, but in order to further that agenda: not only does the word become meaningless, but the person in question completely misses the contradictions and other problems they create.

Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed.

Notice that Dawkins doesn't actually say that he wants to make a crime out of teaching religion to children, so Theo Hobson is simply not telling the truth but then again, what should we really expect from him? Anyone who would claim that simply wanting a viewpoint to spread in order to improve things "surely merits" the label "militant" has passed far outside the boundaries of reasonable discourse or any sort of thinking that is restricted by basic logic. Just look at how he defines atheism:

As I have tried to explain before, atheism is not neutral, nor is it merely negative, an opting out of religious belief. It is the positive belief that the world would be better off without religion, that religion ought to be eliminated. It is intrinsically self-righteous, for its proponents think that they have the key to the radical improvement of the world. The definition of an atheist, as opposed to an agnostic, is someone who has the chilling arrogance to say that the world would be a better place if I ceased to say bedtime prayers with my children.

I guess Theo Hobson imagines that if he repeats his personal, idiosyncratic definition often enough there may be a few people who believe him but that will only happen among people who have passed as far outside the boundaries of reason as he has. You can't define an idea or even a movement by the statements or beliefs of a single person, and you certainly can't do so on the basis of misrepresentations of that person.

This, however, is precisely what Theo Hobson proposes: limit "atheism" to just the worst things he imagines a few atheists say and do; the rest of the atheists in the world are to gathered under the "agnostic" label. I don't know what Hobson proposes doing with actual agnostics, but I also don't particularly care. At some point you just have to stop listening to silly people and turn your attention back to reality.

October 6, 2007 at 2:22 pm
(1) BlackSun says:


Thank you, thank you for taking down this ranting blowhard Theo Hobson. I’ve got a backlog of bookmarks to his columns I’ve been meaning to write about.

There’s not much more to say than you’ve already said. But I want to remark about how manipulative and actually sinister it is when such writers play fast and loose with the facts. It is a corrosive attempt to undermine reasoned discourse. This kind of column can only be intended to sow a fog of confusion behind which to hide still more confused theological nonsense. I don’t know which is worse: preaching theistic dogma, or preaching against atheism and rational thought. It’s always hard for me to believe that these people don’t fully realize what they’re doing. I guess the best con artists are the ones who actually believe they are telling the truth.

Not that I think his arguments are at all convincing–on the contrary, I think few who don’t already agree with him will be convinced. But he delivers just the right mix of tempered outrage and pseudo-intellectual self-righteousness to feather the mental nests of theistic hangers-on. They can circle the wagons, they can nod their heads in unison, with nary a critical thought in sight.

But Hobson’s kind of a paper tiger because anyone with a hint of rationality will instantly recognize his hyperbole and absurd double-standard.

October 6, 2007 at 5:55 pm
(2) 411314 says:

“At some point you just have to stop listening to silly people and turn your attention back to reality.”

Then why write articles about these silly people and the things they say?

October 6, 2007 at 6:17 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

Then why write articles about these silly people and the things they say?

It helps people understand what’s wrong with what these people are saying and how to respond to such arguments when others invariably try to bring them up. Regardless of how silly some of these people and their ideas are, they don’t appear to be going anywhere and sometimes they will have to be addressed even if it’s just to make it clear how silly they really are.

October 6, 2007 at 8:28 pm
(4) tubby says:

“It is intrinsically self-righteous, for its proponents think that they have the key to the radical improvement of the world.”

And what exactly is wrong with wanting to change the world, Theo? It’s not really working now is it? No thanks to narrow-minded religious bigotry.

I love the way religionists use the same criticisms leveled at them, turned against atheists. And they don’t even see the stupid irony in it. Typical.

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