Written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations.
[The] dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. — Rev 12.17
Because of God’s common grace, followers of Jesus Christ live and work shoulder-to-shoulder with people of all world views — people of peace from all religions as well as no religion — for the common good and the flourishing of all. We celebrate together our common humanity, for all people are made in the image of God. However, we live in a militant world and a sometimes confrontational culture. How then do we live out the gospel of peace (Eph 6.15)?
‘Militant atheism’ (as distinct from secular humanism or ordinary atheism) means an uncompromising intolerance of religion. Militant atheism is committed to the suppression and elimination of religious beliefs that compete with atheism, which is considered the only acceptable truth, and the only acceptable virtue. Militant atheism seeks to replace religion with an atheistic world view through all available means, from propaganda to force.
What does this look like in practice? In the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991, legislation was used to restrict religious practice; criticism of atheism was forbidden, and critics faced forced retirement, arrest or imprisonment. Education and the media were flooded with atheistic propaganda. Churches were destroyed, and religious leaders were ridiculed, harassed, incarcerated and executed. Militant atheism in the Soviet Union is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 12-20 million Christians.
George Orwell’s futuristic novel published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty Four, extrapolated the cultural trends of his time, which anticipated a future totalitarian state characterized by propaganda, historical revisionism, fabrication and deception to keep rebellious individuals in line and under the control of a power-hungry privileged elite. In this kind of repressive society, critical thinking is a ‘thought crime’.
The ideology of today’s militant atheism is distilled in Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, published in 2006. Dawkins, professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University until 2008, argued, like militant atheists of the USSR, for the moral superiority of atheism. Religion, according to Dawkins, is evil because it causes misery and war; so get rid of religion. That’s one of the core messages from Dawkins and his friend Sam Harris in The End of Faith.
It’s an obviously untenable position, as many thoughtful critics have pointed out. Militant atheists such as Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin loomed over the twentieth century’s bloodiest history, between them killing 70-100 million people. Some estimate that atheist Pol Pot presided over the death of a quarter of the Cambodian population. Dawkins says children of non-atheists should be taken from their parents and re-educated; atheist writer Sam Harris thinks we should quarantine, invade or subjugate a culture that could impose unacceptable risks on the rest of us. These ideas are virtually identical to those in the Soviet Marxist playbook, and they’re a recipe for conflict. So much for rationality and peace.
Today’s militant atheist ideologues resort to the kind of revisionist propaganda that Orwell anticipated: it cherry-picks evidence, plays games with language, and stokes intolerance. Its ideology has become firmly entrenched in some quarters in secular academia, which can be a veritable Animal Farm of political correctness and double standards. It’s a bankrupt worldview, though it has profoundly influenced Western institutions and culture. The outcomes can be bizarre, as D.A. Carson, a research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, points out in his book, The Intolerance of Tolerance.
Here’s one example: Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria was forbidden to be played at a graduation ceremony by the school’s wind ensemble at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Washington in 2006. Why? It might be construed as endorsing religion. To be clear, the music was going to be played, not sung. Still, the thought police said it might make atheists think of God. Some other examples from Carson’s book:
- Four years after the Columbine High School tragedy, the father of a victim was forbidden from including words of faith in the school’s remembrance display, because they could be offensive.
- Dartmouth College forbade Campus Crusade from distributing C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity because it might offend non-Christians.
- The Hastings College of Law at the University of California banned the local Christian Legal Society because its Christian statement of faith discriminates against non-Christians.
- Edinburgh University banned the local Christian Union from discussing sexual ethics on campus because orthodox Christian views are offensive.
- In 2003, the ACLU used the legal system to stop the Scouts from leasing public land because the Scouts are considered a religious entity.
- Pageant contestant Carrie Prejean was in 2009 publicly labeled an ignorant disgrace because she held a traditional view of marriage.
- Some public libraries have banned certain Christian books.
- Counter-terrorism exercises run by the Muskegon County, MI and Burlington NJ Police Departments in 2004 and 2007, featured homeschoolers and Christians as terrorists.
- In Australia, Canada and the UK, Christian pastors have been found guilty of hate crimes for declaring the superiority of the Christian faith against another religion.
The irony of the above examples lies in their hypocrisy. The stated purpose of silencing Christians is to promote diversity and tolerance for the common good — yet banning, fining, humiliating and jailing Christians and Christian practices restricts diversity and is itself intolerant and counter-productive. As Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, has noted, increasing sanitization and demonization of religious voices marginalizes Christians who serve the poor, care for the orphan, or speak against injustice. If current trends continue, is the Orwellian nightmare all that unthinkable?
Listed below are some ways we can respond (with acknowledgements to D.A. Carson):
- All people are made in the image of God. So treat everyone with courtesy and respect, including those with whom we profoundly disagree. Practice, encourage and model civility to all people everywhere whatever their persuasion, and however unkind they may be.
- Pray for revival. God has chosen to work through the gospel, so don’t shy away from it. Make good friends, give an open and honest statement of the gospel, let hearers make up their own minds — and stay good friends regardless of the outcome. God redeems people and societies where the gospel thrives.
- Stay grounded in truth. Truth demands loving confrontation. Insist on truthful speech, truthful analyses, and factual evidence. Engage in respectful and winsome conversation, and expose the bankruptcy, inconsistencies and contradictions in militant world-views.
- Expose the condescending arrogance of the supposed moral superiority of militant world-views, and their insistent and coercive imposition on everyone else.
- Help people see that militant atheism as just another world view with its own assumptions, blind spots, mythology, taboos and zealots, like any other religion.
- Wherever possible, find common ground with people of peace, regardless of how different they are from us, and work together for the common good and the flourishing of all.
- Cheerfully delight in and trust God. Whatever happens, we’re in safe hands!
Village Schools of the Bible helps people think through their faith and its implications for everyday life. Consider signing up for a Cover-to-Cover Bible study. For more information, see here.
Also, we help young adults think through different world views and learn to defend their faith. See details of our apologetics speech competition here. Coaching resources are available.
In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect… – 1 Pet 3.15.
Carson, D.A. The Intolerance of Tolerance. Eerdmans, 2012.
Dawkins, R. The God Delusion. Bantam, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Norton, 2005.
In contrast to the Dawkins perspective on Christianity, see the web site of John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science Fellow at the University of Oxford, here: http://www.johnlennox.org/