The ‘M’ Word: The importance of using the exact right word.

Here's the whole post in one cartoon. I've saved you ten minutes that you can now spend looking at silly cat pictures.

Here’s the whole post in one cartoon. I’ve saved you ten minutes that you can now spend looking at silly cat pictures.

I’ve been called a lot of names over the years. Some are more inventive than others.

My personal favourite is “Gypo whore.” Racism, misogyny, and lies all packed into two syllables. Another one is ‘moss-wipe’. Don’t ask.

I think most atheists have had the same experience on one level or another. The name-calling comes mainly from Christians and Muslims and other religious groups who regard atheists as a dangerous faction of anti-morality activists. Devil-worshipper, amoral, Satanist, the list goes on. And I’ll establish right here that many atheists are just as guilty. Let’s not shy away from it. Go on Twitter and see how many atheists there are calling Christians retarded, delusional, idiotic or brain-dead.

It goes both ways. And in both cases it’s unacceptable.

But now I want to put focus on another word that is frequently used on both sides of the debate. It’s a word that is bandied about with ease, without concern for it’s actual meaning, and neither side seems to fully realise the ramifications of using the word with such disregard to it’s power.

The ‘m’ word.

No, not marriage, although that’s a word that makes me break out in hives.


Do a Google search for the term ‘militant atheist,’ and you’ll see many of the same results come up. Christopher Hitchens. Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. Ricky Gervais. All of them are well-spoken and out-spoken atheists. A couple of them, Dawkins in particular, are aggressive, even confrontational.  They have large platforms of fervid supporters as well as myriad detractors. And from all over the web, you can hear the same word. Answers in Genesis, the Catholic League, even other atheists. Dawkins and Co. are fanatics. Activists. Militants.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

You see, I grew up around militants. They were in my church, in my village. Some were even members of my own family. I know how militants work. They smile and shake your hand and will explain their beliefs to you in a heartbeat if you ask. They’ll also point a gun to your head, fire into a crowd, burn down businesses and houses of worship, blow up car bombs and shred people to bits until the snow turns pink.

The word ‘militant’ is derived from the Latin word miles, which means ‘soldier. ‘ Webster’s Dictionary defines a militant as someone “engaged in warfare or combat” or “aggressively active (as in a cause), combative.”

It’s such a cold and clinical way of conveying the true meaning behind such a horrific label.

If I disagree with you and challenge your arguments, it doesn’t make me a militant. I write a book that you vehemently oppose. That doesn’t make me a militant. I say nasty things about your religion. That doesn’t make me a militant. I spend my time online trashing your religious beliefs and engaging in false ad hominem attacks. That doesn’t make me a militant. In the last case it just makes me a big, fat jerk.

Until I am ‘aggressively active’ in opposing your religion, I am simply someone who opposes you on an intellectual or philosophical level. You may even consider me your personal enemy, but that does not give you the right to label me as something I am not.

And that goes for everyone. No one has the right to portray you as something you are clearly not in order to make their argument stronger. This includes both my fellow atheists and people of religious persuasions.

So let’s review.

Unless I am pointing a gun at your head, or blowing a bomb up in your neighbourhood, I am not a militant. Of course, it’s not always so cut and dry. Militant can also refer to someone who is actively campaigning to cause harm to someone’s life, livelihood, or loved ones. If I am advocating rounding up you and your family and imprisoning you for your beliefs, or in any way attempting to use the force of government retribution to harm you, then I am a militant.

Until this is the case, find a different damn word.

I have devoted a good part of my life towards the reconciliation movement in Ireland that seeks to bring peace between warring religious factions. I think I have the right to be angered when someone attempts to portray me or people I know and respect as militants. There’s nothing so offensive as being told that you are what you oppose when there’s no truth in the accusation.. Hundreds of people die every day at the hands of religious and political militants. Thousands are injured, loose their homes, are raped, are orphaned, are harassed, are persecuted, are humiliated. These are things that are happening in our world as we speak. It takes a great amount of courage for the survivors to be able to speak out against those who hurt them and their loved ones.

And to respond by calling them militants themselves is not only insulting, but it diminishes the work they are trying to do. It softens the meaning of the word, and so softens the effects of actual militancy. If anyone can arbitrarily be called a militant, how can we maintain our intellectual integrity and separate those we disagree with from those who are harming others around us?

Calling someone a militant doesn’t make your argument stronger. Instead, it weakens the fight against violence all around the world.

As a vocal atheist, I understand how difficult this can be. There is nothing more frustrating than encountering a religious individual who brings out the anger and the loathing and the frustration that I normally keep pressed down into a place I’m afraid to access too often. I want to portray them in the most powerful and evocative terms because my own emotion is guiding my response. I usually end up playing a game of “Militant or not-Militant” in which I define a specific militant, specify why he or she is a militant, and compare them to the person I am angry at.

The Irish Republican Army are Christian militants. They dragged my great-aunt and uncle out of their car and shot them to death. Bill O’Reilly is a television personality with an obsession with the “War on Christmas.” I don’t like him, but he’s not a militant.

Anders Breivik is a Christian militant. He shot nearly seventy children and teenagers and declared his Christian motives in his 1,500 page manifesto. Sarah Palin is a politician whom I dislike and hope her policies are never implemented in any part of the United States government. She is not a militant.

Pastor Scott Lively is a militant. He actively campaigned in Uganda in support of legislation that demands the death penalty for homosexuals. The Westboro Baptist Church are not militants. They’re vocal and boorish and actually rather loathsome, but practising the First Amendment does not make one a militant.

I think my meaning should be clear by now.

So why does it matter? When I hear someone refer to Dawkins as a militant atheist, or Mark Driscoll as a rabid fundamentalist, I know what they mean. The meaning that is portrayed is not muddled by the hyperbole being utilised. No one claims that Dawkins has ever shot someone for his beliefs, and I don’t believe that anyone is under the impression that Driscoll is infected by the rabies virus. If I understand the meaning being conveyed, does the exact right word actually matter?

It does. Because atheist or Christian, Muslim or agnostic, progressive or conservative, we are all individual people. People with feelings and dreams and one life that we’re all trying to make sense of. We clash with each other. Conflict between ideas is never going to go away. What matters is how we conduct ourselves when we engage in these conflicts. And referring to a group of people as rabid, as a frothing, senseless, mindless animal, takes away their humanity by depicting them as you see them. Not as how they actually are.

Leave militancy to the militants. We are the the product of 4.5 billion years of wondrous evolution. Let’s start acting like it.

Cartoon credited to Michael Scott and


Atheist Billboards: Deliciously antagonistic or just a step too far?

Traumatising children is apparently also for adults.

Traumatising children is apparently also for adults.

Driving in America is an utter terrifying ordeal, filled with collapsing infrastructure, lunatics behind pieces of large machinery, and completely arbitrary traffic laws an interesting experience. Mainly because as you drive along, you get a good feel for the commercial values of each region of the States in the form of billboards. For example, Wisconsin. A casual traveler through Packer territory will swiftly come to realise that the hardy folk of Wisconsin value cheese, adult videos, and fireworks above all else. Or in Iowa, where they prefer outlet malls, country radio stations, and second-rate Mexican restaurants.

But no matter where you travel in the United States, it’s hard to escape the constant reminders that you are, in fact, in Jesus-land. Every ten kilometres or so a traveler on American roads will be gently reminded that God Blesses America, that God values life, that God has missed you in church, and that the First Methodist Congregation of Springfield also has a bowling league. There was a popular motif in these billboards a few years back. Black background, white print, and a clever witticism from God that he wrote just for the occasion. In my more juvenile years I would respond to these with an obscene gesture, mainly because I was still terrified by driving in America and didn’t need the reminder that an all-powerful deity was watching me and most likely pointing and laughing with all the hosts of angels and saints.

And of course, this is by far not the only reminder of the pervasiveness of Christian culture in America. Whether it’s the churches on every corner, the signs inviting you in for services or reminding you that gays will go to hell, or the enormous crosses set up that seem to say, ‘We’re going to ruin this landscape with this ostentatious religious icon because Jesus,’ the message is clear. Christians and Christianity are everywhere. And they’re not going away.

So it’s really no surprise that quite a few atheists will say “Hey, why can’t we have billboards? We want billboards!”

Which brings us to Times Square.

A few months back there was a bit of internet indignancy when Answers in Genesis – everyone’s favourite Creationists – put up a billboard in Times Square that said “To Our Atheist Friends: Thank God You’re Wrong.” It was meant to be exclusionary, provocative, and to establish moral superiority. It was also petty and ridiculous and I decided that it wasn’t worth the time necessary to type out a blog post about it. I did happen to notice that the Freedom From Religion Foundation replied with their own billboard that stated “OMG – There Is No God.” I confess to rolling my eyes a bit, because it seemed every bit as petty as AIG’s original statement. But I had to concede that AIG probably deserved a rebuttal given on a level they could understand, and didn’t think any more of it.

I didn’t realise that the Times Square billboard war was continuing until yesterday when Christian author Benjamin Corey wrote an article on the most recent salvo. Mr. Corey identifies himself as a ‘formerly fundie’ progressive Christian who works for a better level of understanding between the various factions of Christianity as well as people of other (or no) religious persuasions. Mr. Corey, having recently written an article deriding the so-called War on Christmas, took issue with the most recent atheist message to go up in Times Square. Sponsored by The American Atheists, the ad essentially asks “Who needs Christ on Christmas?” and proceeds to cross out ‘Christ’ and replace it with ‘Nobody.’

For those of you too lazy to click on one damn link.

For those of you too lazy to click on one damn link.

Mr. Corey isn’t too happy with this. After vehemently dismissing the notion that there is a ‘War on Christmas,’  his efforts are being undermined by atheists who are, in fact, acting like there is a War on Christmas.

And as much as it wounds me to say, as grudgingly as the words are typed with a huge sigh of resignation….I agree with him.

A visual metaphor

A visual metaphor

Many atheists are going to disagree with me. And I can understand why. After all, we live in a world where Christianity is thrown into our faces at every corner, intentionally or not. Christian culture frequently depicts atheists as godless savages, people without morals, people seeking the destruction of the United States of America, people who are angry and unhappy and miserable. And groups like AIG enjoy rubbing our faces in the stereotypes that hang over us. And gods above whom I don’t believe in, I know how good it feels to lash back, to stand your ground, to fight fire with fire.

But you know what? It’s just not worth it. In fact, there isn’t any point to it.

Because the fact remains that no matter how much you insist that nobody needs Christ in Christmas, it’s not going to change the fact that so many do. Billions of Christians are going to sit down, exchange presents, sing beautiful songs, eat delicious food, go to Mass or services, and show goodwill and kindness to others. Including atheists. And Jews and Muslims and Hindus and everyone else where Christianity is the philosophical majority. Christmas is celebrated for more than a month, it’s probably the singular most influential feature of Western culture. And you know what? It’s Christians who made it that way. Christianity is why I’m guaranteed a few days to be with my loved ones without work hanging over my head. Christianity is why all those pagan practises that they appropriated have survived for thousands of years so they could be enjoyed by us today. Christianity is why Christmas trees are everywhere, why charities do so well this month, and why I can’t listen to “Oh Come Oh Come Immanuel” without cold chills.

Christians didn’t create Christmas, nor do they own it, nor should they insist that others celebrate it. But they made it awesome.

And American Atheists are pouring pepper on my Christmas turkey. “Celebrate Christmas however you want, but don’t tell others how to or how not to.” That’s the whole atheist philosophy on Christmas. We say it time and time again. You celebrate your way, I celebrate mine. To tell others how to celebrate or what to treasure on this incredible day is, well, just boorish. And it’s beneath us, to be honest.

Listen, I understand the point of some atheist billboards. I like the ones that have a person simply saying ‘My name is such-and-such and I am an atheist.’ It’s nice to be reminded I’m not alone and there are other happy, content people with reasonably attractive facial features out there who are like me. I like the billboards that defend atheism, stating that you don’t need God to do good things. Because we are so often stereotyped as being intrinsically immoral, it’s a necessary message.

But to attack how people celebrate Christmas? No. There’s no need. Because it’s not our job to try and de-convert anyone from their religion. We are not an ideology, nor a religion, nor a philosophy. We are people who don’t believe. There’s nothing to prostelytise about. We don’t need to turn people to the Dark Side. Sure, we can disprove various parts of religion in the public arena. We can defend our stances and positions, criticise the beliefs and stances of others, speak out when religious people use their religion to harass, persecute or terrorise others as they so often do. But these billboards, the ones that are meant to deride and mock people just for believing in God or celebrating the Christian version of Christmas, don’t fall under any of these categories. They’re just responding to pettiness with more pettiness.

Being the cynical person I am, I suspect that the American Atheists had an ulterior motive. Atheists often thrive off the Christian persecution complex. It’s ridiculously easy to watch a Christian froth at the mouth about atheist persecution in America and then say something like, “Syria. Egypt. Indonesia.” And many atheists are more than willing to stoke the fire with a little passive aggressiveness to provide a steady stream of Christian indignation to plaster all over the internet. I’ve done it myself, I admit it.

But with a billboard flashing in Times Square? What a big steaming waste of money. Even though the particular billboard in question didn’t cost anything since it’s part of a larger contract, it’s by far not the only one. Fellow atheists, if we’re going to criticise the church for spending money on mega-complexes and golden thrones instead of using it to help people in need, we need to apply the same standard for ourselves. Instead of paying for an antagonistic Christmas billboard, maybe we could give the same amount of money to a soup kitchen. Or a homeless shelter. Or maybe we could hold a fantastic Christmas dinner for some foster kids.

“You shall know them by their fruits,” says the Bible, and for once it has a point.

So here’s my Christmas billboard. Merry Kwanzannukkristmastice Eve, from the Irish Atheist.

Images Credited to:,,

A Response to Greg Stier’s Article “How to Share the Gospel With an Atheist”

This man is psychic. Believe everything he tells you about what you believe

This man is psychic. Believe everything he tells you about what you believe

So Greg Stier says I’m a liar.

He’s never met me. But according to him I’m a liar. To myself. To him. And most importantly, to God.

Mr. Stier recently wrote an article entitled “How to Share the Gospel with an Atheist,” found here on Mr. Stier starts out by relating a personal encounter with an atheist named ‘James’ on a recent flight. ‘James’ is such a caricature of how an atheist interacts with other people, especially someone who attempts to proselytise, that there is speculation on whether the encounter actually occurred. Note that in contrast to Mr. Stier, I am not actually accusing him of lying in this particular instance, merely pointing out that there is speculation on the authenticity of his account. ‘James’ is polite, well-mannered, and instantly interested in religious conversation Stier foists upon him. He believes that Jesus is ‘an enlightened soul.’ At the climax, when Stier shares the personal love story of Jesus with ‘James,’ the atheist is blown away by the new perspective on Christianity that the wonderful Mr. Stier has given him.

Angels dance in heaven over the sharing of the Good News as atheists around the world roll their eyes.

I cannot think of one encounter I’ve had with a Christian where I hear about their religion and eagerly inquire to know more. Nor do I conveniently lead up to the perfect moment for them to share the Truth of the Gospel. And neither has any atheist I’ve ever known. We are, for the most part, smarter than that. If we want to engage someone in a religious debate, we’ll defend our own stance just as fiercely. If, as in most cases, we don’t care to be prostelytised to, we simply nod politely and tune it out.

After recounting his dramatic encounter with ‘James,’ Mr. Stier goes on to list five important things to remember when sharing the Gospel with atheists. And it’s these that have so many atheists angered and offended at the blatant way we are diminished and patronised in Mr. Stier’s effort to portray himself as the ‘right type of Christian missionary.’

1. Don’t be shocked and do ask tons of questions.

This is probably the least offensive of Mr. Stier’s points and actually decent advice. It’s good to ask questions of atheists – provided that you are prepared to listen. Which, as we’ll come to see, Mr. Stier is absolutely not prepared to do.

Of course, it also begs the question as to why anyone would be shocked upon meeting an atheist. I wonder if he expects people to be shocked when they find out someone is a Jew, a Hindu, a Wiccan, or a Muslim. This does nothing but reinforce the belief that atheism is somehow worse than any other belief. Because it’s not so much that we don’t believe what Christians do. It’s that they can’t comprehend how we don’t believe in anything supernatural.

Stier also specifies that Christians should find out whether the person is agnostic or atheist, completely oblivious to the fact that one can be both. Like me, for example. I reject every man-made concept of spirituality because it lacks compelling evidence and does great damage to the world. But I do not know what other powers and reality is in existence, and I have no way of knowing. I’m an agnostic atheist. An atheist who does not know. Not an atheist who says ‘There is nothing else out there.’ Hopefully that clears things up for Mr. Stier, if he were to ever stumble across this.

2. Listen deeply for the real “why.”

And this is where the article went downhill. Down into a black abyss of self-righteous smug satisfaction. Because if an atheist tells you that he doesn’t believe in God because he observed the evidence and came to the opposite conclusion, he is clearly not telling the truth. He’s lying to you, and it’s up to YOU to psychoanalyse him to discern the true reason. In Stier’s own words:

“Often atheists have a reason (other than “reason“) for becoming atheists. Listen for it. Sometimes it’s anger over losing a loved one. Other times it’s that they were hurt by the church in some way. But often there’s a “why” behind the lie they are embracing.”

I’m going to gloss over the ridiculous irony of the ‘lie they are embracing’ line because it would definitely sidetrack the article. But listen to Mr. Stier’s words again. Note the intellectual superiority he ascribes to himself. That no matter what an atheist might tell you, he’s hiding something, and it’s up to his Christian guide to figure out the ‘real’ reason behind his personal beliefs and reveal it at the proper time.

Can you imagine if I took the same tactic with Stier? Imagine if I listened to everything Mr. Stier said about how he’s a Christian because he finds the Bible accurate and compelling and Jesus has had a personal effect on his life. And then said, ‘I know what you said, Mr. Stier, but the true reason for your Christianity is that you enjoy talking down to people who think differently than you. Also you want an excuse to keep your wife subordinate to your whims, gay people in the closet, and donations flowing into your church.’ I don’t imagine that Mr. Stier would be any more thrilled with my analysis of himself than I was with his own.

Now I’m very open about my own journey into atheism. Anger had a lot to do with it. So did hurt. But these things were the catalyst that put me on my journey towards godlessness, not the reason for my atheism today. If in the course of educating myself I encountered compelling evidence towards a deity, I would have had to adapt and figure out how my anger and hurt towards one aspect of spirituality would have to be molded to this new evidence.

I did not. Hence the reason I am an atheist. Reason, not catalyst. Learn the difference, Mr. Stier, or don’t bother engaging us in the future.

3. Connect relationally.

“Atheists are real people with real feelings. They laugh, cry, talk and connect like anyone else. I think that too many times Christians treat atheists as objects and not people.”

Yes. Obviously. It is a sad commentary on the state of Christianity that Stier has to issue a reminder to his brothers and sisters in Christ that atheists are real people with genuine emotions. Other than that I have no other objections to this point, other than to feel disgust at the way Mr. Stier disregards it in his very next point.

4. Assume that, down deep inside, they do believe in God.

Wait. What?

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who genuinely rejects the existence of God. Sure, I’ve met many who have claimed God’s existence to be a lie but I’m convinced that, down deep inside, they really do believe there’s a God.

Yes, he’s entirely serious. What happened to ‘atheists are real people with real feelings?’ That was over quickly.

“Why do I believe that? Because Scripture makes it clear in Romans 1:18-21 that there are no real atheists.”

Anyone with any amount of human empathy should understand why this is so insulting, so demeaning, and so counter-productive to Stein’s own purpose of dialoguing with atheists. By self-righteously asserting that he knows better what we believe than we do ourselves, he disregards the validity of our opinions and the experiences that formed them. In fact, he reduces us to something less than human by claiming that ‘we do not exist.’

According to Stier, I am not a person with personal convictions or opinions. Instead I am a poor, sad little man who is hiding from Stier’s own personal Truth and his god. And I am a liar. Since I claim to be an atheist, and there is obviously no such thing, I must be either not intelligent enough to realise the truth about my own convictions or outright lying to Stier about my beliefs. Clearly, either of them would make him feel better than acknowledging that some people simply don’t believe in his god. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty.

An atheist hides from Jesus. Probably because he owes the Messiah money.

An atheist hides from Jesus. Probably because he owes the Messiah money.

And from there it goes to intellectual cowardice. Stier claims that if a Christian assumes that an atheist believes in God deep down, he is free to share the good news of Jesus instead of focusing on inconvenient arguments about Yahweh’s very existence. This is a cop-out, a safe-guard, a method for Stier to feel like he has the upper hand in a conversation without addressing points that he is clearly unqualified to even refute.

It’s this point that currently has several dozen atheists on up in arms. As of posting, Stier has responded to exactly none of them, for all his points about dialoguing with atheists.

“When you assume that an atheist does really believe in the existence of God it gives you the freedom not to have to prove God’s existence but to share God’s story. You can be sure that down deep inside, the gospel is churning in the soul of the atheist.”

There’s definitely something churning deep down inside me after reading that, but it certainly isn’t the Gospel.

5. Frame the gospel as a love story (that just happens to be true).

This is the point in which Stier claims the Gospel should be used as a crowbar to pry open closed minds. That’s right. The man who just claimed that millions of atheists are lying to him about his beliefs to avoid addressing their opinions is talking about how we’re closed-minded.

Personally, I would love to hear how Stier frames the Gospel as a love story. Learning about how I need to stop lying and start thinking exactly like Greg Stier in order to avoid roasting over a pit of fire for all eternity is definitely a challenging premise to start from. Learning about how the enslavement of millions, butchery of thousands, and rape of hundreds was a mechanism for fulfilling the Gospel prophecies is also a delight. I bet that if Stier just assumes that I believe it deep down, I’ll realise that my morals of loving other people, caring for them, and fighting for reconciliation without the promise of an eternal reward is entirely misguided. And then I’ll bow to his preferred idol.

Because it’s a love story.

So what’s the point?

It’s hard to remember the last time I read a Christian article so laced in irony. Because I don’t think I could think of someone I would want to converse with about my personal beliefs less than someone who is so arrogant, so condescending, and so self-righteous as to insist from the get go that I am lying about my atheism.

I do not believe in God. The Christian god or any of the other 3,000 currently worshipped in human society. I have my reasons. They stem from a childhood in a country ripped apart by religious wars and Christian terrorists, high school years in a bigoted and backwards Christian high school, and most importantly from my decision to educate myself in both science and theology and come up with my own personal informed opinion.

To say that I am not real, that my beliefs are not real, that I am merely suppressing something you know and embrace and love is not only an insult to my intelligence and worth as a person, but a disregard for every life experience that led me to a life without religion.

You are doing nothing to enhance the cause of Christianity, Mr. Stier. In fact, you are doing the opposite. Your self-indulgent pat on the back is reminding us why we are so glad we don’t have to associate with such incredible arrogance or intellectual cowardice.

Go out and speak to some real atheists other than ‘James.’ And then come back and try again. You’ll improve. You have to, because you certainly couldn’t do any worse.