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

3 thoughts on “The ‘M’ Word: The importance of using the exact right word.

  1. Thanks for the reminder of the real life meaning of the word that is so easily bandied about (even perhaps by myself, I fear), and that the words we use really do matter. I was driven here by your interesting, thoughtful comments on the Patheos site, and the glimpses you gave into your personal story. I can’t begin to imagine the things you have seen, but I am grateful you are willing to share them and your perspective.

  2. Pingback: Reblog: “The ‘M’ Word: The importance of using the exact right word” | fojap

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