“Militant Atheism” and Religion – a Response to Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal – primatoligist, ethologist,  Professor at Emory University, and sometime commentator on religion, has a new piece on Salon asking whether/arguing that “militant atheism has become a religion” (the title seems to have undergone a swift change, with no one, at the time of writing, noticing that when you rephrase a statement as a question a question mark s required).

The piece, while raising worthwhile questions regarding some quirks of the contemporary atheist movement and some religious movements, is confused, and ends up muddying, rather than clarifying, the underlying issues. De Waal begins by stating:

In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”

The practice of distinguishing between dogmatic and non-dogmatic expressions of belief is a wise one, and the questions de Waal poses here are actually quite interesting, sociologically speaking – but de Waal’s response makes it clear he is interested more in quip than query. Why do (primarily American) atheists wear t-shirts identifying themselves as atheists? What does atheism offer? These questions deserve fuller and more considerate answers than de Waal’s dismissive hand-wave.

Intriguingly, the autobiographical exegesis which follows (in which de Waal explores his own relationship with religion) offers some hints as to why some might choose to proclaim their atheism: he describes the Dutch Reformed Church as joyless, restrictive, depressing, unsympathetic, and even cruel, further noting that even his (much more relaxed) local priest opposed the use of contraception – a stance which, far from being the petty annoyance de Waal seems to view it as, is deeply inhumane and dangerous. Is it truly surprising that some people, subjected to membership in an institution which seeks to promote and enforce regressive social views, choose to demonstrate their opposition to such an institution by expressing their atheism?

De Waal flirts with a good point in positing that “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces”, presenting the “thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma.” De Waal suggests that “The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones” – not a bad thesis in itself (though not remotely new: the great Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine gave a great talk on “the wounded” at Harvard’s New Humanism conference some time ago), and one which might go some way toward answering the questions he poses at the beginning, but he never develops the thesis with any sensitivity or nuance.

Instead of exploring his thesis with some consideration that atheists might have potentially serious reasons for choosing to  act as they do, de Waal settles for a shallow pseudo-psychological diagnosis: “atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay?” Yes, atheist activists do what they do to assuage their inner demons.

Ultimately, de Waal seems to be suffering from a deficit of compassion – a common trait among those who belittle atheists without truly attempting to understand or empathize with them (I’m thinking of Chris Hedges’ diatribes here, questionable scholarship by people like Stephen Prothero, and blogposts even by some atheists who seem to have overflowing wells of understanding for believers and not a jot of patience for the faithless).

Despite a whole section in which he explores the titanic role of religion in American life (“Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States”), noting that discrimination against atheists in politics is a significant problem, de Waal seems unable to summon anything more than the limp assertion that this is “upsetting”. The political exclusion of a whole class of people due to their religious beliefs should be to any thinking person more than “upsetting”: it should be a cause of absolute moral outrage – but de Waal isn’t feeling it. He twice refers to the negative attitudes of some nonreligious people toward religion as “bitterness” which, while sometimes an accurate description, is very frequently not. One can have negative reactions toward what one construes as “religion” for profound and well-justified ethical reasons – reasons which  deserve a consideration and respect de Waal does not offer them.

False equivalence also abounds throughout the piece. De Waal rather sickeningly asks why Sam Harris is not so worked-up about male circumcision as the genital mutilation of women – “Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent?” – without recognizing that there has been rather extensive debate on the topic within the atheist community. Indeed, lack of recognition that there is any debate within the atheist community is a hallmark of pieces of this rather vapid type, which take short quotes from big-name atheists to represent the whole of atheism in a way they would never think of doing with a religion tradition.

The fact that “the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books)”, and has (after a very long time) “endorsed evolution as a valid theory compatible with the Christian faith” is equated with the idea that religion and science aren’t at odds (a logical leap of impressive magnitude) – a point that is itself immediately undermined by de Waal’s note that “resistance to evolution is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest” (i.e. within certain religious communities). The fact that it is practically exclusively religious groups which today actively oppose the teaching of evolution (with some success) seems to be a point in favor of those who argue that there is a real and important divide between religion and science, and the fact that many religions and religious people see no conflict does not defeat that point. The fact that de Waal thinks his case has been made is evidence, I think, of a pro-religious bias which manifests itself in the drawing of odd equivalences like these.

This bias is evident in de Waal’s description of the debates which pitch believers against nonbelievers. While religious participants “play fast and loose with the facts” and “rely on questionable evidence” (rather mild criticisms of the sort of pseudo-scientific nonsense-peddling which de Waal goes on to describe), atheists in the audience “pee in their pants with delight” when their favorite points are made. This is a rather common characteristic of critics of New Atheism: they give the appearance of even-handedness by lightly scolding the proponents of religion, while infantilizing and demeaning atheists and their champions. So, Christopher Hitchens (a man with who’s writing I have many disagreements, but who at least had a certain intellectual integrity and a willingness to change his mind) is portrayed in the article as a borderline-pathological dogmatist, while Dinesh d’Souza (a deeply unserious neo-conservative hack) comes across merely as a naughty schoolboy putting his case more strongly than is strictly warranted.

In short, this sort of writing about atheists pisses me off. It seeks to present itself as moderate, even-handed criticism of the new atheist movement, but in reality is filled with bias, condescension, and a lack of empathy which makes me mad. I am among the first to decry the real and serious deficiencies of the freethought movement – particularly that part which identifies with the label “new atheist” – but nonetheless atheists of every stripe deserve the respect to be taken seriously and to have their identities and arguments considered in a more thoughtful way than de Waal offers. It is possible, of course, that the book from which this extract is excerpted will provide a fuller view of the issue – I will have to await its arrival to make a full appraisal. But, as it stands, this is a feeble piece of commentary.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Darren

    Nice post, thank you.

    ““Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent?” – without recognizing that there has been rather extensive debate on the topic within the atheist community.”

    Interesting, where would one go for a rousing discussion of FGM and male infant circumcision (though I suppose I should be fair and call it MGM)? I happen to have a thought or two about that…

  • MNb


    Jerry Coyne wrote about De Waal’s piece as well. I intended to place this on his site, but he apparently has banned me (not a big deal and I haven’t posted there since a few months anymore anyway). So I have reworked it a bit and place it here.

    “I’m not sure what has happened to primatologist Frans de Waal”
    As a compatriot of De Waal I might provide an answer. First a disclaimer though: this doesn nót mean I agree with him on all points. For one thing I dislike the expression “militant atheism” as much as anybody else. It’s misleading and stigmatizing.
    But I agree with his comments on dogmatic atheists – and that includes
    JAC and PZM.
    What matters is the background – he is Dutch, like me. The Netherlands have secularized quickly and smoothly at the end of the 60′s. At the end of the 70′s I decided to be an agnost and nobody gave a d**n. About ten years later I decided to call myself an atheist and I didn’t experience a “coming out”, because a) again nobody gave a d**n and b) it didn’t change my worldviews. De Waal is completely sincere when he says that the god-question doesn’t interest him at all. In The Netherlands there are about 14% atheists, 14% agnosts and 40% ietsists – they think there is something but don’t specify what. Most of the rest are liberal believers. Non-believing is normal.


    Fanatical believers and literalists in The Netherlands just are a small minority. For De Waal and me arguments against the Bible based on a literal interpretation do not make much sense and come close to strawmen.
    When Dutch minister Van der Hoeven some ten years suggested that Intelligent Design (not even Young Earth Creationism) actually was an interesting idea she experienced a homeric laugh. Two prominent Dutch IDers, Andries Knevel and Cees Dekker, since then publicly embraced evolution – and experienced hardly any negative consequence. Of many Dutch politicians I don’t even know if they believe; I don’t care and as a sideline I don’t know and care about their personal lives either.
    As a result it never ceases to amaze us Dutch to learn how fierce and bitter the battle believers vs. atheists in the USA can be. It’s a well known psychological mechanism that in such battles both parties tend to become more extreme. De Waal, an outsider like me, recognizes that this applies to some American atheists as well. He expresses his discomfort with this polarization. And I do sympathize with this discomfort to a great extent; I know I’m not the only Dutch non-believer who does. In my Dutch atheist eyes it’s just ridiculous to get worked up if some christians want a public display during their religious holidays. Heck, we don’t even use the word holy day – for us the word is day off.
    It boils down to this. The Netherlands are so secularized that we don’t need a 1st Amendment. Dutch constitution simply forbids to discriminate on religions and the common interpretation is that this applies to atheism as well. That’s enough. Recently the law on blasphemy, which had been a dead letter for more than 40 years anyway,
    was removed without much protest.
    Conclusion: nothing happened to De Waal. Like me he has a hard time to put the fanatism of American atheism in its American context and he dislikes some results. So do I, but I would have phrased it otherwise.
    If one maintains that it’s still not De Waal’s finest hour I agree..
    Hope this helps to clarify the issue a bit.

  • MNb

    “far from being the petty annoyance de Waal seems to view it”
    For Dutch believers it actually was only a petty annoyance, because hardly anybody, including the vast majority of believers (De Waal was a catholic btw) obeyed. See the context above again.

    “de Waal isn’t feeling it”
    Neither am I. Because of his – and my – background, where such an exclusion has vanished since WW-2. We are just too young to remember.
    Again: my point is not that De Waal’s piece is above criticism – far from it. But the American reactions I have read, including yours, do not recognize where he is coming from. I do.

    • James Croft

      Hi there – thank you for your points. I agree with both and yet find them an unpersuasive defense. One way to explain why is to reveal that I am not in fact an American — I am a Brit. And, of course, the situation in Britain is much more like the situation you describe in the Netherlands. And yet, somehow, I am capable of a sort of identification of experience with my American colleagues and friends – in other words, I have cultivated empathy for their situation.

      Certainly, there are dogmatic atheists. And the term “militant” doesn’t bother me much, as it was Richard Dawkins who promoted it most prominently in his TED talk on the topic. But the question is “can we identify the sociological causes for this sort of “militancy”?”, and the follow-on question is “Can we find it within us to treat people living in a different social context with compassion and understanding?”

      What’s so odd about de Waal’s analysis is that he recognizes some of the social forces impacting American atheists, and yet demonstrates zero willingness to empathize with them, instead choosing to belittle their concerns and demean their responses. That, to me, screams prejudice.

  • Neil C

    I am not an atheist activist, other than I am aethiest and love to discuss and argue about religion and the effect of belief on society. I was not raised in any strict way and have no religious scars, but I am adamantly against religious belief as fundamentally wrong and dangerous. I find it odd when I run into people who claim some form of non-believer status, but get more upset with my arguments for non-belief than they do with others arguments for. Their push back tends to have the following elements:
    1) “Don’t be so mean!” Essentially, they are uncomfortable with confrontation, and don’t understand why I would challenge someone’s belief system. “You do your thing, let them do theirs,” is the attitude, and it presumes that religious belief is basically some harmless personal quirk, like preferring chocolate to vanilla.
    2) “You are just as bad as they are!” which is the dogma argument… and this falls into the cultural relativism area, whether conscious or unconsciously. The idea that “hey… who are we to tell someone else their culture/way/belief is wrong, just because it is different.” I think Sam Harris nails this argument, but I think most people are making any logical relativism argument, but more likely just not comfortable, socially, with the sense of judging someone else. I try to say, “If someone was constantly operating on the idea of 2+2=5, you wouldn’t consider it judgmental to correct their math. If an adult was wilfully informing pre-teens that babies come from storks, you’d not consider it judgmental to correct him on the ways of sexual reproduction. Only wrong ideas that parade under the guise of religious belief are allowed to go unchallenged.”
    3) “What’s the big deal?” In the end, I think this is the biggest issue. The appologists and ones who take affront at “militant aetheism” or anything like stating your opposition to faith and religion… they can’t see how illogical and exclusionary belief systems are inherently dangerous to society as a whole. Too many people lack the critical thinking to draw the connections to systemic effects… religion, racism, sexism… any of it.

    I think many of the appologists exist, as stated above, in a society less touched by daily incursions of religion into basic human freedoms (I get grief from Canadians all the time.) Or they are lucky enough to have lived in a progressive, open minded community and family and think of religion as a parochial left-over, like a small group of people still enjoying buggy whips, just because.

    I don’t wear aethist t-shirts, or really ever start a conversation on the subject, but that is because I also don’t want to wear t-shirts professing my non-belief in an infinite number of other ridiculous concepts (Flying Spaghetti Monster, anyone?) It shouldn’t be an issue. We don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in Ninja Leprechauns from Mars… so why do we need a word for people who don’t believe in something even more ridiculous, like a bi-polar, omniscient male figure with a zombie son who enjoys watch people suffer?

    Aetheism is inherently militant because it exists to call bullshit on outmoded, ignorant societal institutions.

  • John Figdor

    James, great article. Thanks for standing up for the New Atheists.

  • blue jennings

    Well put and I agree that believing in something, ( bible ) that is obviously written by a man is quite wrong. The bible states that a women should be subservient to man. Proof the book was written by a man. Most of christian holidays, ( if studied) come from the celtic druids BC~~~~

  • http://www.facebook.com/rentgould Gregory Gould

    Well stated, thanks

  • http://twitter.com/SocraticGadfly SocraticGadfly

    I’ll admit that Hedges, for one, was wrong not to distinguish Gnu Atheists from all atheists. But, if we reframe his critique at just Gnus, he was spot-on. A group whose leaders often, anymore, start the flaming don’t necessarily deserve a lot of empathy.

    • baal

      I usually take the definition of new atheist to mean an atheist who is also an anti-theist. I usually call and think of the folks who are belligerent ‘jerks’ or ‘non-humanisticly minded ideologues.’ It’s entire possible to argue against the existence of the RCC and not be a jerk about it. The problem here (conflation) stems from some actual over lap between those 2 groups and the desire of anti-atheists to play divide and conquer (force atheists to 2 camps and have them spat it out). To wit, the anti-atheists like to point out the ‘good’ atheists from the ‘bad’ ones and like to use the bad behavior of some anti-theists to tar that group and set up the divide.

  • http://twitter.com/MikeHypercube Mike Bennett

    Nice article. I thnk de Waal doesn’t understand the passion of many atheists because, as a Catholic, there is a key aspect of Evangelical Christianity that he doesn’t get. In the mainly Protestant, Evangelical tradition, belief is a matter of a personal commitment, made usually in one’s teens i.e. embraced by the individual themselves. Evangelical Christianity is something people do to themselves. Neither traditional Catholics nor never-believing atheists have experience of this, and as a result we often see wildly inaccurate generalizations from both the former (de Waal) and the latter (e.g. Dawkins). Why theorise about something one hasn’t lived through? Why not find out about the experiences of those of us who have lived through a certain kind of Christian experience and have then had to live through the process of leaving it behind us.
    Of course that is not what is behind the passion of all atheists – as others have pointed out, there are serious here and now considerations for people to get angry about as members of society – this is more to do with the secular agenda but as such it is important to many atheists (and should also be to most Catholics, Muslims, and indeed Christians, though somehow we don’t hear from them in matters of separation of religion and state).
    There are other passions too. Like many former believers, I find myself absorbed in the question of what exactly, if anything, are the good things of which religion itself is so obviously a pathogen? What may we learn from religious and other spiritual traiditons, and what should we leave behind. This leads one to explore formal Humanism for answers (or at least interesting discussions of the questions) in the arena of ethics and morality, as well as for some of us, broader explorations of the non religious alternatives to other aspects of live (as per the Sunday Assembly movement, some of Alain de Bouton’s ideas and so on).
    To understand this broad range of passions and motivations among the diverse sorts of secularist, humanist and other non mutually exclusive categories of atheist, one must first get over the temptation to lump us all together, to lump all our passions together, and to conflate all of our diverse motivations to some underlying sense of damage. The damage may be there also, but this is not the way to understand what we do and say.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.dorian.359 Michael Dorian

    I’d say de Waal’s response is “upsetting.” This overly pandering, apologist reaction so common among many Liberals belies their true understanding of the problem. If there were no “militant” atheists to buck the unacceptable practices and beliefs of the extremely religious, fundamentalists would still be successfully defending their dangerous dogma with relative impunity. His (de Waal’s) response is akin to the appeasement practiced by much of Europe to Hitler’s aggression, as I see it.

  • deepak shetty

    blogposts even by some atheists who seem to have overflowing wells of
    understanding for believers and not a jot of patience for the faithless