Militant is the new neo

Nick Cohen has some gently critical things to say about the new fad for calling secularism “militant” and “extreme.”

‘Militant secularist’ has become the ‘neo-con’ of the 2010s: a know-nothing label that signifies extremism, without explaining where the extremism lies. Radio 4 broadcasters  prove that their bias is not always squishy liberal by allowing the religious to denounce the supposed militancy of their critics, without allowing the critics to reply. Like the small-c  conservative columnists in the broadsheets, they forget to tell you what is ‘militant’ about ‘militant secularism’ because if they did, they would expose their own fatuity.

Or their mendacity, or their rebarbative blend of the two.

If you turn on the news tonight and hear of a bomber slaughtering civilians anywhere from  Nigeria to the London Underground, I can reassure you of one point: the bombers will not be readers of Richard Dawkins.

That guy on the scooter in Toulouse? I’m betting he’s not a reader of Richard Dawkins.



  1. says

    I wonder if we can try to use “militant” to describe theists the same way they use it to describe us, and have it catch on. By that standard, Santorum is most definitely a militant Catholic. As is Limbaugh.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The distinction between “paleo-cons” and “neo-cons” points to a real and significant difference between two camps of US right-wing thought.

    Maybe this particular split isn’t so visible or meaningful on the Spectator side of the puddle, but from here it looks like Cohen is using the (lazy, boring, uninformative, trite) omniscient-pundit-above-the-fray schtick as a cheap platform from which to bash those actually doing politics (including critiquing the all-too-many kinds of ~con roaming wild these days).

  3. Kevin Anthoney says


    I’m on the Spectator side of the puddle, and that’s how it looked to me, too.

  4. Dave says

    Ooh, a rebarbative blend of fatuity and mendacity! Applied in a thin layer, it does wonders for wrinkles!

    Meanwhile, what NC is doing with the ‘neo-con’ label is complaining about how it came to be thrown at anyone they didn’t like by significant sections of the wilder left here in the UK in the heady days of Iraq. Nothing to do with US politics and the doing thereof.

  5. smrnda says

    Neo-con was a word that actually seemed to start out having some precise meaning as a way to distinguish different types of conservatives – neo-cons were more driven by an agenda of economic libertarianism where social conservatism was less important, and paleo-conservatives seem to occasionally promote economic protectionism and prefer more isolationist foreign policy.

    It might be a word that got used by lots of people who didn’t understand the original meaning which can create the impression that a word has no precise meaning, the way that pop-culture use of the word ‘schizophrenic’ has made it difficult for some people to realize that it represents a fairly consistent set of symptoms.

    This guy seems to be taking the position of ‘extreme middle’ where he’s just above the conflicts entirely, but I do think that the point was well made that suicide bombers and terrorists are unlikely to be readers of ‘militant’ atheist Richard Dawkins.

  6. Brian says

    There’s a religious editor for the ‘The Age’ in Melbourne, who still repeats the lie that new atheists are militant because one called for the pre-emptive anihilation of muslims (Sam Harris) and another said that religious indoctrination was worse than child-abuse (The Dawk). He’s had it pointed out to him, and he could just read the books again (assuming he read them in the first place) to see that’s a load of bollocks. But then he couldn’t throw around the militant tag and equate Harris, Dawkins, et al. with Jihadis, Abortion clinic bombers, etc.

  7. says

    Barney Zwartz. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s who Brian means.

    It’s yet another example of how “strident” “New Atheists” can put quite complex positions involving careful distinctions (as Richard does in his chapter about “child abuse” and Sam does in that passage about pre-emptive bombing of a fanatical regime armed with nukes) … but for their trouble they will be read as saying something much more crude. Even if their positions are not actually correct in some at-the-end-of-the-day sense, it would be good if the actual positions were debated, as opposed to misrepresented, dismissed, and used to demonise people.

  8. Brian M says

    Russell: w/r/t the nuclear armed state…who is calling for the bombing of Israel? Just curious, you understand?

  9. says

    Brian M, was that a joke? If not, we’re talking about a passage in The End of Faith where Harris imagines the possibility of a regime heavily armed with nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles, as the Soviet Union was, but with a far more fanatical government than the USSR’s ever was, based on radical Islamist principles. Such a government might wish to wipe out infidels in the West and, because of its valorisation of martyrdom, would not be deterred as the USA and USSR were deterred from attacking each other during the Cold War.

    In the thought experiment, the USA would, according to Harris, think there was no alternative but to commit the “crime” of a first strike.

    His point isn’t that we should actually be conducting a first strike against, say, Iran now – but this is what he is often represented as saying. His point is more that we should be very worried about such a scenario ever emerging, and the implication seems to be that we should be doing at least something to oppose Islamist ideas (I’m not sure what, exactly, but Harris seems to think that open criticism and satire of Islam itself has some kind of role to play in all this).

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of his analysis, my point is that it shouldn’t be misrepresented (indeed, I may have slightly misrepresented it myself, since I’m doing this from memory, so I’ll slap a caveat on the above paras – but how often do we someone in public debate do that, saying, “Maybe I’ve slightly misunderstood the position I’m discussing”?).

    Sorry if all the above was unnecessary and you were just kidding around.

  10. Brian says

    Yes, Barney Zwartz. I’ve managed to avoid his dreck since he covered himself in poo at PZ’s blog back before the last federal election here. I got sucked in again by a headline of his mentioning ‘thuggish morality’ it was a misrepresentation of a paper of a thought experiment on the killing of newborns who would’ve been aborted, and termed this abortions, not infanticide.. I’ve probably misrepresented the paper myself there. I read the paper, and didn’t agree with Zwartz that some ideas are not even to be mentioned. What ideas? Who decides? A bit to totalitarian to tell academic philosophers what they can and can’t talk about.

    Anyway, apart from the hypocrisy of an anti-choicer calling any bodies morality ‘thuggish’ I stumbled upon a comment by him a day or so later where he asked something about what would you call someone who advocated nuking all Muslims or term a religious upbringing but militant? That’s from memory, and I have no intention of checking his blog again, so it may be that I’m misrepresenting him! (but I doubt it).

    I solemnly pledge not to read his blog, comments, articles or headlines again. It’s click-bait after all. A sign of a once proud paper lowering itself by trolling with the likes of Barney. And I’m too emotional and lacking in impulse control to not comment or get sucked otherwise. 🙂

  11. dirigible says

    Trying to define secularism as in many ways its opposite (i.e as state *suppression* of religion) in order to support calls for religious privilege breaks at least one commandment.

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