The recent breed of “Militant Atheism” is (to be clear) a movement clearly distinct from previous atheism(s) displaying very different goals. One of these goals is to free society from the evil of religion, which they try to define as dogma, superstition and anything dealing with supernatural reality.
But also, Militant Atheists try to self-define in a somewhat negative way, in that they propose that their beliefs are a lack of belief. So, OK, “i do believe there is no god” and “i don’t believe in god” can be deceptively similar ideas. But the sly thing is that this way of putting makes it seem like the set of ideas embraced by militant atheist is natural, springing spontaneously from universal human experience.
Of course militant atheism is a product of contemporary culture, and in different contexts it would appear in a very very different light — so it’d be better not to take it at face value.
In a non-contemporary context, “god does not exist” means something like “i don’t see this god of yours doing much anything”, which is much closer to a comparison between gods, like “mine is better than yours”, than to total inexistence of divine beings. In a society without media, how could you know if somewhere else there are things that work like god? In fact, in such a context, to say it to a religious person will just mean to her that you yourself is not experienced.
In a pseudo-paleolithic time, in a so-called edenic time, that is an hypothetical beggining-of-history that we can’t really reach but that even then is part of our present culture as idealization, in such a context we can propose that a god is an agency, an entity that acts and moves and whose presence would be as concrete and place-specific as that of a person or animal. Religious service is a kind of conjuring, a way to call this supernatural presence into people’s experience.
Of course, all forms of primitive religion intertwine with the arrangement of primitive society, and it is foolish to discard religious ideas as superficial or peripheral to everything else about culture without careful analysis. Even more, religion might interplay with our visceral urges in unexpected ways.
This is not only about conjectural cavemen religion, but about how those ideas and practices reflect and twist today’s world. And even lacking a starting point, this is a complex and layered history about which we do know some stuff. For the moment let’s focus on what is called the Judeo-Christian tradition.
So primitive Judaism invented idolatry. To understand this concept we must contextualize it close to this hypothetical paleo-religion times. Judaism was a tribe-specific form of religious practice largely managed by Rabbis, which had many conflicts with competing religious groups. At the time, Rabbis wouldn’t say “your god does not exist”, but rather “it is evil”, which itself was then a novel inter-religion fight strategy (and also where the idea of a “devil” comes from), since then gods were basically opinionated and would be good or bad only according to whether or not it was on the same side of the fence.
Idolatry (more precisely, the fight against it) was an attempt (probably not a deliberate one but still) at differentiating Jewish religious practice from alternatives. But it was also a statement about the quality of understanding of god. It reinforced the idea that a class of people dedicated to the study of scripture would hold the right (and right) way of worship. Thus Jewish fight against idols is at the same time a choice for a specific kind of divinity and an abstraction, putting words first and images second.
The claim of idolatry is at first political. It becomes metaphysical only when Jewish religious theory (itself a concept meaningless in most other cultures) mixes with Greek philosophy. The clash causes all sorts of rebellious behaviour. One of the consequences is the attempt to bring the Rabbi kind of knowledge of god to the center of religious practice and therefore to everyone. This basically amount to the root of primitive Christianity.
This swaps the actions of god for the experience of god, which should be felt directly (un-mediated) by each person. “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Only then belief begins having any importance to gods. Zeus or Beelzebub or Shiva keep on being the same regardless of whether you believe or not. But the cathartic experience of mass is taken as the essence of the “realm of god”. Christianism did not invent catharsis in religion, but did assert its fundamental importance. In that it was another level of fight against idolatry, at the same time a departure from Judaism and a reinforcement of parts of its worldview. But this development does indeed create new ways of conceptualizing god, like god being present everywhere and being less opinionated and bargaining. therefore furthering the abstraction. (Also, as a sidenote, the early groundwork for what latter becomes phenomenology).
It is a little known fact that early Christians were called Atheists in Rome, because the kind of religious experience they emphasized amounted to making gods impersonal, and thus non-existing in Roman terms.
When this rebellious religion becomes institutionalized, and is adopted officially by the Empire, the sheer pressure of numbers makes it retrograde. Again the primacy over knowledge of god returns to a learned elite. Nevertheless, the advances in religious techniques has a deep impact. And the fight against idolatry is still a major theme.
Thus Catholicism comes up with Scholastic thought. There was a hierarchy of studies, where the understanding of physical bodies (engineering) was at the bottom and understanding of things beyond physical (theology) is at the top. Not only that, theology is supposed to encompass physics. God made both the flesh and the spirit, so there is nothing you can actually study that is not part of him. The physical world gets conceptualized as one thought of god, and it is in this context that physical regularities can be pictured as laws. Much later, but following the same path, mathematics becomes a sort of language of god, and from that a kind of essence of nature.
Of course all of this can only make sense (can even be parsed) in this context, after those 4k years of historical and literary development. Modern science thus is very directly born out of inter-religious warfare.
Things get a little muddied when Galileo gets prosecuted. Contemporary recounting of the fact has it as science against religion, but actually it was a dispute between two factions inside the Catholic Church. Not only that, the so-called scientific side was the most pious one, as it was the faction advocating against idolatry.
In pseudo-paleo times, an idol was seen by religious persons as a crude model for god, and in its stead the book was enforced. Reading meant you were not binding god to a local and constrained happening, but opening more of the world to god’s presence. In Medieval times, Galileo and others sought to open more of the world to god’s presence, searching it through formal description and research. But now curiously the book, a former help in this campaign, became a hindrance.
Back in paleo-times, that you could build a catapult made you a good carpenter, but had nothing to do with the essence of reality. It is a convoluted and weird turn of events that today big science, that is first and foremost a machine-making business, would be taken as principia of our worldview (and in that form, disguised, as the basis of contemporary metaphysics).
So, a hundred years ago, being an atheist meant you didn’t fancy going to mass. This was certainly not the first nor second kind of atheism there was. And contemporary militant atheism has certainly nothing to do with that. Contemporary atheism does indeed want you to go to mass, just it is now called Quantum Mechanics 101.