Atheism and Anger

I had a conversation with a friend last night — the same friend I’ve written about before — who is undergoing a crisis of faith. He told me last night that reading the “new atheists” — folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — makes him so angry. “I came to see that I have been duped by the church, and that the church is in the business of duping people.”

My friend is a good and honest man, sincere in his zeal to find truth. Perhaps a bit too zealous, for I fear that he is trapped in modernist assumptions about truth (assumptions that go back to Plato). But as we talked, we looked at how the many atheists seem to have two messages:

  1. Religion is flawed;
  2. We should be really, really angry about this!

The first message strikes me as good and valuable. Even though religion is notoriously resistant to criticism, any perspective that shines light on its failings can only help to further the cause of truth (not to mention goodness and beauty). While I may not share all of atheism’s critique of Christianity, as a Christian who sincerely endeavors to love God with all my heart, mind and strength, I owe it to myself to have as accurate an understanding of my faith as possible — including an understanding of how others see (and disagree) with it.

But it’s the second part of the message that leaves me cold. There’s a level on which choosing to react to religion with anger, rage, hatred, or any other strong passion is simply to give religion power over our lives. And since the main beef of the atheists seems to be that religion seeks to expand its power over people, allowing it to trigger strong passion is, ironically, to play into its hands. The atheist who is consumed with anger and hatred toward faith is, in a very real sense, in hell. Not a hell of divine punishment so much as a hell of his own making. And that, it seems to me, is pretty much useless.

I’m certainly not saying that all atheists are trapped in such powerful negative passion. I can’t even say that the authors I’ve mentioned suffer in such a way, not knowing any of them personally. But I have met my share of pissed off nonbelievers over the years, and I see my friend on the brink of becoming one himself. If it’s his path to be a nonbeliever, so be it. I just hope he can embrace that path with joy and love, not bitterness and fury. After all, if you believe religion is an oppressive force from which you need to be liberated, then take responsibility for going all the way. As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”

Meanwhile, speaking as a believer, those of us who choose to stay in the church need to take a similar responsibility for ourselves. It’s all too easy to fall prey to self-righteousness, xenophobia, chauvinism, or various other shades of spiritual pride. Such perspectives are the first cousin to the rage and fuming of religion’s fiercest critics. If you want to be in the church, do it with fearlessness, love and joy. And if you’re not there yet, make that your goal (after all, Christianity — and I suppose most other ethical religions — is meant to be a force for healing). There’s only one way to be a person of faith: and that is to be grounded in joy (or at the least, actively seeking to get there). Anything else seems to me to be missing the mark.

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  • http://maritzia.consecrated-life.org Maritzia

    I understand your friend’s anger. When you think you’ve been duped, you get angry about it. I think the main problem is that most people who come to this point think that they have been purposely duped. While some have used religion to reach power, I think the majority have formed their religion (be it Catholic or any other) in good faith. They have desired to save others from error. Whether or not they were in error themselves is for each individual to decide.

    But my main point is, for the most part, religious leaders have acted in good faith (pun unintended *laughs*). Being angry at them, or morally outraged at them, isn’t necessary. Feel sorry for them if you must, but anger just makes you unhappy. Let it go and live your life.

    The main problem I have with many of the vocal athiests out there is they seem to feel the need to “enlighten” those of faith, make them understand the fallacy of their beliefs. But beliefs are a very personal thing. It’s not something that can be logically dispelled. If it was logical, it wouldn’t be faith. I think many of these vocal athiests need to stop worrying about everyone else and just live their own lives! Leave the rest of us alone.

  • http://www.side7.com/art/lynne Lynne

    My friend and I had a discussion once about atheism. We concluded that we didn’t know or had heard of anyone who could conclude there was no God on a purely rational or unbiased stance, given all of the available evidence. The only case for atheism was when someone had an emotional reason (usually anger at being duped or betrayed in some way by a religion) to need control. So I see atheism not as an excuse to get angry but rather as a particular psychological need (very very prevalent in our culture actually) to be in control, to see the self alone as God and maker of one’s own life.

    Not that religion isn’t full of things other than pure, basic truth. But you are right that to expend a lot of energy getting angry at it isn’t the best way to use one’s energy. I’ve come to see most forms of Christianity in ways that just seem too unreal or illusory to be applicable to someone who is truly seeking, so I sort of just pass judgment on nothing and go by my feeling of things, these days. And I still go to church and enjoy it. :P I like people.

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    “We concluded that we didn’t know or had heard of anyone who could conclude there was no God on a purely rational or unbiased stance, given all of the available evidence.”

    Hi. I’m one of those people. Nice to meet you.

    I was a Catholic for the first 20 years of my life, and I’m now an atheist. I was never abused, harmed or angry at the church or religion in general. I just looked at the evidence and reevaluated my beliefs.

    I’m an atheist because I don’t see any good evidence to support the claims religions make.

    As long as you’re not hurting anybody with your religious belief, I have no problem with you and no good reason to be angry.

  • Sara

    As you mention Carl and as Morse points out, there are indeed a large population of atheists who are so simply because they do not believe in God, and harbor no anger or ill wishes towards believers of any given faith. My mother is one.

    I think you make some excellent points here, Carl. Especially in pointing out that those who do believe have a responsibility to engage their faith with rigor and to be willing to struggle with what may or may not be valid criticisms of their faith. Being in a faith with fearlessness, joy and love requires responsibility. Absolutely.

    I personally think anger is a healthy reaction to injustice or perceived injustice, and the history of the church certain has had enormous elements of injustice perpetrated within it, so I think anger is a valid reaction. Authentic emotions tell us something – anger tells us that we perceive an injustice, which is often a healthy and good process. As the feminists say, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” And certainly, while in seminary, I experience anger in the face of certain theologies and histories that I felt were misogynist, genocidal, cruel, body-hating, etc. The problem comes when anger becomes one’s only reaction, or that anger becomes blinding and all-consuming, hurtful, and self-destructive, devoid of the grace of moving to a state of true liberation, Marley-style, or the ability to see the Beauty that exists simultaneously in religion, in the church, in the works of certain theologians, etc.

    I myself take issue with celebrity atheist folks like Harris and Dawkins, whom I feel hold science up to be the Ultimate Truth every bit as much as a fundamentalist believer might, and who so often fall into the same refusal to admit flaws in the history of their scientism…the devastation that scientism and enlightenment thinking has brought to the ecosphere, etc. That frustrates me every bit as much as those who refuse to take responsibility for the whole history of the church (with all the Inquisitions and Crusades, etc). Yes, science gives us this remarkable ability make acquaintances via the internet that we normally would not have ever met in our lifetime. How wonderful! Science also gave us the bomb, and chemical pesticides.

    It’s a hard dance, I think, working out that balance. Certainly I haven’t achieved any perfection there. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Anger, like so much else in life, comes in many shapes and sizes. I agree with Sara that righteous anger — the anger that energizes the struggle for justice — is a holy thing. But there is also a toxic, smoldering, disempowering anger, an anger that doesn’t seek justice but rather wallows in its own sense of victimization and/or superiority. This is the kind of anger that I’m targeting in this post.

    I believe that righteous anger and authentic joy can co-exist. Fighting for what is right is a beautiful thing. But toxic anger kills joy.

  • Samuel Skinner

    I only feel anger when I run into believers that actually believe the bible is the written word of god. Because these people seem to believe that genocide is okay. You may think I am kidding, but I have had the pleasure of running into a person like this on the internet.

    Yep, the dude condoned killing kids. See: Scott Thong Says: January 30, 08 at

    Other things that piss me of is when believers declare war on reason, evidence and science (yep, I actually talked to these people- the reason comment is the responce I got from an email responce from carm.org).

    In short I get angry when I confront people who are perfectly reasonable and batshit insane at the same time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Anger happens. And encountering people who seem not only willfully irrational, but potentially threatening to our own life/liberty/happiness is certainly an anger-inducing experience.

    But I still maintain that there is a difference between anger that seeks positive change and anger that simply wallows in its own toxicity. The first kind of anger is redemptive, the second kind slowly kills the person who holds on to it.

    So which is it, Samuel? Are you merely cursing the darkness, or are you trying to create light?

  • http://babbleonbabylon.wordpress.com/ Bram Janssen

    You sound like the kind of Christian I like: caring, loving and keeping faith to the faithful. If you’re not faithful (anymore) than it’s your decision. You are not the sort of Christian most Atheists rebel against.
    I agree with you. The sad truth is that in the real world, religion is not “a force for healing.” It is a tool, benignly or malignly used for subjegating. It is reality that by far most of the religious people do not react in an open and friendly way to those from their ranks who wish to become atheistic.

  • http://www.side7.com/art/lynne Lynne

    In response to Morse:

    Well, there being evidence and one’s awareness of or access to evidence are two entirely different things… and we live in a very biased, materialist, reductionist culture. So what one has been taught to be aware of is indeed paltry–it then becomes the task of the individual if they so desire to seek out other evidence (and Spirit willingly cooperates with those who do so desire). It depends where you look and where you are as to what you are able to even see. I wouldn’t reduce that statement to ‘you can’t see it because you’re blind’, however, because…

    The Church or religion failing to deliver that evidence in experiential terms is good reason to consider it more or less senseless.

  • Erik

    There is no 100% airtight composite of arguments that can logically prove or logically disprove the existence of God. Atheists who claim intellectual superiority (and I’ve seen a lot of them) for not believing in a God are, whether they admit it or not, basing their reasoning off of personal desires and/or emotions rather than unadulterated logic. The fact of the matter is that this is not mathematics or science with (ideally) objective conclusions that can and (ideally) will be reached given time and experimentation. Belief or disbelief in God is a matter of the heart and spirit. Line up the facts, fairly, on both sides of the equation–atheist and theist–and both will have their share of reasonable supporting argumentation.

    Where people tend to run into error, here, is, more often than not, not being fair in one’s estimate of the other side. The religious zealot doesn’t need to consider the reasonable questions raised by those of atheist-bent. He’s made up his mind and worships his “truth” with unthinking fervor. Just as often on the other side an atheist will have a hard run in with dogmatic, judgmental and fear-ridden branch of (let’s say) Christianity, and developed an acute distaste/hatred for religious “sheep”. For both, a bare few experiences can cultivate a pattern of thinking entirely dismissive of the “opposing” point of view. The zealot will not analyze their faith with scrutiny or ask tough questions of religious leaders and followers. The determined unbeliever will not crack St. Thomas Aquinas’s Suma Theologica or seek out educated and “respectable” believers.

    Personally, I think the Agnostic view is actually the safest. Agnosticism seems to create a moderate mindset which does not tarry radically close to either religious extremism or atheism, and thus tends to avoid some of the overtly personal biases intrinsic to both. But what I think is most important here, to remember, is that no single person truly knows 100% the right path to truth. Everyone is making educated guesses to the best of their reasoning, emotional, and spiritual faculties. What’s really important here is attaining the gradual maturity of whatever belief system you have made your own. For atheists, ask what your motivations are for not believing in any power higher than your own. For religious people, ask what your motivations are, and how and why you think that religion is reasonable for you–whether you feel sheltered emotionally, become a better person, or feel spiritually fulfilled. It’s very important to have this dialog with yourself. If you’re not, then you’ve allowed stagnation to creep into a part of your life very closely related to growth, happiness, and joy (which are certainly very important).

    In my own spiritual search, and I’ve been fortunate to have the time to crack open a lot of philosophy, I’ve found Pascal’s Wager convincing enough to allow me to lean toward the theistic view. Here’s an excerpt:

    ..”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

    Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.” Pascal

    Read the rest of the argument here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager

    Really it posits the question–well, why not? Why not believe?

    So that’s about it, that I can think of to say here. There are a lot of good atheist lines of thought that seriously shed doubt on some weak/inferior theist points of view. This is good. It allows for the evolution of thought and a closer interpretation of the truth. Every time a skeptic helps to rule an incorrect idea out (an earth-centered universe, for instance), we grow a little closer to the truth. If truth is truth, it cannot be “not truth”. The gradual examination, scrutiny, and dismissing or further considering an idea is very scientific in approach. And when one hypothesis about the nature of reality does not make sense, then we turn to another. So I just urge everyone to, religious and non-religious, to keep an open mind before locking one’s self in dogmatism. No matter what you believe, I guarantee there’s something wrong with it and some way it needs improving. Anyways, best wishes to everyone and their continued development :D

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    “I’ve found Pascal’s Wager convincing enough to allow me to lean toward the theistic view.”

    I can’t let this pass by because, and I’m sorry, but Pascal’s Wager is one of the worst arguments for theism I have ever come across. It fails on every level, but perhaps the simplest criticism is this: It promotes the belief in whatever religion happens to have the worst hell.

    So, if looking at Pascal’s Wager, Islam is probably the way to go, as it has the worst hell I’ve read of. Because hey, if you believe Islam, at least you won’t go to their hell!

    I prefer to believe something because I think it’s true. Not because I’m frightened that someone will punish me if I’m wrong.

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    “it then becomes the task of the individual if they so desire to seek out other evidence (and Spirit willingly cooperates with those who do so desire).”

    This seems like you’re saying “to find evidence you have to believe first.” Am I reading that correctly?

  • http://www.side7.com/art/lynne Lynne

    Hi Morse,

    I don’t like Pascal much either. I don’t think his idea was so much about fear as it was about the fact that you can’t know or prove it either way, so you’ve got to choose one, because to not choose is to not move forward with life. And then of course his opinion on this philosophical matter is that it is more fruitful to believe in God than not. Either way I don’t think that’s worth much, but it appeals to those of a Western mindset perhaps.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘believing first’. First of all our reality is very ‘set’ because we set it. To a great extent it requires stepping out at least mentally of the boxes we create as society to live in. Quantum physics is showing us that we see what we desire or expect to see (wave or particle, etc). I’ve moved through so many belief systems myself, and I have seen and experienced different things in each one. Then I consequently move out of them and reinterpret (or not) the whole gamut of all the experiences I have had in them. Belief systems don’t seem very valuable to me except as that they may first provide a counter to the overriding belief system and box of our modern culture. As long as you are embroiled in a belief system (which atheism is a one, a part of our modern culture), you’re not really going to see much outside of it. Sometimes, when I needed a radical paradigm shift, I’d meet someone, or a certain book would fall off the shelf of the library and grab my attention… it was my awareness and choice to check that book out and read it, but if I were not wishing to see outside of my box, I would simply put the book back. It’s not a matter of believing anything, it’s really a matter of watching and being open to the things that come your way.

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    Lynne,

    My contention is that atheism is not a belief system. Which is not to say that I don’t have a belief system, as such, just that atheism isn’t it. It is debatable whether atheism, being the position on one question, is a belief, but it most certainly isn’t a system.

    I think that looking at things scientifically and evidentially is the best way to go through life. Not only do I think it, but it seems that science has been the best system through which to understand things that are objectively true and real.

    And that, I think, is the difference. Through science and evidence we can determine things that are real and remain real regardless of what belief system you may be looking at it through. And so I disagree that reality is necessarily conformed to what you expect.

    No offense to the blog owner, but I find it a bit inconvenient to keep returning here. If you would like to continue this conversation, and I would be more than happy to do so, please contact me through my youtube page.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Sorry you find it so inconvenient to hang out here, Morse. I rather enjoy it myself. :-)

    I would like to invite you to read Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything for insight into why science fails so spectacularly as a means of determining religious or spiritual truth (and vice versa). Wilber is a Buddhist with a background in biochemistry and psychology, so he isn’t grinding any Christian (or even theistic) axes. And although he doesn’t address the question directly, I think Wilber’s mapping of both scientific and spiritual dimensions of the cosmos can go a long way toward explaining why theists do in fact regarding atheism as a belief system. Wilber is the only writer I know of who is providing a compelling argument for how scientific rationalism and mysticism can peacefully and even creatively co-exist.

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    Not what I meant! ;P Just that I keep losing the address, and I’m too lazy to bookmark it. And I wanted to promote my own site shamelessly, of course, haha.

    And I agree with you the science fails to find evidence for religion and spiritual things. But that seems to suggest that those things may not have a basis in reality.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I’m all about shameless self-promotion, so promote away!

    “But that seems to suggest that those things may not have a basis in reality.” That’s precisely the kind of issue that Wilber goes after. Spiritual reality is certainly not measurable or falsifiable in any kind of empirical sense, but that doesn’t make it “unreal.” And Wilber’s argument is the best one I know of that, as best I can tell, is respectful of both the demands of science and the claims of religion. I won’t say that Wilber’s writing will change your life (although it might), but at the very least it will give you something to think about (and argue with).

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    I would also recommend that you read a short essay by Carl Sagan entitled “The Dragon that Lives in my Garage”. It can be found in it’s entirety on the internet.

    And you’re right. Something being unfalsifiable and unmeasurable does not make it unreal. It does, however, leave us with no valid reason to believe it exists. Which is not to say I’m against people who do. I only am when they start harming others or themselves because of it.

    Which brings us full circle to the topic of your blog post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Well said!

    Thanks for the Sagan tip, I’ll check it out. And when I’m not at work (!) I’ll check you out on Youtube as well….

  • http://www.youtube.com/morsec0de Morse

    I actually recite part of the Sagan essay in one of my videos. How’s that for another shameless plug!

    And it’s actually just “The Dragon in My Garage”, for easier googling.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I just read The Dragon in My Garage. Man, you gotta read Wilber! He would 100% agree with everything Sagan says here. It totally fits within his integral theory.

  • Erik

    “Religion without science is lame; Science without religion is blind.” -Albert Einstein

    I think Pascal’s wager is less about avoiding hell as it is saying “well, why the hell not?” He concludes that, in the absence of being able to reason conclusively to a theistic or atheistic point of view–as both have respectable but incomplete explanatory power–one must admit that a belief in either camp cannot arise from pure, unadulterated logic. Therefore we must determine if we are atheists or theists by other means. His wager presents one such means. If I cannot know for certain which camp to choose, and both have relatively equal power in describing reality (unless you let either extreme religious mindset or scientific mindset bias get in the way), then I need to choose on other grounds, perhaps even emotional grounds. Even from a utilitarian perspective, the people whom I have been most impressed with–those who are most loving, selfless, humble, courageous, magnanimous, and virtuous–tend to be people of faith.

    Yes, there are a lot of people who claim religion, and yet they are hypocritical, which is one of the reasons I’ve had a hard time with the church, but one needs to remember that church isn’t for saints–it’s for sinners. Christians, as a lot, have plenty enough of the lame, dirty, blind, bigoted, and conceited in their ranks. No one’s perfect. But at least they are all trying to get better. Those whom have truly found a center in religion, like Ghandi or Mother Teresa, are very excellent human beings who live fulfilling and worthy lives which impact change for the better. Atheism and post-modernism, in my opinion, do not present a comparable result. As a system, and from a utilitarian perspective (Jesus did say to judge a tree by the fruit it bears), I’ve seen people have more success with religion, or even agnosticism, than with atheism. Atheism, more often than not (and I should know), tends towards idolatry of the intellect, snobbery, cynicism, and feelings of disdain toward people of faith. There is no real strength to the atheistic belief system that can compare to what, in my opinion religious systems offer. I don’t affiliate myself with any religion, either, I might add. I’m just making observations to the best of my experience. Yes there are religious loonies out there. Pull up the TV evangelist channel and you’ll have me groaning at the intellectually inadequate belief systems many of those speakers endorse. Give me a great spiritual teacher, however, and I’ll feel blessed by the strength of their words and state of being.

    You must bear in mind that religion has made a lot of stupid mistakes. Conservative sects of religion can be so entrenched that they do not adapt to advances in science for hundreds of years, if ever. This is obviously wrong, on their part. Science is a tool, meant to allow us to explore the universe and better understand the nature of reality. Any religion that stands in the way of scientific exploration is wrong. But religion that embraces science can be very powerful indeed. On the other hand, science without a belief system has no real power. Like Albert Einstein said, both need the other. Why amputate instead of integrate?

    So I stand behind the ideas put forth in Pascal’s Wager. An elementary assessment, or otherwise foolish interpretation would have it that Pascal’s Wager is simply an “oh no, I’m afraid of hell so I’m going to believe religion!” kind of argument about it. A more advanced interpretation would see it as a legitimate argument that helps to shed some, but not all, light upon this subject of choosing a metaphysical belief system.

  • http://www.thestumblingmystic.com/ ned

    I went through a period of reactionary atheism. It can be necessary on the spiritual path, so I understand where your friend is coming from. On the other hand, I agree with you that it would benefit him to observe his own emotional reactions and question them.

    What most atheists and agnostics do not realize is that reason is actually a tool of other agencies (namely the soul). When I became an agnostic, unknowingly, I was actually carrying out an act of profound faith and trust, by stepping into the Unknown. But it took some time before I understood this.

  • judith collier

    I know an atheist, my husband. What’s strange is he would like to believe but the disappointments in life have been way too much for him. Like a child who believed in Santa Claus at one time and then Santa turned on him with a vengence.He dreamed big, dreamed is the key word. Putting effort into those dreams were limited by time with a large family, always working, never thankful for the little things in life. Like his eyesight and paying the bills, nor was the love of his family enough.Always the dreams.Now his life is a nightmare for him. To make him see reality for the failure of those dreams is beyond him, no loving reason sways him. Praising him for the good father he was doesn’t make a difference because that wasn’t his dream. Expectations sums it up. Disapointments are his focus.Responsibility would be the final thrust upon his ego as far as i see it. Not believing in God is easier. judy


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