Attack of the Angry Atheists! (2 of 2)

Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote an article, “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?” Though he professes a humble ignorance, his subtitle makes clear that he already has a hypothesis.

He tries to make sense of the puzzle of angry atheists.

There is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.

My recent post addressed the question of what one atheist (me) has to be angry about, but let’s see what he thinks the reasons are.

Why are atheists angry? Gellman offers some possible reasons for why atheists are angry. I’ll take him at his word that this is his best shot at explaining what he sees, but they’re so far off as to be insulting. He says, for example,

I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.

Sure, lots of atheists have been harmed or let down by religion, but this sidesteps the issue. Whether or not someone was harmed by religion says nothing about its truth claims, which is the focus of atheism after all. Whether religion is true or false is the issue, not whether it’s nice or not. No thoughtful atheist would be confused in this way.

Rabbi Gellman again:

Religion must remain an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it.

This is the Hedonist Hypothesis: you atheists just do what you want and don’t want to answer to anyone else. This seems to imagine that atheists actually realize that god(s) exist but that they suppress this knowledge because that would ruin their fun. I’m pretty sure that such a god-believing atheist wouldn’t be an atheist.

For me, the reason to be angry is the imposition of religion on me: religion influencing government funding on medical research, threats of prayer and intelligent design in schools, threats of the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls or in other public places, “In God We Trust” as the motto for my country, the fact that atheists are so despised that they can’t hold any major public office, and so on.

The article makes a final point:

I can humbly ask whether my atheist brothers and sisters really believe that their lives are better, richer and more hopeful by clinging to Camus’s existential despair: “The purpose of life is that it ends.”

In other words:

Isn’t the atheist idea that there’s no afterlife incredibly depressing? In the first place, I hope all of us are primarily looking for the truth and following the facts where they lead. I know I am. Whether I can invent (or someone else has invented) a worldview that’s more cheerful than the world that I see in front of me is irrelevant. I have no use for that make-believe world.

I want the facts, not a placebo. Though Gellman seems to be worried about me, I’m a big boy and I can handle reality. If I have cancer, for example, I want to know. A visit to a doctor to figure out the next steps for cancer treatment, though difficult, is a lot more satisfying in the long run than the short-term bliss that would come from a pat on the head and the pleasing lie that my symptoms will soon disappear.

In the second place, rabbi, I’m not sure death is any more depressing for me than it is for you. Are you looking forward to your own death? Do Christians and Jews not grieve the death of a friend or family member? I think the answers are the same for all of us, despite the allure of heaven in the Christian worldview. I’m sure I won’t be pleased to die, though it’d be nice to imagine that I would be satisfied that I’d lived a full life, but after death, I won’t care. Before my birth I wasn’t unhappy, and after my death I won’t be unhappy either—I simply won’t be. As Mark Twain observed, “I had been dead for billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

And finally, this life is the one thing we know we have. I’ve got one shot, and I try to live it to its fullest. I won’t be able to visit new places after I die; I won’t be able to learn another language, or comfort a friend, or apologize, or forgive, or simply stop and smell the roses. If it’s important to me, I’d better do it in the one life I know I have. Life is sweeter when that’s all you’ve got.

This is one of the problems with Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argues that there’s no downside to being a believer, so what the heck—why not believe so you bet correctly just in case the Christian story is true? The problem, of course, is that there is a downside to being deceived. Participating in a religion that is bogus means that I spend time, money, and energy on that religion instead of on something productive. And some people (Mother Teresa, for instance) bear a huge burden of anxiety and frustration when they see themselves failing to measuring up. Guilt is another burden that some believers endure.

Knowing that life is finite means that each day is more special, each sunset is more beautiful, and each friendship is more precious than if I imagine that an infinity of them lies stretched out in front of me.

Maybe atheists aren’t so angry after all.

A lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award.
I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus.
He didn’t help me a bit.
— Kathy Griffin, 2007 Emmy Awards

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • just.chris

    I do not wish anxiety, frustration and guilt on anyone. I wish, however, that by simply not believing, one could be freed from suffering them.

    Then I would be out on the street “anti-preaching,” going door to door trying to convince people to embrace atheism as a way to be free of such suffering.

    Too bad, I guess, that atheist and deist are all just human.

    No matter what you believe, reality happens. Bob has described the excellent ways to deal with reality. In general, Christianity profess these too but with unpalatable conditions (apparently not your flavor ctcss), like worshipping and believing in improbable at best super being(s). I can never figure out if the Christians believe in 1 or 3 super beings (or 4 if you count Lucifer), and I understand they have trouble figuring that out among themselves, too.

    Also interesting is the fight that occurred in about 300 AD during Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire about whether souls existed before they were “animated” and in particular whether Jesus existed before he was “born.” I’ve read histories that said some of the religious men Constantine had gathered to decided such things had brawls about this subject.

    A question unrelated to this thread: What did Jesus soul do while his body was “dead” in the tomb for three days? Did it go to heaven and hang out with “Dad,” or just lie there waiting to slip out right before the women came and discover his absence? When exactly is he supposed to have left the tomb?

    • MNb

      “by simply not believing, one could be freed from suffering them”
      That’s exactly what I have done. So has my son. Things are much easier if you understand that people will respect you if you simply behave well to them. Some elementary empathy is just enough.

      • just.chris


        I must be missing something here. I’ve been an atheist as long as I can remember. While I have failed to alway behave well, I have tried to be good to people as much as I possibly could. Yet I still suffer anxiety, frustration and guilt (for my failed behaviors).

        I would love to know more of the story of you and your son’s freedom from suffering these feelings.

        I mean what I am saying, no put down or condescension or sarcasm. Your success and how you got there, would be of interest to millions of people.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I can never figure out if the Christians believe in 1 or 3 super beings (or 4 if you count Lucifer)

      or Mary.

      • Jason

        + YHWH + Elohim = 6

  • trj

    I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.

    Yes, it couldn’t be because the atheist actually studied the religious claims and found them lacking. His uncomprehending conviction must be the result of confusion or emotional trauma or because someone didn’t teach him the true Christianity which of course is completely different from whatever the atheist has learned to know.

    I’m pretty fed up with this clichéd and condescending assumption served up by Christians (or rabbis) who are blind to the deficiencies of their own religion. But come to think of it, I think the same question could conversely be applied to Christians. How many of them have been traumatized or treated poorly by their own religion but never the less have chosen to stay with it, even though it hurts them?

  • machintelligence

    “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?”

    It’s not God I’m worried about, it’s His fan clubs.

    • just.chris


      Best comment I may have ever read.

  • MNb

    “the reason to be angry is the imposition of religion on me”
    Exactly. I can’t state it often enough: I’m not an angry atheist simply because I have always lived in countries (The Netherlands and Suriname) where religion is not imposed on anyone. And Suriname is about as religious as the USA.
    American believers want respect? Let them show some respect towards non-believers first. Had I been American I probably had been an angry atheist too.
    It’s simple. I easily can tolerate praying and proselytizing at my school simply because no believer looks down on me, let alone treats me ill, when and because I don’t participate. What a difference with some of the horror stories I have read about atheist teenagers. I have never experience anything like this; neither has my son (now 18).
    That’s why the American battle on state/religion separation never ceases to amaze me.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      American believers want respect? Let them show some respect towards non-believers first.

      There’s a prolific Catholic blogger here who blogs a lot about the hassles Christians have in some countries. I see that as a bad thing too, of course, but the weird thing is she’s not blogging about religious persecution; she’s blogging about persecution of Christians.

      If I’m to follow her lead–getting in a lather about insults to my people–I shouldn’t care about persecuted Christians but rather persecuted atheists (of which there are many, of course). I’m sure she doesn’t see the weakness of her position.

  • Rain

    Too many “just becauses”. Why does it take blood to “redeem” something? Just because. Why does the the least insecure being in the universe want everyone to praise and worship it on a constant basis? Just because. Then why be invisible all the time? Because just because. All those “just becauses” get a little annoying after a while.

  • http://thehappyscientist.com Robert Krampf

    It strikes me as strange that no one (unless I missed the comment) has pointed out that atheists in general seem to be less angry than Christians. Most of the atheists I know are very mellow, laid back folks who are more likely to laugh at something instead of getting angry about it.

  • Aram McLean

    This post is pretty much exactly how I would explain my current reality. It’s not losing nothing to believe. Rather it is losing the only life we KNOW that we have, by not embracing it fully.
    I also have to say that as much as dying doesn’t excite me, the idea of living forever horrifies me immeasurably more. All I can hope for is to live a long life, realize my passions, and die without feeling like I wasted my time here.
    It’s a funny thing to hear the opinions religious people have of non-believers. Having been on the other side of the curtain I can still understand why they think the things they do, but having also torn away the curtain, seen the naked emperor as it were, it’s just…it’s just beyond religious people to get it. Until the day they emerge. If they ever do.
    The religious people mistake our concern for anger, when really it is but an earnest genuine empathy at which they can only begin to guess.

  • smrnda

    This is kind of odd for a rabbi I think, since overall, Judaism doesn’t really concern itself much with what other people believe, isn’t out to get converts, and doesn’t place as high a value on ‘right beliefs’ as Christianity or Islam.

    All said, I don’t think most atheists are angry. Religion and religious people can piss atheists off since there’s a huge push to make religious beliefs the foundation of public policy, and the inability of many religious people to understand that ‘religious liberty’ means the right of private practice of religion, not the right to somehow force religion on the rest of us.

  • Lex

    I would have that this sort of rhetoric from the religious would have become harder and harder to find as more and more Athesits came forward. When I was younger and in the church, Atheism was this young rebel thing that only teenagers would dare engage in. Adults supposedly knew better. The same reasoning was used to combat it as what the Rabbi offers. This did a wonderful job of keeping our fellow young congregation members in the fold. Perhaps this is written more for his congregation than it is as a public discourse? Otherwise, I see no value in something so far from the truth. However, he’s lucky we have very few radical Atheists who would scream and shout that he has sullied the name of Atheism with his “lies” :)

  • http://attaleuntold.wordpress.com Arkenaten

    Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?”

    ”It’s not God I’m worried about, it’s His fan clubs.”

    Brilliant. The next anti Christian Meme? :)

    • just.chris

      It is a very versatile expression, works with most religions.

      • Aram McLean

        replying to your reply to Kodie, but unable to due to end of reply keys, I am replying to you here. I simply have to say that you’re not ‘fortunate’ to have atheist kids. The fact is you let them think and apply logic growing up, and it was unlikely they would be fooled by religious nonsense as grown ups as a result. Good for you.
        As for being pleased to hear what ctss and Carol have to say to extremists, you need to understand that as ‘moderate’ as ctss and Carol may seem to be, they are as out of their gourd as the extremists you’re concerned about. Sure, they talk about love and Jesus dying for their sins and everyone is meant to be prayed for and so on…but all they’re really doing is contributing to an atmosphere that encourages delusions and intolerance.
        Think about it.

        • just.chris


          “Think about it.”

          I have thought about this virtually my whole life and there is a huge difference in people who show tolerance and those who don’t.

          I would much rather live in a community where people could believe whatever they wanted, or not believe whatever they wanted, without hate, persecution and condescension. I don’t care if they believe in a god, multiple gods, fairies, pasta, nothing, as long as they respect the right of others to have their own beliefs. Faith is not based on logic, some of my family members distrust logic and intellect, but I could care less what they believed in if only they respected the rights and did not judge others.

          You must not have the life experience of loving people who believe things and act on those beliefs and hurt other people, even their own children.

          It is not going to change my skepticism and Atheist beliefs because someone is nice and sees eye to eye on many social issues but it is one hell of a lot better than being surrounded by people who attempt to force feed their belief systems on others and use it to justify persecution, exclusion, and worse…

          I don’t really care about the delusion, but I disagree about the intolerance. Fortunately, in addition to the extremist and atheist, I also have family members who are moderate, don’t believe in ID or try to convert me at all. They just have a personal belief in something I don’t believe in. Its a non-issue.

          An example of the difference it makes, maybe even to you: Do you vote for Christians? Or only Atheist? Or do you decide based on other more important issues? I have not voted for candidates based on their extreme religious views, i.e. Rick Santorum, but most times it is relatively insignificant.

          Is this different?

          Sorry for the redundancies in this response. I’m tired and I want to go to bed.

          Good night all.

        • Aram McLean

          aye, your opinion is fair enough. I disagree. But there you go.
          I do have plenty of moderate Christian friends, but I still cringe when I hear them telling their wee children fantasies as fact. It is not good for the child’s outlook, no matter how moderate it may be. This idea that you’re a sinner from the moment of conception, and that you’re always being watched…this creates chronic confusion in children, and on into adulthood.
          So yes, as much as I can agree that tolerant believers are to be preferred over extremist, that fact remains that the moderates continue to normalize something that is far from normal, and the crazies hear voices to kill their children and immediately believe it to be god because of the cultural environment of this being acceptable behaviour all around them.
          As for voting, I’m not an American and hence don’t have the bizarre Christian factor when it comes to elections. In fact, in Canada whether or not someone believes in magical beings is a moot point. Also in Germany, my other home, the last Chancellor before Merkel was nicknamed the Audi man because he had been married four times. No one cares about this crap anywhere but the USA and Muslim countries. What fantasy someone believes or doesn’t believe in should not even come up in elections. But that’s the USA for you. Pretty lame, aye.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      The next anti Christian Meme?

      Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) wrote two novels (God’s Debris and The Religion War) that had goals similar to my Cross Examined–to make people think about religion. In his books, the meme that brought down Christianity is “If God is so smart, then why do you fart?”

  • Niemand

    I’ve always felt that Pascal had it exactly backwards. Consider…
    Case 1: There is no god or other supernatural being. In that case, religion is a waste of time and energy that could be devoted to enjoying one’s limited time and helping others.
    Case 2: There is a god or gods or universal force of some sort. Is religion then a good idea? Well…
    Case 2a: The god or gods are not anything like the Christian (Jewish and Islamic) conception of god. IN that case, worshiping in a Christian manner (as Pascal, I presume, did) may anger or annoy the god/s and at best will only puzzle or maybe amuse him/her/them. No advantage there.
    Case 2b: There is a god that is essentially Christian like. Yaweh really is the supreme ruler and all. In that case either:
    2bi: God will forgive you for not worshiping him when all available logic and evidence are against his existence. Heck, god may not even want worship. In which case, there is no great advantage to being religious.
    2bii: God will not forgive you for failing to worship him in the manner prescribed in the Bible or the Torah or the Koran. In that case, you might as well forget it. You’re going to hell. No one can follow the rules well enough to ever “pass” and anyway if you don’t believe the theology states that you’ll go to hell regardless of how much outward worship you show.

    So my conclusion: Don’t bother with religion. No matter who is right or who is wrong, it’s a useless pursuit at best.

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Nice analysis. Case 2bi is of particular interest to me. I imagine an atheist and a Christian standing in judgment from God in heaven. Clearly, the Christian was right, and he’s pretty smug about it. So what does God do? He tells the Christian: “I gave you a big brain, and that’s what you do with my gift? You just put it in idle and blunder ahead on faith? Bye bye.”

      • Niemand


        I wouldn’t be that interested in hanging out with a god that would condemn people for believing either. That seems just kind of mean. Making them ponder what they got wrong and figure it out before they get to the heaven and eternal happiness part I could go for, but actually sending them to hell for getting the answer wrong…can’t see it.

    • Compuholic

      2bii: God will not forgive you for failing to worship him in the manner prescribed in the Bible or the Torah or the Koran. In that case, you might as well forget it. You’re going to hell.

      I also want to add that in this case God is a giant asshole i would not even want to have anything to do with him.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        If given the choice between sucking up to a celestial SOB or torment in hell forever, I’d probably do the former. I’ll stand on principle, but going to hell for it is probably too much. On the other hand, what kind of a idiotic god couldn’t see through this charade?

        • Kodie

          Bob, I don’t think you are worse than any believer. They are given a choice and they comply with the wrathful abusive authority to have an afterlife without torture. It’s not the best endorsement for the system of salvation. They are threatened and they picked the so-called easy way out. It seems to make them worse people overall, but they are ok with that.

          The system includes:
          -hating who you are told to hate.
          -behaving like you’d rather not.
          -pretending to be concerned how unsaved everyone else is.
          -winning “souls” which means they are pawns of the church to help them make more money.
          -resisting reality and fighting for the right not just to be ignorant, but to make everyone as ignorant.
          -glorifying the recent past.
          -revising events of historical significance.

          Now they are not just doing this because they personally believe it, but because they are threatened. They believe what they are threatened to believe. Cry because your neighbor is going to hell! God can’t prove he exists, so spread your silly arguments, and be smug, pretend you are hated because the bible said you would be, but smugly double down on your beliefs and why being saved is more important than being a good person who minds their own business and lets others believe what their own imagination or thoughts or evidence tells them to. Say the country is swirling down the drain because we are losing god; panic. The threat of hell is driving these people to be selfish and awful people, out of touch with reality.

        • just.chris

          “smugly double down on your beliefs”

          I think you meant, “being a good person who minds their own business and lets others believe what their own imagination or thoughts or evidence tells them to [and to keep their mouth shut if they disagree with my conclusions or are not my intellectual equals].”

          What exactly does being a good person mean?

          Each individual has a different definition. As do groups and institutions and cultures.

          It is most unfortunate that many institutions teach abusively, preach hate, practice intolerance, and aggressively recruit. It is sad that even individuals left to their own devices also practice “undesirable” behaviors.

          If your child chose to believe, how would you teach them the truth? I was fortunate enough that all my children are atheist, but I do have relatives who are “evangelical christian whack jobs.” Not very proud of the label I invented but I was angry, it was a response at a point when I felt like I losing my father to a cult.

          Serious discussions ensued in which I had to use his own beliefs to argue for behavioral changes in order to make visits and conversations pleasant. Maybe it is why I like to hear what ctcss and Carol have to say to the extremists, because many people I love are extremist, and I still want to have relationships with them, but as you have demonstrated and lamented, evidence and logic don’t work on these people. I have found some success using their own doctrines/dogma/texts to minimize their attempts to “save” me or my children and as damage control when they have condemned family members for their “sins.”

          The blog isn’t about being a good person or how to get along with your extremist relations. However, it “critiques Christianity’s actions in society.” Bob, isn’t clear about who his intended audience is, anybody who is interested, I suppose. He is probably thinking of society larger than family.

          But if changing society to fully embrace separation of church and state is an unstated goal, then accepting the reality that we are forced to deal with a “Christian” state, I am happy for the support of believers who also wish for the same outcome and am glad to hear the critiques.

          “Smug” is not exclusive to the “god fearing.” :^P

        • Bob Seidensticker


          Sounds like a tough situation. I’m not out to some of my relatives, but it hasn’t been much of a burden. Best of luck with progress.

          Bob, isn’t clear about who his intended audience is, anybody who is interested, I suppose.

          I’m most interested in encouraging Christians to think through their beliefs, but anyone who’s moderately civil is welcome.

    • Greg G.

      An omnipotent god could achieve its wishes with or without suffering. Then suffering is unnecessary. There is suffering so if there is an omnipotent being, it chose for there to be unnecessary suffering which means it is a sadist. Maybe the being is incapable of preventing suffering.

      So you go to heaven to spend eternity with a sadist or a being incapable of preventing suffering.

      If the soul gives us free will and free will requires the possibility of sin and angels get thrown out of heaven, what chance does a human have to last for eternity in heaven? There is no reason to think that every place in hell will be the same temperature so the first one there gets to find the coolest seat. The last soul kicked out of heaven has to sit in the hottest place for eternity. A small differential in temperature multiplied by eternity would mean an infinite amount of extra torture. It would be bad enough spending eternity in hell if you worshipped the wrong god or the right god in the wrong way, but it would be worse if you worshipped the right god just they way he wanted and sinned on the first day in heaven.

      • Bob Seidensticker


        An omnipotent god could achieve its wishes with or without suffering. Then suffering is unnecessary.

        The world we live in has some good stuff and some bad stuff. Why imagine a good god? Seems that the evidence points equally to a bad god. Maybe he teases us with the good stuff and then dashes our fragile little hopes with the bad stuff, instead of however the Christians want to spin it.

        • Aram McLean

          That’s just mean.

        • Bob Seidensticker


          It is indeed just mean. But that’s what a wicked god would do, right? And our mixed-bag world seems to argue equally for a good god and a bad god behind the curtain.

        • Aram McLean

          haha I know, and I agree with you. I was just being a goof. I don’t believe in any god in any book. Perhaps there’s something larger, connected through all of us somehow, a logos of some type…who can say?
          it’s just so silly to me how we argue about god being good when it’s so obvious that if he was real, he is far from good, as you say. Pretty dumb, but away to the races we go :)

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