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