Marc Gellman, a Jewish rabbi and one-half of the “God Squad“, has recently written a solo column titled “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists” in which he takes up one of the oldest religious clichés – that atheists are “angry”.
It starts out well enough:
I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don’t think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them.
There is nothing in that passage I can disagree with, and I wish more theists held similar views. However, immediately after this, he descends to predictable stereotypes:
However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.
I will first offer some specific comments on Gellman’s essay, then address the topic of “angry atheists” more generally.
I don’t know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don’t get it.
I do not think that many religious people specifically intend to anger atheists, but Gellman must be aware that there are a great number of religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways to evangelize, preach to, persuade and otherwise pester their neighbors, which works out to much the same thing. Personally I do my best to respond to conversion attempts with civility, but can an atheist really be blamed for feeling frustration and annoyance upon being bombarded with the same invasive and often obnoxious religious messages every day? In my experience, evangelical Christians frequently include in their message the implication or the outright assertion that nonbelievers are selfish, bitter, immoral, greedy, cold-hearted, closed-minded, deserving of God’s wrath, and so on. Surely it is not difficult to understand why the targets of such a message, atheists who are ordinary people just like everyone else, might feel offense at being told such things. Sometimes, we just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace.
And furthermore, we find some religious beliefs oppressive because they are oppressive. Again, there are a great many religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways impose their narrow-minded, hateful, even theocratic views on society in general. Again, as Gellman must surely be aware, there is a loud, determined, and well-organized segment of society composed of religious people who think that I, as an atheist, should be compelled to pay tax money to support their evangelical programs and pay for maintaining their churches; who want to deny women the right to control their own bodies by banning birth control and outlawing abortion even in the cases of rape or incest; who want to censor and stifle science and replace it with thinly disguised religious dogma; who would rather see young adults get STDs than teach them how to protect themselves; who want to rape and despoil the planet and wage war on the grounds that Jesus is coming back soon anyway; and dozens more outrages that I could list. What is the appropriate response to these injustices if not anger?
This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don’t mean it that way, but 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.
In other words, Gellman says that he does not mean to make a large and condescending generalization and then goes on to do precisely that. Is it any wonder that atheists often react with anger when we are treated in this way? We do not appreciate it any more than anyone else would to be labeled with stereotypes in this way, especially when it is a stereotype that he himself realizes sounds dismissive and condescending. When religious people consistently ignore the actual reasons we give to explain why we are atheists, and instead try to dig through our pasts to find the “real” reason, it is no surprise that we feel as if we are not being taken seriously, and feel resentment on that basis.
I have a suggestion for Gellman and those who agree with him. If you really want to understand atheists better, as you say that you do, then go find a collection of deconversion stories written by people who became atheists. (Ebon Musings has links to a large set.) Read them for yourself, and see why people become atheists, in their own words. In my experience, when we are not confronted with religious harassment and oppression, atheists are no angrier than theists, and possibly less angry. We are ordinary people, and in general we only want what everyone else wants: to live in peace and security, in a just world free of oppression and fear.
“You make me vomit and sick and I pray to GOD that you go to hell.”
“Your a complete moron if you can’t seem to understand the constitution of the United States that scum like you are trying to debase. All you liberal bitch’s, along with the homosexual ACLU scum should be lined up against the wall.”
“Your closed-minded bigotry is so unrepentantly sub-human.”
“I bet you’re a drunken whore.”
“You Ms. Gaylor, and people LIKE you are the scum of America. Ane if you are going to appear on any more talk shows, I would consider some plastic surgery and perhaps some dental work!”
“People like you who interpret the bible wrong and try to sell this BS to people should be ‘stoned to death'”
Or take some of the e-mails received by the Southern Poverty Law Center after successfully arguing in court that Alabama judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse building was a violation of the First Amendment and had to be removed (source):
“Dees is a godless s.o.b. jew and deserves to burn in hell.”
“You’re the lowest form of human waste – just human maggots! Enough is enough! Quit your ongoing battle against Christians and religion in American society. We true American citizens are going to be watching you and your organization closely now. Many Christians are just now realizing who the real enemy is, and there is no doubt – whatsoever – our #1 enemy in America is Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center. We Christians are watching you closely now.”
“May the wrath of God be delivered upon you.”
“I hope all of you who had anything to do with removing the Ten Commandments die in a car accident with a fuel tanker along with the rest of your filthy, stinking, traitorous families!”
Or consider this e-mail sent to atheist filmmaker Brian Flemming (source):
“You’ve definitely got some nerve. I’d love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all. I’ll get comfort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you’re completely ignorant about. The Wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh.”
I do not doubt for a moment that the seething hate displayed in these missives and others like them is far worse, and occurs in far greater volume, than anything Gellman has ever seen or heard from us allegedly angry atheists. Yet he does not seem to have devoted a column to asking why theists are so angry. As I have argued, whatever anger is displayed by atheists is more than justified, in light of the violations of human freedom that are going on all around the world even now in the name of God. Any person with a functioning conscience would feel anger at that, especially when those actions are inspired by a book or a belief system that is held up as the epitome of good. On the other hand, the anger displayed by many theists seems to lack any similarly rational cause, considering how much power and influence they wield. If a person really believed that God was on their side and that they would win in the end, there would be no reason for them to lash out with such vicious fury against those who disagree with them. The subtitle of Gellman’s column asks “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?” I would turn that question around: Why do believers who are convinced that God is on their side seem to be threatened by the idea of atheists?