Filth-Based Initiatives

The claim is often bandied about that atheists are “angry”. The implication, presumably, is that life without God offers only a life of constant frustration and unhappiness (and, one imagines, damnation thereafter – wrath being one of the seven deadly sins), whereas belief in God is the road to tranquility and peace.

However, if this is the message that apologists intend to convey, they should look to their own flocks before accusing others of the sin of anger. Even casual acquaintance with our culture shows that atheists are not the only ones who are angry; far from it. On the contrary, there seems to be a very great amount of anger among theists as well. The clearest evidence for this is that whenever a person – be they a government representative, a journalist, a celebrity, or an ordinary citizen – publicly declares their support for atheism, or any other position hated by the religious right, a deluge of hostile, abusive, profane, and even violent hate mail is sure to follow.

Consider some of the vindictive e-mails that were sent to the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation after one of their spokespeople, Anne Laurie Gaylor, appeared on CNN. These e-mails were reprinted in the January/February 2006 edition of the FFRF newsletter Freethought Today, which is where I draw them from (all spelling and grammar as in originals):

“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 consider the blog Molly Saves the Day, which in light of recent events in South Dakota posted an essay on how to set up an abortion clinic at home. Some of the comments sent to the author of that blog were stunning in the depth of their furious hatred and spiteful rage:

You are a fucking sicko. When you die, you will find yourself burning in the deepest depths of hell. Being Satan’s chewing gum next to Hitler and Judas will be nice, won’t it? And I’m no fucking conservative. The day a woman kills her baby with your procedure will be the day you are damned, you pagan bitch.

Or Michael Newdow, the atheist who filed a constitutional complaint over religious language in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The flood of hate mail and death threats against him was to be expected, of course; but more surprisingly, even some of the reporters who covered Newdow’s story were targeted. Writes Bob Norman of the Palm Beach, Florida New Times, in his article “First Pledge“:

…some extremist Christians… once again exposed their savage underbellies. They barraged Newdow with hundreds of death threats and hate mail. I know this not only because he shared many of them with the national media but because I received them too.

…A man who identified himself as Scott Sandlin wrote in the subject line of his e-mail: “YOU should be shot.” I’ve written about mobsters, rogue cops, dirty politicians, and all manner of South Florida hustlers in the past, but I’ve never been threatened like this. (emphasis added)

Even Judge John E. Jones III, a Lutheran appointed by George W. Bush, is not immune from the religious right’s bile. After a strong and incisive ruling against the Intelligent Design movement in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge Jones received so many hostile and threatening e-mails that the U.S. Marshals Service put him and his family under round-the-clock protection.

And finally, the death threats and hostility directed against Michael Schiavo in the right-to-die case that captivated the nation last year scarcely need recounting. Even William Rice, a Southern Baptist pastor who opposed Schiavo’s position, wrote that he was “truly saddened and embarrassed by the level of harassment and vitriolic nature of so many comments that purportedly come from people of faith”.

Clearly there is a great deal of anger seething among the partisans of the religious right, anger which their religious beliefs not only have not quelled, but have actually intensified. These theocrats regard their religion as a license to force their opinions of how society should work on everyone, to make all people everywhere speak, act and believe as they prefer, and people who stand in the way of achieving this goal are almost always met with a torrent of bitter hatred, venom, threats of violence, and other mental sewage. If, as the apologists tell us, religious belief leads to peace and satisfaction, why does it not seem to have worked on a substantial group of people? It crosses the line into hypocrisy to assert that atheism is bad because atheists are angry, when there is so much anger and hatred simmering in the minds of many believers. Following a brilliant suggestion from a letter in the March 2006 issue of Freethought Today, I propose that these outbursts of anger from the religious right be called “filth-based initiatives”.

I am not suggesting that anger is always a bad thing. When directed to the right ends, aimed at injustice and inequality, anger can be a powerful force motivating people to work for the good and abolish these evils. Though anger does not dominate most atheists’ lives, we would have to be heartless not to feel anger when we read about the cruelties and injustices that are still being wrought the world over in the name of religion. Reading about and witnessing these things should make any reasonable person angry. The difference is that this anger is motivated by compassion – we want to see justice done and people happy, and when this is not the case, we are naturally angered that these evils are being inflicted.

The anger of the religious right, on the other hand, does not seem to be motivated by concern for the well-being of others. Instead, the driving force behind it appears to be their own desire to impose their will on others, and their resentment when they are prevented from doing so. As their tirades make clear, they despise the people who oppose them, and want to see those people punished, hurt and humiliated. Indeed, many of their doctrines, especially the idea of Hell, seem to be nothing more than elaborate revenge fantasies. This is the kind of anger that religious evangelists are right to condemn, but it is not to be found among atheists.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    It never fails; whenever I read an article for, or even about, abortion, or church-state seperation, or atheism, there is almost always a follow-up article that eventually shows some of the hate mail that these people recieve. It’s almost frightening, and I can’t help but think that at least a substantial percentage of churches must, quite simply, advocate this behavior, for it to be as systematic and predicatable as it always appear. I am troubled by this rise in hatred, mostly because I can’t see a cause for it (I refrain from simply blaming Pope-I mean President-Bush, as he can’t do this himself). While I hope that it’ll fade again, part of me is waiting for a very signifigant rise in religious hate crimes; on atheists, muslims, those who have abortions, and any other person who is not dogmatically christian. Hopefully sites like these will help educate those same liberal-minded people who have something to fear from this hatred, and lead to curbing all of this before it gets too bloody for this day and age.

    On the bright side, the optimistic might view this as the death throws of the religious right. Not that they will all disappear or that religion will disappear, even in the US, but perhaps this is the final breaking of their hold on politics and power. I do not know if I think it’s that drastic…but I hope it is.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    The irony is, of course, that the religious right ought to be filled with a sense of smug satisfaction. Not only do they wield so much power on Earth, but they are acting in conjunction with a being that is all-powerful. Their opponents are damned for eternity wheras they are guaranteed their spot in heaven on a cloud next to Jesus. What on earth would be the point at screaming at someone you know is doomed? Unless, of course, you’re as really as insecure as the homophobe so often turns out to be.

  • Archi Medez

    We need to continue to expose this vitriolic hate which some Christians and Muslims project at non-believers (and each other!). In the U.S., it appears to be mostly Christians who are hating atheists; Christians hate atheists more than they hate any other group (atheists are hated more than homosexuals and are hated far more than Muslims).

    Adam, have you received any hate mail at your site(s) (Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism)?

    Another suggestion: I know the skepticsannotated site has long lists for intolerance in both the Bible and Koran. It might be useful to have a list of insults from the Bible. Maybe we should compile one. (I do have something like this for the Koran, but it is not yet complete and I haven’t sorted through the Biblical insults yet). I guess it would be important to distinguish, in compiling such a list, between insults purely having to do with belief, vs those that insult non-believers for some additional reasons.

  • andrea

    It’s my take that the hatred is simply stupidity and mostly fear. They are so afraid of being damned themselves that they must try to instill fear in everyone else. How else could they stand to see happy people who aren’t them? It’s an animalistic reaction. To put it bluntly, most religious people in my experience are not sentient beings at all. Being from central Pennsylvania, I got to see the fall out from the Dover decision close up and am on some local forums about it. Some of the Christians here were so “shocked” that I said that it was a pity that “Christians” had to resort to threats. Why there was no proof that it was Christians! Why they must just be calling themselves Christians! Of course, this is said while ignoring direct quotes that show just how “loving” Christians are, like dear Ann Coulter’s calling for rat poison to be given to Supreme Court Justices and Rev. Roberts threatening everyone in Dover who dared not to vote his way.
    And you’re right, Adam, that hell and many Christians attitude are simply revenge fantasies. Just the ravings of cowards who want God to be the bully for them.

  • Quath

    I debate Christians from time to time on web boards. I think it should be noted that a lot of these hate-writers probably represent a minority in Christianity. I have been told some very nasty things when debating. For example, I have had Christians brag about how they will laugh up in heaven when they see me suffering in hell.

    While I can accept that some Christians will be very hate filled and delight in suffering, what shocks me is that very few more moderate Christians condemn them for their view. The rare few that do are usually condemned for not being a true Christian or in league with Satan. It is also rare to see other Christians defend these Christians.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Lets not get carried away with the Christian bashing, else the accusation that atheists are all angry may appear true. My wife is a Christian, and isn’t the things being stated in these messages. Nor are the people I’ve met at the Lutheran church she attends. This church belongs to the Missouri Synod, which is the more liberal wing of the Lutheran church. The pastor is female, and there is a gay guy who gives communion, and holds hands with his significant other. None of the congregants seem to have a problem with this. The pastor gave a sermon two weeks ago against intelligent design. While misguided about the supernatural, they are nevertheless good people, who have many of the same concerns as atheists. I have often said to my wife that if this church would just cut out the supernatural part – I would be there every Sunday!

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I used to think like that; that it was the fundamentalists only and that we should just ignore them because most christians (or muslims) aren’t like that, etc. And that’s not entirely wrong. However, I’ve realized that that is just a smokescreen. Fundamentalists don’t come out of nothing; they come out of the moderate mainstream. They learn from them, use what they say, use the same holy book, etc. I don’t want christian bashing either, but all these fire-and-brimstone types don’t exist in some alternate universe to most christians; they are affiliated with them, often attend the same churches and live in the same neighborhoods. It is that feeling of comfort and safety and uniformity that lets them do what they do. And also, it is the liberal christians who should, first and foremost, be upset with the fundamentalists, but usually are not. Some give lip service, then work right along side them come an election. And these same liberals are, in some ways, more threatened than atheists; they are the ones who are stuck in the middle. They obviously can’t connect totally with atheists, but then again, many of their own brethren won’t accept their interpretation either. They are in limbo. This becomes clear in elections; maybe a certain church doesn’t exactly want free abortion and gay marriage, but if they go for the conservative party, they know that they will have a more fundamentalist version of their own religion shoved onto them.

    Again, I don’t advocate attacking christians or their beliefs wholesale, but I have realized that the “moderate-not-fundamentalist” defense is just telling us to pull a weed and leave the roots. We need to pressure theists who agree with us in some manner that they need to worry less about saving our souls and more about stopping the hatefilled brothers they deal with.

  • Unbeliever

    One phrase stood out for me in this post: “…we want to see justice done and people happy…” This is the essence of what we atheists are about. The problem is that Christians (most but not all) want to see God’s justice done and God happy. People are irrelavent to that goal. If God is happy and everyone is suffering, then things are as they should be. That means that if you feel that you are doing what makes God happy, then no other rules should apply to your behavior. God’s happiness is a blank check to treat others any way you want. This, ultimately, is the greatest danger of religion and theism. There is only one person that matters, God, and unfortunatley, he doesn’t really exist.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    I am not advocating that we ignore the beliefs of non-fundamentalist. As atheists, we have a position regarding the supernatural, and when appropriate we should put this position forward.

    What I am advocating is taking into account both beliefs and actions. While I think many atheists are by nature rational – not all are. For example, there is a type of atheist I have encountered who uses it as a cover to engage in bad behavior, through the linking of atheism with an extreme moral relativism. For lack of a better term, I call them “creepy atheists”. There are also religious people who, while they believe in various gods and associate theological constructs, are also just plain nice, involved with feeding the poor, concerned about the environment, and other such things. Guess who I actually have more in common with? Guess who I want to hang out with? We are not only defined by atheism – it’s the same with peoples actions.

    I am sure we all have many concerns, and atheism, as important as it is, is only one of them. I am simply advocating taking into account all the concerns before deciding on a course of action. Some in the religious community turn atheists into caricatures – we don’t want to be guilty of the same.

  • andrea

    I would say that both sides are guilty of “circling the wagons” when either “creepy atheists” or religious zealots are mentioned. Neither side is willing to step up to the plate and say “they’re crazy” and therefore appears to tacitly accept whatever they do because “we” don’t want to bash our own.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Adam, have you received any hate mail at your site(s) (Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism)?

    Surprisingly, no. I do get the occasional “repent and come to know the love of Jesus or he’ll throw you into the lake of fire”-type e-mail, and then of course there’s J.P. Holding, but I’ve never gotten any mail that contained any outright threat. I suppose I’ve been fortunate in that respect.

    Some of the Christians here were so “shocked” that I said that it was a pity that “Christians” had to resort to threats. Why there was no proof that it was Christians! Why they must just be calling themselves Christians!

    Right. And Pat Robertson was just acting as an atheist operative when he called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, one supposes.

    Lets not get carried away with the Christian bashing, else the accusation that atheists are all angry may appear true. My wife is a Christian, and isn’t the things being stated in these messages.

    That’s absolutely true, and we should keep it in mind and not be indiscriminate in our condemnations. There are plenty of moderate and liberal Christians (and Muslims, and so on) who are moral people and who, by themselves, are not doing any harm. And we should recognize this and work with them; we’re going to have to, if we want to bring about any substantial social change any time soon.

    The problem, as BWM and many others have observed, is that the religious moderates do aid the fanatics in one significant way – namely, by creating an environment in which faith is considered an acceptable method of guiding public policy and in which any belief or practice stemming from religion is considered beyond criticism. As well-intentioned as they may be, the moderates have created an atmosphere in which the zealots can breathe, and this is something that needs to be reversed. We all have to emphasize that reason and the common good is the only acceptable way of making decisions that affect others, and that all beliefs, including religious beliefs, are up for criticism and debate. If we can foster this environment of free inquiry under the umbrella of liberty, it will suck the oxygen right out of the fundamentalists’ lungs, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    At a certain level all the religious, whether moderate or fundamentalist, have culpability in contributing to an environment where it is acceptable to appeal to and make decisions based on supernatural forces. I would not suggest that we paper over this fundamental difference, simply because the religion is practiced in moderation. On the other hand, we need to be careful on how we lay blame for the ills of the world. And we need to determine what is to be accomplished, understanding that irrationality and evil are spread in good measure, regardless of position on the supernatural.

    I spent some time a few years back in an x-Soviet satellite country, and got to see the horrible mess and legacy of a failed ideology. I happened to be reading a volume of “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the time, which made the experience hit home. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of the population was marched off to gulag in the russification of this country, many never to return. The human race seems strangely pre-disposed to potentially destructive ideologies, religion being just one of these many problematic forces.

    That said, the reason I consider religion of special significance in terms of how it can foster irrational thoughts and potentially dangerous actions, is the supernatural component. This makes it different from other ideologies. Consider that we all have discussions and arguments on various topics, and even if there is no agreement, the discussion can involve rational give and take based on the evidences. How is this to happen when the topic is religion, and faith is considered a legitimate substitute for reason? Where one side is using as evidence a supernatural force not of this world and not accountable to reasoned argument. What am I to say to the guy who wants to blow up a plane, if his god has told him to do it? Why would he take my opinion over the supreme creator of the universe? Hence the special problem with the supernatural and religion.

    As Adam mentioned, we have things to do in this world and people to work with. I think if we keep in mind that the religious are not a monolith, then we will be most effective in responding to the challenges and implementing change.