Not Being an Angry Atheist

In the marketplace of ideas, atheists and atheism are still fighting to carve out a place. We have made some dramatic gains, but our long-term success is not yet assured. The sheer novelty of our message has, no doubt, attracted much interest and attention, but we must still work to win an established place in society’s halls of power. When media organizations routinely invite atheists along with religious leaders to give the secular humanist perspective on issues, or when politicians seeking office cater to our interests, then we will know we have arrived. Until then, we have much work left to do.

Part of this effort, side by side with the effort to defend our civil rights, must be outreach. TV appearances, best-selling books and other mass media communications are helpful, but naturally not every atheist can do that. At least as important, and possibly more so, is advocacy on a grassroots level – reaching out to people on an individual level, the people around us and the ones we meet in everyday life, spreading the good news of atheism one person at a time. It may be slow, but to truly change people’s minds, there is no substitute for it. The best way to banish prejudice is to show people whom we personally know that atheists are ordinary, decent citizens – for strangers can easily be dismissed and demonized, whereas someone whom the questioner knows personally is far harder to stereotype in this way.

A major part of any atheist outreach effort must be to burnish our public image. Making people aware of our existence is the most important thing, of course. But close behind that must be a conscious effort to appear friendly and approachable. It is our adversaries’ fondest dream to portray atheists as bitter, hostile misanthropes, and we give them ammunition when we act and speak in ways that can be exploited to depict us as such.

Take this editorial, Does God live on the Coastside?, recently published in a local California paper, the Half Moon Bay Review. The editorial itself is unremarkable, but consider the following reader comment by one Arlene Flick:

I just think it would be so sad to be a non-believer in God. How alone you must feel if you didn’t believe in an after life. What prevents you from doing bad things in life? How do you determine right from wrong? I see quite a few people, especially in the Bay Area, that “feel” like they have the right to do whatever “they feel” like doing without examining the consequences on their family, their neighbors, their community. It is a very selfish attitude and it seems to run amuck especially out here in the Bay Area. The more I see, read and hear out here, the more I see a return to Sodom and Gomorrah. History does tend to repeat itself.

Certainly, there’s much in this comment that an atheist could take offense at. But regardless, this is not the way to reply:

Have you actually read Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens? Your post is really uninformed and needlessly insulting. Please educate yourself on the subject of ethics and don’t simply regurgitate mindless Christian right propaganda. Atheists are some of the most ethical people you will ever meet. Or don’t you know any atheists?

I don’t mean to hold this atheist up for public criticism, but as understandable as his offended comment is, it is not the right course of action. Replies like this will only cement a negative image of atheism in the mind of the original commenter, as well as in the minds of others who may be reading and listening.

I certainly don’t deny that the original post was both uninformed and insulting. We have heard these stereotypes so many times before that, to us, they have become irritating and tiresome, which explains why many atheists give snappish replies when confronted with them yet again. But we must keep in mind that, to the religious people making them, these claims are both brand-new and persuasive. In all probability, Ms. Flick has never heard an actual atheist in her life, and finds these anti-atheist arguments to be cogent and convincing.

But because she has probably never heard a real atheist, this reflexive prejudice may not be deep or strongly held. There are obvious counters to these arguments, well-known to us, but probably not known to her. If we realize this and respond to her, not with anger but with understanding, we stand to gain two achievements: first, defusing these anti-atheist claims with a well-reasoned response, and second, jarring her negative attitude toward atheism by showing that we can be civil and friendly – even likable – even when challenged.

When we do not give reason for a person to take offense at our response, we make it much harder for them to dismiss that response without considering it. Instead, we should show that we understand their criticisms while simultaneously showing that they are unfounded. This is how I responded:

“I just think it would be so sad to be a non-believer in God. How alone you must feel if you didn’t believe in an after life.”

I appreciate your sympathy, but I can assure you it isn’t necessary. As an atheist, I find more than sufficient reason for happiness and contentment in this lifetime. There’s enough wonder and beauty in this world that I see no need for any other. On the other hand, I feel concern for you, if you’re so unhappy with this life that you’ve staked all your happiness on the existence of another. Rather than putting all your effort into wishing there’s an afterlife where your troubles will be magically resolved, I think you’d do better to strive toward making this life what you wish it to be.

“What prevents you from doing bad things in life? How do you determine right from wrong?”

The same way as anyone else: we use reason to evaluate the consequences of our actions, coupled with the sense of compassion that lets us imagine what it would be like to be in the position of other people whom our actions affect. It’s not difficult. Frankly, I’d be concerned by someone who prefers to be told what to do, rather than letting their own conscience guide them. That sort of morality is far too easily turned to evil and wrongdoing.

“I see quite a few people, especially in the Bay Area, that “feel” like they have the right to do whatever “they feel” like doing without examining the consequences on their family, their neighbors, their community.”

That is a sorry attitude, I agree. But it has nothing to do with atheism.

About Adam Lee

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

  • ylooshi

    Well said. I think that there are a lot of atheists that use the anonymity of the internet as a means of exploring the “angry atheist” side that we all, undoubtedly, harbor. I know I’ve expressed a few things about atheism online that I would never have said to a believer face-to-face. Right or wrong, the internet affords some opportunity to explore the various arguments and responses, sometimes in a structured debate format -sometimes not. I’m not justifying the “angry atheist,” but their perspective is often understandable.

    But I agree that, when in a public forum like a newspaper’s editorial page, its most helpful when atheists respond with compassion and reason rather than just emotion. It’s hard to keep in mind sometimes that the religious believer truly hasn’t the first clue of atheist and humanist philosophy and cannot fathom a worldview that does’t include an afterlife or one that includes morality without their God.

  • tobe38

    There are obvious counters to these arguments, well-known to us, but probably not known to her.

    I think this is a really good point. We’re so used to having to repeat the same arguments over and over, but we have to remember that it’s not the same person each time. It does take a lot of patience to make a point you’ve made a hundred times before as if you’ve never made it before, but you’re right that it’s important to make the effort.

  • superhappyjen

    Right on! The best thing we can do for atheism is to be happy, well-adjusted, friendly people.

  • KShep

    Great post. This is reminiscent of what things must have been like in the early days of MLK’s rise to prominence. His message was very similar to yours, Ebonmuse, and it is just as correct now as it was then.
    I can see a future head-banging-against-the-wall moment, though, if our movement keeps picking up momentum. It’s the prevailing negative image of atheists that the religious have of us that won’t change even IF they know an ethical, moral, kind atheist. They just won’t make the connection that this nice atheist they know is an accurate representation of most atheists. Instead, they’ll still hold on to their pre-conceived notions that atheists are bad and that the atheist acquaintance must be “one of the nice ones.”
    I know a businessman, member of my in-laws extended family, owner of a successful excavating business who will “never hire another (disgusting well-used epithet for black people) again as long as I live” because “I once hired one and he was the laziest damn good-for-nothing I’ve ever seen!”
    I said, “How many lazy white guys have you hired over the years?”
    He said, “Lots.”
    I said, “Have you stopped hiring white guys because of those many lazy ones?”
    “Well, no, just the lazy ones.”
    “So, you had ONE lazy black man, and he represents the ENTIRE population of black people, but you’ve hired MANY lazy white guys, and that doesn’t concern you?”

    Immediate change of subject. It was a holiday gathering, after all.

    This is the attitude MLK and many others worked hard to overcome, and we will have to as well. I can see many exchanges like this in the coming years. Religious people just have a great deal of difficulty changing their minds. My dad, a very open-minded guy, still thinks atheism is just devil worship.

    “It’s just the opposite of god worship, right?”

    (head banging on wall)

  • OMGF

    I love how all the people in the bay area that feel like they have the right to do whatever they please are obviously atheists in Ms. Flick’s eyes.

  • Tommykey

    Mrs. Flick, another sadly misinformed person who thinks that I must be feeling lonely because I don’t believe in a god or an afterlife.

  • Hellbound Alleee

    Well, I’m not one for politics. If a person is angry, let him be angry. If a person is crazy, he’s crazy. I don’t talk to people to advertise the brand of atheism. I don’t speak for others who don’t believe. Again, I am totally against creating a movement where there is none. Yes, others who have a vested interest in categorizing individuals will keep doing it until the day they die. But my fight is not atheism: it is individualism and anarchism. It is moral realism. I wish others wouldn’t spread the lie of an atheist culture; yet I could not force them to believe otherwise.

  • OMGF

    Who is talking about an “atheist culture”? All we are asking for is to not be stereotyped and discriminated against for our lack of beliefs.

  • Matt

    I also have my misgivings about angry atheists (even Harris is a bit too radical for me). But I have to admit, I probably would have raised similar points as the original reply: -does Flick know any atheists? -did she think up those arguments herself? -and which side shows more disregard for the effect of one’s own beliefs on others?

    But your response would be far more productive (not to mention harder to reply to!) albeit requiring more self control.

  • Darren

    Anger is just an emotion like any other, and properly channelled it can be a powerful driving force to do right and undo wrongs. Most atheist activists, I put to you, are driven by a sense of anger, but it’s the accompanying emotions and attitudes that must be tempered: irritation, dismissiveness, arrogance, aggressiveness, and the like.

    Anger is, I think, at this stage of the game, an important ingredient in gaining attention.

  • stillwaters

    Matt writes:

    I also have my misgivings about angry atheists (even Harris is a bit too radical for me).

    Excuse me, but who are these angry atheists? Are you referring to Sam Harris as an angry atheist? And what do you mean by “too radical”? Radical in what sense.

    I’m asking because I don’t see Harris or any of the other more popular atheist leaders (e.g. Dawkins) as being angry. To me, they are speaking in a rather civil tone of voice. Although they greatly disagree with religion and religious ideas, I don’t see them as being angry about it.

  • Lynet

    With regard to the exchange between Matt and stillwaters, I think we need to be suspicious of “I’m not one of those” type arguments. Ebonmuse is good at avoiding that standpoint — no criticism there. But as soon as more moderate atheists start accusing specific people of being “angry atheists”, they’re buying into a stereotype that I really don’t think they should want to support. Clarify where you disagree with prominent atheists, sure, but don’t add support to the idea that atheism can be assumed to be ‘angry’ as soon as it gets too exacting, passionate or noticeable.

  • antaresrichard

    The approach you suggest is preferable to me, but alas the admonition to the faithful would probably then become: “Beware Satan, shining angel of light, seducing you with a smile.”

  • Laurence Crews

    Excellent site and excellent insight. Keep on!

  • valhar2000

    The approach you suggest is preferable to me, but alas the admonition to the faithful would probably then become: “Beware Satan, shining angel of light, seducing you with a smile.”

    One can only hope that a sufficiently large number of people will not act like this. I do think, however, that a considerable number of people, perhaps even while giving lip service to this idea, will not be able to keep to it, and indeed by swayed by the smiles.

  • Brock

    I agree that atheists need to struggle against the stereotype others have of us, and I agree that we are the last minority that people feel comfortable kicking around. What I think a lot of us need to bear in mind is that we are an artifical minority. What we believe (or don’t believe) should be the least important thing about us. Again the analogy with people whose skin color is different from others is useful. Who cares what color my skin is? Only bigots,and other ignoramuses. This fight is not of our making; it has been forced upon us. That being said, tactics are important, and an understanding of how we are stereotyped is crucial to defining our response, so that we do not fall into the trap, as Ebonmusings has noted, of reinforcing that stereotype.

  • Tommykey

    I don’t view Sam Harris as being an angry atheist. He is simply outspoken. An angry atheist would be burning Bibles and Qurans or desecrating communion wafers when speaking to an audience.

  • stillwaters

    I suppose that the point that Ebonmuse is making is not that there exist some angry atheists, but that we are all, all of us atheists, perceived that way. In order to eradicate this particular stereotype, it is best to remain civil during discourse, no matter how frustrating a discussion may become, or how often the same point must be repeated endlessly.

    It is not a question of whether we think Harris is angry or not, but how to put an end to the narrow-minded perception that ALL atheists are angry. It’s a fine line, since (too) many people will view any outspoken criticism of religion as being angry.

    It is quite similar to the idea that these outspoken atheists are just as extreme as christian fundamentalists. Yes, I have heard some speak of Dawkins as being an extremist. An extremist in what way? I had to ask. I never did get an answer to my question. It is mostly just rhetoric, and designed to disparage the atheist position as being a preferable worldview over the governing opinion that everyone just has to believe in something supernatural.

  • James Bradbury

    I think the “angry atheist” fallacy is one of the easiest theist misconceptions to break down. So it’s a good place to start.

    At best you can cast a lot of doubt on the existence of god or gods, and that’s only if people are listening and taking your seriously. But to expose the lies they may have been told about atheists is relatively easy. If you can demonstrate that their religious leaders weren’t being entirely straight with them you may even arouse their curiosity. Maybe then you might get a fair hearing for some awkward questions about god(s).

  • Intergalactic Hussy

    I see quite a few people, especially in the Bay Area, that “feel” like they have the right to do whatever “they feel” like doing without examining the consequences on their family, their neighbors, their community. It is a very selfish attitude and it seems to run amuck especially out here in the Bay Area.

    Funny, many Christians I know tend to be the selfish ones.

    And it’s sad when someone needs a god to not feel alone. Can anyone say emotionally weak? Is that not selfish? Trying to make herself feel better in life by having a personal god? Hmmm….

  • Jeff T.

    Perhaps reason, compassion, and logic have a high place in an atheist’s arsenal but a well placed flame and personal attack can work miracles.
    For example, in this case, an attack on living in the Bay area itself would have been an appropriate countermeasure…

  • Polly

    If atheists want to dispel stereotypes, we should adopt a posture of “educators.” Teachers don’t get surly or short when they hear the same questions being asked by students every new year. That’s because they know that it’s a brand new batch of kids.
    Each theist who asks you where you get your morals is like a 5th grader asking you to explain the times tables. It’s really not their fault that they are ignorant (just take that stance anyway). How many people in general spend their time thinking about their worldview? Patiently explain all the reasons for atheism just as if you were teaching Atheism 101, because, really, that IS what you’re doing.
    If they refuse to listen with an open mind and are deliberately obstinate, simply bow out, gracefully.

  • Ken

    We need to communicate better the wonderful feeling of thinking about and seeing and experiencing all the beauty of the world and of imagining the incredible infiniteness of the universe with unfiltered, unfettered minds. When I was a Christian, with every thought also came some idea in my mind about whether I was on the right track, whether I was being a good Christian. I wasn’t interested in much else. I just wanted to please God. Now, I’ll admit my lows are lower, but at least my eyes are open to life. My mind is free, my thoughts are my own, I am creative and have intellectual curiosity, which I didn’t as a Christian, except as it pertained to God, Jesus and the Bible. People need to know the clarity we feel, when we are unencumbered by doctrines that claim they know best for us. I am a very moral person. And I can feel good about it because I am not simply following what others or what ancient, often irrelevant books tell me to do.

  • Frank

    Polly: and are we suddenly in the position of having to be “educators” of any theist who happens along? The information, arguments, and essays are out there and easy to find. If they don’t want to be completely ignorant of atheist thought, let them do their homework.

    I would expect any theist attempting to engage me in a religious conversation to have the common courtesy to know what he’s talking about before he starts making ill-informed and arbitrary judgments on the entire atheist population. Just the fact that I’m an atheist doesn’t make me responsible for his education on the subject.

    And I don’t think the atheist quoted in the original essay was out of line in pointing out that the Christian post was uninformed and needlessly insulting.

  • Polly

    Hello Frank,

    By no means am I the arbiter of atheist manners. And in answer to your (rhetorical) question, No, it’s not incumbent upon us, individually or colletively, to “educate” any and every theist that happens along our path.
    The above is how I choose to see the situation and respond to honest questioners; assuming I have the time, energy, etc…

  • Godless Kiwi

    I think you need to differentiate between those of us who are atheists (i.e. have an absence of a belief in God) and those of us who, in addition to our atheism, are anti-religion (i.e. hold an oppositional attitude to organised religion).