In Defense of Anger

A few weeks ago, I posted a guest blog written by Karla McLaren on how incorporating more dialectics will benefit the atheist movement, which at present is largely guided, shaped and moderated by polemical rhetoric. Her post stirred up a lot of disagreement here and at other blogs. Similarly, the next guest blog I posted, a reflection by Christopher Michael Luna, sparked additional disagreements and accusations that McLaren, Luna, I (and many who affiliate with us) don’t have the best interests of the atheist movement in mind.

This isn’t the first time that posts on NonProphet Status have inflamed such controversy, and I admire that McLaren and Luna initially attempted to engage every commenter — something I rarely have time for, though I long to do — but eventually the dialogue broke down.

Now, a few weeks later, I’ll take this opportunity to make some clarifications:

I’ve always assumed that people (especially folks from the atheist movement, which trumpets freethought and individual responsibility) would instinctually understand that I don’t agree with every single word composed by the guest bloggers I host on NonProphet Status. However, I think assuming that may have been unfair on my part. It is clear to me now that this explicit sidebar statement is necessary: “The views expressed by NonProphet Status guest bloggers may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Chris Stedman or any of the organizations he affiliates with.”

That said, even when I am not in full agreement with a guest blogger, I believe in lifting up diverse (non-polemical) perspectives around issues of atheism and interfaith engagement. If I think a post has something worthwhile to say, and that it might prompt an important conversation, I am keen to share it.

My ask? That commenters here strive to see posts for what they are; that they make every attempt to assume that the author has the best of intentions and go about raising their disagreements in a way that is civil and demonstrates a genuine desire to get at the heart of the truth. I will no longer permit comments that unreasonably attack anyone; this is not a forum for that. If you relish in tearing people down, there are plenty of other places on the internet for that (I can think of several off the top of my head). I won’t tolerate it here because that is not what this site is here for; if you engage in inappropriate personal attacks, you run the risk of having your comment removed. I don’t wish to silence different perspectives, but having a bottom line isn’t unreasonable.

In short: Work to be agreeable in your disagreements. (And yes, I’m from Minnesota, ha.)

[Note: I’m not going to go down the path of defending the more personal criticisms directed at me — I have no interest in humoring the accusations that I might not actually be an atheist, or that I don’t have the best of intentions concerning the atheist movement, for which I’ve sacrificed an incalculable amount of time, money, and energy. There’s really no reasoning with such baseless criticism.]

With all of that said, I’d like to share a very engaging response by McLaren to her piece from a couple weeks ago and the reaction it elicited. I thought it only fair to give her the opportunity to elaborate on what she meant in the same forum her first piece was posted. Please read it — it’s well worth your time — and, if you feel so inclined, respond in a manner befitting her measured and thoughtful tone.

So here’s the new situation, in case you missed it. I wrote a guest post for NonProphet Status about anger and incivility in New Atheism that, to put it mildly, blew up.

My ideas were unfortunately (perhaps inevitably) misconstrued, and it seemed as if I was saying that anger itself is neither appropriate nor acceptable. I wasn’t saying that, but that’s what some people heard. And from my reading of many of the responses, it would seem my request for civility was seen as not only unfair, but as toxic, stifling, and equivalent to censorship. This response seemed very strange to me, because civility doesn’t indicate the absence of anger, just as courage doesn’t indicate the absence of fear[i].

Stranger still was this demand (though I’ve seen it leveled at others): If I did not point out specific instances of uncivil, polemical behaviors, then my argument was deemed moot. At first, I thought, “They’re kidding, right? This behavior is everywhere in atheism.” It seemed to be a time-wasting diversionary ploy. But then I wondered, “Could this question be sincere?”

If it is sincere, let me explain: I deliberately chose to write about these uncivil behaviors as trends within the movement, rather than making examples of specific people[ii]. No one had directly offended against me, so why should I offend against anyone else? Instead, I used my own anger to write about attitudes, behaviors, and discourse styles … but not about specific people, because that’s not civil. There are ways to use anger that are non-polemical, non-directed, and most importantly, non-oppressive.

But the anger that was returned in many of the comments (and in retort posts on other sites) was none of these things. A subset of the anger I witnessed contained no respect, no boundaries, and no rules. It was an anger that involved direct slander against me, personal attacks against Chris Stedman (for daring to give me a public forum), and repetitive attempts to silence me, dehumanize me, and control my intellectual output and my voice. Though I was saddened to see this unwarranted behavior played out like a game, like a nightmare romp of the id, I had seen it before. It’s nothing new. In fact, it is the precise behavior I objected to in my post.

I thought about lifting snippets of the offending comments into this post so that we could all understand exactly what I mean by slander, by dehumanization, by abuse, and by silencing and control tactics, but there are three problems with this idea.

First: Making examples of offending individuals can only seem paternalistic or schoolmarmish – and though important learning may occur for onlookers, it is an offense against the enraged person. What I notice about continually enraged people is that they feel they are under attack; intentionally intensifying that feeling is inhumane.

Second: If people have become so destabilized by the mere words of another, it is probably best to let them cool down and reflect privately. Inflaming the further anger of people who have shown that they can’t manage the anger they already have … that’s just cruel and baiting. It’s a sick-fun way to score points at the expense of all humanity, but humanity has been through a lot recently; it’s preferable to use anger without abusing or humiliating people.

Third: Getting specific about a behavior that is generalized will take our eyes off the prize. We’ll waste time arguing about whether specific attacks are ad hominem, straw man, or poisoning the well; whether we’re making epistemological or rhetorical blunders; or whether Hegel ruined the entire concept of the dialectic. Those are interesting intellectual diversions, but it’s time to put mere intellectualism aside and talk seriously about the future of the movement and why this abusive behavior threatens it.

metaphorFor me as an agnostic atheist, the future of the movement is an eventual acceptance of secularism as a moral, ethical, and viable alternative (not necessarily a replacement; I’m a realist) to religion, to faith communities, and to faith-based community service and social justice initiatives. This is a five, ten, or twenty year plan that requires long-range strategizing. Here’s the trouble: the abusive and dehumanizing behaviors that are becoming commonplace in sectors of atheism threaten that plan – or any plan. These troubling behaviors are not long-range strategies; they’re not reasoned analyses of differing approaches; they’re reactionary shrapnel bombs, and they’re making our secular community look like a vitriolic mob.

But this is not our special disability. We see this same sort of abusive discourse in many areas of public (and especially political) life, and certainly throughout the internet, where trolls, flaming, and thread fights are a fact of life. However, there’s a noteworthy difference within the atheist (and skeptical) communities, because this abuse is quickly becoming a protected behavior.

Many approaches (except the compassionate ones)

In this past year, a sociologically fascinating “many approaches” meme[iii] has permeated the atheist and skeptical movements. Increasingly, anyone who questions the fiercely uncivil and polemical discourse style will be upbraided with some version of the “many approaches are necessary, so don’t muzzle the movement[iv]” meme.

In this meme, however, fierce approaches are actually the only approaches being protected. Moderating approaches such as mine, which are pejoratively dismissed as accommodationist, are explicitly not protected by this meme.

This “many approaches” meme isn’t just being used laterally to shame and stifle peers in comment threads; it is also being used from the top down by elders and authority figures to silence the moderating requests of fellow atheists and skeptics. Wow. That’s a powerful meme!

But it’s not that powerful. I’m now renaming it the “many approaches except yours” meme, and I’m opposing it resolutely. Abuse, slander, and dehumanization are not valid approaches to anything; they’re not even polemics. They’re abuse, and they should not be tolerated in any movement anywhere, ever – and especially not in a movement that trumpets its capacity for critical thinking.

We secularists are a vanishingly tiny, highly stigmatized minority attempting improbable feats against impossible odds. Tearing into moderating voices and creating false dichotomies about accommodationism[v] and confrontationalism – it’s preposterous. We need our anger, but we need to learn to use it in ways that work. We also need to learn that anger is just one of dozens of emotions, each with its own purpose and use.

sisyphusI am often angered, shocked, and aggrieved by the abuses that are endemic to religion and supernaturalism. However, I am also bemused, interested in, and often fascinated by the people who believe in them – and by the comforts they find there. Religion and supernaturalism are the only support structures that exist for a heartbreakingly large portion of humanity; therefore, I cannot condone the idea that the abuses within religion and supernaturalism make retaliatory counter-abuses compulsory.

Religion and supernaturalism are deeply problematic, yet it’s clear that a mere lack of religion doesn’t necessarily ennoble or improve people – because improvement requires sincere self-reflection, healthy community, ethical and moral guidelines, emotional and intellectual proficiency, meaningful communication, and plain old love.

If our movement is to improve and become viable, then we must undertake the serious work that improvement requires. We must also invite community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, intentional non-polemicists, interfaith visionaries, and courageous communicators to use their versions of anger – moderated by sadness, grief, hope, fear, and love – to build a welcoming and inclusive community for current and future refugees from religion and supernaturalism.

Just so we’re clear, these current refugees include you and me. I want to speak with you, my fellow seeker of justice and reason, no matter how angry you are; no matter how horrified you are; and no matter how much your grief threatens to crush you … but we can’t communicate, and we can’t get anywhere together if you let your necessary emotions erase your compassion, your reason, and your honor.

So go ahead and state your objections, your hopes, your fears, and your angers, and let’s build a movement that can replace religion and supernaturalism – not because we can shout louder than anyone else – but because our movement is civil, ethical, noble, intellectually gifted, and emotionally awesome.

karlaKarla McLaren ended her New Age healing career in 2003 to study the social sciences and the ways that social forces shape behavior. Her most recent titles are the book The Language of Emotions (2010), and the sociological study “Inside and Outcast” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2010), co-authored with cult expert Janja Lalich.

[i] Why do we require civility? Because it helps us moderate our anger so we don’t behave in abusive and destructive ways. Why do we require courage? Because it helps us face things that terrify us. Civility requires anger; courage requires fear.

[ii] Actually, I specifically chose to use the authors Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett (The Four Horsemen of Atheism) as exemplars, because they’re public polemicists (yes, I know that all four men have moved on in their work and in their approaches, but I am focusing upon very specific behaviors that their early polemics encouraged). I chose The Four because I knew they could take a punch and not be hurt (or even take any notice). I’m nothing to them, and I used them because I knew that my anger could not hurt them.

[iii] A meme is an often-repeated, fast-moving, and quickly adopted slogan or idea. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins as a way to conceptualize the transmission (and success) of ideas in much the same way successful genes are transmitted through evolution. Note that a successful gene (such as one that transmits hereditary hemophilia, for instance) or meme (“death panels” comes to mind) is not necessarily a beneficial one.

[iv] This meme has intensified exponentially since July 2010, when astronomer Phil Plait challenged uncivil skeptical outreach in his now-famous DBAD speech.


[v] Synonyms for accommodate: harmonize, assist, shelter, comfort, conciliate, correspond, oblige, moderate, have room for, hold without crowding…

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