Are Atheists Angry or Threatened by God?

I recently read a web-exclusive commentary on Newsweek magazine’s website by Rabbi Marc Gellman entitled, “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists.” The article’s sub-title asked the question, “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?” Gellman begins his article with the following words:

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.

I think these are perfectly reasonable statements and the world would almost certainly be a better place if everyone demonstrated the kind of humility shown by Gellman in his commentary’s introduction. Before we go any further, then, allow me to return the favor: I need to understand theists better. I bear them no ill will. I don’t think they need to be secular to be rational, intelligent, and well-informed about science. I don’t desire to convert theists to atheism, but I do admit that I desire to stop prejudice against atheists.

Returning to Gellman’s article, I soon found Gellman making a different type of statement about atheists. He writes:

However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.

How should atheists respond to Gellman’s perplexity?

As an atheist myself, I have to confess it is tempting to get on the defensive. If I were to go down that path, I would probably focus on disproving the assumption that atheists “are often so angry” because I do not consider myself angry even though I am an atheist, and the majority of atheists I know are also not angry. Some atheists are angry, however. In response to Gellman’s editorial, those atheists admit they are angry and try to justify it. (See, for example, three of the letters to Newsweek magazine posted on American Atheist’s website under a special “Action Alert” about Gellman’s article.)

I wonder, however, if defensive strategies are a mistake. Rabbi Gellman said earlier that he bears atheists no ill will, and I take him at his word. Again, he said that he thinks he needs to understand atheists better, so why not take that statement at face value as a genuine request for enlightenment? Moreover, as several atheists themselves have noted, Gellman is by no means the first person to express the belief that atheists are angry. In other words, there is a perception that atheists are angry, and that would still be the case even if the perception were inaccurate at best or a hurtful stereotype at worst.

While I cannot tell other atheists how they should respond to Gellman’s perplexity, my own response begins with acknowledgment. Because Gellman’s editorial presupposes, not argues, that atheists “are often so angry,” I don’t know what specific experiences or observations led to his statement. It is not difficult to believe, however, that his only or dominant experience of atheists has been exposure to angry atheists. I can think of at least three reasons why. (There are probably others.)

First, probably the most famous atheist in the United States is the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, despite the fact that she has now been dead for ten years. O’Hair, who was often called “the most hated woman in America,” was surely an angry atheist if there ever were one. Not only was she rude to theists, she was rude to agnostics and even fellow atheists as well. (In fairness to O’Hair, who can no longer defend herself, it must be acknowledged that she suffered horrible emotional injuries for her courage to stand up for what she thought was right. She was the constant recipient of death threats and other forms of harassment, and decades of exposure to such behavior surely took their toll on O’Hair. Nevertheless, she was an adult and fully responsible for her uncivil behavior.) And the failure of many atheist organizations–most notably, American Atheists–to loudly and publicly condemn her behavior has certainly not helped the public’s perceptions of atheists.

Second, much of the media coverage of atheists is related to highly controversial church-state issues, issues that are often viewed as petty by non-atheists. Think about it. How often do you see the word “atheist” in a newspaper story that is not related to a church-state issue? And what about the significance of the specific issues raised in atheist-specific lawsuits? Recent atheist-driven lawsuits have focused on the presence of the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and on currency. If I were a theist and did not know any atheists, I can easily imagine myself drawing the same conclusion that Gellman and many other people have drawn, namely, the idea that “nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God.”

Third, I have watched several self-appointed defenders of atheism exhibit uncivil behavior in public debates on God’s existence. While I believe such behavior in public debates is the exception rather than the rule, the fact that it happens at all must have a negative impact on the public’s perception of atheists.

Even though I think there is evidence that many atheists are not angry (and also that some theists are angry), there is clearly evidence that some high-profile atheists are angry atheists. What to do?

Many atheists have compared the difficulty of leading atheists to the difficulty of herding cats. There is a lot of wisdom in that view. Atheism has no “pope” and I, at least, do not claim to be the leader of the atheist movement. It’s not like atheism is a corporation where the bad employees can be fired. Nevertheless, I can think of at least one idea that will help with the situation: accountability. Rather than ask theists to trust us (atheists), I invite them to track us. Hold us accountable. Measure our performance. If a high-profile atheist publicly exhibits unjustified anger or lack of civility, watch and see if any major atheist organizations criticize that atheist. If they don’t, then criticize not only the high-profile atheist, but all of the organizations that failed to condemn the behavior. On the flip side, however, if a high-profile atheist does not exhibit anger and does not seem “threatened by the idea of God,” then give them credit.

Soon after its inception in 1995, the Internet Infidels instituted a peer review process for all papers submitted for publication in the Secular Web’s Modern Library. Although the primary purpose of the peer review process was to ensure the accuracy and quality of the papers selected for publication, a secondary purpose of the peer review process was to ensure that all papers published in the Modern Library were professional. The peer review process was far from perfect and over the years several improvements have been made. Even so, the process has had some successes, including at least one that is relevant to the topic of angry atheists. A high-profile atheist had submitted a paper that definitely came across as angry. I required that it be revised before publication, which it was. Likewise, I am aware of angry atheists engaging in unacceptable behavior on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, which resulted in their banning from the forum. This should be some consolation to those, like Rabbi Gellman, who are tempted to question why some atheists “are often so angry” or whether the angry atheists are representative of atheists in general.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • PK

    I sent the following letter to the editors and a similar one to Rabbi Gellman.


    I’m an atheist (whose family is Jewish). I don’t for a moment think Rabbi Gellman’s generalization about atheists being typically angry is remotely fair. Moreover, I think his generalization is a variant of the hackneyed theistic claim that atheists are necessarily immoral. Likewise, Christians used to assume that Jews are evil (because Jews killed Jesus), that Jews eat babies and so forth. I’m sure as a Rabbi he’s familiar with that sort of demonization. To make members of one’s own group feel more comfortable being in that group, an opposing group is demonized. That’s a very old tactic, and it’s self-defeating since the atheist can just as well throw out pop psychological, oversimplified generalizations about the theist. For example, there’s the argument that because of the theist’s fear of death, the theist uses religion as a crutch, and that the atheist is courageous enough to face up to harsh facts without deluding himself or herself, without yielding to a childish urge for eternal parental protection.

    But let’s put aside these pointless accusations, which lead to a stalemate and which are fallacious as arguments for theism or for atheism. Just for the sake of argument, I’d like to grant Rabbi Gellman’s point about atheists being typically angry. He says he doesn’t understand why atheists are often angry, but this is surely disingenuous. Surely he has the imagination to take up what he sees as the atheist’s perspective. Surely he can imagine believing there’s no afterlife, and thus no chance of seeing dead relatives again; no divine justice, and thus no guarantee that good people will be rewarded and bad people punished; no ultimate meaning to our lives other than our evolutionary function and whatever meaning we ourselves give; and no one to blame for creating people who are intelligent enough to entertain these sobering propositions. Is Rabbi Gellman serious when he says he can’t understand why a person with these beliefs would often get angry?

    He says that atheists “believe nothing” and therefore see the theist’s mission to be good and altruistic as “a red flag.” Well, here’s another reason for atheists to be angry. Use your imagination now, Rabbi, and follow this train of thought just a little further. Imagine you’re an atheist who necessarily lacks merely theistic beliefs, but who is surrounded by billions of theists, many of whom surely think as you do that atheists “believe nothing” and are offended or somehow worried about the theists’ constant attempts to be good and at least to do something with their lives. Imagine how frustrated and angry you’d be if you were surrounded by people who thought so little of you.

    Of course, the notion that atheists are typically nihilists who believe nothing is absurd on its face. Has the Rabbi heard of secular humanism and of metaphysical naturalism? Has he heard of science? Has he heard of secular theories of ethics, such as those of Aristotle, Mill, or Kant (virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and deontology)? Has he heard of secular political and legal theories? But just imagine–can you do this, Rabbi? can you stop with the demonizing for just a moment?–being surrounded with people who thought so little of you as to think you’re offended by the very attempt to be as good as a person can be! Would you always be able to restrain your anger?

  • PK

    Atheists can debate tactics for responding to this kind of generalization about atheists being angry. Perhaps Gellman is sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why atheists are angry. But I think there are deeper reasons why a theist would generalize in this way. First, there’s the tendency to demonize members of opposing groups. More specifically, the charge that atheists are angry is related to the charge that atheists are immoral and unhappy. This, in turn, is based on the assumptions that morality depends on theism, and that human happiness depends on a relationship with God.

    And the deepest reason for the generalization I can think of is that personal attacks on atheists by theists are axiomatic for theists and are quite biblical. The classic is Psalm 14:1, “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.’” There are actually two personal attacks here: first the nonbeliever is called a fool, but second the claim that there’s no God is reduced to a feeling. Instead of being an intellectually respectable view, nonbelief is felt in the heart. This supports the theistic argument that the nonbeliever is personally unfulfilled, that he has a hole in his heart which isn’t being filled by the comfort that comes from a relationship with an infinite parent.

    So there are these deeper reasons for Gellman’s generalization. I don’t know for certain that Gellman is being disingenuous, but I suspect that he is since near the end of his article he implies that the atheist views the attempt to be as good as possible as a red flag. This shows Gellman’s aware of the argument that atheists are necessarily morally suspect. Gellman goes on to suggest that atheists “believe nothing.” This is the claim that atheists are nihilists, and this demonstrates a very low opinion of atheists. Gellman’s generalization isn’t just that atheists are angry.

  • Philosophy101

    Thank you for the article and your comment on my post. The question of civil discourse is not only at the heart of atheism vs. theism but also at the heart of every other major debate that is emotionally fueled. I applaude anyone who can attack an argument without attacking the arguer.

  • SH

    There is a difference between being angry and being uncivil to others. The question should not be whether we angry or not. The question should be what are we angry about (if we are) and whether this anger is justified. It seems to me that if someone accuses you of being angry over the fact your rights are being violated, your response should not be “No, I am not angry” but “Yes, I am angry because my rights are being violated”.

  • BK

    Hello Jeff, this is BK from the CADRE. You ask why Gellman would come to the conclusion that people find atheists angry. Well, I think that if you haven’t see this anger, it is because you seem to be the type who tries to deal with some of the questions intelligently. You have links on your own blog to philosophers and I trust that such a crowd would help keep the discussion at a higher level.

    Now, try this: pretend that you are a Christian and go to an open chatroom about religion. You don’t have to try to convert anyone, but simply mention that you are a Christian. See how the atheists treat you.

    Now, you can say that this is a small rabid community that is not part of the mainstream discussion — I agree. But they are vocal, hateful, and the closest that most people come to attempting to interact with an atheist about their beliefs. It is not a pretty picture.

    Nor am I saying Christians do not engage in the same tactic at times. But my experience is that most of the angry discussions are instigated by the skeptics and not the Christians who more often try to exhibit the fruits of the spirit.

    I do encourage you to read the website of Beyond Belief Media, the producers of the “God who Wasn’t There” film. There is no question about the distain they project.

    I know that I am pretty even keel and try to keep the conversation above-board or apologize where I go wrong. Yet, I know that I have been attacked very wrongly in rude, crude and disrespectful ways by people claiming to be atheists.

    I don’t think that the question is why did Rabbi Gellman come to this conclusion, because my own experience is that atheists do appear by and large more mean-spirited and rude. The better question is what can be done to bring the conversation to a more rational level. If you work on your end, I’ll work on mine.

  • Sportin’ Life

    Great post. I have no excuse for not already having you in my RSS reader. :-) But I just fixed that.

    I’d like to add two points.

    1) I am angry. It doesn’t have anything to do with atheism or religion per se, but with the role that christianity has played in the right-wing politics of the United States over the course of the last decade or so. A perfectly decent country is headed down the tubes, and religious demagogues are leading the way.

    2) I think there’s a selection bias at work in Gellman’s observation. I know that back before I was angry, I considered religious belief (and my own lack of it) to be personal and private–not a matter for public airing because of no ultimate significance to anyone other than the individual.

    Beyond this point of etiquette, many atheists feel at least some pressure from their communities to conform to the majority view–or to appear to conform.

    Theists will almost always assume that a stranger or acquaintance is also a theist–especially if that person seems friendly, generous, and all of the other things they reflexively think atheists are not. Unless there is some specific reason to do so, many (non-angry) atheists will choose not to challenge the assumption.

    In short, “anger” may be one of the ingredients that pushes atheists over the threshold to public identification.

  • Roger lemaitre

    Please, stop to be victim and to apologize.
    Much more theists are “angry” than atheists.
    They are angry against everyone, other sects, people that do not give money, people using bad words, people that spot them as pedophiles etc etc..
    Atheists are so rarely angry that they fuel but a negligible amount of the total word anger. And as sect people are hypocritical, they are more often angry than it appears.

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