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.