Turning Away Anger

One of the most enduring stereotypes spread by religious people about atheists is that we are “angry”. Some particularly creative apologists add the detail that what we are truly angry at is God – which is impossible, by definition, since a person must first believe in God as a precondition of being angry at God – or that we react with anger or hostility to the mere mention of the religious beliefs of others. However, many theists who make this claim leave it at stating that atheists carry around some kind of generalized, diffuse anger at everything and nothing.

Needless to say, the standard purpose of these stereotypes is to smear and disparage atheists by making it seem as if we are somehow less than complete as people. But it should come as no surprise that I have observed precisely the opposite to be true: when we are not confronted by religious harassment and oppression, atheists in general are ordinary, normal, happy people, just like everyone else. I have been writing for this website for over five years now, and in that time, I have had the chance to meet, interact with, and speak to a great number of my fellow atheists. I can testify from personal experience that atheists, on the average, are no angrier than theists and in some cases less angry. All we want is what everyone wants: to live our lives in peace and security, to make our own decisions and live as we see fit, free of outside harm and harassment. We are generally quite peaceful and happy – when we are not being harassed by others who want to convert us, treat us as inferior, or take our civil rights away, that is!

On the other hand, what is indisputable is that there is a huge amount of anger seething and fuming among religious people. Not all religious people are angry or embittered, of course, but a very great number of them apparently are. The surest evidence of this is that whenever a public figure speaks out against religion, or worse, takes any sort of action to oppose the encroachments of religion, such as filing a lawsuit to defend the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, that person inevitably becomes the target of a blistering torrent of profane, obscene, violent, and threatening messages. Many believers, it is apparent, lash out with furious and disproportionate rage and hatred when their beliefs are challenged or opposed in any way.

Take the most famous example, Michael Newdow, the atheist who filed a lawsuit to have the phrase “one nation under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance on the self-evident grounds that it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. As a result of this case, Newdow has received so many profane, hateful and violent phone messages that he has incorporated them into a parodic song, “My God is in My Soul“. (Scroll down to song #8 on that page to see the lyrics. The phrases in quotation marks were culled from recordings left on Newdow’s answering machine.)

Indeed, not only has Newdow been insulted and threatened, the same fate has befallen even reporters who merely gave him coverage. From Bob Norman’s 2002 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.

Or consider the case of Jim McElroy, the lawyer representing atheist Philip Paulson in a church-state lawsuit over a massive cross on public property in Mount Soledad, California:

San Diego lawyer Jim McElroy insists he isn’t terribly bothered by the scathing insults and threats directed his way. A few weeks back, someone wrote him an e-mail telling him to “burn in hell.” Someone else sent a note that opened with the words, “Hey Dumb*** McElroy.”

Then there was this message, e-mailed several months ago. “When outraged Americans come and commit justifiable homicide against James McElroy, I’m throwing a party and inviting McElroy’s family and friends and co-workers… It will be a great festive day!”

…McElroy is no stranger to controversial litigation. He sued white supremacist Tom Metzger. He represented a group of doctors who perform abortions in a battle against protesters. As a crusading college student in Illinois, he engaged in organized debates against members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Still, McElroy said, the level of raw hatred directed his way in recent months rivals anything he has seen in his career. On a recent morning, McElroy – the self-described “black sheep” son of Richard Nixon supporters – stood near his desk on the 14th floor of a Broadway high-rise and played some messages left on his answering machine.

“I think you are absolutely disgusting,” one caller said. “How can you get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror?”

Another caller declared, “You guys are a bigger abomination than the doggone stupid atheists that you represent.”

A few months ago, McElroy received a phone call so vitriolic that, at his secretary’s urging, he notified the police. The profanity-laced message threatened a Mafia-style “hit” on him.

“It sounded like a cross between Tony Soprano and the ‘Godfather,'” he recalled.

—”Cross case brings mountain of hate mail“, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 14 May 2006

Or take this example from the Des Moines Register:

“Last Saturday I was on a panel with a local Muslim leader addressing the Muhammad cartoon controversy at Vanderbilt University,” Seigenthaler said. “He and I had a respectful disagreement regarding publication of the cartoons. But there was a fundamentalist Christian dentist in the audience who was shouting at the top of his voice that Islam was an evil, murderous religion. I thought he might come after the panelist.”

Security was called. The Muslim leader said the dentist “shows up everywhere I go.”

—”Religious hate e-mail falsely uses reporter’s name“, 25 February 2006

Jim McElroy’s experience was replicated by the Southern Poverty Law Center after their opposition to disgraced theocrat Roy Moore’s placement of a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of an Alabama state judicial building:

After the case gained national attention in August, when Moore defied a court order to remove his monument, hundreds of hateful e-mails began pouring into the Center. The messages’ vitriolic tone became exceedingly strident after Moore was removed from office in mid-November…

Center leaders were called “scumbags,” “Christ-killers” and “subhuman.” Many other messages labeled the Center staff as “communist,” and the tone of a great number was decidedly anti-Semitic.

Some hate mail merely entreated Center staff to “be ashamed,” while others called for the Center to “burn in hell.” A Portland man wrote Cohen to say that he wanted to witness Cohen’s public execution “just for the opportunity to spit in your face beforehand.”

…Following are excerpts:
“Dees and Cohen are a pair of chickenhawk jackals who never tell the truth.”
“Dees is a godless s.o.b. jew and deserves to burn in hell.”
“You’re the lowest form of human waste — just human maggots! Enough is enough! Quit your ongoing battle against Christians and religion in American society. We true American citizens are going to be watching you and your organization closely now. Many Christians are just now realizing who the real enemy is, and there is no doubt — whatsoever — our #1 enemy in America is Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center. We Christians are watching you closely now.”
“May the wrath of God be delivered upon you.”
“I hope all of you who had anything to do with removing the Ten Commandments die in a car accident with a fuel tanker along with the rest of your filthy, stinking, traitorous families!”

Austin Cline of the site Atheism.About.Com has an entire lengthy section devoted to religious hate mail:

Got your atheism ***** newsletter! You stupid *****, You are a real piece of *****! You ***** ***** *****, where do you get off spaming this garbage over the internet? ***** I wish and pray to God that scum like yourself would crawl in a hole and die. You probably have Aids, and want to make everyone’s life miserable before you die, which couldn,t be to soon, *****! ***** I’d love to kick your sick ***** ***** from here to New York. You make me sick. Get a life *****, which hopefully won,t be for long. Keep your sick perverted thoughts to yourself. No one else gives a *****, Maybe you’ll see Hitler as you burn in hell! YEE HA!


In his forthcoming book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives some examples of religious hate mail received by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Most is merely filthy and profane, but the last example, which stops just short of making a murderous threat, is genuinely chilling:

Satan worshipping scum… Please die and go to hell… I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your god, SATAN… If you don’t like this country and what it was founded on & for, get the fuck out of it and go straight to hell… PS Fuck you, you comunist whore… Get your black asses out of the U.S.A.

We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brought it on. My rifle is loaded.

And for sheer depths of hatred, few can match the following message sent to atheist filmmaker Brian Flemming:

You’ve definitely got some nerve. I’d love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all. I’ll get comfort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you’re completely ignorant about. The Wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh. Merry CHRISTMAS!!!

Even the Bible contains passages encouraging the hatred of nonbelievers (and it is tempting to wonder whether passages such as these gave many of the people quoted above their ideas):

Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

—Psalm 139:21-22

I realize I am quoting a lot of religious hate, but it is to make a point. Clearly, there is a vast number of theists out there who are filled with anger and hatred; however, no op-ed columnist or theologian, to my knowledge, has ever wondered why religious people always seem so angry.

Ironically, the evidence that religious people adduce to prove that atheists are angry usually never even approaches this level of vitriol. Consider the following e-mail, held up by a Christian blogger as an example:

You think you know the truth? Do you talk to god? Why are you blindly supporting bush, and his boys? Because bush is a christian? That’s the problem with christians. They take a fairy tale (the bible), and make it the truth. Since you know the truth, this is a waste of my time writing you. But I had to vent, because you people (all religions) are ****** up this planet.

This e-mail is certainly harshly worded and none too polite. But does it even approach the level of hate on display above? Does it display the drooling lust for violence that much of the religious hate mail shows? Does it threaten the poster personally, or attack his sexuality or personal appearance? No. It criticizes his beliefs and his actions, heatedly to be sure, but that is still a far cry from the psychopathic spasms of rage regularly targeted at atheists who speak out. However uncivil the language, this was neither a threat nor an ad hominem attack, whereas atheists regularly experience both. Too many religious individuals, when criticizing atheists for their supposed anger, confuse strong criticism with personal attacks.

But the question must be asked: even if this religious propaganda were correct and atheists were angrier than the average person, what would this prove? In other words, why is being angry necessarily a bad thing? When atheists look around the world, we see countless evils being done in the name of religion, countless examples of suffering and oppression being wrought on the downtrodden and the innocent and justified by invoking the name of God. When we read the scriptures of many of these religions, we see shocking instances of cruelty and hatred being urged against nonbelievers. And what makes the insult far worse is that these unjust practices are often defended as the epitome of goodness because they allegedly come from God. What is the proper response to these evils if not anger? If we could observe these evils passively and not be stirred to emotion, that would be a far more serious indictment of atheism than the absurd claim that atheism is somehow discredited because we feel anger when we see the innocent and the weak being taken advantage of, as any emotionally healthy person would.

There are many famed religious figures both real and legendary who reacted with anger to events that outraged them. According to the Christian Bible, Jesus was so angered to see the money-changers in the Jewish temple that he made a whip of cords, kicking over their tables and lashing them with his whip until they were driven out. He also spoke harshly to people who challenged him, calling them “whited sepulchres” and “serpents”, as well as other examples of harsh denunciation. Would Christians call Jesus an angry person because of this?

In the Old Testament, when Moses returned from Mt. Sinai bearing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, he witnessed the Israelites worshipping a golden calf and was so angry that he threw the holy tablets of the law to the ground and smashed them to pieces. Do Jews read this and wonder what made Moses such a bitter and angry person? Do they ask why he was so threatened by the golden calf, since it represented a deity he did not even believe in? Or do they conclude, just as Christians conclude after reading the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, that this anger was a righteous act provoked by sin and injustice? Clearly, the latter is the case. But most religious people seem unwilling to apply a similarly forgiving standard toward atheists.

After all, there are many reasons why an atheist might legitimately feel angry. One is the suffering inflicted on innocent people due to religion, described above. It cannot be overemphasized that this alone constitutes a more than sufficient rationale for anger at the false beliefs that are causing harm to people, but there are other reasons as well. One is the claim, endlessly repeated by religious proselytizers, that upon our deaths we will go to Hell to suffer for all eternity, and that we deserve this fate. Surely it is not hard to understand why an ordinary person would feel anger toward someone telling them that they deserve to be tortured. Similarly, it should not be hard to understand why an atheist would feel resentment upon being told that we have no morals, that our lives are meaningless and hopeless, that we are all secret hypocrites, that we are unpatriotic and hate our country, and so on – claims that atheists do hear very frequently from obnoxious religious preachers. Ironically, the believers most inclined to insist that atheists are angry are the ones who often turn this claim into a self-fulfilling prophecy by treating every atheist they meet with condescension and disrespect, and then acting shocked when they are answered in kind.

It should be emphasized that atheists have a real reason for feeling anger at the harm done by religion. Namely, if there is no afterlife and no assurance of divine justice, then the suffering of innocents matters far more, because this is the only life we have and the only chance we have to get it right. Every evil that happens and goes unpunished is, in a sense, an opportunity forever lost. On the other hand, it is very strange that so many theists seem to display such anger and hatred. After all, if they are correct and God is truly on their side, they cannot lose in the end, and surely God’s infinite power cannot be thwarted or diminished in the slightest by anything any atheist could say or do. If religious people truly believed what they say they do and were consistent about it, they should no more feel anger towards atheists than the lord of a mighty castle should feel angry or threatened by a child throwing pebbles at the wall. Yet many religious people do seem to feel upset and threatened by atheists – they must, or they would not bother to hurl such epithets and threats at us. What else could make them attempt to cow us into silence?

What motivates the “angry atheist” stereotype? The most important reason, I suspect, is that it is a defense mechanism. I have said in the past, and still maintain, that some believers are fundamentally threatened by the very idea of atheists existing, because they have been taught that only through belief in God can one find happiness, meaning or purpose. The existence of a happy, content atheist leading a meaningful life would throw their entire worldview into question, and so they deny this psychologically threatening possibility by asserting that atheists are intrinsically “angry” and therefore lacking in peace or satisfaction.

Second, I argue that the claims of angry atheists also stem in part from psychological projection. Many believers are so attached to their religious views and hold them in such high regard that they falsely assume that everyone else must feel the same way about those beliefs. They therefore assume that only an angry, bitter person could fail to see the merit in what seems so obvious to them. Dan Barker explains, in a passage from his book Losing Faith in Faith, that shows his usual keen insight: “When some people hear criticism of their religious views, it makes them angry and they project that anger back on the messenger. They assume that the feelings they experience when they read the criticism are the same feelings the skeptic had when it was written.”

Finally, it should be said, this stereotype does contain a small grain of truth. There have been a few atheists who treat all religious people with scorn and hostility, and an even rarer few who seem to take a perverse delight in being hated by the religious majority. The late and infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair comes first to mind here; although she did some trailblazing legal work on behalf of church-state separation, her incendiary tirades against religion – and even against other atheists with whom she disagreed – probably breathed new life into this stereotype for an entire generation of religious apologists. Although I doubt O’Hair was the inspiration for the “atheists are angry” straw man, she certainly helped to reinforce it. And this type of behavior hurts the cause of atheism in general. It detracts from our legitimacy and makes it that much easier for people to dismiss us as cranks with nothing worthwhile to say. For this reason, I strongly recommend that atheists today repudiate her approach in no uncertain terms, and make it clear that her attitudes do not define or represent us. As part of this, I further recommend that all atheists make a renewed effort to treat theists in a civil manner. This is not to say we should refrain from criticism of religion, but rather that we should focus our criticisms on the beliefs themselves and not personally attack the people who hold them. Of course, exceptions will have to be made for especially evil or obnoxious believers whose individual behavior truly does deserve condemnation.

While atheists cannot, by definition, be “angry at God”, there are some atheists who have phrased their arguments imprecisely, thus giving the wrong impression to believers who are not familiar with the intent behind atheological arguments. For example, the argument from evil is often misinterpreted as the atheist’s claiming that they are angry at God for allowing evil to happen, rather than recognizing its true purpose, which is to show that the existence of evil rules out the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity. Again, it is important to be precise, especially when dealing with the wider society that is not already familiar with atheological arguments, so that we are not misunderstood.

An analogy may help enlighten theists who do not see how we can criticize religious beliefs without being religious ourselves. One might watch Star Wars and consider Darth Vader to be a despicable and malevolent character, one who committed many evil deeds in the context of the movie. But given that statement, does it follow that one “hates Darth Vader”? Applying that phrase without qualification would give an erroneous idea of a person’s actual beliefs and perspectives on what is real and what is fictional. We can condemn a moral outlook similar to Darth Vader’s without believing that any such specific person actually exists, and this is a good metaphor for the way most atheists think about god-belief. And if a large number of people sincerely believed that Darth Vader was real and were inspired by his example to commit similar evil acts, we might rightly feel angry at this idea that had brought about such suffering, without believing that the idea corresponds to anything in reality.

A participant in an Internet forum discussion phrased a similar idea quite well:

“It is never the message, rather, it’s the messengers that disturb me. It’s never Jehovah knocking on my door at dinner time with a little tract about Salvation in exchange for a love gift of $5 or whatever I can afford, nor is it Yahweh standing on the courtroom steps with His Rules in Stone bolted to public property, nor is it the Lord himself who shoots at medical doctors or bombs women’s health clinics or torches congregations of Faithful in Waco. Allah-in-the-flesh will never be found wearing a dynamite girdle in the middle of a Jewish shopping district, nor will Moroni ever be caught shaking-down 3rd world peasants for their last dime in the name of some polygamist god.”

As this passage puts it, atheists are not, and cannot be, angry at a god we do not even believe in. Beyond us there is nothing but the world of natural forces, and since these are not personified beings, it makes no sense to feel anger at them. Rather, if we are angry, it is anger at the people who use their belief in such a god to justify violence, oppression, and denial of others’ most basic rights, and who then have the audacity to tell us that we are the immoral ones because we do not share their beliefs. If we are angry, it is not undirected or purposeless, but because we can see a brighter future lying ahead for humanity, and we are justifiably angered by those people who are standing in the way. But that does not exclude us from also finding happiness in all the beauty, wonder, and love that can be found in this life. With hope and resolution, but without purposeless or unnecessary anger, we atheists look forward to a future world where these pleasures are open to all humanity, without any distracting and darkening veils of superstition to occlude our sight.

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