ANGRY atheism is as old as atheism. It’s as old as theism itself.
Twenty thousands years ago one of our bent-over prehistoric ancestors (with grunts and flailing gestures) motioned to the sky as if the Gods were in residence there. And surely some surly prehistoric irreligious dissident raised an immediate hue and cry.
To the fragment of humanity who are the chronically incredulous minority (at this moment, or at any moment before), an improbable claim can kindle a flash of temper. ‘Why would you jump to that conclusion?’ the incredulous ask. It’s as if the rules of a pinball-like logic cry ’tilt’ the moment a super-natural explanation is introduced, because, after all, the natural explanation seems to serve.
Think of the past.
Someone in remote antiquity stepped up to say a God in a horse-drawn chariot is pulling the sun across the sky each day. And all but a small minority believed this. And they believed this for thousands of years. That kind of credulity irks the chronically incredulous minority and can turn them into angry people.
That’s one source of anger.
Another related source of anger in skeptics comes from their claim to know what the majority does not know. Imagine that you were among the minority in ancient Greece who knew the pantheon of Gods did not exist, that all the temples and temple sacrifices were for nothing at all, that Zeus was a fiction, that Demeter was the deification of corn and Dionysus, wine. Or imagine that you were among the small group who disbelieved the Norse pantheon, or the ghosts of Kyoto, or the angels of Medina.
Though your disbelief would have been kept prudently secret, the very magnitude of the majority’s error, and the fact that you could not publicly dissent without social penalty, might very well have made you angry.
Yet another source of anger for religious doubters is that they could have been raised with religious belief and left belief behind later in life, feeling duped in the process and experiencing anger at the institutions that fooled and mis-educated them in the first place.
Anger among atheists and humanists is understandable. But how to explain un-angry atheists and humanists, since we occasionally meet this breed?
There are three reasons why un-angry atheists and humanists exist:
First, un-angry atheists and humanists have learned that when it comes to religion only a minority can be right, and atheists and humanists are comfortable in considering themselves the correct minority. (In their view, why shouldn’t they be as certain as a Buddha or a Mahavira or a Jesus or a Muhammad or a Nanak about truth?) There are so many, many religions. But the members of any one religion are out-numbered by the members of all the other religions combined, so that any single religion is a minority position in the wide world. Christianity is the largest single religion, but most people are not Christians because only two billion people of seven billion people are Christian. Most people are not Hindus. Most people are not Muslims. Most people are not Jains. And most people are not atheists. And on, and on, and on. Whoever is right about religion, they are of necessity in the minority, and the majority is living a delusion. Un-angry atheists and humanists serenely accept that they are the unerring minority.
Third, in the West, atheists and humanists consider that they are ‘winning’ to a certain degree. There has been a multi-century evolution in secularizing Western societies and minimizing the importance of religion. For a thousand years almost all the intellectuals of Europe were believers in God, but in the last 100+ years the Western intellectual class has become mostly non-religious, atheist or agnostic. Church attendance in Europe has plummeted regularly for 100+ years, and this downward decline never reverses itself from year to year. A few of the old European churches have been remodelled into books stores, oriental rug stores, Italian restaurants, and homes for eccentric millionaires. In the U.S.A., current high school students are the least religious teenagers in the history of the country, and the ‘nones’ (religiously unaffiliated) are as numerous as Catholics and Baptists now. These data bring peace of mind to atheists and humanists, dispelling anger.
We are all familiar with the model of the angry atheist and the huffy humanist. But more and more we may espy atheists and humanists who are unperturbed, calm, cool, collected, apollonian and un-angry, accepting, of necessity, their singular, non-menacing, un-minatory minority position.
Featured image, a former church remodelled as a bookstore in Zwolle, Netherlands, photo by Rene van Elst, my Dutch translator