Why are Atheists Angry?

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Why are Atheists Angry? ShaunP. McGonigal September, 2006

“Why are you so angry?” I’ve been asked this question by theists in the past. My favorite, however, has to be this one; “why do you hate God?” Anyone who has ever spent any significant time discussing religion or atheism with non-believers will eventually notice a bit of frustration concerning religious beliefs. This frustration is, admittedly, a part of many atheists’ lives. Why? Well, it’s simply because atheists are humans, and humans experience emotions just like anyone else. But there is more to it than that. Living in a society dominated by religion, superstition, and often blind ignorance is enough to frustrate most skeptical and thinking individuals. This is a frustration felt by many who feel that most of the people around them are missing something that seems so obvious to them. It may not be the best response from a thinking person, but it is a human one.

The relationship between rationality and emotion is described in many ways throughout history. In the history of religion, the distinctions between the two are legion, and any treatment of the question here would be insufficient. Suffice it to say that in many religious traditions, in particular the dominant Abrahamic religions, the distinction between the intellect and emotion has been mostly dualistic; that is, they have been articulated as the difference between our sinful nature and our “god-like” spark of divine reason. It is this ability to reason that, say many theologians, separates us from the animals. This idea, derived from ancient philosophical ideas from such thinkers as Zoroaster and Plato, is pervasive in many cultures and manifests in the idea of the body/soul dichotomy, nature and super-nature, Satan and God, etc.

But the advent of science and related fields has shown some light on the matter that questions the simple dichotomy of emotion and rationality. According to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, emotion even plays a vital role in how we think about the world rationally. That is, the distinction between rational thinking and feeling emotions is not as divergent as once thought. Of course, many religious traditions have admitted this closer relationship, so this fact is not presented as a means to divide religion and science on this question of the role emotion plays in rational thinking. Rather, it is presented to show that the atheist and the theist have much more in common than either may want to admit.

Today, in Western culture at least, it is the idea that what makes us human is that we can think about problems unbiased by the animal-like instincts and passions. In more evangelical Christian language, what makes us ‘saved’ the wisdom of God versus our Satanic temptations and influences towards sin. It is not an exact analogy at all, and it is the difference between the two that makes the question “why are you angry?” and “why do you hate God?” so interesting.

In the secular world, we ask questions about reasons, proof, evidence, and other such things. We are not concerned with how well we are following the rules of some divine judgment or whether we are following some example well or not. From the perspective of an atheist like myself, a Christian asking me why I hate God is like asking me why I hate 8-foot invisible bunnies who will eat me for not believing they exist. It’s simply ridiculous to ask such a thing because it would be ridiculous to believe in such a thing. We atheists may come across as angry because we are frustrated by being asked the same questions, presented with the same stories, and faced with the same blatant ignorance concerning the theory of Natural Selection, how the universe can look so designed without a designer, etc. When we are angry, we are angry because ignorant fundamentalists frustrate us.

However, the simple fact is that we aren’t angry, at least not as atheists per se; being angry is not a necessary part of being an atheist. An atheist is simply someone who lacks belief in a supernatural being with some usual attributes such as being the creator of the universe, wrote/inspired some holy text, is the judge of us when we die, etc. How could we be angry at a being that we don’t believe exists? Well, in two words, we cannot. That having been said, I want to explore some personal as well as observed factors of atheist anger.

What are we angry about?

I think we are all frustrated, and this is partially a disclaimer, by religious fundamentalism. I have no quarrel with religion in general, even if I have no need for any religion myself and consider it a wasted effort. I know many religious people whom I respect, and they know of my atheism and I leave their religious beliefs alone. There are a number of religious traditions (some of which are arguably philosophical and not religious per se) which I highly respect. I, however, have no respect, at all, for fundamentalist religion. Biblical literalism, young-Earth creationism, jihadism, dominionism, and other related ideologies are dangerous, moronic, and based in ignorance and fear. Therefore, this rant against religion is against fundamentalism and all that acts to support it directly and indirectly, including much of the moderate friends and family of fundamentalists that fail to challenge this dirge.

The first point of frustration for atheists are the many god-concepts that we find lacking in good qualities and are yet considered the origin of morality. There is a distinction between being angry at God and being angry at the idea of God. That is, being angry at the idea of some god-concepts does not grant that said deity exists, but merely that if said god-concept did exist, we would have reason to be angry at it and, perhaps, to not find it worthy of worship. And there are many concepts of God that some atheists find repugnant, a good example would be YHWH of the Torah (Old Testament). This vengeful, jealous, and violent god seems more like a war-lord or tyrant than anything that I’d ever worship even if I were convinced it existed.

And while these non-ideal attributes of a deity are not sufficient to claim the impossibility of that particular god-concept’s existence, it is enough to create frustration that many people find this concept to be not only the basis for morality but the pinnacle of justice and perfectly good and loving. Ethics are possible without utilizing the fear (or love) of God as a basis.

A second point of contention is Pascal’s wager. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and it goes something like the following; you should believe in God because if God exists and you are right, you go to heaven (or whatever your god promises you), but if you are wrong then you’ll just die anyway and it won’t matter. If you don’t believe and you are wrong, God will punish you, and if you are right then you’re just going to die anyway, so what does it matter? Every time I hear this I feel a combination of frustration, amusement, and plain disbelief that anyone is actually able to say this with a straight face.

What if you believe in and worship the wrong God? What happens if you spend your life praying to Jesus and keep getting Allah angrier and angrier? If Pascal’s wager was a good decision-making tool, you’d have to believe just about everything that had serious consequences attached to it, just in case it’s right. The problem is when they conflict. Believe in the 8-foot bunny and pray to him every night or you will be tickled endlessly for eternity by miniature horses who will only take breaks to stab you with hot needles. Believe, because if you’re wrong….

Further, there is another problem with the wager; by believing in and following the rules of some religion (usually the one your raised with) which also happens to be false, you might be depriving yourself of many things that life has to offer you that your religion says is wrong. I’m sure many Christian-raised homosexuals have experienced this while feeling guilty about how they feel sexually because it is considered a sin. The fact that people hold onto millennia-old superstitions based on stone-age social norms is infuriating to me as well as many advocates of gay rights.

Another source of ire for atheists include the myriad of assumptions and stereotypes surrounding atheists. A study that was released earlier in 2006 showed how Americans have discriminatory views of atheists over every other group, including Moslems. This is not to say that people should discriminate against Moslems over atheists (nobody should discriminate purely on grounds of religious belief or lack therefore). But the study showed that people would not consider atheists as sharing their view of American values nor would they allow their children to marry atheists if they had the choice.

All of the attributes associated to atheists, usually by theists who either fear or misunderstand our lack of belief, are false except for one; we don’t believe in God. Nothing else necessarily follows from this. One can lack belief in a god and still believe in universal or absolute morals. One could be of any political persuasion. One could really like religion and not believe in God. One could be immature, immoral, and mean; another mature, moral, and very nice (or any combination thereof, perhaps).

Perhaps most frustrating is the attempts by many religious people, playing the role of the repressed minority (that’s a laugh), to establish through political and legal means the religiosity of our society. Laws, policies, and declarations intended to establish the moral ideas of a particular sect or interpretation of any religious book is a direct affront to personal liberty and freedom of conscience concerning religious matters. These notions are the bedrock of the concept of Freedom as understood by those who created this republic in which we live. It makes me angry to see evangelicals try to enforce what they see as moral on those who disagree.

But what is most infuriating to me is to see the effects that stone-age superstition and absurd theological ideas has on society at large. I’m frustrated, in particular, because the potential for human progress, both individually and collectively, is hampered by religious ideology. The constraints of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and many other religious traditions that limit sexual behavior, “traditional” (read, religious) definitions of marriage, censorship, manipulation and deception of the masses for profit and control, and many other effects that religious belief has on people prevent real progress in our society. If I want to be a bisexual, polyamorous (that means being in a long-term relationship with more than one other person), non-believing, marijuana-smoking, beer-drinking, rock-music listening to, happy, heathen, then the religious wrong can kiss my ass.

Final thoughts

Being somewhat of a geek as well as an atheist, I’ll tend to think of things in terms of Star Wars. In Episode I, the young Anakin Skywalker is asked if he is afraid (well, Yoda actually contorts the question somewhat differently). Anakin does not understand the pertinence of the question, and Yoda replies that “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”

I must admit that I am a little afraid about the direction of our culture. I see a Evangelical world who does not care about anything except their beliefs battling a secular world without respect for one-another to a large degree. I’m afraid that we have people who believe in something dangerous and others that, having moved away from religion, have not yet realized the immense responsibility we all have within a world without a god.

Just like in Towing Jehovah, the idea of the death of God hits some people with a license to do anything one wants. But a secular world can also be a humanist one. I’m angry because I’m afraid that before the world realizes that humanist values, which many atheists prescribe to with much thought and feeling, will not win out before the full potential of religious destruction is felt. I hope that I, as well as the rest of the world, deals with my anger well-enough to prevent it becoming hate and eventually suffering. I hope we can all avoid the dark side.

I, however, am only directly responsible for my own fear and anger. I’ll do what I can to help the rest of the world.

I'll fight for a person's right to speak so long as that person will, in return, fight to allow me to challenge their opinions and ridicule them as the content of their ideas merit.