HTLG: In Defense of the Allegedly Angry Atheist
The book itself ends with a section called How To Be An Atheist And Not Be a Jerk. This seemed sufficiently provocative and sufficiently new that I figured I'd post it here, even though it's not the main point of the book.
Several months ago, Marc Cohen, a Rabbi who writes a religion column for Newsweek online, wrote an essay called “Why are Atheists So Angry?” In it , he professed a bewilderment about the hostility he constantly encounters from the atheists he meets. “Where does this hostility come from?” He asks, concluding—with question marks aplenty—that it might be some kind of past trauma, or possibly a fear that belief in God would make too many moral demands of the atheist. But forget that for now. At the moment, I’m here to answer the question, “Why are atheists so angry?”
This is a not-uncommon perception, and I’ve seen a share of it myself. But my theories are different from the rabbi, and—if I may be permitted this opinion—a hell of a lot better. But first I want to make absolutely clear that most atheists aren’t inherently hostile to religion. However, since most atheists are (in my experience) fairly rational types, they are often impatient with lazy thinking or weak arguments. There’ll be more on this later.
I’ve looked at atheism from both sides now. When I was a fundy, the very idea of atheism seemed baffling and rude. God was so obvious! So present! So important to everyone’s quality of life! Doubting God seemed perverse, and flatly declaring that he didn’t exist was downright dangerous, and would seem to lead to all kinds of evil.
Now that I’m an atheist, when I look back at my religious days I’m stunned that I ever believe it at all. Every major religion—and the existence of multiple competing religions should have tipped me off to the problem, I now think—seems to be erected on a huge series of wild implausibilities that, for some reason, no one bothers to notice. Reams of paper have been printed about heaven, the nature of salvation, the believer’s daily walk, and no one among the faithful ever seems to ask, “But isn’t this all made up?” (For good reason; the moment you ask—the moment you really ask, that is, actually wanting an answer and not the first or second plausible reassurance—you start to edge toward unbelief.)
So what we have, between theists and atheists, is a simply enormous gap where each side finds the other’s point of view frankly impossible to conceive.
Atheists, in my experience, are basically of two types, and therefore when they are hostile (and they’re not all that hostile as a rule), this stems from two different sources.
The first type was never tempted to believe at all. They were born skeptics and just lack whatever it is (an urge to please others? A need for moral order?) That converts other children. Examples would be comedian David Cross and author Richard Dawkins (and—probably—Penn and Teller).
Perhaps an example will help. They lack theism in the same way that I lack, and have always lacked, any interest in sports. I’ve seen grown human beings scream, throw tantrums, hurl things, and—get this—actually get depressed because “their” team has lost a game. And this has literally never made sense to me. I go to a sports bar (and I always avoid sports bars if I’m looking for pleasure) and all I can think is, “That’s twenty guys on a field somewhere in Atlanta tossing a ball around. What possible fucking relevance can this activity have that makes it worth millions of dollars? For that matter, who the hell cares if their team wins? They just have to try all over again next year.” I really, really, really, really, really don’t see the point. (Lest this make me seem unduly or stereotypically effeminate—and gender roles are another thing I’ve always been skeptical of—I should add that I feel exactly the same way about making the bed. It’s my bed, and I’m not leading tour groups, so if I don’t mind it messy then no one else has a right to complain.)
I have friends who are sports fans, and I don’t mind being around them, but I find myself more irritated with them when they become profoundly exercised aobut this “sports” thing. I don’t hate sports per se—remember, I have no particular taste for it at all; can a colorblind person “hate” Van Gogh? [FOOTNOTE: Actually, I’m colorblind too. Maybe that would have been a better example]—but I get edgy at what sports does to them, at this huge waste of emotional ecitement over so litetle of any provable importance. This is not helped by the fact that you can actually prove that sports are meaningless. Unless you make the leap to become an adherent, or react to it unthinkingly, the way coffee addicts immediately take to caffeine [FOOTNOTE: I don’t like coffee either. Gee, I must seem like a grouch.], the whole enterprise has nothing to offer you. Even the cheerleaders are a little bundled up for my tastes. (By the way, I refuse to listen to those people who claim, “I just admire the athleticism involved.” That’s aesthetic and entertaining and I understand that. But if people like athleticism, shouldn’t they just be thrilled for whoever wins? By definition, the winner would be the more athletic, right? That’s a habit I could maybe understand.)
This is, I imagine, what it’s like for an atheist to meet a rabbi who writes a religion column. If I met a sports columnist who asked me, “So have you given sports a try? How can you say it’s meaningless? Did you hate them as a child?, etc.”, then I’m trapped. I know—trust me on this—that nothing he says in the next hour or so is going to convince me to alter my raw intuition about sports’ meaninglessness. The safest thing for us would be for the sports guy to not care, and to take the conversation somewhere else. But that’s almost cruel—he’s a sports columnist! How can he not care? And isn’t demanding that he not mention sports a bit like saying he’s not allowed to exercise his greatest joy in my presence? And how can he not perceive my own obdurate resistance to sports’ blandishments as a passive-aggressive attack on himself and the source of his greatest happiness?
So my first answer to the rabbi is this: if you weren’t a rabbi, you might detect less hositility—not because people hate rabbis, but because rabbis are more likely to pick up spiritual disinterest and find it hurtful. Maybe dial it down a bit on your end.
But then there’s another class of atheists—I’m one of them—who started out religious and became atheists later in life. This is usually a harder-fought, more intensely arrived-at atheism, and it’s far more likely to lead to hostility. Let me explain why.
Most people—even most evangelicals—are not furiously passionate about their religion. You find your truth, it makes you comfy, you do your best with it, and that’s pretty much the end. Such people are the backbone of any church: the nice, good-hearted types who don’t challenge the pastor and are willing to do their best to accept what the Bible (or the pastor, or the Pope...) says without making a federal case out of it. It works for them, so they don’t bother scrutinizing it in more depth than would be polite.
It’s the rarer bunch who are really devout and really care about the truth they believe in. These are the kids who join every church group, go on every retreat, share their faith all the time, etc. They want to be nuns or pastors or missionaries or saints. They want to know, and they seek tirelessly.
And then, for whatever reason, their faith collapses. In many cases, it comes from learning. If you’re raised believing that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, it’s a real shock to discover how foolish (and entirely indefensible) such a position is. You can read the Bible for years as a standard evangelical and never notice that the two versions of Jesus’ lineage don’t match up, or that Jesus attributes a Psalm to David that David almost certainly didn’t write, or that no one seems to agree how Judas died, or what the hell Satan was doing arguing about the bones of Moses. These little errors and weirdnesses are everywhere, and for a person really committed to truth, studying the Bible to find peace becomes like trying to sleep on a series of constantly-sprouting peas.
I’ve often said—and it happened to me—that the only thing separating an evangelical Christian from a trajectory of apostasy is one good course in Bible history. But I’ve known people to lose their faith over emotional traumas as well, or over desperate prayers that went wholly unanswered. (If you’re gay, the system won’t accept you, so that’s another brightly lit exit door that you can beat your head against for decades. )
For atheists of that sort, you’re facing a whole different level of resentment. Years and years of life misspent in naivete, in willful ignorance, years without drinking or swearing or sex, hearing rumors of life’s pleasures secondhand. This is a resentment that can linger like a stain. And add in the fact that these people (my people) were kind of obsessive and driven to begin with, and you’re looking at a potential counter-proselytizer. And the younger they are in their transition, the more likely they are to feel betrayed, and to long for an argument where they can deploy their newly-discovered facts. It can take years to stop being combative, to get to a point where someone else’s profession of faith doesn’t seem like a sort of passive-aggressive attack that threatens to make you feel like a sinner who needs to repent.
So to answer your question, Mr. Cohen, you’re right, “Something happened to these people long ago.” But it wasn’t, as you assert, “a tragic death,” “an unanswered prayer,” or the asininity of some single religious figure. It really was religion itself that fell down on the job it was supposed to do. So my second piece of advice for you, Rabbi Cohen, is to recognize that the problem these angry atheists have with your religion might, in other circumstances, be your problem as well.
Of course, unusually smart people often socialize late in life, and there’s a certain class of yutz who just wants to turn everything into an intellectual competition. So my third piece of advice to you is to stop going to Mensa meetings. Just a suggestion.