Anger and Atheism

Much to my surprise, I recently found myself questioning the validity of atheism.

Since college days I have seen both atheism and some forms of theism as legitimate options, useful and potentially correct ways of understanding the universe. We cannot yet prove the truth of any lifestance, but we can rule out some alternatives and decide which of the remaining world-views seem most accurate to us.

So I was startled to notice myself doubting that atheism is a legitimate, reasonable option. What I noticed was subtle, only a half-conscious thought, and I immediately realized that this thought was ill-founded. It was, in essence: “I’ve been reading some angry statements by atheists. Anger prevents people from thinking straight. Maybe atheism is irrational, based on emotion rather than reason.”

That half-conscious thought makes no sense because atheism (and some forms of theism) can be well-supported by clear-minded reason. Besides, as a Unitarian Universalist minister I’ve served congregations that include many atheists, as well as agnostics and liberal theists. These atheists, as a group, are not filled with rage. And even those who are intensely angry at religion have good reasons for feeling resentful. Atheists are one of the most widely-despised groups in the United States, and it’s only natural that they would resent this sort of marginalization.

But of course when people are extremely angry they are especially motivated to express themselves, so in any persecuted minority some of the loudest voices are the voices of rage.

When I found myself wondering if atheism was irrational, I had just read a series of email exchanges on a secular humanist chat list. I won’t quote individuals, but let’s just say people were speaking freely. Even when I didn’t agree with them, I could understand where they were coming from. But the strong emotional content of some statements engendered a doubt (irrational, I realize) about the validity of their world-view.

So should angry atheists tone down their rhetoric? Not always. To everything there’s a season. But people have a hard time hearing hostile communications. If you’re just “venting,” and don’t care whether people agree with you, you may choose to let it all hang out. But if you’d like to make this world a friendlier place for non-theism, the raw edge of rage may be best expressed in private.

Roger Christan Schriner

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4 thoughts on “Anger and Atheism

    • It sounds as if you’re interested in data backing up this statement, so here’s some from my book, Bridging the God Gap:

      In 2006 a study compared atheists with other frequently-criticized groups, finding “that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” They are “seen as a threat to the American way of life . . . .” To top it all off, “Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”

      Penny Edgell, who directed this study, suggests that atheists now play the same role that Catholics, Jews, and Communists played in the past. Belief in God marks a “symbolic moral boundary” that defines who can be considered a good American. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy – and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious.”

      Many who responded to Edgell’s survey associated non-theism with “criminal behavior . . . rampant materialism and cultural elitism . . . .” Atheists are seen as “self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.” Less than half would consider voting for an atheistic Presidential candidate, and that actually shows greater acceptance than in the distant past. Fifty years ago a survey showed that less than 20% would have voted for a well-qualified atheist nominated by their own political party.

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