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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