Saturday, June 09, 2007

Why Be An Angry Atheist?

Seriously...I don't understand. Why does an acknowledgment that religion is kind of dumb necessarily carry with it a need to be so condescending and haughty? In the course of a single day, how many people will I interact with who agree with me about everything? Even everything important, as in moral codes or models for appropriate public behavior or views about humanity's place in the universe? Very few, if any. Everyone's different.

So why is it that my fellow atheists insist upon being so aggressive about challenging religion? I'm not saying that we shouldn't defend ourselves, or that we shouldn't feel free to express an opinion openly about other faiths or lack thereof. I enjoy this freedom all the time. But it's perfectly simple to let people know where you stand on the issue of religion without calling them stupid or belittling their beliefs. See, I don't like it when Christianists and wannabe theocrats try to exert their religious beliefs on me, but likewise I find it counter-productive to repeatedly insist on the rightness of my perspective.

To me, this impulse plays into the pervasive stereotypes about atheists: that we are angry or mean or bitter people, that we are simply contrarians by nature, that we don't admire humanity and reason so much as we loathe morality, God and family. None of these things are true, and yet their are reinforced by half-assed caustic anti-faith screeds...a-like a-this a-one:

Why Won't God Heal Amputees for some reason feels that humiliating and mocking the religious is the best way to get them to see things from another perspective. It clearly feels that its titular query - about God healing the wounded - definitively disproves the existence of God for all time, always.

Which is just dumb. I mean, I've never really believed seriously in God, and even I can argue my way out of that one.

For this experiment, we need to find a deserving person who has had both of his legs amputated. For example, find a sincere, devout veteran of the Iraqi war, or a person who was involved in a tragic automobile accident.

Now create a prayer circle like the one created for Jeanna Giese. The job of this prayer circle is simple: pray to God to restore the amputated legs of this deserving person. I do not mean to pray for a team of renowned surgeons to somehow graft the legs of a cadaver onto the soldier, nor for a team of renowned scientists to craft mechanical legs for him. Pray that God spontaneously and miraculously restores the soldier's legs overnight, in the same way that God spontaneously and miraculously cured Jeanna Giese and Marilyn Hickey's mother.

If possible, get millions of people all over the planet to join the prayer circle and pray their most fervent prayers. Get millions of people praying in unison for a single miracle for this one deserving amputee. Then stand back and watch.

What is going to happen? Jesus clearly says that if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. He does not say it once -- he says it many times in many ways in the Bible.

And yet, even with millions of people praying, nothing will happen.

Every religious person I have ever met would concede that God doesn't answer every human prayer. This argument is a complete strawman. Different religions would have different ways of answering this particular problem, but it's not like the schmendrick who runs this website was the first person to ever come up with this line of reasoning. Maybe God caused that person's legs to be amputated for some larger purpose, alright? So eventually, he'll get around to answering the person's prayers in a roundabout way without physically returning his or her legs. There. Done. I mean, we're talking about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity. If such a thing really did exist, we wouldn't necessarily expect It to obey all of our laws of fairness, consistency and timeliness.

Take a look at this 10 minute video, in which a nasally, ANGRY narrator informs you of 3 things:

(1) You're an idiot

(2) He's going to miraculously free you from your delusions

(3) But, seriously, you're a fucking idiot

How is this in any way helpful? The guy opens the video by making some extremely bold statements:

If you are a Christian, you are about to begin a fascinating journey.

I would never in one million years say this at the beginning of a presentation. Talk about setting yourself up for failure. This is what producer Joel Silver does before every film of his opens, and it usually doesn't work out that well. ("Swordfish is going to change the way you think about action movies, the Internet...and yourselves...")

Still, he gets away with it every once in a while, when the film turns out to be The Matrix or something and audiences flip for it. Regrettably, the folks at WWGHA do not have a blockbuster kind of argument.

It all boils down to this: because you don't believe in ALL the world's religions, and the faith of their adherents is just as strong as yours, you must concede that almost all of world's religious people are totally wrong, and therefore you are most likely wrong. After all, what reason do we have for believing that our holy books or writs are MORE CORRECT that those of other faiths and cultures, whose practicioners have passed them down and fervently practiced them for just as long as our people or longer?

This is certainly something that occurred to me as a child. I think being Jewish calls your attention in particular to this issue. The most popular religion in America is an explicit rejection of Judaism. Despite the unifying political rhetoric between Jew and Fundamentalist Christian, most Americans feel that the Jews believe in an outdated religion that has long-since been revitalized. So any believing Jew must make peace with the fact that they're going against the grain.

But this is not revolutionary thinking that's likely to alter the perception of someone religious, particularly because it's delivered in this hectoring tone that's just unpleasant. I mean...I agree with the narrator for the most part, and yet I still disliked him and found him unconvincing.

In the next ten minutes it will become clear to you that your belief in God is delusional.

The problem is that your delusion, combined with the delusion of billions of other religious people like you, is hurting us as a species. It does not matter if you are a fundamentalist Christian, a moderate Christian or a casual Christian. Your delusion is hurting us.

Again, this leap in logic has never fully been made clear to me. Yes, most people are religious. Yes, most people are also violent. Sometimes (not all the time!), people excuse their violent behavior with religion. This does not, DOES NOT, necessarily indicate that religion incites people to violence!

I mean, that's just silly. Look at the issue of, say, spousal abuse. I'm sure many men who are arrested for spousal abuse (not that all spousal abusers are men...just the overwhelming majority...) have lame excuses for why they needed to hit their wives. But we don't accept these excuses at face value! Of course we don't! There's no one saying, "If we could only keep women pregnant and in the kitchen and stop their constant backtalking, we could end spousal abuse in this country!"

Because the real reasons guys hit their wives are alcoholism or drug abuse or that they're just a dumb violent asshole, and we all know it. And the reason there's so much violence in the world is that people are angry, violent, greedy fucks. And we all know it. And it has nothing to do with God, Ganesha, Mohammad, Jesus, the Prophet Elijah or anyone else. Being an atheist is just recognizing that those are either fictional or historical characters; it doesn't say anything about believing that they are responsible for the downfall of humanity or the horrors of the the 20th or 21st Centuries.

Yet this guy just brashly states it outwardly in a video that's meant to appeal to Christians. Guys...That's not gonna work. At all. In order to be convinced by your rhetoric, a subject must find you sufficiently trustworthy and charismatic. A good first step would be to convince them that you think very much like them but for one or two crucial, correctable differences. Not to call them delusional and say that they're hurting our species, and then move into your arguments.

Okay, moving away from the WWGHA crowd, let's take a look at this blog post, about the divide between "mean atheists" and "good atheists."

What it really comes down to is this: There are two types of atheists, which (for simplicity) I'll call the "nice atheists" and the "mean atheists." As P. Z. Myers points out, it's absurd to call atheists "militant" since it's not as if they're burning down churches -- they're just criticizing religion. However, it's not unreasonable to suggest that some atheists are not very nice.

The difference between the mean atheists and the nice atheists is that the mean atheists think that religion is ninety-nine parts pure stupidity mixed with one part lying, opportunistic con artists. And they want to tell that to religious people whenever they're asked to "respect" someone's faith.

This is just stupid. The divide has nothing to do with being "nice" or "mean." It's about goals. The atheists blogger C.L. Hanson refers to as "mean" want to eradicate religion from the public sphere entirely, or even eliminate its very existence. The atheists that are called "nice" aren't any friendly as people; they just don't give a shit what people say or believe, as long as they personally don't have to believe it.

I'm not religious because I think it's silly and I don't want to waste my time with it. I think we'd all be better off accepting such a philosophy, of course - if I thought such a belief made people worse off, I wouldn't believe it myself - but when it comes right down to it, I'd rather not get involved in what everyone else does. Their business, you know? Just like I don't care what home computers other people use, or their favorite late-night snack, or their masturbatory practices. I have my own preferences, and they have theirs, and that's how it ought to be.

I think all atheists believe religion is just about equally stupid. The notion that there's 1% of me that thinks religion should be handled with respect is very strange; where did Hanson even come up with this stuff? If you don't believe in Islam or Christianity or Mormonism or Scientology, it seems ridiculous from the outside. That has absolutely nothing to do with ones approach to dealing with religion. Can't we interface at all with ideas we dislike?

I mean, I'm not a libertarian, but am I not capable of discussing their ideas with them? Should my goal instead be the eradication of that entire system of thought? I think these sort of notions fuel a lot of our political and social discourse any more. Politics is no longer about ensuring your perspective is represented in some kind of larger Grand Compromise. It's about the utter and complete defeat of any and all opposition to your unitary, uncompromised will.

Like I said, I just don't get it. To me, so-called "mean" atheism reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works. I mean, it's great you guys figured out God's not at the center of the universe, but that doesn't mean you're there either.


C. L. Hanson said...

I was kidding about the "mean" part (and BTW, who are you callin' stupid, meanie? ;^) ). But seriously, I've sparked some good discussion about atheist goals, and perhaps with this post you will too.

Anonymous said...

I'm not religious because I think it's silly and I don't want to waste my time with it. I think we'd all be better off accepting such a philosophy, of course - if I thought such a belief made people worse off, I wouldn't believe it myself - but when it comes right down to it, I'd rather not get involved in what everyone else does.

See, that's the thing.

Religious people do want to get involved in what everyone else does.

Go ahead, be nice, see how far that gets you with a bunch of insane nuts who want to run almost every aspect of your life.


Lons said...

Well, CL, I believe I called the mean/nice atheist distinction stupid, as opposed to you. No personal offense intended.

As for Anony's comment, I think it perfectly encapsulates a HUGE problem in contemporary American thought. "Well, hey, THOSE GUYS are in my face about their beliefs. So I better get even more in THEIR FACE to balance it out!"

This philosophy, Anony, it never ever ever ever ever works. It just leads to escalation every time. What you do is, see, you push back against the encroachment of religion in the public square WITHOUT being pushy or obnoxious or insisting on the sole validity of one's own beliefs!

We have the same general goal - we don't want to live in strict religious society with lots of restrictions on our freedom - but I don't see how insulting, degrading and belittling the genuine faith of religious people gets us any closer to that goal. It just convinces the opposition that we don't respect them and they should get even more underhanded in their tactics.

Anonymous said...

If you don't believe in God, they'll hate you anyway.

That's just a fact.

And that's what that video guy is talking about when he says religions cause violence: The violence is *potentially against you.*

People get stoned, shot, burned alive and hung for transgressing religious boundaries. If you're 'nice' you get hung. If you're 'mean' you get hung.

Now, it's surely true that there should be civility and harmony and happiness between people. This is a good goal, and it turns out this is the goal preached by countless religious figures from Buddha to Jesus and beyond.

So the real conflict here is not between those who believe and those who don't, but between everyone and themselves. People need to grow up, mostly, and that's the most important thing to concentrate on.

Religion brings power. You can get people to do things by claiming to speak for God or for doctrine. And who wants to give up that power? Who wants to grow up out of a power structure that depends on demeaning (or even hurting or killing) non-believers?

This is the crux of the issue.

Anonymous said...

Christian: Would you like to hear the Good News of Our Lord, Jesus Christ?

Me: No, thanks. I'm trying to read.

Christian: He died for you sins, you know.

Me: Yes, I know. It was very nice of him to do that for me. Now, if you don't mind, I'd really like to finish this book.

Christian: If you were to die tonight, where would you end up?

Me: Hopefully somewhere where I can read in peace.

Christian: Won't you invite Jesus into your heart?

Me: &*&*( off. Die in a fire. Now.

Christian: Why are you so angry?

Thomas said...

I think that the division is not between nice and mean atheists but between passive and active atheists.

There are atheists that simply do not believe in a higher power and then there are active disbelievers. There's an important difference.

Lons said...

People need to grow up, mostly, and that's the most important thing to concentrate on.

Honestly, do you think going in with this attitude is any better than a religious person entering a conversation with you convinced that you need to grow up and accept the Lord? Who made you responsible for "wising up" all the other people around you, for bringing them "up" to your level?

If people want to be religious, isn't that really their business when you get right down to it, just like your choice to be not-religious?

If you don't believe in God, they'll hate you anyway.

Fine. Great. I'm talking about behaving in a way that is sensible and productive, not about preventing the God-believers of the world from hating me. Not much I can do about that, really, so I try not to worry about it...

Peter L. Winkler said...

"I mean, we're talking about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity. If such a thing really did exist, we wouldn't necessarily expect It to obey all of our laws of fairness, consistency and timeliness."

Actually, believers would expect God to comply perfectly with the moral dicta that biblical literalists assert come from God.

I think that the argument of the anti-prayer web site is a very strong one. Christian sects assert that God answers your prayers. Now, granted, God would not presumably grant a convicted murderer's pareyer that he somehow b realesed from custody, because he's not morally innocent. But God shoul grant relief to the morally innicent from their suffering. Clearly, he doesn't, and he fails to do so in so many cases - think of the tens of millions killed in WWII, most of them civilians - that it certainly mocks the idea of prayer having any value. Of course, one can take it further and ask why a benevolent, omniscient God would frame circumstances that allow good, innocent people to suffer terrible things in the first place? The answer, of course, is that he wouldn't and therefore there is no God.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...


For years my atheism was my own private business. I was kind of creeped out by religious rituals, and I didn't want my kids baptized, but that was about it.

In recent years, religion has been all up in our grille in countless ways, dumbing down education, gumming up medical progress, helping elect the Worst President Ever (whom Jesus told to start a preemptive war in the wrong country), flying airplanes into our buildings, etc., etc.

Religion used to be more like astrology in this country -- a relatively benign bit of voluntary lunacy. But with 150 Regent College grads remaking our government, it makes plenty good sense for atheists to be angry about it now.

And as soon as an atheist does so much as construct an argument against irrationality, s/he's tarred as a militant.

Once atheists get the least bit uppity, someone -- often another atheist -- is very quick to say we've gone too far.

But religious people who think atheists are going to burn for ever more are never called militants, and are almost never criticized.

EbonKrieg said...

Religion is one of the major causes of strife and division in the world. It is Santa Claus for adults. Humanity will not evolve (MATURE) until religion is found to be the debilitating disease upon human psychology that it is.
The supposed "good" that religions profess come with a cost; a person's liberty is strangled. I have nothing but contempt for any and all religions and if my fellow atheists exhibit publicly the contempt I feel and keep within me for "believers" I fail to see the problem. What are the god-people afraid of?
This argument (god or no-god) is flawed on so many levels that it is beyond the scope of meaningful argument. However, when religions attempt to impinge upon my liberties and ally themselves with government and use a nation's treasury to dictate their morals upon society I have to say, "stop it, just stop it." I have a deep distrust for both institutions and if religion is allowed to become enmeshed within the government you will get the nation you deserve and the US will become another footnote in history along with Imperial Spain after the expulsion of the jews and muslims, and catholic France after the expulsion of the huegonauts.
There will always be good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things, but it takes religion to make a good people do evil things.
If you keep your gods to yourself we'll get along just fine.

Gimmedawatch said...

For more compelling logic regarding the deity, see St. Anselm's "Ontological Argument". Hilarity ensues. Lonzors, you never struck me as senor tolerance who'd be rallying for civility and whatnot, but of course you're right. I think your argument applies even more to the present political landscape.

Lons said...

Again, though, Mr. Watch, I see it less about "civility," a word that has been pretty much stripped of all clear meaning, and more about tactics and approach.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think the atheist/secularist approach should essentially be this: You are welcome to believe what you want. So am I. So please leave me alone about it.

There's no need for childish name calling. "You believe in a DELUUUUUUUUSION!"

Are atheists right? OF COURSE WE ARE. But vegetarians are probably right also, and I don't need to hear from them constantly. Ditto people who drink 8 glasses of water a day and exercise regularly and vote Democratic and read a goddamn book once in a while and brush three times a day (with flossing!) and never, ever enjoy a nice bong load. All of those are more than likely the "correct" decisions and lifestyle choices. But that doesn't mean it's up to any individual citizen to force them on any other.

This is the same reason I hate these ridiculous anti-smoking and anti-prostitution and anti-drug laws. Like, "yes, you're right, smoking is probably bad for me. know...STFU..."

And as for all these "the religious guys started it!" "they want to convert us!" "they believe in Santa Claus!" stuff...that shit's not helping anyone, okay? Your whiny victimhood concerns no one but yourself, and one of the major problems in our politics today is that people think there's room in it for their petty personal emotional crap. It's just not productive.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...


Your description of the motivation for atheist activism is a rather neutered straw man.

Call it whiny victimhood and offer us a cup of STFU if you will, but just this week, cures for terrible diseases were just deferred thanks to religiose grandstanding, Muslim leaders reaffirmed their call for Salman Rushdie to be murdered, and an orthodox Jew was found with a bomb intended to blow up gay pride marchers in Israel.

These things happen in a world where religiosity is never criticized until it's out of control (and sometimes not even then). For us to grunt, say "leave me alone," and crawl back in our stinkin' holes is not going to change this.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

And here's a lovely story from today -- Christianist doctors are refusing to deliver a wide range of medical treatments.

So, live and let live (if the doctors wouldn't be too offended to help us out).

Lons said...

I don't disagree with you, VLC, that there are many many many stupid, wrong-headed religious people who want to force all of us to obey their silly laws and doctrines and that these people should not be accomodated. In fact, I would agree with that 100%. And I have no doubt that you could produce 100,000 such examples.

My response would be...what would you like to do about it? You know, besides pointing it out and getting pissed off. Thus far, it seems like the atheist community's response is: argue vociferously that religion is wrong and its adherents deluded.

I just don't think this does any good at all. In fact, it does no good along with significant harm to the overall cause (again, for me, eradication of religion from our laws/government, not from our society).

Overwhelming negativity, like videos that harangue Christians about being deluded, turns the faithful off so they don't listen to the positive, productive messages (like, "let's leave religion out of the public sphere, where it will be deluded and unconstitutionally enforced").

These books and diatribes and rants and anti-God blogs strike me as just so much lashing out; atheists are frustrated and feel underrepresented, so they taunt and ridicule and boast about being so much smarter than all the dummy God-types. I can sympathize, but that doesn't mean I agree.

If you want to oppose American Theology, I think that's great. But it's a political effort, not a spiritual one, and therefore doesn't need to carry along with it the proviso that the activist LOATHE or DESPISE religion; just that he or she oppose its encroachment into the public sphere.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...


The problem is that religion is a pretty poison.

Until the Dawkinses and Harrises and Hitchenses began speaking boldly and energizing atheists, there was no public dialogue of criticism of religion.

It's gauche to ever speak ill of that sacred world where your little niece gets baptized, and Father Donovan takes such an interest in the altar boys.

Religion was up on a pedestal, and even when it did obvious wrong, it was pretty much taboo to criticize someone else's version of it.

To me, what these writers are doing is a godsend, as it were.

They have established a paradigm of criticism of religion where once there was none. If there's a random video of an atheist being a jerk somewhere, that seems like a small potatoes issue in comparison. Call the guy a jerk, but don't trash the movement of speaking truth to supernatural power.

Lons said...

So you think I shouldn't have written this blog post at all because it's small potatoes? But it inspired this interesting conversation!

I don't think this is a small issue; I think the choices atheists make in presenting their case to the public are massively important. I think that using the blogsophere to rhetorically prove and re-prove the non-existence of god ad infinitum, or to complain about Christian overreach, is a far bigger waste of time than seriously trying to discuss goals and tactics.