Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On "Why Are Atheists So Angry?"

Rabbi David Wolpe wrote Why are Atheists so Angry; in it, he lists four reasons why he thinks that atheists are angry. He opens discussing how a lot of the feedback he gets on his writing on the Internet is from atheists and that they are generally angry. His four points are clearly applicable to the sort of atheists who write angry things in blog comments, but it seems to me that he didn't actually ask an atheist friend if he's angry, and, if so, why. I want to mention, here, two things in his article that make me angry.

Atheists are angry because we are members of a cultural out-group. We're not in as bad of a situation as, say, racial minorities, in that we have the choice to keep our mouths shut. We're are an out-group, though. How many atheist characters do you see on TV? I can think of Dr House; House is a stereotypical atheist, grouchy, rationalist, cynical. Dr Cameron on the same show is also a nonbeliever; she's a more sympathetic character and I wish people would notice her more. No other characters come to mind at the moment. Of course, most characters on TV don't make mention of their religious beliefs, but I wish I saw atheist characters on TV dealing with the issues I deal with, things like negotiating friendships with religious people. When people deconvert, increased tension with parents is common, and I didn't find many portrayals of people in the same situation in any media.

People treat out-group members poorly. I've heard religious people say that my worldview is meaningless, that it leads to gulags, that atheists can't have authentic systems of morality, that we're disingenuous in shutting out a belief in the supernatural—these things hurt. (I'm not saying that Wolpe makes all of these accusations against atheists.) I think Rabbi Wolpe can relate to me in this struggle: Jews have dealt with centuries of mistrust by the majority in Western culture, examples of this include blood libel and the stereotype that they are greedy. It hurts to be excluded and it hurts to be blamed.

Alienation is a frequent topic of conversation for atheists, for example, we talk the difficulty in "coming out" about our nonbelief. That Rabbi Wolpe doesn't mention alienation as a cause of anger for atheists makes me think that he wrote an article about why we're angry without directly consulting any of us; this sort of presumption makes me angry.

The other thing that Rabbi Wolpe says that makes me angry is his assertion atheists sometimes have a "want of wonder". I'm a scientist, and most of my atheist friends major in the sciences; I want to talk concretely about wonder for atheists who are scientists in particular. Scientific work leads to useful knowledge, but the process of doing science is fraught with uncertainty. I don't know if my code has a bug in it or how reliable measurements of cells in the literature are. Last week, a colleague presented experimental data and was criticized for the large variance in it. About a quarter of my job is learning new things by reading, and another quarter is learning new things by doing my own studies. It's hard work and it matters to me because I think cells are amazing and I want to know more about them. It's fiendishly difficult to describe the physics of the matter inside cells and I marvel at the possibilities in this and I enjoy following the lively and constructive debate about how to approach this problem.

The difference between research and homework is that no one has done a particular research project before; there's an Einstein quote floating around, "If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" The job of scientists is to live at the edge of what we don't know and we can't like our jobs unless we are willing to wonder. (This applies to all scientists, not just atheists.)

Atheists aren't necessarily stodgy, we just look for the unknown in things that can be studied, rather than beyond the material world. There is enough to wonder about here.

I want to mention that I agree with his first point, that atheists particularly notice suffering caused by religion, and that he's willing to let religion take the hit on this. Most of his points seem to apply to the atheists that argue with him on the Internet, but they don't uniformly fit most atheists, or at least not the ones I know personally. I don't really have a grudge against Rabbi Wolpe, but his essay touched a nerve. I'm glad he's talking about this stuff and I think he's open to listening.