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.


  1. OK, so I've had intercations with atheists that go something like this-

    Atheist: "Christianity is evil. Religion is evil. Religion is responsible for more death, destruction, etc. . . ."

    Me: "Actually, many of the really evil people in the world were atheists or were following a philosophy based on atheism. (insert Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al)"

    Atheist: "Ah, that's a tired argument, that atheism leads to mass murder and oppressive government. I'm sick of hearing it."

    So, I'm left to conclude that it's OK for atheists to attack Christians for the Crusades, but it's not OK for Christians to attack atheism for Stalin and Mao. Double standard?

    Also, I have heard many atheists critricize religious people for our oppressive/repressive morality (by which, they usually mean being pro-life and anti-homosexuality). But to retirt back that atheism provides no basis for any reliable system of morality meets with scoffing and the empty reply, "You're saying that all atheists are bad people, but we're not all immoral." That's not at all what I said or what I think.

    It's a very frustrating and unproductive exercise most of the time.

    As for media portrayals, Christians have been complaining for years that we have very few major media models of realistic and sincere religious faith. I've given up on media, for the most part.

    You also need to understand that, for most of us, seeing someone "deconvert" as you put it, distubs us deeply, espcially if we care about the person at all. If the Bible is true (and I know it is, in a way that is deeper than logical rationality), then your path is a dangerous one and is, in fact, leading you in the direction of eternal hell. You have turned your back on the One who gave you life, who sustains you and who is, in fact, your only hope.

    From where we stand and from what we have experienced in our lives, it feels a lot like watching someone get hooked on heroin or crystal meth. It's deeply saddening and utterly disturbing. You cannot honestly expect it to be otherwise.

  2. Sigh. Overly zealous religious people make me cringe. Watching someone find peace within themselves should not be disturbing. I know it always will be, but I wish it wouldn't. I wish you all wouldn't be so positive that you're correct in your assumptions about something that you can't even prove to be real, enough so that you want to try and lead everyone around you to believe the same. We won't ever know until we die.

  3. Lauren,

    As a long-time reader of this blog, I would encourage you to be a little more thoughtful with your words, lest you become that which you disdain. Simply blurting out "overly zealous religious people make me cringe" is not a very sensitive thing to say, nor does it make your position any more endearing. There are many overly zealous religious people doing a lot of really amazing things to love those around them (if you've never heard of Shane Claiborne, you might find him interesting.) In those cases, religious zealotry is fueling a love for others.

    I'm sure that you've seen other people make destructive choices-- perhaps a friend who is in a bad relationship but refuses to leave, or someone who is using substances. In these cases, our friends who are finding peace within themselves still concern us because we see things from a different perspective. Believers who care about their friends who are losing belief feel similarly-- while our friends might see themselves as "finding peace," we see them as fooling themselves into a false peace. Our love for them often gets mixed up with sadness, anger, and bitterness that comes out when we say hurtful things.

    You say that you wish that believers wouldn't be so sure about our assumptions. Alex and I have talked about this for years, but I think we've generally concluded that eventually you have to settle on something that you feel very sure about for it to be useful in your life. People disagree about what the most important things to have a strong conviction about are, but whether or not God exists-- and how He wants us to live-- is generally accepted as a pretty important thing to decide on. You may not be convinced of this, for sure, but I think it's important to respect others who disagree with you.

    Finally, in response to your last point, there are lots of different ways of knowing, and what we can "prove to be real" in an empirical sense is a pretty small body of knowledge (especially considering how many other decisions we make on a day-to-day basis are not based on empirical knowledge.) If you're not familiar with, for example, the work of N.T. Wright in examining historical and cultural knowledge about Jesus, I'd highly recommend reading a few of his essays. Again, you might disagree about how we can know certain things, but you should be careful not to categorically dismiss people who disagree with you.

    In summary, I hope that you do find peace and that when you do, you are in a place where you can live and love freely. Along the way, I hope that you can respect the beliefs of others and treat them how you would want to be treated.