Matthew Cobb is sometimes a bit of a curmudgeon (especially when he’s yelling at me), but he’s a softie inside. You can see that from this one tw**t he made about his new kitten, Harry, and the two pictures he sent to me.
But the “angry atheist” cliché is also another reminder of just how far the celebrity New Atheists have shortchanged the rest of us who identify, more broadly, with the causes of secularism and rationalism. Because the New Atheists really do seem unusually angry.
Go back and read Sam Harris’s or Bill Maher’s denunciations of Islam as a whole in the wake of atrocities committed in its name. Or Dawkins’s insistence that being raised Catholic might be more damaging than child sex abuse. Or the frequent expostulations of the University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne, who (commendably, I’d say) never tries to sugarcoat his fury at those who don’t share his blanket condemnation of religion. Then tell me these aren’t strikingly angry men.
“Commendably” my tuchus! As far as the first paragraph goes, yes, some New Atheists, including me, are anti-theists, but are we really “unusually” angry compared to the “old atheists”? I suggest that you read some of those old atheists and see if they’re really markedly different in tone from people like Dawkins and Harris. Read, for instance, Nietzsche (now there’s anger!), H. L. Mencken, R. G. Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, and even Carl Sagan, who took more than few sarcastic potshots at faith in his time.
I don’t think Burkeman has had a look at Mencken or Ingersoll, because if he did he wouldn’t argue that New Atheists are unusually angry compared to the old ones. What’s new, I think, is not our level of passion, but the willingness to be public about it instead of shutting up, combined with the notion that religions make claims that can be tested through reason and empiricism: religious tenets are, by and large, hypotheses. What’s largely new in New Atheism, therefore, isn’t “anger,” but unwillingness to keep quiet combined with applying a scientific approach to religion.
And really, Burkeman is unfair to the atheists he cites, for among the angriest people around, according to his criterion, are religionists. Just read some David Bentley Hart, Terry Eagleton, or even John Haught if you want to see vociferous scorn of atheism. Why are religionists so angry? I’m not mentioning, of course, the many Muslim believers and theologians—the angriest people at all. Atheists, after all, don’t issue fatwas or kill people with whom they disagree. Burkeman is silent on the issue of religionist anger.
As for the second paragraph, I suggest you click on the links, including the three of mine at this site, and see if you see those as embodying pure anger rather than passionate arguments against the harms of religion—harms that Burkeman, according to his piece, doesn’t accept.
Burkeman’s biggest mistake is construing the writings of New Atheists as showing prima facie that they are angrier than other people, even the “quiet’ atheists. I, for one, have never in my life been described as an “angry person” (at least as far as I know), though of course I do get angry at times. Nor, from having known the other New Atheists, can I think of one that I think of as inherently an angry person. Dawkins, for example, is mild-mannered, though he can be passionate when he’s either discussing the harms of religion or fighting back in response to what he sees as unfounded criticism. I have never known either Sam Harris or Steve Pinker to even raise their voices. If you gave all of us the same psychological tests that those other atheists took, would we show abnormal “dispositions to anger”? I don’t think so. So why don’t you put a muzzle on it, Mr. Burkeman, until we’ve all had our psychological tests? In light of that, this statement of Burkeman is simply unfounded:
By contrast, merely not believing in God doesn’t entail believing that religion is the greatest evil the world has ever known, nor even necessarily that religion is any problem at all. It means what it means: not believing in God. And, as this research confirms, that’s something most atheists manage to do without any abnormal levels of anger.
Burkeman’s second mistake is assuming that situational anger is a bad thing. Greta Christina’s book, Why are you Atheists So Angry?: 99 Things that Piss off the Godless, lists a lot of the bad things about religion that do inspire anger. What is our response suppose to be to child rape by priests? To the beheading of apostates by ISIS? To the murder of witches in Africa? To the demonization of gays by American Christians? To such things anger is the appropriate response, for it’s anger and a sense of injustice that motivates action. I wonder what Burkeman’s reponse would be to the “anger” of civil rights activists in the sixties.
But you can be angry about some things and still not be an “angry person.” If I were to list the atheists whom I so see as angry people, it would be those “ragebloggers” who seem to make a career of dissing other atheists, finding offense at everything, and, most important, in giving the impression that there is little in life that brings any joy.
So here’s Burkeman’s summing-up:
Ultimately, I suspect that the impression that atheists are angrier than other people stems from a more general problem, one that skews our assessment of all sorts of other phenomena, too: it’s always the loudest people who make the most noise. That might sound obvious, yet it’s alarmingly easy to forget – as you roam around Facebook or Twitter or the wider internet, or channel-hop through television shows – that you’re inevitably going to hear far more from people prone to anger and condemnation than from those whose beliefs are more quietly held.
It is regularly argued that the internet provides a glimpse into humanity’s collective id – that the fury and fear and bigotry revealed daily on Twitter, or in comment sections, represents the truth we otherwise hide behind polite offline facades. There’s probably something to that (and online abuse is a serious problem). But it’s still worth remembering that most people don’t spend their days picking fights, or screaming at people they hate – only the fight-pickers and the screamers and the haters do. Likewise, in debates about religion, it’s the angry participants on both sides who create the impression that such debates must always be fractious. It’s not atheists in general who are angry; it’s just the angry ones.
There’s not a scintilla of evidence here that the loudest people are also the angriest people. If Burkeman is going to let the “quiet” atheists off the hook because psychological tests show that they’re no angrier than anyone else, then he should keep quiet until he uses the same tests to show a correlation between the “anger” of atheists and their participation in public life. After all, there are plenty of public atheists who aren’t “angry” by even Burkeman’s lights, including Chris Stedman, Michael Ruse, Philip Kitcher, Massimo Pigliucci, and the physicist Sean Carroll. Clearly a public avowal of nonbelief doesn’t mean you’re angry. But I reject the whole notion that we’re angrier than others, since it’s based on Burkeman’s own biased impression of what “anger” is, his ignorance of historical atheism, and his failure to consider the “anger” of religionists and accommodationists.
h/t: Christopher, Heather