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Jan 06 2011

Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists?

The Atheist Atheists get labeled as offensive and bitter… when we express anger, and when we express hope and morality and meaning. Why is it important for believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

Is there anything atheists can say about our atheism — or even just about our lives — that won’t make people look at us with revulsion?

Two recent stories in the news/ blogs/ opinionosphere have made me vividly aware — not for the first time — of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of non-believers in our culture. In one piece, atheists were called out for being negative and confrontational, and readers were informed that we’re angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death. In the other piece, non-believers were called out for sharing the positive, joyful aspects of our lives and the ways we find meaning and hope even in the face of death… and for failing to mention God when we do.

I know. It makes my head spin, too.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Why Are Believers So Hostile Toward Atheists? To find out how atheists get accused of being hopeless, bitter nihilists, regardless of whether we’re expressing anger or joy — and why it’s so important for so many believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

27 comments

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  1. 1
    Villa

    Really well said. I’ll use this as an answer next time I see theists using the trope.

  2. 2
    MrianaB

    Just finished reading your article related to this on Alternet and seems a lot of theist are hostile towards atheists. It’s as though they are projecting too, when they say atheists are hostile, although we do have some things to be upset about. My mother is a Xian and she really hates it that my sons and I are not Xians. Sometimes it seems she seethes venom over it and the fact is, we avoid attacking her beliefs. Its really weird. IMHO, I think Xians are afraid we’ll “harm their faith” or “destroy” it. So they attack non-believers. It’s really crazy.
    Anyway, well said and sorry I’m so long winded.

  3. 3
    Bruce Gorton

    Cross post here in case it doesn’t show up there:
    A tl:dr story about how theists interact with athiests.
    At one point I was arguing with a Christian on my blog, and it was all going reasonably well until a commenter brought in the invisible pink unicorn argument – and he said that would get the poster laughed out of his class.
    I pointed out that simply saying an argument will get laughed out of your philosophy class isn’t an argument.
    He then went on a very Karen Armstrong trip about how how we understand language has changed since the middle ages. I pointed out examples that showed this to be an iffy idea, such as how people behaved in relation to their languages.
    Further, God as a object – a being that actually exists – would not be subjective like his example of love, or conceptual in relation to his example of democracy. This means that to my mind the analogy to various fantastical beings is apt – one needs to demonstrate those beings exist before we accept them as doing, why not God?
    Anyhow the argument went on like this until eventually the very nice, very liberal evolution believing Christian, started pontificating about how atheists are reacting to a history of abuse.
    I pointed out that this generalisation is quite offensive, after all, it is simply a way to avoid having to deal with the argument.
    For me it was doubly blood boiling because I actually do have a history of abuse, and I find it quite objectionable to have that used as an argument for why my reasoning can be ignored, even pitied.
    Finally, the argument ended with me wishing absolutely no ill upon the guy. I figured he was wrong, but the discussion was perfectly entertaining. He on the other hand figured I will get mine when I die, and end up in a rather toasty afterlife.
    To which I responded that I was not intimidated by this as any God who would do that is infinitely morally inferior to either me, or the guy I was arguing with.
    I wouldn’t support Robert Mugabe if he threatened to torture me, I continue my work for a news organisation where two people have been arrested by cops on no charges, and I don’t see how a being who must enforce his authority with fear deserves any.
    That is not a slam on all Christians, but rather an observation of how detrimental “You will burn in hell” is to the argument of a God being worth worshipping.
    Now recognise this is the discussion I currently use in order to judge “angry, arrogant and condescending” – here is a guy basically expecting me to accept his claims about language and the existance of God based on him making them.
    When I don’t, he tries to write off my arguments as “angry” when I am actually enjoying myself, and when that fails he threatens me with eternal damnation.
    At no point did he actually give me a good reason to believe in his God, at no point did he supply evidence and in fact he tried to write off evidence as a basis for investigation.
    You can read the bulk of the argument in the post linked to my name.
    And of course, I am horribly condesending, angry and arrogant throughout.

  4. 4
    The Good Atheist

    I just finished reading all the criticism of your article on Alternet. Seems as though everyone ignored what you wrote and stuck with their little talking points, didn’t they?
    I wrote something to your defense if that helps. Keep up the good work, Greta!

  5. 5
    Jack

    They get mad at us because no one likes being called on their bullshit, especially when that bullshit is really important to them.
    That’s pretty much it, I think.

  6. 6
    Locutus7

    “They hate us for our freedom.” G.W. Bush.
    Maybe that is what is going on with christians. Think about it: christians are bound by social convention, by the pressure to conform, even if they realize it is a sham.
    People who have the strength to flout the orthodoxy of the dominant cultural construct experience a freedom that must inspire a combination of envy and disgust.
    Basic in-group/out-group dynamics.

  7. 7
    vel

    For me, it basically comes down to theists, and Christians in particular, *have* to blatantly lie about atheists to keep up their delusions. Atheism is a huge threat to them. The fact that atheists have perfectly fine lives without their gods and their control shows that they are simply *wrong*. However, since their self-worth is so wrapped up in having a magic invisible friend that is all-powerful and cares for them and only them, they must do *anything* to protect that self-worth. They have nothing else to support it.

  8. 8
    Jim

    Well, hopefully without getting too verbose, it is not entirely unnatural for humans to believe in a variety of things without a sound basis for so doing. I think the soundness of atheists getting to the place where (our) beliefs are is a simple desire to examine ideas put forward which do in fact offer no basis for intelligent acceptance. We tend to ask too many questions which really are important and of significance to the point of believing in a deity. Now I am progressing to the next point. These things we believe become part of our paradigms, whether they are true or not. And history evidences that people will even kill to defend their paradigms. A life unexamined may be by some definitions less worthy, but it certainly is far easier than an examined one in general terms. But demanding us to shut down our intellects to be a part of a rational (or perhaps not) society, has for me, always been way too much to ask. I have questions, and if the inability to address them, far less answer them, is cause for threats of torture or damnation, then the value of those beliefs surely deserves careful examination and their purveyors, depending on just how shrill they are, a wide berth of avoidance. People vary in their lifelong willingness to re-examine the foundations of their lives. Also, it is not unusual to treat oneself as aware, and others as non-sentients running on instinct alone. But the question is, even if so, to what degree is any person doing so ? A desperate unwillingness to reconsider ones precepts for life, and to condemn, those that do, suggests the shallow and unrewarding life, belongs to those who glibly rationalize their belief systems without bothering to actually understand them and separate the ridiculous from the rational. Well, all this has been said many many times, I imagine. My bloviating is at an end.
    Great Article by the way.
    Jim

  9. 9
    Craig

    This is one of the better pieces you’ve written lately, Greta. I really liked it and think it’s absolutely spot-on about the reaction to atheists. It’s obvious that our very existence is threatening and offensive to believers, and I think you’re shined a light on the root of this. The only way the existence of atheists can be fit into their (not a universal they, I have many friends who are liberal Christians and have a mutual respect with them) worldview is to make us mad at God or bad people or just despairing.

  10. 10
    Locutus7

    Didn’t someone – I can’t recall who – say that christians should love their enemies?
    So if we are their stated enemy, what is all this hate about, especially from a cult that claims to be based on love?
    In a way, slightly off topic, I kinda wish there were a hell. Then I could meet in person all my fellow atheists. And the goody-goody christians will be stuck in heaven worshipping a bully 24/7 to the tunes of harp music. Yeah, send me to the warm and cozy place,please.

  11. 11
    Greta Christina

    I just finished reading all the criticism of your article on Alternet. Seems as though everyone ignored what you wrote and stuck with their little talking points, didn’t they?

    Welcome to the wonderful world of AlterNet comment threads. Where the algorithm seems to be:
    1: Read headline of article with the word “atheism” in the title.
    2: Spew out whatever anti-atheist rant you have in your head, regardless of the content of the piece.
    Or, alternately:
    1: Read headline of article with the word “atheism” in the title.
    2a: React to the title alone, without bothering to even read the piece. (Particularly absurd, since writers for periodicals typically don’t get to write their own titles, and my headlines for AlterNet are almost inevitably changed on publication.)
    And thanks for the defense, Good Atheist. I appreciate it.

  12. 12
    Jim Lee

    I’m now 76 male and an ex Christian now atheist. I believe many Christian have doubts about some areas of their faith,so Atheist who voice their thoughts or knowledge on the topic wrankle the believer. The church also has vilified Atheists as evil people, and this is a downright lie. Most folk who declare themselves Atheist have more biblical knowledge that the average Christian wil ever know about their bible. Christianity like every other world religion is a great con on humanity. It binds them against rational thinking.

  13. 13
    the chaplain

    Atheism makes some believers angry because it forces them to confront their own cognitive dissonance. Every time theists encounter atheists, they have to ask (again) – even if ever so briefly – whether their beliefs are true. Many of them may suspect the truth but be afraid of dealing with the reality that atheists keep putting before them. The personal, social and professional costs of leaving religion are often high. It’s usually easier just to stop thinking about it, shut up and go along with the bullshit.

  14. 14
    lectroid

    “Protestants hating Catholics; Hindus hating Muslims; everyone hating the Jews…”
    Seriously? I’m the ONLY ONE to comment on the Tom Lehrer reference?
    “But during National Brotherhood Week,
    National Brotherhood Week
    It’s National Smile-At-One-Another-hood week
    Be nice to people who
    Are inferior to you
    It only lasts a week, so have no fear
    Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year!”

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    Thank you for getting the reference, lectroid! :-)

  16. 16
    Locutus7

    Greta,
    Have you ever addressed the oddity of self-proclaimed former atheists, such as Kirk Careron, Lee Strobel, and many other apologists?
    I realize that the term “former atheist” gives christians street cred and that they are likely lying for jesus.
    But could an actual atheist – someone who has come to understand the psychological reasons humans invent gods – ever convert? To me, it would be like an adult suddenly re-believing in Santa Claus – so inexplicable that it would stretch credulity.
    I could see someone raised catholic or whatever having serious doubts but then returning to their faith (usually upon a crisis), but I am not sure these people ever actually jettisoned their beliefs.
    Just curious if you, Greta, or anyone else has thought about this.

  17. 17
    Maria

    Locutus7, I’ve been thinking about that a few times. I would say that, of course, it’s not impossible that an atheist could become a theist, I just don’t think that it’s very common, and one reason for that is, as you mention, that there is usually a difference in how you come to be an atheist, and in how you come to be a theist. It’s usually not the same kind of mechanisms leading to these different things.
    When the claim is made, in some cases I think it is, just as you are saying, simply rethorics that will make their ‘born again’ story so much more powerful. It’s lying for Jesus all right. Often, it seems to me, their choice of words reveal that lie, as when they use certain words about their atheism that it’s rather unlikely an actual atheist would use. I’ve often heard the phrase “I used to be a devout atheist” for example, which – under some dictionary definitions – would not be impossible to say, but it would still be a very odd choice of words for most atheists, I think. They make the mistake – that many theists do – of thinking that atheism is just another form of faith or belief, and their choice of words describing their “former atheism” reveals that, all too common, misconception.
    I also think, just as you also mention, that in some cases it’s not so much a lie as a genuine misunderstanding of what atheism is. They really did think they were atheists because they have learned that it means “being angry with God” or “wanting to revel in sinful acts” or similar things. So they might interpret a crisis in their faith as having been atheists for a while, yes.
    But yeah, it would be foolish to claim there have never been, or could ever be, genuine cases, I just don’t think they are very common at all. For me personally it would be more likely that I started to believe in Santa again, at least I do get presents at Christmas… :-)

  18. 18
    Locutus7

    Maria,
    Nice response. If you visit Lee Strobel or other apologists’ websites, they are emblazoned with “Former Atheist.” Hilarious!
    Maybe atheist bloggers should adopt the imprimatur of “Former Christian.” Nah, no street cred in that.

  19. 19
    Serena Dante

    I remember a Christian posted a study on her blog once, about how atheists are generally more UNhappy than believers.
    I responded with, “Yes, well, ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?”
    As far as the other piece, where atheists were called out for actually being happy… Really, I don’t even see the point in responding to that sort of ignorance. If we’re happy, we’re happy – no one else can change that.

  20. 20
    Jim Baerg

    It’s been a long standing joke in my family that we were raised as ‘devout atheists’ ;-)
    BTW something that confirmed my irreligion was in my teens reading history of the late Roman Empire & in the descriptions of the theologic disputes it always seemed to be the *more* batshit insane position that won out & became ‘orthodoxy’.

  21. 21
    Maria

    I once got in contact with a woman over the net with whom I soon became friendly. She was a warm, nice and smart woman, and we shared some interests in art and literature.
    She was some sort of pentecostal I think, but it never really came up very much in our conversations. She often talked a lot about her problems with depressions though as we became closer, and her severe anxiety attacks for which she was taking medications. I could symphatize, life has been up and down for me too, and I tried to be supportive.
    Then in a totally unrelated conversation I mentioned that I am an atheist, and I never forget the irony of her reaction. She wrote me back saying:
    “You’re an atheist? How do you find the strength to even get out of the bed in the mornings if you don’t believe in God?”
    Uhh…

  22. 22
    Maria

    It’s been a long standing joke in my family that we were raised as ‘devout atheists’ ;-)
    Ha, ha… yeah, I can see it being used a joke :-D

  23. 23
    Locutus7

    I’m religously atheistic. And devoutly progressive.

  24. 24
    BreadGod

    I fully realize that no matter what I say or do, believers will look at me with revulsion, so I thought, “If that’s the case, I might as well say whatever the hell I want.” I believe other atheists should do the same. To my fellow atheists, I say this: since the believers are going to be offended no matter what you say, you might as well say whatever is on your mind.

  25. 25
    Locutus7

    FYI, Greta and this particular thread received heavy mention on The Atheist Experience show tonight (9 Jan) by Russell Glaser, a fan of this blog it would seem.
    The episode will be posted on their site tomorrow, I think, so give it a view. 1 hour in length. Hosts were Russell and Jeff Dee.

  26. 26
    LykeX

    @BreadGod
    I think there’s a certain point to what you’re saying. Although I don’t think it can harm to be diplomatic and polite, we shouldn’t go overboard with it. Specifically, we shouldn’t be so polite that we end up not saying anything.
    I guess I favor a polite, but forceful approach.
    And speaking of Jeff Dee, I think you’d like him. There are some wonderful rants of his on youtube.

  27. 27
    vel

    @locutus
    “But could an actual atheist – someone who has come to understand the psychological reasons humans invent gods – ever convert? To me, it would be like an adult suddenly re-believing in Santa Claus – so inexplicable that it would stretch credulity.”
    I’ve seen it happen. It’s the desperate fear of one’s mortality that causes one to regress. As soon as you realize you are going to die, having shed the “i’m immortal” feeling of youth, an afterlife looks pretty good, especially if you are none too bright to begin with. I’ve seen atheists, pagans, etc, go running back to the church just to get a foot in those pearly gates.

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