Atheists who can’t even talk to theists

A Recurring Character

Among my many years participating in university atheist student groups, there was often someone who played the role of the asshole.

Atheists are, of course, stereotyped as angry assholes, although a lot of this is based on online activity. It’s very easy to be “internet angry”, when you’re merely energetic, enthusiastic, or opinionated. Plenty of people are loud in writing but soft-spoken in person. But I’m talking about atheists who were not merely internet angry, but IRL angry at religion, or otherwise assholes about it. It sometimes reached a point where other atheist students would whisper, “What’s up with them? Are they okay?”

I mean, everyone is an asshole to one degree or another. But mentally, I drew a line in the sand with this question: what if a theist walked through that door? Would this person be able to talk normally with them? Or would they try aggressively argue with them, or otherwise be a jerk?

When I draw this line, it’s not a moral line. Some people had good reasons to be deeply, personally angry. Some people grew up with religious abuse, and they wouldn’t always tell us about it. Some I later found out were trans, so I’m guessing they were dealing with other issues. It’s not wrong to cross my mental line. But I personally felt, we have to live in this society together with theists, and I hope their resentment towards religion isn’t getting in the way of essential life functions. I was privately judgmental about it, but I wouldn’t let that get in the way of being friends.

No Atheist is an Island

Besides, it was entirely in my head. It’s all very well to imagine what would happen if a theist walked through the door. But what if it actually happened?

It did happen on many occasions. Some religious students would talk to us at the club table on the way to class. Sometimes a religious group would invite us to an event, or we would invite them. There was at least one time when we organized a joint panel.

And although it was not common, some members of the atheist groups were religious and/or theistic. At least one such person reads my blog. We’re friends!

So as a reality check, when an asshole atheist actually interacted with a theist, were they able to have a normal conversation? Yes. I think so? Most of the time.

The thing is, if we’re going to a Christian panel, that might very well be the appropriate place for arguing and debating, and an occasional expression of anger. If a Christian visits our group, they may have wanted to engage in some sort of argument, and who are we to hold back? Even so, many of the asshole atheists knew how to be polite if they were properly motivated. For instance, if you told them it would make the student group look bad.

There were a few cases where I thought some atheist students were crossing a line. I remember one time we went to a lunch with some Christian students, and this one atheist next to me just grilled the Christian across from him non-stop the entire time. The Christian kid (and I say “kid” because I was a grad student and these were undergrads) seemed to be playing along but I for one was annoyed. I just wanted to ask the Christian about his group and his beliefs, and I couldn’t even get a word in. I don’t understand how this atheist kid thought he would argue against Christianity without even bothering to ask what kind of Christianity he was arguing with.

But for the most part, this mental image of atheists too angry to function? It was mostly a me problem. My own prejudice. It turns out asshole atheists were already able to function socially without my help. I mean, as well as you can expect from awkward undergrad nerds.

Venting Spaces

I’m going to digress into some ancient conversation from another blogosphere. In 2010, Sciatrix proposed the idea of “detoxing”:

I’ve watched a lot of people come to terms with asexuality, and I’ve seen a lot of people go through this phase I think of as detoxing. That is, they’re coming out of a culture that expects everyone to want sex, anyone in a romantic relationship to have it, and they find this space that’s validating their disinterest in sex or their outright repulsion at the activity. And they’re excited, they’re relieved, they’re integrating this new identity, and they sometimes get pretty enthusiastic about how terrible sex is and how much they hate it, because they’ve never had anywhere to say that before and have people nod their heads and say “yeah, I get it, I don’t experience that desire to have sex with people either.”

It’s arguably necessary to provide space for asexuals to vent about sex. That can be a bit frightening for outsiders, who may associate anti-sexuality with conservatism and queerphobia. But it’s also fraught even within asexual spaces, because some people on the asexual spectrum have sex. It’s definitely a minority, but if you assemble enough aces together, some will want to vent about how terrible sex is, and others are willingly sexually active, and those people need to live with each other.

How do we deal with these conflicting needs? Man, I don’t know. It’s mostly up to younger folks to figure that out now.

As for the IRL angry atheists, I often suspected they had found their place to vent. And sure enough, most of these students would mellow out after a year or two.

Was there something in their personal life that caused them to be so bitter? Some of them definitely had troubled religious backgrounds. But maybe for some of them it was something more petty in their background, or nothing at all. But who am I to judge? It’s not my life. I came from a functional family, and just quietly stepped away from nominal Catholicism after deciding that arguments for the existence of God were bad.

The atheists who join the atheist student groups are in a tiny minority. The student group at my alma mater died in 2017, so I suppose literally zero of the students there join atheist student groups anymore. That might mean there are many atheist students who don’t have a space to vent about religion. Their venting space is now just… wherever? Do they even have a chance to mellow out?

Kids these days, many of them think atheists are assholes. And you know, that’s not wrong, I left the atheist community because the sexist assholes kind of took over.  But if you think atheists are assholes just because you once had an atheist classmate who was kind of a jerk? Not to dismiss the real harm that jerks may cause. But I’ve gotten to know a lot of jerks in my time.  Some jerks are good people.


  1. says

    Kids these days, many of them think atheists are assholes.

    That’s probably because they were told that by adults who never allowed them to go anywhere near any actual atheists. That has nothing to do with the behavior of actual atheists.

  2. Katydid says

    During my college years (1980s), there were no atheist groups but there were several bitterly competing Christian evangelical groups. Given the times, a lot of them were probably coming from homes that were moderate-to-nominally Christian, and they were definitely pushy, angry, and LOUD as they integrated their new identities. Most of them also didn’t understand that while they had found “their thing”, the rest of us didn’t want to hear about it and absolutely didn’t want to be recruited into it.

  3. says

    Yeah the “detoxing” thing is very real. I’m ex-evangelical (I’m still a Christian though) and around the time I started blogging, there was a whole ex-evangelical blogging community where we were all pretty angry about evangelical ideology. Writing blog posts like “I just realized, when I was a child and I was taught that I deserve to go to hell, that was really messed up.” Or, when some big-name evangelical organization writes a post with some harmful/abusive/ridiculous ideology, and I have to write a whole long response like “here’s the whole background about how this belief actually logically fits into their overall ideology (for the readers who aren’t familiar with evangelicalism) and here’s why it’s harmful (for the readers who are evangelical and felt it was a completely normal thing to say).” Some ex-evangelical bloggers were atheist and some were still Christian- the Christian ones would sometimes spin it like “and here’s why this isn’t *really* what the bible says” (I guess I do this too sometimes).

    Anywayyyy seems like most of them aren’t blogging any more, maybe they were able to eventually stop being angry and stop caring about what evangelicals think, and move on to other things. For me, I’ve decided I don’t want to focus on “here are all the problems with evangelicalism” any more (even though those posts are very easy to write!). For example, recently “Christianity Today” published a pearl-clutching post about “you can’t use they/them pronouns for God” and I was just like, “LOLLLLLLLL imagine believing that “Christianity Today” has the right to tell people what pronouns they’re allowed to use for God,” and it’s not worthy of a response beyond that. I don’t need to spend my time writing a whole thing about it. But, it is important that that content exists, analyzing every little aspect of why these things are harmful, and people with religious trauma need to go through that phase of being angry about it.

    I have also met atheist assholes IRL- probably they were dealing with religious trauma. (Or maybe they’re just really angry about, like, Pascal’s wager or something? Seems unlikely?) Though a lot of the religious trauma is related to women and/or queer people being oppressed by patriarchy/ rape culture in the church, but the atheist assholes I met were all men, so seems like not quite the same thing, idk.

  4. says

    Of the ~6 or so specific people I’m thinking of, only one of them was presenting as a woman. These groups were also just majority men in general.

    The gender dynamics are not surprising. Gender conditions us on the range of emotional reactions we give to any situation. It was never so simple as religious trauma makes an angry atheist. Some people with very disturbing religious backgrounds were cheerful and friendly.

    I should also mention, it was only a couple of the “angry” atheists that later transitioned. I also know of plenty of nicer atheists who I later found out were trans.

  5. says

    Yes, some atheists are fucking assholes. No question. But it’s worth noting that religion provides plenty of very valid reasons to be royally pissed off at Believers. So I think the whole overblown “angry atheists” thing is, in large part, due to the fact that Believers are accustomed, throughout their lives, to having their weird ideas about whichever god-concept met with unquestioning respect and acceptance, and often outright admiration… and many atheists don’t play along. Many atheists merely apply the same epistemic standard to Belief as they do you anything else in their lives, and, well, Belief really comes up short. And Believers can’t deal with that.

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