Atheists don’t have to chill out

There has grown up a stereotype that atheists are angry people. Is this true? Via reader Jeff, I came across this article that discusses the results of a study titled The Myth of the Angry Atheist that examined the angry atheist hypothesis and found it to be false. Here’s the conclusion of the paper:

We examined the prevalence and accuracy of an angry-atheist stereotype in seven studies. We found that people believe atheists are angrier than believers, people in general, and another minority group, both explicitly and implicitly. However, none of our studies supported the idea that atheists are angrier than other individuals. Our work, in sum, suggests that the angry-atheist stereotype exists, but that it does not match reality. Dissemination of the present results may be useful in correcting misperceptions while averting potential unwarranted and harmful consequences.

So why do people think we are angry? The authors of the study offer some ideas.

One potential cause relates to passionate atheists who discuss religion in public settings. These individuals are typically open, forceful, and fervent about their beliefs. Such discussions about religion and God go against what most Americans believe. These portrayals could drive people’s beliefs that atheists are angry. Furthermore, media brings to mind this stereotype when they use the term “angry atheist” to describe this passionate communication style.

Another potential cause relates to perceivers potentially projecting their own anger onto atheists. Religion is a major source of meaning and comfort to a large number of Americans (Pew Research Center, 2008). Atheists may be perceived to threaten this source of meaning, thereby triggering anger and the defensive sorts of processes identified by existential psychologists (e.g., Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2000). Research has indeed shown that people can project anger onto other individuals.

Atheists are a small minority and many people may have few interactions with them (Zuckerman, 2007). Research suggests that it is precisely under such conditions that stereotypes can thrive even if incorrect (Dovidio, Gaertner, & Kawakami, 2003). That is, they thrive when people have preconceived ideas about a group of people that are not updated in the context of “individuating” information concerning particular people from that group. The same principles can explain why negative stereotypes could persist even with rela- tively friendly encounters because we are often unaware of the religious beliefs of the people with whom we interact. Such a tendency can be magnified considering that people tend to seek information that confirms rather than disconfirms their initial beliefs (Nickerson, 1998).

Another possibility is that such myths commonly arise with groups whose views are not part of the mainstream discourse. If you are saying something that everyone agrees with, then you can simply assert it and move on. But if you are challenging the predominant view, then you will be immediately challenged and you have to make a strong case for it, often in the face of deep opposition and ignorance, and this requires you to be forceful in getting your point across. Furthermore, the fact that minority groups are often discriminated against can also lead them to feel frustrated and exasperated and this can be easily misconstrued (or willfully mischaracterized) as anger.


  1. says

    Not to mention that being proselytized to is really annoying, and atheists often get treated like shit.

    As I tell my mother sometimes, “I’m not angry because I’m an atheist. I’m angry because I’m trying to go about my life and you keep preaching at me.”

  2. Chiroptera says

    So why do people think we are angry?

    I have another question: you know those evangelical Christians who are always screaming about every little outrage? And screaming in fear about how the gay agenda and liberal communist Marxists are about to burst into their churches and haul them away to FEMA camps? And the ones who gather in crowds to scream ugly racist epithets at child refugees?

    Why do they think they are full of joy and love?

  3. lanir says

    I was angry for a long time when religion would come up. Part of that was due to really ridiculous nonsense other people would pull. If they’d behaved similarly about any other topic even they would realize how obnoxious and silly it was but religion gets a free pass on almost every moral or logic based check.

    For example, I used to have a friend who wasn’t particularly religious, never went to church, never talked about religion. But once it came up (I think in reference to a talk about a religion in a fantasy story) and I explained I’d had it shoved down my throat for years when I was powerless to do anything about it and please let’s avoid the topic… suddenly it had to come up all the time and did I know I was wrong to not be into religion, wrong to be angry, and wrong to be wrong. If I were the one doing the accusations like that after being asked to let someone have their private beliefs which impact no one else in peace they’d say some pretty amazing things about me.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Angry atheist” alliterates. It is easy to fling around. Just like “militant muslim”. Someone should develop a similar slur for xians.

  5. says

    Atheists aren’t angry. We’re disgusted -- disgusted by mass murder in the name of “god”, disgusted by the lie of “religious morality”, disgusted by the attempts to imposed religion on others, disgusted by hypocrisy and dishonesty. And it’s as justified as women who are disgusted by rampant sexism.

    Here’s another example of my disgust for religion: Arkansas state representative Justin Harris. And if anyone reading that item is angry, it’s justified. But you can be sure the tone trolls will focus on the anger instead of the reason for it.

  6. Holms says

    Not to mention how irritating it is to be constantly told that atheists are irritable.

  7. dannorth says

    Disclaimer: I’m an atheist from Québec, Canada, so not so angry. Here religion is not really part of public discourse and a private matter.

    I was wondering if the christian meme about atheists being angry against god may be to blame at least in part for the perception of atheist as angry people.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    And of course any discussion like this really ought to reference Greta’s book on the subject. Cause it’s got all the answers above and more.

  9. Broken Things says

    I am an atheist and I am extremely angry, but my anger has little to do with atheism. It has a lot to do with the Planned Parenthood clinic I drove by this morning, with a line of protesters, complete with some priest in full regalia, standing outside praying for it to burn down. Or the homeless vet in the wheelchair on a median in heavy traffic, hoping someone would find the time to stop and give him some money. Or the latestosal from republican legislature to allow, in fact encourage, municipal and state employees to refuse services to LGBT people. And so on. Yep, goddamn straight I’m angry. They just can’t seem to comprehend the real reasons, so “he must just be an angry atheist” is a convenient way to dismiss my concerns.

  10. Kanna says

    That argument comes from the theists, whose favorite concept seems to be that we are “only atheists because you are mad at god”. They don’t seem to comprehend that we simply do not believe the silly claims of the bible. Yes, I’m sure some people left their churches because they were mad, but not most of us. The notion that we could be “mad at” something that does not exist is a strange and convoluted idea indeed!

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