Proof That Atheists Are Getting a Bad Rap


Why are atheists so angry? The question – regularly flung around in debates about religion – is a self-fulfilling one, since atheists get pretty irritated whenever they’re asked it. But it’s revealing, too, because it pinpoints a surprising zone of agreement between believers and non-believers: many on both sides accept the premise that atheists are angrier than average.

Naturally, their reasoning differs. Evangelical Christians sometimes assert that atheists secretly believe in God and fear he’s judging them; atheists retort that religion gives them plenty of things to be angry about. Either way, it’s difficult to examine Richard Dawkins’s Twitter feed (to pick the most unfairly obvious example) and fail to conclude that tetchiness and faithlessness go hand in hand.

Here’s the thing, though: apparently they don’t. A study just published in the Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied (which I found via Hazlitt) describes what happened when researchers from universities in Pennsylvania and North Dakota set out to discover the truth behind the stereotype. First, they confirmed that it’s widely held. One method they used was an implicit association test, of the kind used to argue that many people are unconsciously racist because they take a split-second longer to associate positive words with black faces than white ones, and vice versa for negative words. Sure enough, atheism was associated with anger more readily than with calm.

But when the researchers recruited more than a thousand students, determined their religious beliefs, then administered multiple tests to measure their disposition to anger, no correlation emerged. “We did not find any evidence to suggest that atheists – or those people believing in God to a lesser extent – are particularly angry individuals” they wrote, and concluded: “The idea of the angry atheist is a myth.”

Assuming this is correct, why does the stereotype persist? Proponents of religion are undoubtedly guilty of demonizing those on the other side by pretending they’re angry when they’re not. The high-profile creationist Ken Ham, for example, is fond of using words like “angry” and “intolerant” to describe anyone who disagrees with him; yet if “tolerating” Ham’s argument that the world is 6,000 years old means entertaining it as a non-preposterous possibility, he’s going to conclude that an awful lot of people are intolerant.

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.

Whether you think this anger toward religion is justified will depend, of course, on whether you share the New Atheists’ firm conviction that religiosity per se is to blame for outrages such as the Charlie Hebdo attack, or the murders committed by Isis. (This is a huge, incredibly complex question that New Atheists bafflingly treat as straightforward on the grounds that the killers themselves claim to be motivated by faith. Terrorists, apparently, are to be treated as entirely trustworthy sources of information on this point.) But either way, it’s crucial to see that this conviction doesn’t follow from atheism itself. Instead, it’s part of the New Atheists’ very specific brand of anti-theism – their commitment to challenging faith in the most strident terms at every opportunity.

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.

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 – onlythe 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.

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