Angry Atheists and Mistrust

Today, Newsweek magazine posted an article by Rabbi Marc Gellman entitled "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?" In the article, Rabbi Gellman makes the following point:

So we disagree about God. I'm sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don't like animals, but I try to be civil. I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don't get it.

This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don't mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse. I would ask for forgiveness from the angry atheists who write to me if I thought it would help. Religion must remain an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it. All religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us.

Personally, I have experienced a great deal of incivility from skeptics on the Internet. They seem to enjoy the idea of tweaking Christians however possible from the way that they refer to Christians to the extremely condescending attitude that they hold. Of course, I am not so blind as to think that the condescension does not also come from us Christians. However, my own personal feelings and experiences are that the majority of the hostility does come, by and large, from the skeptical side of the debate.

For example, just take a look at the way that Beyond Belief Media uses inflammatory language about Christianity in the press release in their recent (apparently failed) ridiculous war on Easter. The website says things like "People go to churches to hide from the truth" and "Christian leaders are indoctrinating children with 2000-year-old fairy tales" and "Christians believe that beating a man to a pulp and nailing him to a cross somehow solves all the world's problems". In the FAQ section, Beyond Belief Media says things like Christianity is a "backward and deranged theology" and that it is "devoid of reason." Language like that, which is plainly over-the-top and designed to incite does not make me have any faith that atheists are going to be fair to me.

Now, given that the majority of this country still identifies themselves as Christians, how do you suppose that the majority of Christians react to this kind of drivel? Personally, I think that people read this nonsense and recognize that skeptics are, for the most part, talking without understanding. If you can readily identify that some of their statements are nonsense, then why trust anything that they say at all? In fact, apparently, most people think that atheists aren't trustworthy according to an article entitled "Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study". The article notes:

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

* * * Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

Now, I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that all skeptics share these traits that are so mistrusted. But my personal experience is that many of the skeptics posting on the Internet and maintaining their silly little websites can certainly lay claim to being rampant materialists and cultural elitists. I would add that they are also rude, crude and obstinate.

Let me give you fine skeptics advice: if you really want to convert Christians to your viewpoint, stop being inflammatory. You need to be more tolerant of the views of others, you need to stop thinking that you know it all, and you need to stop belittling everything you disagree with. If you are not of that type, then you should be standing up and denouncing what these loudmouths skeptics are saying as wrong! (At the Christian CADRE, we do denounce Christian groups that are like this -- for example, Fred Phelps "God Hates Fags" church -- I think I speak for every member of the CADRE when we say such over-the-top claims are both Biblically wrong and uncivil and Pastor Phelps should be quiet!) But for those of you who have websites like Beyond Belief Media's rhetorically nonsensical "War on Easter", I'm suggesting that you do something that does not come naturally in your world -- act civilly.


SteveiT1D said…

I can see your letting out a little steam in your post. I understand and join you in your frustration. The online atheist community likes to pull the rational card on Christians; however, I have noted that on many skeptical blogs, posts are not motivated by rationale objections. Rather, a substantial amount of the material is focused on ridicule, mocking, and abhorrence toward the Christian faith. I have on occasion returned some abrasiveness out of frustration. My commitment is to abstain from interactions of that nature.

I have especially noted that the comments sections of these ‘skeptical’ blogs to be a bash fest. From my perspective, it’s more like country club atheism, where they get together and throw pie in the face of theism, have a good laugh, and go home feeling smarter. One only needs to appraise a small percentage of the comments to comprehend the utter lack of understanding of Christianity, faith, and reason. It’s amazing how much rational superiority they claim when so little argument is given. There is more talk about rationality than there is rationality. I think its official—it is cool to be an atheist.

I am no intellectual giant myself. In fact, I am a layman with no special insights, arguments or impact on others. However, I take interest in what I believe and find this blog not to be a smack fest, but an edifying resource to stimulate the minds of Christians. The Christian mind is a terrible thing to waste, and I take offense to the dumbing down of the Church. Even if I am not all that smart, I still enjoy thinking for myself.

There are a few atheist exceptions. There have been atheists calling for civility and mutual respect when things get hostile. One can only hope that they will reason with each other on this point (Christian efforts are predictably futile). Until then, any communication between atheist and theist shall become fruitless under these conditions.

One can only hope that country club atheism is only a fad, but who knows…

Take care
Secular Outpost said…
BK and BF -- I read the same article by Rabbi Gellman as you did. I'm sorry to hear that both of you have experienced a great deal of incivility from skeptics on the Internet. I have never heard of "Beyond Belief Media," but based on your description of that organization, I can certainly understand your feelings. I will look into this and, if I reach the same conclusion as you have, I will post a condemnation of their tactics.

While I have no control over what other atheists do, in my own blog entry on Gellman's article, I've responded to Gellman by acknowledging his concerns and inviting theists to track whether high-profile atheist organizations publicly condemn high-profile atheists who exhibit unjustified anger or a lack of civility. I'd like to extend that invitation to both of you.

Also, I sincerely hope that you would not lump in my own blog, "Naturalistic Atheism", or my team blog, "The Secular Outpost", with other blogs you have described as "Country Club Atheism." If you see anything on either blog that falls into the category of a "smack fest," please let me know.


Jeffery Jay Lowder
BK said…
Mr. Lowder,

I thank you for your input. I have a copy of your book on the Empty Tomb sitting here on my bookshelf, and while I obviously disagree with the book's conclusions, I don't judge it as uncivil, and I have no reason to conclude or believe that you are one of the uncivil skeptics to whom I am referring.

I will look in on your sites, thank you for the invitation.
Layman said…
I would have to disagree to a limited extent with BK about The Empty Tomb. Parts of it are uncivil, though I have not yet waded deeply in Mr. Lowder's article. Even Publisher's Weekly found that Robert Price's -- one of the editors -- contributions to be “polemical and mean-spirited.”

Robert Price writes about Christain apologists spreading "red herrings" around with "gleeful abandon" and preying on the "foolishness of the untutored masses," which I guess is better than referring to them as unwashed.

I will not repeat the entire account here, but I found Robert Price's misprersentation of the scholarship and character of Prof. Murphy O'Connor to be well below the belt. I lay it out here.
SteveiT1D said…
Mr. Lowder,

Thank you for your response. I have read posts at the Secular Outpost on several occasions and have not noted any hostility or pejorative language toward Christians thus far. I certainly was not including your blog and the “Secular Outpost” in my general statements. In fact, the “Secular Outpost” came to mind as an exception while I was commenting. Which, is why I stated, “There are a few atheist exceptions”.

While I appreciate your open disapproval of Christian bashing, it would certainly be unreasonable to police the atheist blogsphere to crack down on “smack fests” (as there are countless episodes). Moreover, the “country club atheism” I was referring to generally lies outside of scholarship. There is a flood of [amateur] atheist blogs that have formed a community which has notably incited hostility toward theism. I am certainly not opposed to skepticism of Christianity (or any religion for that matter); rather, my concern lies with the inundation of hate toward Christianity (which flows toward hate of Christians).

Nevertheless, you comments are appreciated and I hope that as an example, you can influence other atheists to promote respectable dialogue with those they disagree with.

Take care
John R. said…
I can understand people putting some "edge" on their discussions and on their writings concerning things they hold deeply. There has to be some room for "color" and challenge in one's writing. I do admit to some regret in how I've interacted with folks at times because--looking back on things--I realized that I was more interested in making a point rather than in communicating with people.

I recently wrote a post on Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. I found his book to be interesting and dismaying at the same time. I do have to say that his views of Christians and their motives simply missed me altogether. (This is a minor point, but, coming from a Premillenial background, I was amazed at his assertion that that eschatology was somehow anti-Semitic. Something like Christians wanted Christ to come back at the end times so the Jews could be destroyed. Talk about a total disconnect! I could only conclude that the author "didn't have a clue.")

Harris also lumps every Christian today with the thought processes that produced almost every horror in the past. Again, another disconnect. As a result, I think people will come away thinking that these kinds of books are more or less "tirades."

Not to say that some naturalists are very thoughtful. (Harris is somewhat thoughtful.) But I was hoping for more a philosophical challenge than a beating about the head and shoulders.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts.

BK said…
John, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that there needs to be some edge to the writings. I use some language that some people might consider objectionable if I were trying to play really, really nice with skeptics (this post alone I call the websites of the most rude of the skeptics "silly little websites"). Thus, I have no problem with some edge in the writings.

What I am talking about is the over-the-top statements that, IMHO, portray Christians as stupid believers in fairy tales without a clue about reality. My point is that the type of atheist who holds this view, while maybe not the majority, is certainly the most vocal of the atheists on the Internet and make all of the atheists look bad.
John R. said…
I'd have to agree.

Needless to say, much of the acidity of this kind of rhetoric comes from a disillusionment with past experiences with Christians whether parents, church, etc. (or with what was thought to be Christianity but wasn't...)

Good post.
BK said…
Fran, with all due respect, the war on Easter wasn't a joke. If you mean that they had no expectation that planting videos around churches would somehow lead to Easter going away, I completely agree. But they were serious about what planting the videos (they apparently did) to influence children (that was there hope) and I have no reason to believe that they didn't mean what they said on their FAQ page. Can you point me to a place where they say "Aw, we were just kidding"?

As far as Mr. Flemming goes, I have not met him. I don't doubt that he is overall a nice guy. But the face that he portrays to the world through things like this War on Easter is being a mean-spirited, rude atheist who ridicules the beliefs of others as a way of trying to win converts to his religion of no-gods.

I have watched the video and found it silly. I mean, he misquotes the Bible, somehow tries to connect Charles Manson and that wacko in Waco with Christianity, and says that the authors of the Left Behind Series (paraphrasing) are looking forward to seeing skeptics burn in hell. These are all falsehoods that take place in the first approximately 5 minutes of the movie (there are more, but I think these make the point). I appreciated his movie only to this extent: it showed the absurd lengths to which some people will go to discredit Christianity.

I don't know if he has ever said Christians are stupid, but even if he hasn't said that precisely, he does say that "Christianity is equally devoid of reason" and "backward and deranged theology" and that Christians teach children the "craziest things imaginable." And of course, the implication is that he was too smart to believe all of this and that's why he's an atheist now. So, no he hasn't called Christians stupid, but it is clear that he thinks Christians are worse than stupid.

I cannot answer for the CADRE, but I do not think "meeting a friendly atheist who respected their beliefs" would change their minds. But that is not what I am saying. I welcome discussion. I am certainly open to having my mind changed because I believe in truth as the foremost thing. If Christianity isn't true, I don't want to believe it. Thus, show me that it isn't true, and I will give up my beliefs. However, lots of atheists have tried over the years (I read lots of their websites and have engaged in discussions with them on many discussion boards), but thus far I haven't found their arguments compelling. But I will tell you one way not to convert me -- start off by telling me I'm deranged or insult me or tell lies about what I believe to be true. You start that way, and there is no way I will give you a fair hearing because you aren't being fair to me.
Steven Carr said…
Atheists should be more tolerant?

Many Christians read the Old Testament and are happy to proclaim that it is right and just to kill whole tribes of people, men, women and children.
BK said…
Fran --

Sorry it took me so long to respond, but I left town after my last response for a funeral and forgot all about it until someone wrote and asked me if I was going to respond. So, here I am.

First, I continue to disagree that the War on Easter was an attempt at humor. But even if it was an attempt at humor, I can't see how you could deny that it was a very mean-spirited bit of humor.

Second, I think that Brian Flemming was a Christian in the same way I was a socer fan a few years ago. I knew something about the game, and when I watched I could knew when the teams scored a goal or kicked the ball out of bounds -- obvious things like that. But it wasn't until after 10 years of watching, learning and coaching that I began to see the real subtleties of the game to the point where I am actually on the verge of being knowledgeable. Brian Flemming has a shallow, shallow knowledge of Chrisitianity. Yes, I'm sure he went to church and learned the stories, but he didn't grasp the subtleties at all.

Third, so your argument is that he doesn't see Christians as stupid, but rather as something much worse -- brainwashed deceivers of little children. Of course, he was subject to the same brainwashing at his church, but he made it out fine -- wonder why? Because he's smarter? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what he thinks.

Yes, I am sure he has reached some of the Christians who were like he was -- limited in understanding. That is the fault of the church in that it has failed, and continues to fail, in doing a good job of teaching its congregations even the basics of the faith.

Now, let's get to the heart of your post -- no, I am not the least bit uncertain of my beliefs. I know what I know because I have studied this stuff and have been challenged by atheists for about 10 years now. I have been impressed with some of their arguments, but I have found none that have been unanswerable. The reason why I am saying that he thinks Christians are stupid is twofold: First, many, many atheists think that way. That is why many of their websites feature claims that they are the "rational" people, obviously meaning Christians are not. Secondly, I think it obvious that he thinks that he is smarter than Christians for the reason that I stated above -- he somehow overcame his own "brainwashing". Exactly how did he do that if it weren't for the fact that he was too smart to be taken in.

I agree that we need to examine what we believer, but I don't agree that we need "methodological skepticism" as I understand that term.

Next, I want you to compare language used: I say "silly little websites", he says "Christian leaders are indoctrinating children with 2000-year-old fairy tales". Which is worse? If I say that they some skeptics are the other things you mention, but he is saying that all Christians believe a "backward and deranged theology" that is "devoid of reason." But quite simply, what I have said is true and I will happily point you to some places where you can encounter them. What he says is a blanket condemnation of all Christians as being worse than stupid. There is no question in my view which is worse.

Let me add that I wouldn't say anything about these skeptics if they were behaving themselves. But they don't. They really don't. If you think that they do, then you need to get around more.

To a certain respect, I actually hope that you simply write me off as engaging in polemics. I don't mind at all that you don't see that the problem is infinitely worse on the skeptic side than on the Christian side. After all, if I am right, then as long as these skeptics continue to act the way they do they will continue to be mistrusted which is better for Christians anyway.

You want me to denounce Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I will happily do so to specific examples of what they say. But they have also been very gracious at times, and I will not give them a blanket condemnation as I do for Fred Phelps.

You ask a tought question about hell, and I will not try to answer it here. I invite you to look up what I have said on the subject elsewhere: I will say this, however, no one wants anyone to not go to heaven, and I pray that you come to an understanding of the truth.

Regarding Flemming's misrepresentation, it concerns Hebrews 8:4, and you can find it as part of my discussion here:

I completely reject the inference that Christians would be more like Islamo-fascists if they followed the Bible more closely. No offense, but that shows a lack of understanding of how the Bible is to be read and understood as historically understood by those in the church considered orthodox.

BTW, I agree that mainline protestantism has taken steps towards being atheists. You see that as a good thing, but I see it as a very bad thing. Guess it depends upon your point of view.
BK said…
Steven Carr --

You know, I bet you read Little Red Riding Hood as a story of a child who is seeking to kill wolves for pleasure . . . .

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