The problem with calling atheists “angry”
There are many reasons that atheists get labelled “angry”, and many of them are particularly bad reasons at that. Either in specific instances, or applied generally to the atheist population, these kinds of dismissals on the grounds of “anger” are misleading.
It’s also, from the point of honest debate, a particularly meaningless observation.
If atheists are angry, does that actually make them wrong? No.
Consider the following.
Joe steps on Tom’s toe which hurts. Tom gets angry with Joe, “you stepped on my toe!”
“Ahah!”, says Joe. “You are angry, therefore I did not step on your toe!”
Nobody in their right mind would ever accept this line of defence, yet the amount of rhetorical coinage given to a charge of “anger” in some instances would seem to suggest there are exceptions in people’s sensibilities.
Just how angry are atheists and what kind of anger are we talking about? A perpetual, pervasive anger or a momentary anger in response to having their toes stepped on?
If the former, do they have cause to be pervasively angry and is this anger proportional? Could it be that they’ve had a rough time in life, perhaps fired from a job for being an atheist? Treated with contempt by family for being an atheist? Indoctrinated as a child and made to feel pervasively guilty for being merely human?
Sure, this kind of anger isn’t good for them and they do need to get over it eventually, but that doesn’t make them bad for being this way, nor does it necessarily mean it’s entirely their fault. Nor does it mean that what they are saying in anger is in any way wrong.
And how pervasively angry are the atheist population anyway? I’ve seen the charge over and over and it’s always in my experience been simply assumed. Evidence isn’t forthcoming and the attempts at evidence are ludicrous exaggerations seemingly the product of cognitive biases.
All of this could be avoided if people skipped making these baseless assertions and instead asked “what do atheists have to be angry about?”, or “what does this particular atheist have to be angry about?” This approach doesn’t presuppose a matter of fact that isn’t necessarily established, it doesn’t (conveniently) dismiss the subject out of hand, it doesn’t lump people together into some undifferentiated group, it provides context to any anger if there’s any and unlike making baseless accusations, it shows a shred of human decency. All while being able to address any meaningful inquiry one may have about atheists who happen to actually be angry.
Indeed, if you came across an atheist who was angry at the world because they had some traumatic religious experience, wouldn’t you want to show them some basic compassion instead of writing them off? Wouldn’t you want to know why they were angry instead of simply using their suffering as a cheap means to position yourself and/or your religion? What kind of person wouldn’t?
Why prejudice this kind of meaningful, humane and honest approach just to score points? There are probably obvious answers, but I’ll save this for another day.
Aside from the obvious uses some people may have in finding an imaginary reason to dismiss others who don’t believe in the imaginary, I think the reason this happens at all is more complex than a simple uncritical parsing of bigoted memes. There seems to be more to the psychology of it.
I’m prone to using Hanlon’s Razor…
“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
Where stupidity is a catch-bag for various degrees of incompetence, between genuine stupidity and being simply mistaken. Even Hanlon’s razor can sound angrier that it is.
Rather than claims that “atheists are angry” being seen as either entirely out of malice, or “because my pastor told me so”, I think a failure to empathise and communicate needs to be seriously considered as a cause. Unless someone has printed this post off for you, there is an obvious contributor in this respect staring you in the face – The Internet.
Perhaps you think something you’ve read on the Internet is motivated by anger. A textual post devoid of verbal inflections and body language – which are usually carriers of important context. A post written perhaps in haste, as many on the Internet are, being possibly impulsive and only indicative of a very short spike of annoyance – or perhaps without careful attention given to prose allowing for the illusion of anger.
Perhaps it’s just you reading anger into a text written by someone in a different state of mind all together.
It’s not easy to tell, at least without considered inquiry. And the Internet being rapid fire as it is, your judgement may be subject to the same communicative disinhibition. Internet technology is known to amplify acrimony and atrophy empathy, at least without a certain amount of experience and consideration by the user. It presents barriers to truly “getting” your interlocutor, leaving things up to your imagination. And if you perhaps have an axe to grind, confirmation bias may make that final leap of the imagination required for you to level a false allegation – such as an allegation of anger.
And consider that for quite a number of isolated atheists, the Internet is a rare means of communication that allows them to speak openly – the limitations of the technology therefore potentially having a disproportionate effect upon atheists than on other groups. I suspect then that when making generalisations about atheists, this skew has to be taken into account if Internet culture is considered as evidence – in that it may exaggerate perceptions of precisely the kinds of behaviours that the Internet tends to encourage.
And what of the psychology of the reader?
We aren’t all equal in our interpersonal (and intrapersonal) skills (both being separate intelligences amongst Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences). And before you give yourself a pat on the back, consider some of the possible the implications of the Dunning-Krueger effect, a state of affairs where one’s own lack of a skill robs them of the ability to assess it, leading to the overestimation of said skill.
At the very least, there’s already research that’s been published that investigates the roll of the Dunning-Kruger effect in self-estimations of sensitivity 1. (Although the title of the paper “…Narcissism, not Actual Competence, predicts Self-Estimated Ability”, seems a bit too categorical to me).
Basically what I’m arguing is that people can and do tend to over-exaggerate their insight into other people’s minds, particularly those with the least ability. The fact that so often the conclusion of “angry” seems to be arrived at so quickly, with so little analysis, is somewhat of a give away.
And maybe the people drawing these conclusions really believe their accusations, being somewhat emotionally colour blind.
It’s like they paint a portrait of their interlocutors, with two primary and one secondary colours, not having a complete palette of human emotional experience. Like having only angry, happy and Schadenfreude in their repertoire. No disappointment, not tested patience, no sanguine brooding, no melancholy, no yearning, no cheek, no mischief, no hope, no desperation, no moral outrage (just moral posturing), none of these and none of the many, many more shades of human experience.
Really, it’s quite pathetic when it’s like this. Like they’re incomplete, that their emotional maturity stopped growing at some point far, far too early.
And what’s more, they often seem to me to treat their own stunted appreciation as if it’s an objective appraisal and that no other perspective on emotion is valid or contestable. It’s obvious to them. Too obvious.
When this is the cause of a false accusation of anger, it’s no cause to actually become angry. These people are to be pitied.
These people’s lives are rendered in these stunted palettes. Whenever they share a meal, whenever they try to get close to a friend, whenever they make love, they’re missing out on the full experience.
All the same their collective accusing of anger is the stuff of stereotypes, and it’s usually not them who have to deal with the fall out. Either they aren’t an atheist at all, or if they are, they benefit through their accusation positioning them away from the accused. “Oh, I’m an atheist but I’m not angry like [insert scapegoat here].” And the behaviour of projection isn’t to be discounted here, especially if self-reflection isn’t their strong point.
Any pity you have for these types of accusers shouldn’t extend to enabling. They’re doing harm. Rejection of their silly charges and a sincere, explicit voicing of pity for their lack of appreciation of the human condition is I think, the right course of action.
And of course, the take home message in all of this is not to take accusations of anger so seriously. The truth of these accusations isn’t always a given, the reason why they’re relevant at all is usually in doubt and the reason behind the accusations far more interesting.
The “angry atheist” meme, and its propagation, needs to be subjected to rigorous critical analysis, along with the conduct of its hosts for their generation of stereotypes by spreading it.
1 D. Ames, L. Kammrath (2004) ‘Mind-Reading and Metacognition: Narcissism, not Actual Competence, Predicts Self-Estimated Ability’, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 28 (3), pp. 187–209.