The Huffington Post is running an article by Keli Goff titled “Would an Agnostic Make the Best President?“, which unfortunately contains the tired ‘all atheists are angry’ trope. I was going to comment on the article, but I think I’ll just blog about it instead.
Goff discusses the abuses of religious extremists, then states that:
the irony is that many people who flee the anger and intolerance of organized religion appear to replace it with the anger and intolerance of atheism. I know I will spark outrage with this declaration, but I have never personally met an atheist who isn’t angry. (Before anyone completely freaks out, I’m speaking from my own personal encounters with atheists, which is admittedly limited to four people. Although I will say they are four people from very different walks of life, ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds so I wouldn’t call them a terrible sample. Perhaps not a great one, but not terrible either.) Each of them had a specific grievance in his or her life that he or she blamed on God. One was a black male friend who said, “If God existed, why would he let our people suffer the way that we have, from slavery until now?” including his own personal hardships in adulthood. He went on to explain that he was a “recovering Catholic.” (Strangely, three of the four atheists I have known fit this category.)’
So Ms. Goff has knowingly conversed with four atheists. I say knowingly because not all atheists are upfront about their lack of belief in a deity. From this small sample size, she asserts that she’s never met an atheist who wasn’t angry at life. Well, the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but let me offer a counter-anecdote:
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, although I did have religious relatives, including a grandmother with whom I had a close and loving relationship. I’ve had religious friends, classmates, and colleagues. I didn’t suffer overbearing hardship or abuse. I don’t blame God for difficulties in my life, because I very simply don’t believe God exists. It’s not logically possible to be angry at something you don’t believe in. If her acquaintances blamed God for grievances they faced, they believed in God at some level.
Further, people do have legitimate reasons to be angry about their experiences with religion. I completely sympathize with her black friend’s perspective: why would a loving God subject people to slavery and suffering? Many practicing Christians (and people of other faiths) struggle with this question as well, and some of them decide the logical conclusion is that God doesn’t exist. They may arrive at that conclusion out of anger, but that doesn’t invalidate their conclusion.
I do make an intellectual distinction between disbelief in a deity and criticizing the abuses of organized religion. I believe everyone, regardless of belief or disbelief, has a responsibility to express anger at abuse, racism, and sexism, because that is the ethical and humane thing to do. There are things worth being angry about, and that anger can lead to positive change. And yes, the atheist community has its own battles with racism and sexism.
Ms. Goff goes on to state:
“an agnostic is someone who basically admits, “I don’t have all of the answers and I don’t believe any of us here on Earth do.” No anger. No pretense. I think we could actually use more people in politics who admit they don’t have all of the answers. Our political discourse would be more honest, less divisive and yes, less angry.”
No thoughtful atheist I’ve encountered has ever claimed to have all the answers. Atheism pretty actively encourages skepticism, curiosity, and continual inquiry. And by the way, “atheist” and “agnostic” aren’t mutually exclusive categories, in proper philosophical usage, because a/theism is a statement about belief in a deity, and a/gnosticism is a statement about knowledge, and what can or cannot be knowable. You can be an agnostic atheist, meaning you don’t believe in gods, but you don’t think the existence of gods can be proved or disproved, based on the limitations of human knowledge. You can also be an agnostic theist, meaning you believe in gods, but you don’t think the existence of gods can be proved or disproved, based on the limitations of human knowledge. Basically, one’s a statement about belief, one’s a statement about knowledge, and belief and knowledge are not the same thing, although I’m sure this can get a lot more complicated. (For gnostic atheism, you can check out this post by Dan Fincke.) Of course, many people simply think that “agnostic” is more socially acceptable than “atheist”, which is neatly demonstrated by this article.
Anyway, I think God/gods/religion in all its forms are human constructs, myths used variously to explain, entertain, comfort, and control.
It is true that our public discourse has become filled with vitriol and dehumanization, and we all need to strive for civility. But we should recognize the legitimacy of anger at injustice, not subsume it.