The stereotype of the angry atheist, much like the stereotype of the angry feminist, is widespread, used by believers to stigmatize and discredit atheists. The eagerness to discredit atheists makes sense, as many of the faithful fear that arguments against the existence of the supernatural are too persuasive and so want to discourage even listening to atheists in the first place. But it’s always seemed weird to me that calling someone “angry” is supposed to be such a slam dunk insult, suggesting, as it does, that complacency is some kind of virtue.
Not that this is a new observation, of course. Greta Christina, in a post she later developed into the book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry, explained that anger in the face of injustices wrought by religion is the appropriate response. “Because anger has driven every major movement for social change in this country, and probably in the world,” she wrote. Without anger, you have complacency, which allows injustice to continue.
Atheists are well within their rights to be angry, but new research shows that the image of the forever-raging atheist is a stereotype concocted by believers, and not upheld by any real-world evidence. A recent paper published in the Journal of Psychology details how researchers reviewed seven different studies about atheists and anger. The studies showed that believers generally claim that atheists are angry. The study’s finding that believers frequently call atheists “angry” is easy to see in the real world. The world of religious media is full of examples of believers accusing atheists of being “angry.” Believers in social media love to lob that accusation, too, sharing endless memes and cartoons portraying atheists as spittle-flecked rage machines.
The thing is, when atheists are actually tested for anger, they are no more angry than anyone else. The image of the angry atheist is nothing more than a way for believers to dismiss atheists and their arguments against the existence of God.
If you think about it, this makes sense. While atheists do have a lot to be angry about, in terms of injustices dealt by religion, they also have a lot to be glad for. While not all believers feel constrained by their faith, the fact is that a lot of atheists feel downright liberated by non-belief. It’s not just not having to go to church, but also not worrying if they are sinners because of their private sex lives or getting hung up on unimportant issues like if some gay couple in their community wants to get married. So it’s not surprising it’s a wash.
Believers who tout the angry atheist stereotype clearly aren’t thinking of the righteous anger Christina writes about. After all, being mad at people who are angry for good reasons just implies you’d rather be pacified than stand up against injustice. Instead, when the accusation that you are “angry” is lobbed, it is usually shorthand for accusing someone of being irrationally angry. It’s a way to imply that the things that anger them are no big deal and that their anger is not justified so much as a product of some kind of mental illness. It’s a lot like dismissing a woman who is angry by saying she has PMS.
Indeed, “angry” as a way to dismiss women’s legitimate complaints has a long and storied history. "Angry" is right up there with “ugly” when it comes to the way sexist men like to dismiss feminists. The irony is that it’s not feminism, but toxic masculinity that promotes irrational anger at inconsequential things. Men who falsely believe being a real man means acting out violently at the slightest provocation are a serious problem in our culture. Male rage addicts are the source of all sorts of criminal violence, from domestic violence to gang shootings to whatever the hell Aaron Hernandez was thinking when he killed two people over a spilled drink. When you look over the evidence, it becomes clear that “angry feminist” is not only an unfair stereotype, but a form of projection, of irrationally angry men accusing women of being what too many men actually are.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to consider the possibility that believers might be projecting as well when they accuse atheists of harboring irrational anger. While there are plenty of mellow, tolerant believers out there, it’s also undeniable that many religions and religious subcultures teach their followers to get angry and judgmental about all sorts of things there is no rational reason to be angry over.
The list of things religious people are encouraged to get irrationally angry about could fill volumes: The private choices of others that don’t affect them, such as being gay or using contraception. Someone worshipping a different deity or even worshipping the same deity in a different way. Blasphemy. Stuff that isn’t even real, such as the imaginary “war on Christmas” or Satanic messages in rock music. Women being independent. The world is full of real injustices, but some believers have no time to even worry about those, because they’re so keyed up about stuff that doesn’t actually matter.
The recent battles over so-called “religious freedom” laws meant to shield businesses that wish to discriminate about LGBT Americans demonstrate perfectly how religion stokes infinitely more irrational anger than secularism. Gay rights activists have a legitimate grievance. They object to business owners discriminating against them, which is not only unfair but can also be humiliating. In many states, it’s not legal for gay couples to marry. This causes material harm, and is a legitimate source of anger.
In contrast, religious business owners who want to discriminate are being irrational. Serving a gay person--even catering a gay couple’s wedding--does one no material harm. (On the contrary, it makes money for businesses!) The supposed harms are all self-inflicted. The rage and hatred of gay people has no rational basis, but is simply being hateful for its own sake. If they wanted to stop hating gay people, they could, and their lives would be a lot simpler and easier for it.
Atheists get--oh irony--angry when they hear believers shame atheists by claiming we’re angry. But maybe the solution is to turn that narrative around. Next time a believer calls you angry, start asking why he doesn't accuse his fellow believers, particularly those who rage against gays or women or heretics or demons, of being angry first. There’s a lot more evidence for it.