Can Atheists Do Anything Right?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Atheists get labeled as offensive and bitter… when we express anger, and when we express hope and morality and meaning. Why is it important for believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

No win situation
Is there anything atheists can say about our atheism — or even just about our lives — that won’t make people look at us with revulsion?

Two recent stories in the news/ blogs/ opinionosphere have made me vividly aware — not for the first time — of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position of non-believers in our culture. In one piece, atheists were called out for being negative and confrontational, and readers were informed that we’re angry and bitter all the time because we have no hope of life after death. In the other piece, non-believers were called out for sharing the positive, joyful aspects of our lives and the ways we find meaning and hope even in the face of death… and for failing to mention God when we do.

I know. It makes my head spin, too.

The first trope is the more familiar one. You’ve probably heard the tune before — even if you haven’t heard this particular rendition. In a blog post for the National Post newspaper in Canada, Father Tim Moyle mused on why so much atheist opinion he’d seen was so very angry… and opined that atheists are angry because we’re bitter and hopeless about mortality. Quote:

Atheists tend to see the state of their personal world as being limited to the best they can achieve. Life’s injustices will never ultimately be surmounted and they are limited to a ‘what you see is what you get’ assessment of life’s trials. Believers know that things will be better. They know that following the teachings of the church can bring them closer to that promised ideal in the here and now, and that any justice denied them by the events of their personal lives as a result of their fidelity to God will be theirs to enjoy in the life to come.

It is easy to understand how this fuels the anger that many atheists. When one must content themselves with an atheist creed that necessarily means they will never experience ultimate justice, peace or love; they cannot look past the annihilation in death.

No wonder they’re so grumpy.

Elizabeth Edwards
The second trope is somewhat less common. But alas, not that much less common. When Elizabeth Edwards died recently, and issued a farewell statement shortly before her death expressing her deep and abiding sense of hope and meaning and the value of life, right- wing Christian commentator Donald Douglas responded with venom and horror, accusing her of bitterness and nihilism because her statement expressed her gratitude to her family, her friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope… and didn’t mention God. Quote:

Clearly Elizabeth Edwards wants to put her faith in something, be it hope or strength or anything. But not God. I wonder if it’s just bitterness, that she’s been forsaken by more than just her estranged husband — that she’s been forsaken by Him. And imagine if she’d have become First Lady. Americans generally expect outward expressions of faith in our presidents, Christian faith especially, and thus in our First Ladies as well. The Democratic base obviously doesn’t care, as we can see in the “wow factor” expressed by the author at the American Prospect. Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards’ non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists. Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn’t find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I’ve been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.

Yes, yes, before everyone jumps in to correct me — I know. Elizabeth Edwards wasn’t an atheist. She was more of a weak deist, believing in a god who created the universe but didn’t intervene with it on a day- to- day basis. But my point still holds. Even though she did have some sort of belief in God, she didn’t talk about it in her farewell statement… and Douglas therefore felt entirely comfortable trashing her on her deathbed. Actually, the fact that Edwards wasn’t an atheist makes my point stronger. This knee-jerk hostility towards insufficient godliness will apparently get aimed at anyone — atheist, deist, believer, whatever — who fails to express the right amount of piety and gratitude towards God. Even when they’re freaking dying from cancer already.

Millions are good without god
And while this sort of ranting against peaceful non-believers is somewhat less widespread than ranting against angry non-believers, it’s not at all uncommon. Look at the reaction to the atheist marching band in the Christmas parade in Texas, in which the sight of atheists playing “Jingle Bells” and wishing people a happy holiday was enough to spark a firestorm of controversy targeting the atheists as offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers. Or look at the reactions to the atheist ad bus ads and billboards. Yes, some of those ad campaigns criticize religion or make arguments against it. But most of them simply say things like, “You can be good without God.” Or “Millions are good without God.” Or, “Don’t believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” And whenever these ads go up, there’s almost inevitably a horrified response from religious believers, declaring the ads to be insulting, confrontational, in- your- face, and patently offensive by their very nature. An in- your- face offensiveness that’s often seen as a direct result of our supposedly bitter and empty lives. If atheists’ lives were full and meaningful, apparently, we wouldn’t need to compensate by shoving our godlessness in everyone’s face. By, you know, not being in the closet about it.

In other words: When atheists express our anger at religion, we get accused of being hopeless, bitter nihilists.

And when we express our deep sense of meaning and joy and value in life, we get accused of being… well, of being hopeless, bitter nihilists.

Why is that?

Why would “atheists are hopeless and bitter” be the a priori assumption, the only possible conclusion to be drawn from any and all possible evidence?

Why is it so important for so many believers to see religion as the only possible source of hope and joy and meaning… and to see religion-less people as intrinsically cut off from everything that makes life worth living?

It’s not like it makes any real sense. For starters: It’s absurd to look at someone expressing anger, and assume that anger is therefore the only emotion they ever feel. I’ve read plenty of angry atheist rants (heck, I’ve written them myself), and the authors have always written elsewhere about their deep delight, pleasure, and gratitude in life. In fact, gushing, purple-prose, Carl Sagan-esque wonderment at the magnificence of the universe is so common among atheist writers, it’s almost a cliche. (No, that stuff doesn’t make it into the mainstream media as much. Anger makes catchier headlines, and sells more newspapers.) So to read an article by an atheist about their anger over religion, and assume that they must constantly be filled with blinding rage and are incapable of experiencing joy or humor or wonder… it’s like reading a film review by Roger Ebert, and feeling deep pity for his tragically narrow and limited life, since all he ever does is go to the movies. When you think about it, it’s really kind of silly.

Jim and tammy faye bakker
And in fact, when you look at the stuff angry atheists are angry about, you’ll notice that much of it — maybe even most of it — is not about how religious believers treat atheists. It’s about how religious believers treat other believers. Rich faith healers bilking faithful followers out of their hard-earned money; the Catholic church deliberately protecting child- molesting priests and moving them from parish to parish so they can rape more children of Catholic parents; Muslim women being imprisoned, beaten, and even executed for adultery; untouchables in India being taught that their blighted status is punishment for misdeeds in a past life; fundamentalist preachers counseling women to stay in abusive marriages; religious wars and hatreds and bigotries; Protestants hating Catholics; Hindus hating Muslims; everyone hating the Jews… when you ask angry atheists why we’re angry about religion, this is the stuff that tends to pop up. Bigotry and hostility towards atheists is on the list, of course. But an enormous amount of atheist anger is not self-interested annoyance at personal mistreatment. It’s righteous outrage at brutality and injustice. The exact response you’d expect from people with a strong sense of morality and meaning.

So it makes absolutely no sense to look at atheists expressing anger about religion… and assume that we must therefore be bitter and hopeless, despairing over the finality of death, and cut off from everything that is good and true.

And I hope I don’t have to explain how flatly, laughably nonsensical it is to look at non-believers expressing their strong sense of morality and meaning, transcendence and connection, hope and joy… and assume that we therefore must be bitter and hopeless, despairing over the finality of death, and cut off from everything that is good and true.

So what’s going on here?

Where does this assumption come from?

Why is atheist anger so offhandedly dismissed as nihilistic bitterness? Why is atheist happiness so offhandedly denied as logically impossible?

Why is it so important for so many believers to frame atheism as inherently joyless and hostile?

Some of this, of course, is just the standard- issue response to a social change movement. Think about shrill, shrewish feminists; violent and irrational black activists; hysterical queers: any time a marginalized class starts finding its voice and expressing its outrage, they’re framed as either dangerous or trivial, and anything they have to say is automatically dismissed. Hegemony in action, kids! If a system of power is going to protect and perpetuate itself, it’s not about to recognize the validity of any criticism against it. It’s not even going to consider the possibility, even for a second, that this criticism might be valid. And religion has some of the best self-protective, self-perpetuating mechanisms going.

But I think there’s another reason so many believers reflexively frame atheism as bitter and nihilistic.

It’s because they have to.

It’s because accepting the existence of good, happy atheists undercuts so many of the rationalizations for their beliefs.

For starters, the existence of good, happy atheists takes the utilitarian defense of religion and blows it to shrapnel. If you’re arguing that religion is necessary for people to be happy and moral, then the existence of happy moral people without religion pulls the rug right out from under you. The utilitarian argument is ridiculous anyway — it’s like arguing that everyone should believe in Santa Claus because it makes kids happy and better- behaved during the month of December — but even if you don’t care whether the things you believe are true, and only care if they’re useful, then the existence of atheists with rich, good, meaningful lives makes it patently clear that religious belief isn’t actually all that useful. Which is why so many believers, faced with the reality of happy and moral atheists, simply stick their fingers in their ears and chant, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!”

But the existence of good, happy atheists doesn’t just undercut the arguments for why religion is useful. It undercuts some of the most common arguments for why religion is true.

For many religious believers, one of the main pieces of evidence they have for God is the existence of happiness and goodness in their lives. They believe that God not only exists, but is the source of all happiness and goodness, even the very definition of happiness and goodness. And they ascribe every piece of happiness and goodness in their lives to the presence of God, and their personal relationship with him.

So when atheists come along and say, “Nope, no god in my life, no personal relationship with an invisible friend… and my life is both happy and good”? When atheists make it clear, through our words and actions, that we find plenty of meaning and morality and joy in this life and this life alone? It takes that “evidence” and completely pulverizes it. If we can live good, happy lives without a belief in God… then where does that goodness and happiness come from? Believers either have to conclude that God doesn’t much care whether people believe in him… or they have to reject the goodness and happiness of atheists out of hand. And the latter is exactly what way too many of them do.

And happy, moral atheists undercut the truth claims of religion in yet another way — with the insoluble conundrum of why there are atheists in the first place.

God does not bellieve in atheists
When atheists make it clear that we gave religion a sincere try, that we considered the question seriously and thoughtfully and finally came to the conclusion that the god hypothesis was implausible and unsupported by any good evidence… religious believers then have to come up with an explanation for why God hasn’t revealed himself to us. And they either have to conclude once again that God doesn’t much care whether people believe in him… or they have to assume that atheists have hardened our hearts against God, out of anger or bitterness. The idea that we’re okay without God in our lives? The idea that we’re not angry at God for the bad things that happen to us, any more than we’re angry at Santa Claus for not giving us a Big Wheel? For many believers, that’s intolerable. They have to conclude that we rejected religion, either out of pissy resentment over our lives not turning out how we wanted, or out of selfish resentment over God’s moral rules and restrictions. If atheists lead happy lives, it cuts the foundation from the first assumption… and if we lead ethical lives, it cuts the foundation from the second.

So of course these believers are going to reject the idea that atheists can be both moral and happy. And of course, anything that atheists do will get framed as evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. When we express righteous anger at serious injustice being done to ourselves and others… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. When we express our deep sense of morality and compassion and empathy for others… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism. And when we express profound, transcendent joy and wonder and gratitude, for existence in general and our lives in particular… it’s evidence of our bitter, hostile, joyless nihilism.

It’s a very crafty bit of rationalization.

There’s just one problem with it.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s not just unfalsifiable, and therefore a bad hypothesis on that basis alone (although it is that). It’s absurd on the face of it. It requires an entirely willful ignorance, a blatant rejection of obvious facts, a deliberate covering of one’s eyes and sticking of one’s fingers in one’s ears, a conscious and entirely sincere willingness to reject reality and substitute one’s own.

It is, in a word, untrue.

And if you care whether the things you believe are true, you might want to re-think it.

Can Atheists Do Anything Right?
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12 thoughts on “Can Atheists Do Anything Right?

  1. 1

    We are like a pebble in the shoe of the lumbering giant of society. Everytime it steps on us, we irritate it more.
    I’ve been slowly coming out to acquaintances and everyone of them – most have PhDs, at minimum Masters degrees – reacts with the usual cliches: how can atheists be moral, we can’t prove there is no god, etc. And then silence.
    But I’m at the point in life where I don’t care if I lose friends. Like you, Greta, I think this movement is important, even essential, to the progress of civilization, and coming out is one of those small steps some of us can take to raise consciousness.
    Excellent post. As usual.

  2. 2

    Actually what I find with some of my Christian friends is that I’m allowed to be the outside influence that they can let their guard down with and drop the pretense that everything in their lives is wonderful and good.
    Then after they unload whatever crap is going down in their lives and we try and find a solution, they suggest that I really should come back to church because “God has a wonderful plan for your life!”
    I’m always thinking… but you just told me your life was horrible, so….

  3. 3

    I am one of those rare (at least as far as I can tell) North American atheists who was raised without religion or belief as core a part of their life.
    Despite being raise non-religious, I have always felt a current of pressure from others that I was the minority and was wrong to be so. That my non-belief wasn’t accepted and should be kept quiet.
    I know that I fly in the face of the idea that you need religion or belief to be a good member of society. Even more so now that I am out and unabashedly so about it. Yes I am an atheist, so what? I will continue to shake the fences of belief and of what an atheist is, and isn’t.
    I do know that it flummoxes and even irritates my friends and family sometimes, but it is important that there are people out their doing just that. Silence never solves anything, problems do not just vanish because we wish them to go away.

  4. 4

    I mentioned this on my onw blog a while ago, but i’ll say it again: isn’t it hilarious how everyone on was shitting on you for this post? I mean, it’s more than a little ironic that you were damned for doing, but it’s telling that few religionists can really handle criticism, let alone someone refusing to acknowledge the importance of faith. I think you were right when you mentioned that they object merely to our existence, which is why it pisses me off when other atheists argue that we should be nicer if we want to be heard. Traditionally this approach has failed, and will continue to fail.
    The truth is rarely going to be popular, but someone has to fucking fight for it!

  5. 5

    Jaybarti: No, you’re not rare, we just don’t have a club to welcome you to!
    People with religious backgrounds have the dual advantages of experience and motivation when challenging religion. So they tend to be more visible.
    People who managed to miss the whole thing growing up tend to have milder views, like Heather Mallick.
    I don’t even have your motivation of dispute from friends and family; every living member of my family was raised without religion. And mocking religion is a popular water-cooler conversation topic at work.

  6. 6

    Beautiful post Greta. Waiting for my crazy uncle to post something about how atheists are bitter and immoral and then BOOM this is getting linked (won’t be a long wait!).
    Seriously though, this is just magnificent. Basically says everything I’ve been attempting to explain to just about everyone for the last five years of my life, haha.
    The more I read your blog, the more I admire your eloquence and tenacity. Keep up the amazing work!

  7. 7

    Great article, as usual. It made be think that people almost want to believe in God because religion removes the need to make choices. Without a God, we all have to think about what makes our lives meaningful.
    Religion gives people canned sound-byte answers. The Gods keep us from having to gaze into the void.

  8. 8

    Both Daniel Dennet and PZ Myers have talked about religion requiring people to make a large investment in order to prove that they are part of the tribe, on the basis that this sort of action creates loyalty. This is observed in organizations that practice hazing.
    The existence of happy atheists would indicate to people who have made this investment that the investment they made was not necessary, and therefore wasted.

  9. 9

    “Atheists tend to see the state of their personal world as being limited to the best they can achieve. Life’s injustices will never ultimately be surmounted and they are limited to a ‘what you see is what you get’ assessment of life’s trials.”
    And this is a problem, because…? Much better to have “what you see is what you get” and be able to deal with it, than “what you see is only part of what you get, according to a disorganized book of dubious origin that hints about what we can’t see but offers no proof whatsoever. Meanwhile, you get to keep guessing, based on the self-serving opinions of self-appointed sages and moral arbiters, as well as the half-baked notions of your neurotic and delusional peers.”
    Religion is delusion, just like Dr. Dawkins said.

  10. 10

    After I originally left a comment I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a way you are able to remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

  11. 12

    First, Atheism and Anti-religionism shouldn’t be confused, including by atheists 🙂

    That said, take these things as a compliment-in America, everything means the opposite since it became a Theocracy (1954). For example, the last time the Pledge issue was heard, 2007 I believe, and again ruled “Constitutional”. Scalia gave the opinion, the heart of which was essentially “Religious can be Secular, therefore god is okay.”

    Meanwhile, they’ve done everything they can to oust us from American CultureMaking the ironic claim that the Nazis were atheist (guarantee you most Americans believe that, despite the endless bible quoting in Mein Kampff, the nazi hate of atheists, the close relationship to the vatican, SS belt buckles reading “God is with us”, and endless documentation that the nazis were christians and against atheism.

    Attacking us during the Cold War under the pretense of “Communism” and violating our Constitution worse than ever before to make Christianity the national religion, and stealing the rights of atheists, and locking them up in some higher power, higher than “The Highest Law of the Land” which then replaced the Constitution with the Bible, and equated America with Christianity and Atheism with Evil, God with Patriotism (how sneaky of them!) and likely worst of all they equated “American Principles with Christian Principles”.

    All the while, these so called “liberty lovers” are really the only group I notice that continues to attack liberty in the US, and we are always on their list, and for some reason NEVER on that of the ACLU.

    So … what do you expect? Atheists need to take back their INALIENABLE rights, from those that don’t understand inalienable, nor that it contradicts the entire bible. Atheists need to make other religions realize they too got kicked out and take their rights back-just as the blacks did, just as the women have partially done.

    Liberty is a collective good. That said, what all patriots of the US need to realize, is that liberty lost for even just one, no matter how small, is liberty lost for all. It, like any other idea only exists while people believe. How much would the paper money be worth if nobody believed in it?

    And what christians need to realize is by backing the hate, the bigotry the unAmerican rheotric-they are enemies of America and of liberty herself. They should also consider there are about 7,000 sects of christianity and all christians are very bored. This means, once they murder the non-christians…. they’ll go after all the fake christians, which will be most of them. Liberty is a slippery slope and never ends where you think.

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