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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.