An Atheist Learns How to Be Angry – By Paul Fidalgo

Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Featured, Guest Post, Thoughts | 6 comments

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I like to refer to myself as an angry, militant, fundamentalist, arrogant New Atheist. Mainly this is an old response to the canard that gained popularity a few years ago about the alleged innate arrogance of nonbelievers in the wake of the ascendance of such figures as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. It seemed to me that the root of this idea was a knee-jerk response from religionists who had had it very easy for a very long time, enjoying the cozy forcefield of social protection  from criticism and questioning that religion and faith have enjoyed. Openly aiming a doubtful eye at religion has been a social taboo, a politically incorrect faux pas that “just isn’t done,” and the bursting of that bubble, no matter how smartly or delicately done, was always greeted with froth, panic, and steaming piles of self-righteousness. In that atmosphere, I was proud to cast my lot with those evil New Atheists.

I still am, of course. But working now as “professional atheist,” specifically in the field of PR and communications for the movement, my view of how the movement and its luminaries present themselves has become far more nuanced.

I want to be clear, though. My original view, that proponents of religion and faith overreact to even the slightest criticisms, holds fast. In my belief that supernaturalism and superstition should be ejected from its protective social shell has not wavered — indeed, my core ideal in being part of this movement has less to do with rejecting God-belief, and more to do with a more fundamental onslaught against the propagation of things that are not so. No idea or concept is sacred. On this, I remain, well, fundamentalist.

But am I still “angry”? Well, about certain things, surely. Religiously-grounded violence, oppression, bigotry, persecution, willful ignorance, all of them set my blood a-bubblin’. But the same goes for all of the above when its roots are not religious, but ideological or based in greed or political cynicism.

One thing I know is that I’m not interested in anger for anger’s sake. Another way to put this is that I’m not interested in rhetorical bomb-throwing just to piss off folks I don’t agree with. I’m not interested in making a fuss over something simply to win attention (for me personally or for a group I might represent). As a privileged white American male, I’m wary of what kind, and what degree, of umbrage I allow myself to take at perceived offenses to my intellect or station.

Let me give an example of what doesn’t upset me so much anymore. There was a time when the theological arguments of folks like Andrew Sullivan (whose writing I otherwise adore) and Karen Armstrong. They were frustratingly circular and pollyanna to me, dancing around ineffable notions of God being goodness and blah-dee-blah. But what I’ve come to realize, particularly as the humanist side of atheism has made me fuse it with my political and social justice interests (the latest Free Inquiry has a whole special section on this topic), that while I think their positions are philosophically and scientifically laughable, their places on the ideological spectrum are close enough to mine to consider them allies rather than enemies. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve torn apart Armstrong’s work in the past, and in the academic realm, I’d do so again with glee, but I have found that it’s important in my own mind to separate my disdain for a person’s reasoning from their theology from what they do with it, where it points them.

Armstrong wants all religions to find common ground for the betterment of everyone. Sullivan wants to focus his idea of Christianity on the rejection of greed and the uplifting of all humans. I disagree with their foundations, but I can’t in good conscience belittle their goals.

On the flip side of this, when a famous “New Atheist” takes positions that might fail to take into account social realities or ignore their own particular brand of privilege, I want those things called out, too. Just as religion should be given no intellectual quarter, nor should wrongheaded (or flat out wrong) things uttered by our communities celebrities and spokespeople. What I would caution to add to that, however, is that we as a community be careful not to toss out our infants with the leftover washtub liquid.

Take for example the hubbub over Sam Harris’s position on the profiling of Muslims at airports. Many felt that he had stepped over the line into racist insanity, and declared him “ousted” from the community. But this kind of knee-jerk response is just as odious to me as that of religionists who can’t bear to hear that just maybe their guy didn’t raise from the dead, only instead of stemming from a scriptural dogma, it is rooted in a liberal dogma of hyper-relativism, a dogma that, while noble in principle, can blind us to realities. I am not backing up Harris’s position, per se, but I am saying that I found his journey to his conclusion to be genuine, based on what he sees as the real data. You can argue with his approach, but I find it absurd that folks believe his position to be based on racism. (For more on this debate, see my summation of his discussion with security expert Bruce Schneier.) Harris has been a crucial figure in our movement, provided both insight and spine to our arguments, and it would be foolhardy to reject him as a person wholly, instead of just rejecting one of his ideas.

And so, this is all to say that I remain the angry, militant New Atheist, but I have clarified just what does and does not warrant my ire. This post by no means represents a comprehensive catalog of those things, but what I do hope it does is spur you to rethink the things that you feel are worth your and this movement’s energies to oppose and resist. I hope we can, as a community, embrace nuance not just in science, but in our politics and rhetoric. I hope we can see that folks who are wrong about one thing are not wrong about everything.

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, a contributor to Friendly Atheist, and an actor and musician. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo. He is the author of a short (and cheap!) Kindle book on the atheist political movement, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists’ Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.
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  1. Very thoughtful piece. Thank you.
    Greta Christina has another worthwhile take on atheists and anger:

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  2. Thanks to both you for hosting and paulfidalgo  for posting on this, Martin. I’m often moved to anger myself, though I use it to focus my actions, to give myself motivation. I’m glad to hear some dissent from the unusual script on Sam Harris’ statements about profiling. I’ve not enough information on the subject myself to be pro or con either way, but Harris didn’t and doesn’t strike me as a racist type — if he were, he’d have to be pretty damn good at hiding it, the subject of a worthy conspiracy theory in its own right though still implausible like so many of them.

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    •  @Troythulu Ditto for Harris on torture,
      We risk amplifying the echo chamber when bloggers weigh in before going back to the source to compare what Awful Atheist #1 has said and what critics are suggesting Awful Atheist #1 has said.

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  3. To a degree this “movement” has been partially fueled on anger. I mean that in a good way, ala Greta Christina’s cited above. However, the thing with unchecked anger is that it burns too hot. In many ways 

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  4. To a degree this “movement” has been partially fueled on anger with good reason ala Greta Christina’s essay cited above. However, the problem with anger as a fuel is that it can burn too hot and eventually it has to either explode or burn out. When we burn too hot we slip into less than rational reactions to things; such as the reactions to Sam Harris. I am guilty as anyone else in some cases, but I try and temper it and correct it when it gets the better of me. In many ways I fear this anger in the atheist community is getting to the point where we are attacking each other over things that a vast majority of us agree on philosophically but differ in the details. Rationality is slipping due to this anger and that is one thing we cannot afford. 

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    • @Steve Barry Agreed. And you can see that now with the fights over feminism and harassment. Some atheists managed to find their own out-group to lash out at, and in that case it was women (and it can be argued that some on the other side found mild dissenters to be their own flip-side out-group.) And the rage burned on. Or take the rage at “accommodationists” and the like, way out of proportion from the perceived offense (and that’s where I’ve been rather guilty til recently).

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