Here are some links to recent discussion about our book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 2005):
Philosopher of religion Mark Vuletic now has his own blog.
I recently read a web-exclusive commentary on Newsweek magazine’s website by Rabbi Marc Gellman entitled, “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists.” The article’s sub-title asked the question, “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?” Gellman begins his article with the following words:
I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don’t think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them.
I think these are perfectly reasonable statements and the world would almost certainly be a better place if everyone demonstrated the kind of humility shown by Gellman in his commentary’s introduction. Before we go any further, then, allow me to return the favor: I need to understand theists better. I bear them no ill will. I don’t think they need to be secular to be rational, intelligent, and well-informed about science. I don’t desire to convert theists to atheism, but I do admit that I desire to stop prejudice against atheists.
Returning to Gellman’s article, I soon found Gellman making a different type of statement about atheists. He writes:
However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.
How should atheists respond to Gellman’s perplexity?
As an atheist myself, I have to confess it is tempting to get on the defensive. If I were to go down that path, I would probably focus on disproving the assumption that atheists “are often so angry” because I do not consider myself angry even though I am an atheist, and the majority of atheists I know are also not angry. Some atheists are angry, however. In response to Gellman’s editorial, those atheists admit they are angry and try to justify it. (See, for example, three of the letters to Newsweek magazine posted on American Atheist’s website under a special “Action Alert” about Gellman’s article.)
I wonder, however, if defensive strategies are a mistake. Rabbi Gellman said earlier that he bears atheists no ill will, and I take him at his word. Again, he said that he thinks he needs to understand atheists better, so why not take that statement at face value as a genuine request for enlightenment? Moreover, as several atheists themselves have noted, Gellman is by no means the first person to express the belief that atheists are angry. In other words, there is a perception that atheists are angry, and that would still be the case even if the perception were inaccurate at best or a hurtful stereotype at worst.
While I cannot tell other atheists how they should respond to Gellman’s perplexity, my own response begins with acknowledgment. Because Gellman’s editorial presupposes, not argues, that atheists “are often so angry,” I don’t know what specific experiences or observations led to his statement. It is not difficult to believe, however, that his only or dominant experience of atheists has been exposure to angry atheists. I can think of at least three reasons why. (There are probably others.)
First, probably the most famous atheist in the United States is the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, despite the fact that she has now been dead for ten years. O’Hair, who was often called “the most hated woman in America,” was surely an angry atheist if there ever were one. Not only was she rude to theists, she was rude to agnostics and even fellow atheists as well. (In fairness to O’Hair, who can no longer defend herself, it must be acknowledged that she suffered horrible emotional injuries for her courage to stand up for what she thought was right. She was the constant recipient of death threats and other forms of harassment, and decades of exposure to such behavior surely took their toll on O’Hair. Nevertheless, she was an adult and fully responsible for her uncivil behavior.) And the failure of many atheist organizations–most notably, American Atheists–to loudly and publicly condemn her behavior has certainly not helped the public’s perceptions of atheists.
Second, much of the media coverage of atheists is related to highly controversial church-state issues, issues that are often viewed as petty by non-atheists. Think about it. How often do you see the word “atheist” in a newspaper story that is not related to a church-state issue? And what about the significance of the specific issues raised in atheist-specific lawsuits? Recent atheist-driven lawsuits have focused on the presence of the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and on currency. If I were a theist and did not know any atheists, I can easily imagine myself drawing the same conclusion that Gellman and many other people have drawn, namely, the idea that “nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God.”
Third, I have watched several self-appointed defenders of atheism exhibit uncivil behavior in public debates on God’s existence. While I believe such behavior in public debates is the exception rather than the rule, the fact that it happens at all must have a negative impact on the public’s perception of atheists.
Even though I think there is evidence that many atheists are not angry (and also that some theists are angry), there is clearly evidence that some high-profile atheists are angry atheists. What to do?
Many atheists have compared the difficulty of leading atheists to the difficulty of herding cats. There is a lot of wisdom in that view. Atheism has no “pope” and I, at least, do not claim to be the leader of the atheist movement. It’s not like atheism is a corporation where the bad employees can be fired. Nevertheless, I can think of at least one idea that will help with the situation: accountability. Rather than ask theists to trust us (atheists), I invite them to track us. Hold us accountable. Measure our performance. If a high-profile atheist publicly exhibits unjustified anger or lack of civility, watch and see if any major atheist organizations criticize that atheist. If they don’t, then criticize not only the high-profile atheist, but all of the organizations that failed to condemn the behavior. On the flip side, however, if a high-profile atheist does not exhibit anger and does not seem “threatened by the idea of God,” then give them credit.
Soon after its inception in 1995, the Internet Infidels instituted a peer review process for all papers submitted for publication in the Secular Web’s Modern Library. Although the primary purpose of the peer review process was to ensure the accuracy and quality of the papers selected for publication, a secondary purpose of the peer review process was to ensure that all papers published in the Modern Library were professional. The peer review process was far from perfect and over the years several improvements have been made. Even so, the process has had some successes, including at least one that is relevant to the topic of angry atheists. A high-profile atheist had submitted a paper that definitely came across as angry. I required that it be revised before publication, which it was. Likewise, I am aware of angry atheists engaging in unacceptable behavior on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, which resulted in their banning from the forum. This should be some consolation to those, like Rabbi Gellman, who are tempted to question why some atheists “are often so angry” or whether the angry atheists are representative of atheists in general.
Just when you thought Christianity’s penchant for the bizarre had exhausted itself comes news from UPI that a group calling itself “Pray Live” organized a D.C. prayer rally to lower gasoline prices. According to the story “various Christian clergy from around the country” met last Thursday and prayed to resolve the energy crisis. I wonder if Jerry Falwell laid hands on pump number three? Obviously, this absurd publicity stunt will accomplish nothing for the simple reason that there are no gods. We are on our own. Might as well face reality rather than looking for a deus ex machina to bail us out of this fix. And what a fix it is. As a nation, we’ve got to make some tough choices with respect to energy, and not ten years from now, not one year from now, but right now.
To understand the pickle in which we find ourselves, I recommend reading Energy Bulletin’s excellent peak oil primer. Simply put, we have reached (or are about to reach) the point at the very top of a bell-shaped curve in which the world is producing as much oil as it ever will. At that point the world has produced and consumed half of all oil reserves. Thereafter we go over the top of the curve and production slides downhill forever. Several very knowledgable geologists believe that we reached that peak in 2005. As demand for oil grows around the world, there will not be enough supply from oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia to satisfy that demand. Therefore, the price goes up. Simple economics that has nothing to do with God. The U.S. used to be the world’s largest oil exporter 50+ years ago. But then we peaked in 1970. Ever since we’ve had to rely on foreign oil to make up the difference. And year after year that difference has grown steadily but surely. Now we import about 63 percent of all oil we consume. That figure will continue to grow. (Think that war in Iraq is really about spreading democracy? Think again.)
Geopolitics and energy security aside, what should us normal nonbelieving folk do? While some of our Christian friends are praying for God to bail them out, we should face the facts and act accordingly. It’s a difficult problem with no easy answers. Gas isn’t going back to $1.50 and it will probably hit $4.00 by this summer. Make choices now that reduce your reliance on cheap oil. Live closer to work. Trade in that SUV for something more energy efficient. Get your bike out of the garage and start riding it. Not only will your health improve but you’ll be preparing yourself for a radically different world that is just around the corner, prayers or no prayers.
There is something that each of us does not understand. Rabbi Gellman just can’t understand why atheists “are often so angry” and I just can’t understand why theists prefer to promulgate this tired canard at every opportunity. Gellman might as well have added how he can’t understand why blacks sing and dance all the time or why it is that blond women are so dumb. Like many before him, Gellman engages in a little armchair psychology on the angry atheist:
“…I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.”
An insensitive eulogy? A lifestyle choice! What can you say? It’s almost laughable. Or perhaps Mark Twain said it best when he cautioned that it “is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” Or am I being angry for saying that? 🙂 Hopefully someone will help the rabbi with a little reality check: nonbelievers are just as happy, fulfilled, and purposeful in our lives as are believers. We laugh, we play music, we raise families, are actively involved in our communities, and spend each day trying to contribute positively to the world. I’ll bet the rabbi knows a lot of good folks who just happen to be atheists — perhaps a neighbor or the friendly checkout clerk at the grocery store. He doesn’t know they’re atheists because they’re too darned friendly and not angry enough. (Once when I told someone I had known for some time that I was an atheist she was shocked and blurted out, “really? but you’re so nice!” Ah, how honest we can be with each other at times!)
Are there angry atheists out there upset over something or other? I suppose there must be but then again there are a ton of angry believers doing some incredibly stupid things too. The other day I read a story about several Muslim radicals in Syria who gunned down a school principal in front of several students while shouting “Allah is great!” Some lifestyle choice eh? Do yourself a favor rabbi. Get out and meet some of us! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Old-fashioned young earth creationists and intelligent design advocates occasionally air their disagreements in public, as described by this piece in Christianity Today. It’s too much to hope that they’ll all go on a heresy-hunt within the faith and leave the reality-based community alone for a bit, but it’s still nice to see them bashing one another once in a while.
I just caught up with a recent issue of The Nation that includes a couple of articles by political liberals who are also religious. They argue that the Democratic party shouldn’t be so cool toward religious language and devout people. That the religious right can only properly be countered by a religious left that uses God-talk in the service of kinder and gentler ends. Michael Lerner says his usual thing, that the secular left lacks a spiritual vision, that secularists suffer from “scientism,” etc.
Now, OK, maybe — maybe — this is good political strategy in a country where 90% believe in a traditional God and where atheists are pariahs. Nevertheless it also pisses me off. Political observers point out that religious participation or non-participation is among the more reliable indicators of whether someone votes Democratic or Republican, that “seculars” are among the most solid Democratic constituencies. So, once again, the political conventional wisdom seems to be that Democrats need to distance themselves from their most reliable supporters if they want electoral success. (And we know how good that advice has been.) I can’t help but noting that Republicans don’t get lectured as often about being too cozy with theocrats, gun-nuts, or oil companies.
Beh. Yes, maybe we would be better off if a “religious left” became more powerful — we would certainly have less gay-bashing, creationist pressure on education etc. But when it comes to it, though more politically benign, I think Lerner’s beliefs are comparable to Jerry Falwell’s in their level of superstition. I’m damned if I can be enthusiastic about the idea of a religious left.
There’s a troubling news item concerning a scholar of Mormon history whose research has contradicted the official Mormon version of events, and possibly as a consequence, is having trouble getting an academic post. From the story:
Mr. Quinn’s struggles reflect the rising influence of religious groups over the teaching of their faiths at secular colleges, despite concerns about academic freedom. U.S. universities have usually hired religious-studies professors regardless of whether they practiced or admired the faiths they researched. But some universities are bending to the views of private donors and state legislators by hiring the faithful.
This isn’t a new problem for universities — science departments occasionally run into conflicts of interest with sources of funding as well. And a few physicists have complained about Templeton money possibly influencing some colleagues’ public pronouncements concerning religion and science.
Still, this doesn’t mean funders’ influence on religious studies is not a cause for concern. It’s bad enough that in the United States, religious studies departments too often function as centers for liberal theology. But we also have no end of chairs of Islamic studies funded through Saudi money, etc. etc. I’d like to be able to put more trust in academia than in the advocacy-“research” groups that have inserted themselves into policy issues.
Not only have I apparently had a sex change when I wasn’t looking, but now I am a “comic genius” as well (Seinfeld, look out!)
As everyone knows who’s in the know, Walton is the comic genius behind the hoax blog otherwise known as The Secular Outpost and its satellites.
Moreover, “Frank Walton” has created false posts in my name, according to the Triabloglodytes:
…clearly Walton got wind of my exposé (his spies are everywhere, you know!), and has chosen to keep up appearances by fabricating some fake posts for the fictitious character of Andrea Weisberger.
Next thing you know, there will be some doctored family photos as well.
I guess in light of belief in god, this kind of fantasy is small potatoes.
I guess I better start moving on getting some content up on my blog. Apparently my inactivity has been construed as indicating that I am a fictitious character. Now I’ve been called many things before, but fictitious has not been one of them.
See: Triablogue: Flippant dismissals (April 16, 2006)
“There is also a token female by the name of Andrea Weisberger. She never does any posting, and if you click on the link to her blog, there’s nothing posted over there either. So she is obviously another fictitious character, the function of which is to show how enlightened unbelievers are, with a ratio of three men to every one woman.”
According to the above quoted post, Taner is really Thomas Edison (arisen from the grave?)