This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.
When I first read the post, it had eight comments. It was very much Greta Christina, anger and all: clearly written, honest, comprehensive in its examination of the surrounding issues. I got a bit bored by the end, though. It's a very long list of things to be angry about. Don't get me wrong. I thought then and I still think now that Greta Christina has a perfect right to be angry about all those things and the many more that she says she has only scratched the surface of. After all, she has been personally damaged by several of them, what with being bisexual and living in a horribly theistic place like America, where the safeguards of democracy are under threat in part due to faith-based voting. I, too, have been damaged by religion, but not to the same extent. I am angry for my own sake about one thing, and one thing only, and that thing is deep and painful. To hold on to the anger would be to hold on to the pain, and so I do not use that anger, do not weave it into my reasons for acting; I let it sit out there on the edge and exist for as long as it needs to.
So, you see, I'm not angry. I got to the end of Greta's post and wondered if I could explain my position, but I needed to think about things, so I decided to let it sit for a bit and maybe join the discussion later.
Well, everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows what happened not much later. By the time I saw the post again, it had three hundred comments. Today, it has 862 comments and counting. It was linked to by Pharyngula, by Friendly Atheist, and many others. And a huge proportion of those comments amounted to "Right on"! Greta Christina had struck a nerve. Many atheists were angry, and were heartened and energised by Greta Christina's eloquent, even defence.
This was clearly not my party, but now that things have died down a little, perhaps it is not so improper for me to speak.
I'm not angry at religion as a whole, but there are some things that do make me angry. Sometimes when I'm walking into town, I take the wrong route by accident. It's fine to go down Exeter Street if I'm heading to the mall or over to my parents' place, but if I'm turning left, I have to pass the Christian Science Reading Room. It's got this big sign on the window saying "Prayer Works". Works how, exactly? You know, just by context, that this isn't going to be one of those serene theological answers like "God answers every prayer, it's just that sometimes the answer is 'no'/'maybe'/'ask again later'". No, what it means is that they're peddling dodgy science. But of course they are. "Christian Science" is a contradiction in terms, for it refers to science that will only accept conclusions that seem to support religious dogma, and that is not science at all. It makes me furious. How dare they mock the sincere attempts of scientists to be even-handed by claiming that their own biased propaganda is of equal worth? Don't they understand the love, the sacrifice, the effort that scientists put into the search for truth? And yet they pollute the term 'science'! They dare to use it for efforts that are neither courageous nor intellectually sincere, feeble obfuscations by which they hide from reality. It makes me sick.
Other things make me angry, too. Christians in my own country don't play the "atheists are nihilists who can't be moral" game very much, at least not where I and other atheists can see them, but every so often, especially on the internet, I read something that reminds me that the view is alive and barely-challenged in some quarters (no, LL, I'm not looking at you -- your questions are fair and I will answer them in another post). Just yesterday I found this page linked to by a Wikipedia post.
The atheist who poses the problem [of evil] is left in the end with the conclusion that evil was really not worth worrying about in the first place. That is bad faith, and what seemed to be the moral force of his position is exposed as a mere self-serving indignation.
Now, look. It's one thing to claim that atheists are deluded, or irrational, when we apply moral notions to the world around us, or to a hypothetical God, claiming that the notion of morality is still important whether there are gods or not. It's quite another thing to accuse us of deliberate deception. I can assure you that we do not argue in bad faith, and yes, I am angered by the implication that we all do.
Oh, but that is nothing. After all, the author of that piece might be honestly deluded himself. Perhaps he really does believe that all atheists are nihilists who are out to get other people to join us by reason of our total lack of moral feeling. Others do not have this defence. A few months back, a friendly Christian who I met over the internet suggested that I listen to Ravi Zacharias' speech "Why I Am Not An Atheist". Regrettably I have been unable to find a transcript, but the MP3 is here. I myself didn't get past Part 1. After trotting out the "I am absolutely sure there is no God" definition of atheism, making the uncertainty of agnosticism sound weak and open to conversion, and completely ignoring the strong but sensible position taken by most self-described atheists on the existence of God, Zacharias really gets underway in the second half of that first MP3. First he explains -- no, he doesn't explain, he claims -- that atheism cannot support any idea of morality that is not "utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective or emotive". Don't you love the way he exploits the ambiguity in that term 'utilitarian'? It could refer to utilitarianism (which, whatever justification you give for it, is pretty darn absolute, actually, and popular among atheists, thereby raising difficulties with his point which he does not bother to address), or it could refer to the selfish pushing of morality in others for personal gain onesself. Then he decides to quote Nietzsche. At length. At loving, loving length, just to make atheism sound scary:
God is dead, and we have killed him. . . . Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not more night coming on us all the time? . . . That which was the holiest and mightiest of all the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives. . . . Is not this the greatest of deeds to great for us to handle? Must not we ourselves become God simply to seem worthy of it?
Got that, people? Don't kill God, it's too scary, and you'll turn us all into -- what was Dawkins' description? -- "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
Let me break here to point out that I myself actually didn't kill God. Others have done that for me. Nietzsche's incredibly evocative description of what it might be like to lose God has nothing to do with what it is like never to have had God in the first place; his evocation of the empty nihilism that comes when a worldview collapses has nothing to do with the calm knowledge that atheistic worldviews can still find meaning and beauty in the world. However, Zacharias does not expand on the idea of frightening emptiness, so obvious in the passage he quotes (which was, I must add, much longer than the little excerpt I have given you above). I'm sure he likes having it there, but ostensibly he is only introducing Nietzsche so that he can segue into "Any time I hear a man lambasting or criticising a religion for having caused bloodshed..."
The same people often forget of the bloodshed that has been shed in the name of atheism. Stalin was an avowed atheist. . . . He read Nietzsche. Adolf Hitler personally presented a copy of Nietzsche's writings to Benito Mussolini. . . .
See that? See that?
Zacharias isn't mistaken. He knows there's no evidence that Hitler was an atheist. He probably knows that Hitler said, many times, that he believed in God. He probably knows that the Nazis promoted "Nazi Christianity". How do I know Zacharias knows this? Because he never once actually claims that Hitler was an atheist. But he is content to give his listeners that impression. Furthermore, he is content to smear atheists by allowing us to be represented by a thinker like Nietzsche, rather than, say, John Stuart Mill, whose work On Liberty expounds ideas considered by many to be the foundation of a free and open society -- the very sort of society that fascism and communism threaten. Minority though we have been for most of history, atheists have nevertheless been disproportionately responsible for new ideas, and it is irresponsible for Zacharias to point out the more damaging ones while failing to acknowledge the work of atheists in finding the good ideas.
Oh, one last thing about Nietzsche's influence on Hitler. Martin Luther's influence on Hitler, particularly as regards the hatred of Jews, has also been extensively documented. Need I say more?
Zacharias is far too smart and well read for me to let him off the hook. He's smearing us deliberately. And yes, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me angry. Really angry. Not necessarily angry at religion as a whole, just angry at apologists who blatantly smear a whole group of perfectly good people, obviously knowing they're doing it, but doing it anyway.
I was going to finish up by saying that I'm not angry at religion, and that most of the time the things that really annoy me are lies -- lies and deliberate obfuscations. I was going to say that when I hear about the bad consequences of religion: war, torture, death by exorcism, ostracism of those outside, credulity and vulnerability to charlatans, slavery and the oppression of women and homosexuals . . . well, most of the time, while I pity the religious who are caught in their false worldviews, and wholeheartedly support efforts to abolish the suffering caused by religious fundamentalism, really I find it very difficult to be angry at anything other than the lies people tell. I'll blame them. I know there are other factors that lead to the evils of religion, and the injustice of this disproportionate assignation of blame might bother me if I had any sympathy for lies, but I don't.
I was going to say all that, and most of the time it would probably be true, but I seem to have worked myself into a right fury here. I guess maybe I am an angry atheist after all.