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Rebutting Rabbi Gellman:

an ‘angry’ atheist speaks his mind

By George A. Ricker

Hopefully, by now Rabbi Marc Gellman has a better understanding of angry atheists and what makes them tick.

Gellman, as you may or may not be aware, published a online commentary on MSNBC.com Newsweek at the end of April in which he proclaimed he needed to understand atheists better and then demonstrated his lack of understanding by offering a number of condescending caricatures of the atheist position. 1

The title of the commentary gave it away at the outset. In large type it proclaimed “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists,” followed by a subhead, in smaller bold-faced type, that asked “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?”

Rabbi Gellman went on to declare that while he didn’t know many religious people who woke up “…thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists,” he found many nonbelievers who seemed to find the religions of their neighbors “…offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians.”

I wrote to Newsweek, after reading his piece.

Here’s what I said.

If Rabbi Marc Gellman really wants to understand atheists, he ought to ask them. If he did so he probably would find most of us are neither "threatened" by the god-idea nor as "angry" as he supposes.

What does tend to make atheists angry is for theists to make assumptions about them that have no basis in fact and then slay those straw men with arrogance and condescension, pretending all the while that they are really just trying to understand what makes atheists tick.

Frankly, I'm not bothered by anyone else's religion, as long as they aren't bothering me with it. I do get bothered when my government begins making religious proclamations or dressing itself in the trappings of religions, but that's because I think government has no business making religious opinions or the lack of such opinions its business.

But Rabbi Gellman really isn't interested in understanding anything about atheists. He gives himself away when he writes "… behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories" or characterizes atheists as people "… who believe nothing." He reveals too much when he suggests atheists must cling to Camus' existential despair.

If James Watson is truly "an atheist I can believe in," as Gellman says, he may be surprised to learn there are many more just like Watson, many more who think the most important thing in life is not the label one wears but the way one lives.

Does this mean atheists never get angry? Of course not. But I doubt there is a human being alive, with the possible exception of the good rabbi, who never feels anger. Sometimes that anger is justified and sometimes it is not.

However, most of the atheists I know—and I know quite a few—don't spend much time being angry. We are too busy living our lives, loving our families, working, playing, enjoying our friends and trying to lead lives that are productive.

So here's a hint for the rabbi and anyone else who is interested. If you really want to understand atheists, ask one.

I have no idea whether the rabbi will actually see the email I sent him. And I can’t help wondering whether he really has been beset by the hordes of angry atheists suggested by his essay or is simply using a convenient caricature to take a shot at a group of people he considers to be safe targets while doing a little gentle proselytizing on behalf of the theistic perspective.

Is it just accidental that Gellman’s piece appeared shortly after the release of a University of Minnesota study 2 that revealed atheists are the least trusted demographic group in American society? Does the rabbi really believe atheists are people “…who believe nothing” as his column suggests?

If so, he must have a very limited acquaintance with atheists.

With the notable exception of a few notable exceptions, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair and a relative handful of others, most atheists have been content, until recently, to stay out of the public view and to travel under the radar, so to speak. There are lots of reasons for this.

The most obvious one, the one that is reflected in the American Mosaic study referenced earlier, is the antipathy of many Americans to the very idea of atheism and the suspicion that anyone who is an atheist is immoral and unprincipled. That attitude is buttressed by the insecurity of the religious who view any dissent from their religious beliefs as an attack on them.

Paradoxically, I suspect one of the reasons atheists have been willing to shed their anonymity and to speak out publicly on many of these issues lately has been the activism of the religious right in promoting their agenda and seeking to suppress other points of view. Atheists have come to understand that silence is no longer an option when confronted with an adversary who never can be satisfied as long as anyone fails to conform to their beliefs.

A “live and let live” attitude is not possible for the True Believer. Those who do not conform to the religious ideology of the faithful do not just endanger their own immortal souls but may, by example, encourage others to think there are legitimate alternatives to the one true faith. Such a state of affairs is not acceptable to True Believers. Consequently, they cannot abide the existence of nonbelief of any description.

This attitude is often hidden from view, but it is the necessary consequence of the views espoused by those who claim to know the mind of the god they worship.

Consider the following words of Reverend Jonathan Edwards, delivered to the National Reform Association convention in 1873. The NRA was created to promote the explicit acknowledgment of “Almighty God” as the source of all authority and the lordship of Jesus Christ over the affairs of men and have it written into the preamble of the Constitution of the United States. Edwards was the former president of Washington and Jefferson College, a fairly prominent minister and an active member of the organization. This is what he thought about the idea of tolerating atheists.

“What are the rights of the atheist? I would tolerate him as I would tolerate a poor lunatic; for in my view his mind is scarcely sound. So long as he does not rave, so long as he is not dangerous, I would tolerate him. I would tolerate him as I would a conspirator. The atheist is a dangerous man. Yes, to this extent I will tolerate the atheist; but no more. Why should I? The atheist does not tolerate me. He does not smile either in pity or in scorn upon my faith. He hates my faith, and he hates me for my faith. I can tolerate difference and discussion; I can tolerate heresy and false religion; I can debate the use of the Bible in our common schools, the taxation of church property, the propriety of chaplaincies and the like, but there are some questions past debate. Tolerate atheism, sir? There is nothing out of hell that I would not tolerate as soon! The atheist may live, as I have said; but, God helping us, the taint of his destructive creed shall not defile any of the civil institutions of this fair land! Let us repeat, atheism and Christianity are contradictory terms. They are incompatible systems. They cannot dwell together on the same continent.” 3

Notice how Edwards begins by speaking of “tolerating” the atheist—in a manner of speaking, at least—and ends with the statement that atheism and Christianity cannot dwell together on the same continent. Incidentally, I can find no indication whether this Jonathan Edwards is related to the Jonathan Edwards of “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” fame, but the two do seem to share some rhetorical flourishes.

Rabbi Gellman’s hostility toward atheism is of a more genteel sort, to be sure, but it is there nonetheless. It may be a hostility born of the inability of the theistic mind to comprehend how it is possible for anyone to live without a religious orientation, but it amounts to the same sort of projection that is found in all such attitudes.

It is not our anger the rabbi finds difficult to understand, it is our ability to live without the theistic paradigm that he finds incomprehensible. Because he honestly thinks it is impossible to have a satisfactory life without accepting the theistic outlook, he views our demurral as an attack on his religion.

And that is the real source of the anger. It’s not anger directed at theism by atheists, but the anger of theists toward any who do not share the presuppositions of their outlook. Look again, at Rev. Edwards’ words.

Although it is clear from the context that Edwards is the one who hates, he justifies his own hatred with the claim that the atheist “…hates my faith, and he hates me for my faith.” This is classic projection. It’s also a claim that gets made by modern fundamentalists regularly. Edwards hates atheism but claims it is the proponents of atheism who hate him. In the same vein, atheism makes theists angry because they don’t understand how it is possible. Consequently, they assume atheists must hate them for much the same reason.

However, many atheists have been religious practitioners at one time or another. We have an understanding of the allure of religions, even though we no longer find them so attractive as we once did. Beyond that, virtually all atheists have one or more friends, relatives and/or acquaintances who are religious. We usually have no problem dealing with such people unless and until they attempt to recruit us or launch an attack on our position.

The “in your face” confrontational attitude Rabbi Gellman suggests is endemic to atheists has always seemed to me to be more characteristic of those who believe in a religion than those who don’t. Atheists generally don’t seek out confrontations with the religious.

Speaking for myself, I know that I never initiate discussions about religion with religious people. However, I’m comfortable discussing my own ideas and opinions with anyone who is interested, and I have no qualms about raising objections and pointing out fallacies when someone starts preaching to me about either the god they worship or the religion they follow. And when I am attacked, I reserve the right to respond in kind. That doesn’t mean I always do. Only that my response, like those of most people, will be influenced by that which provokes it.

I also must confess there are occasions when I may get a bit short with a theist who has just obtained a copy of the Complete Compendium of Really Dumb Arguments for the Existence of God 4 and feels obliged to present me with the 456th variation of Pascal’s Wager or some other, equally tiresome, nonsense. Honestly, I would be delighted to encounter some truly original thinking on the part of religionists. Alas, if any such thinking exists at all, it seems to be in very short supply.

The “angry” atheist—like the “immoral,” “unhappy,” “wretched,” “despondent,” or “hateful,” atheist—appears to be one of those convenient caricatures so beloved by theists who want to buttress their position but can’t be bothered to enter into honest dialogue or discussion with the objects of their scorn. If the theist position were stronger, perhaps they would not be obliged to resort to such devices.

No doubt, Rabbi Gellman will reject this analysis, if he ever sees it, and will insist he was responding to a genuine phenomenon, rather than attacking a straw man. Unfortunately for the claim, the column speaks for itself. It reeks of condescension and is filled with assumptions about atheists that simply are not true of most of us.

To encounter such a screed coming from someone who surely ought to know better does not make this atheist angry. It disappoints me. Sadly, it is all too typical of the inability of many theists to deal honestly with those who do not share their religious opinions.
© 2006 by George A. Ricker

1. You can read Rabbi Gellman’s column at:

2. You’ll find information about the study at:

3. “The National Reform Association and the Christian Amendment”

4. I have no idea whether such a volume actually exists, but I suspect it must because of the constant repetition of the same tired arguments that were thoroughly refuted long ago.

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