Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Insanity of the "Angry Atheist" Stereotype

[time to play theist's advocate, briefly.]

Boy, those atheists sure are angry. They're always mocking religious people, degrading their deeply-held beliefs and sniping at them with pompous, elitist remarks.

Who are they to tell us what to believe? Our beliefs give our lives hope and meaning. They help guide us to behave in the ways we should behave and stand up for what's right.

Not to mention how many smart people there are who believe what we do, and how many contributions have been made to the arts, culture, and society by the teachings of our various faiths. Where would we be without religion?

[OK, that's enough.]

When a child who believes in Santa Claus is in the company of other children who know he doesn't exist, mockery is acceptable. Expected, even. Yet somehow, when a theist's myth of choice is the subject under discussion, you'd better not dare mock it; in fact, somehow it is deserving of your respectful silence, if anything.

When we do get the courage to speak out about things we consider to be patently ridiculous, we're labeled as angry, intolerant, bigoted, and hateful. How does this make sense to people? If I think you believe in something silly, why on earth should I respect what it is that you believe? If, for example, you believed that the universe was powered by a hamster spinning in his wheel, and you called this a deeply-held and personal religious belief, should I treat this in the same fashion as I'd treat someone whose worldview was based on reason and evidence?

What is it that makes faith some unassailable target that demands respect? It's as though we're expected to consider virtuous those among us who are more willing than others to simply believe for the sake of believing. Worse still, we're supposed to give their opinions on any subject a good deal of respect if they manage to bring the subject of their faith up as part of the discussions on that subject, as though the mere fact of their having faith makes their viewpoint more respectable.

Whenever I find myself pointing out the silliness of what some people believe, they take my criticisms personally. They see an attack on their beliefs as an attack on them, and I can't help but wonder if this is because they've made their belief such a major part of their lives that they can no longer determine who they are without it.

Worse still are the people who believe in belief - those who don't hold to any particular religion themselves, but who will quickly rush to the defense of the religious whenever a religious belief is under attack, seeing the act of irrational belief as a positive aspect of character without really giving much consideration to what it is they're defending.

I would hope that responding to insipid blather with scorn and mockery would be embraced by reasonable people. When someone believes in UFOs, conspiracy theories, or anything else most people consider "kooky", we as a people tend to be quick to joke about their foolishness. But when someone believes in a mostly undefined/indescribable being who does things in ways that can't be explained or demonstrated, whoa now - step back! This is sacred territory, and if you talk badly about that belief, you're angry, bitter, a crashing bore, a whiner, and a wide litany of other such juvenile insults.

Clearly we don't disbelieve the nonsense because it's irrational and unsupported by evidence. Deep down, we must really still believe it, but because of some bad experience we had involving the church or an authority figure; or we just want to play the victim; or we justify the venomous stereotypes people have about us.

This is madness. I'm sitting here thinking of how to best phrase this, and I just can't. Basically, we're being told that we should shut up and just let people continue to believe nonsense, regardless of the fact that it is demonstrably nonsensical, and if we should dare to speak up and tell the emperor that he has no clothes, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Let me put it bluntly: If you believe something not because it's true, but because it makes you feel better, I do think you're irrational and a bit foolish. Reality doesn't care what makes you feel better; reality works with what's real, and is more than happy to steamroll right over you while you lock yourself into your delusions.

I'm not an angry atheist. I'm frustrated that people think it's normal and right to believe things about the world that aren't justified and that lead to real harm, or at the very least detract from the capacity for real help.

This whole Daniel Hauser issue is just another example. Daniel Hauser, a young teenage boy with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, is now most likely going die despite the fact that medical treatment would've given him a 90% or higher chance of recovery in the early stages of the disease.

Why?

Because Daniel's parents are members of a sect of the Native American Church called the Nemenha Band, which advocates for "natural" and "alternative" medicine. (For those of you who are unaware, the Native American Church is one of the few groups in America legally allowed to use the hallucinogenic drug peyote, chiefly because they claim that it allows them to commune with god.)

Without actual medical treatment, Daniel's chances of survival drop to about 10%. Upon refusal to provide the treatment, a judge determined that Daniel's parents were being medically neglectful to him and ordered him to receive chemotherapy. That was within the last couple of days.

Yesterday, Daniel's mother disappeared. With him. Thus practically guaranteeing that he will die.

This is hardly the first time this has happened and it certainly won't be the last. And it's all because of religion. It's a piece of the Hausers' superstitious nonsense beliefs that are killing their son. (To his credit, Mr. Hauser now wants to seek actual medical attention.)

So when this story hit the mainstream news outlets, what did we hear? Well, Headline News had an 'audience interaction' segment where they took phone calls and e-mails about the story. Nearly all of them spoke out in support of Daniel's parents, saying that the government had no right to tell people how to treat their kids if it was against their religion.

Let me stress this one more time. People are willing to support medically neglectful parents whose decision almost certainly will kill their children as long as those decisions are based on some sort of religious belief. The type of belief and the details of the belief aren't even relevant. It's enough that they have beliefs, and that makes them special.

Am I angry? No. I'm sickened and disappointed. I'm tired of running into this kind of constant nonsense time and time again. And I'm disgusted by people who will call me an angry, vitriolic bigot for crying foul when I see this sort of insanity being perpetrated in the name of fairy tales or magic.

2 comments:

vjack said...

A big part of what makes me angry isn't so much the absurdity of what many Christians claim to believe but their behavior. Bigotry and discrimination against atheists should make us mad.

Mirek Lalas said...

Atheists do have the right to comment on Christianity, or any other religion. The issue that you raise - and don't even come close to touching is why atheists are angry at a god who, according to them, does not even exist. Even if we agree that God is a human creation, we must also agree that religion exists as a human creation that served a purpose - at least the same purpose that literature serves. Why dismiss this purpose, rather than understand it? Very few people believe that Spider man exists, yet the story is compelling. Why do we tell it? Is laughter the only acceptable reaction? I don't think God is a mythic figure, but if we don't laugh at our cultural heritage overall, why should we shun religion -at least as an interesting cultural product, which it undeniably is? This is the atheists' mistake - they don't think God exists, but they get angry at human stories about God, like Richard Dawkins, the self-confessed peaceful atheist who turns hostile when he encounters religious people (by his own admission). How can you be peaceful and hostile against the majority of humanns? Address this contradiction instead of skirting it with smug remarks.