Why Atheists Get Angry
When I first renounced Christianity, I resented everything that reminded me of religion. I felt betrayed and lied to. My entire understanding of the world had been turned on its head.
I looked back and regretted things I had done when I was younger — putting anti-gay and anti-abortion bumper stickers on my truck; pushing away perfectly good friends because they weren’t Christians.
It wasn’t my nature to be judgmental. I was simply practicing what I had been taught in church.
When I realized purity culture had set me up for a dysfunctional sex life and pushed me to get married too young, I felt violated. I mourned the years I had recoiled from all sorts of coming-of-age experiences.
My beliefs had been hurtful to myself and others, and I felt ashamed.
From a young age, I’d been indoctrinated by a system that I no longer considered true, and the programming wasn’t something I could simply shrug off. It was like it had been hard-coded into my personality. The anger was strongest those first years as I worked to reset myself and my understanding of the world.
I associated my pain with Christianity, and with theism as a whole.
As time passed, my outrage subsided. In my mid-twenties I befriended new people, took on new interests, grew into myself, followed new life paths, and learned to be more mindful. I didn’t worry so much about what other people thought.
My parents weren’t trying to brainwash me; they just wanted me to grow up learning what they believed was the truth.
For years I avoided picking on religion at all because I wanted to let my own scabs heal.
Eventually, but especially over the past couple of years, I’ve come to accept that Christianity alone was never responsible for everything wrong in my life. Some of my problems were a byproduct of American culture (which has been deeply influenced by Christian culture). Some of my problems were my parents’ doing. And a lot of them were my own fault.
In short, I grew up.
Now, in my early thirties, I can see more clearly that religious people are generally not ill-intentioned or stupid, and that faith can have a positive effect on some lives. My parents weren’t trying to brainwash me; they just wanted me to grow up learning what they believed was the truth.
I know nothing I say is likely to convince a devoted believer to change their mind, and vice versa, so I try to live in peace with them rather than in conflict.
Long backpacking trips have given me peace and softened my heart. Psychedelics have opened my mind. I enjoy the idea of pantheism, and I benefit from spiritual practices connected to Buddhism and Hinduism. I can even appreciate certain Christian congregations whose primary focus is to build a compassionate and merciful society.
A few years ago, I started to interact online with people who were freshly transitioning away from religion. I’d healed enough to empathize without being overly triggered, and I wanted to help them navigate their own journeys. A year and a half ago, I joined the team at Recovering from Religion as the editor of their blog, helping ex-religious people share their stories and perspectives.
It’s one thing to use spirituality to improve your own life, but it’s different when religious ideology becomes your only reason for existence or when you push it onto others.
Most days, I don’t waste energy feeling bitter about religion and its effect on my own life. I no longer have much reason to be inflamed; it almost feels like it happened in another lifetime.
That said, there is still one aspect of religion that absolutely boils my blood when I encounter it.
I can’t handle the way fundamentalism — in any religion — destroys people’s lives.
I consider holy books to be works of fiction, but I’m fine with people who read fiction. I may not understand the need for Bible stories to motivate positive personal change, but I can accept that it works for other people. If someone finds joy and meaning in studying the Bible, the Lord of the Rings, the Quran, or the Marvel universe, that’s great. I’m glad it makes them happy.
But when belief in these stories grows so overpowering that it becomes justification to inflict harm on other real live human beings, it crosses a major line. It’s one thing to use spiritual practices and traditions as a way to improve your own life on earth, but it’s different when religious ideology becomes your only reason for existence or when you begin pushing your religion onto others.
I’ve noticed that many people are familiar with only the more tolerant side of religion. They assume that people who attend church are going there for symbolic stories, uplifting messages, and a nice bit of socialization.
The reality is that millions of Americans take the Bible literally — and I’ve seen firsthand what the dark side of religion can do.
Fundamentalist Christians believe every single word of the Bible is factually true. They consider their dogmatic beliefs to be more foundational to reality than the physical realm itself. To them, the entire planet is God’s testing ground for sorting people into an eternity of agony or bliss. They’re sure they’ve found the one correct set of beliefs and that everyone needs to embrace it as truth or suffer forever.
When someone’s eschatological dogma is priority number one, it can overshadow their concern for the quality of life on earth.
It makes sense to me because I used to think that way. If there is an eternal afterlife, 80 years on earth is mathematically insignificant in comparison, so securing and spreading salvation becomes one’s top priority. It also makes sense that the most compassionate thing you can do is save people from hell by coercing them into your religion.
Fill your children’s minds with a horrible fear of hellfire, Satan, and demonic possession; drill it into them young, and the dread will never leave them — they’ll form a trauma-bond with Jesus. What’s a few decades of terror compared to the infinite anguish it might prevent?
Because of biblical literalism, some people prioritize religious beliefs over social welfare. If each fetus is a divinely created, complete human spirit immediately after conception, then sure, abortion is like murder. If gender norms and heterosexual marital standards are indeed mandated in the scriptures and highly important to God, of course society should uphold those standards.
I remember what it was like to believe wholeheartedly that our actions in life have eternal consequences, and I can understand the motivation for these priorities, as awful as it all seems to me now.
That’s why I criticize fundamentalism itself rather than the people inside it.
Understanding their behavior doesn’t mean I’m okay with it. Through the same logic, I can understand Islamic countries that enforce Sharia law on their populace; extremists who commit acts of terrorism; people who kill their children because they believe God told them to. That’s how God tested Abraham, after all.
Being convinced that something is right doesn’t make it so.
Imposing personal beliefs on others is not acceptable, especially when it harms people and limits their freedoms.
Some Christians may claim they are the ones being persecuted, but there is a difference between being eradicated and having your privileges reduced — or granting others the same privileges you have enjoyed.
If our shared goal is to build a society centered on freedom, justice, and equality, surely that’s a common-sense idea everyone can get behind. Politically speaking, that’s why atheists tend toward supporting policies, legislation, and government structures that give citizens the most freedom to personally practice according to their own religious beliefs without forcing every citizen to do the same. Whether a democracy or a republic, it is definitely not a theocracy.
I can already hear the questions bubbling up: “But what about the atheist political agenda?” “Doesn’t that also act as a religious ordinance of sorts, injecting the atheist worldview into politics just like believers do?”
While I acknowledge that groupthink and dogma can exist within atheist circles, I haven’t seen any atheist-driven legislative efforts to strip people of their right to practice according to their personal faith. That would be inadmissible. I find it abhorrent that China has more than a million Muslims in re-education camps right now. Nobody should have to fear being imprisoned or murdered by their government for their faith (or lack thereof), and I don’t think there’s much risk of that happening in the United States.
Atheists simply want laws in place to ensure there is freedom from religion (not being forced to pray in school) as well as freedom of religion (being allowed to pray before lunch, if you want).
Because Christianity has been the dominant religion in America for so long, there is indeed a need to restrain its influence on politics and government. There needs to be a separation of religion and politics, which is blatantly obvious when you don’t belong to the majority religion. Some Christians may claim they are the ones being persecuted, but there is a difference between being singled out for eradication and having your privileges reduced to match everyone else’s — or granting others the same privileges you have enjoyed for so long.
As much as I don’t want to live in anger, I have to confess that I still experience a great deal of frustration when I see the following things happening:
- Millions of young people in fundamentalist Christian congregations being told they are broken at the core. Children are routinely taught that their “sinful nature” is so disgusting to God that he will send them to burn forever rather than endure being in their presence. This fear gives many people severe lifelong anxiety. To avoid this torture, they’re told they must give their lives to Jesus and remain faithful to the church.
- Fundamentalist parents disowning or abusing their children for deviating from how they were raised. Some ex-believers have lost their entire network of family and friends simply because they dared to reevaluate their beliefs or leave the congregation. That is a soul-crushing experience.
- Persecuting humans who don’t fit into the cisgender heterosexual paradigm. For example, LGBTQ people are sent to harmful conversion therapy programs, and there is a high rate of suicide within the transgender community partly because they face such vicious condemnation from religious organizations. Many fear violence on a daily basis. According to some research, the Bible is the most-cited source of hateful beliefs surrounding gender and sexuality.
- Demonizing sexual intercourse. Sex is a biological function in which literally all our ancestors have participated — and it has been demonized as gross, scary, wrong, and damaging when it happens outside the Bible’s prescribed parameters. This creates trauma and inhibitions that are detrimental to our collective and personal well-being. When celibacy is associated with purity, religious leaders end up acting on their sexual urges in secret, often at the expense of vulnerable members of their congregation, who are then told to repent for the sin of weakening men of God.
- Churches still promoting the analogy that “Jesus is to a man what a man is to his wife.” Women’s voices go unrepresented in fundamentalist churches because God does not “permit a woman to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). This creates a culture in which women are powerless, subservient, and dehumanized. Destructive men are rarely challenged. Divorce is often forbidden, and abuse victims are told to love and pray for their abusers rather than leave them.
- Fundamentalist or evangelical people engaging in single-issue voting because of their beliefs. Many people vote for whichever candidate promises to reverse Roe v. Wade, regardless of how unhinged or incompetent the candidate is in all other areas. But single-issue voting, especially when that vote is used to enforce your own religious beliefs on others, is not a good way to elect well-balanced leaders.
- Refusing to consider any other opinions or sources of information. The firm belief that one has discovered the full, perfect truth, and that all other ways of thinking are false, is dangerous and inhibits genuine dialogue between fundamentalists and other schools of thought. This leads to worldviews and interactions that are not reasonably informed and inhibits areas of compromise.
- Grown adults believing in Genesis over geology, and Revelation over climate science. Many remain in denial about anthropogenic global warming and widespread ecological destruction — despite the impending threat to our survival as a species — because “Jesus is coming back soon anyway,” and “God gave us dominion over the Earth.”
Of course, this just skims the surface; books have been written on each of these topics. I could never hope to give a full analysis of the damage in just one article. Not to mention, I’ve been talking about only fundamentalists in America. In some parts of the world, your family will kill you if you come out as an atheist.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to say religion is the only source of destructive thought patterns in the world. There is plenty of violence, greed, and abuse perpetrated by non-religious systems too, and I’m every bit as keen on ending that.
What I am saying is that fundamentalism has a significant negative impact on our world, and it’s maddening to watch. Especially as someone who used to believe but has come out the other side.
Some see anger as a weakness, but isn’t it normal to be distressed when innocent people are being hurt for no reason?
I’m not angry because people believe in God or go to church or read the Bible. All I want is to live in a society of people who can differentiate between facts and mythology so we can work together to make rational decisions that will provide the best outcomes for everyone. And I’m angry because religion has convinced so many people that the afterlife is more important than solving the serious problems right in front of their eyes.