Some atheists are curious about other religions, like myself, and we learn about other views of the world. I wish I had a personal reason, but it’s almost intangible.
Perhaps at first it was out of some belief that maybe other religions are true, and there are undoubtedly people for whom atheism or agnosticism is an intermediary between religions. This wasn’t the case for me, however, and my fascination with even long dead faiths and cults can no longer be honestly seen as a pursuit for a religion to join by even the most cynical observer. If you honestly think I read Norse mythology because I am giving Odin a shot at being my God, you don’t know me very well.
I’m just curious, and I see religion as a very important piece in the puzzle of understanding history, and by extension, people.
If religion only lived in books, I would be little more than a scholar of literature. However, religion permeates the real world. Laws are written today based on commandments supposedly handed down to mankind from a desert God thousands of years ago. Elections are decided based on the religious views of candidates. Religion isn’t exactly small potatoes in the world today. Considering that politics is also a passion of mine, religion gets double-duty in my head, once as literature, again as a geopolitical agent on the world stage.
But this doesn’t get to the heart of a common complaint among theists, which is embodied in a quote by Heywood Broun, “Nobody talks so constantly about God as those who insist that there is no God.” Why is this?
It’s tough to say. I’ll breeze over the fact that not all atheists do this, and instead focus on the very true observation that some, or perhaps even many, do.
I know that personally, I was most hostile towards religion initially after I stopped being religious. This was largely because of building stress caused by the fact that I didn’t want anything to do with religion, and yet it kept being forced on me by others. Not in some abstract sense, but in the very real sense that my mother made me go through with rituals I opposed and to church services, not to mention that I went to a private Catholic high school where religion was a required subject every year.
But that wasn’t an issue anymore when I went off to college. For some atheists, when religion has stopped being a persistent intruder in one’s life, the hostility either dies down or disappears completely (though in some cultures, this may never happen). So, that explains some behavior, but there’s still people not in such a situation who are quite hostile towards religion.
In some ways, it’s when a person starts looking outside themselves (i.e. matures) that there is a new source of rage. If I was an egotist, I suppose I would have no hard feelings for religion at this point. I’m a straight man… the Bible doesn’t stand in my way. I’m at the top of the religiously established hierarchy, so who gives a shit, right?
Call me nuts, but I don’t sit well knowing people are treated unfairly, even if it isn’t me.
While I don’t know that I ever would have used this terminology otherwise (this is all thanks to you, Mike), some atheists essentially see themselves as religion police. I never explicitly thought of it this way before, but it rings with an uncanny aptness I cannot surpass.
There genuinely are few people out there keeping religion in check, and they are primarily non-atheists. Religions are critical of each other on a level I would say is far more vicious, but the incidents are not as common as might occur from atheists, and there’s a reason.
Atheists live in a world of religious people, and it sucks. If you are of the majority religion in many places (including America), you may think nothing of how religion saturates the culture… until someone else’s religion seems to impose. There aren’t many atheists or religious minorities in the US, and even fewer of them hold positions of power, let alone flex any political might. Because criticism is often reactionary, the most common complaints will be reactions that come against those who are in the majority, because it is the majority viewpoint which will inevitably be the most pervasive. Atheists are the largest non-Christian group in the US, so it will therefore most often come from them.
However, because the majority is a large group, and inevitably diverse, the most hostile responses (as a mere consequence of demographic probability) will often come from extremists in the majority reacting to minority encroachment (or even internally, as many Christian extremists reserve their most cruel words for fellow Christians they disagree with).
And it’s a strange system that feeds itself. Those in the minority complain about something, which angers extremists in the majority and causes them to react, which pisses off those in the minority… and it just goes back and forth, to the point where the “blame” becomes a matter of determining whether the chicken or the egg came first.
Among atheists, there are even just horrible people. There’s not much use in trying to explain someone like Stalin or Mao, and it’s a damn shame to try to excuse them. Being an atheist doesn’t magically make anyone a better person, anymore than atheism can make someone a worse person. Some atheists are just rotten people, and they’ll do anything from spending their time spitting vitriol at religion to burning down churches. There’s no sense in denying it: some atheists are just vile.
I don’t know if I have the answer as to why some people like to be bullies. I like to bully certain people, generally when I perceive them to be a bully. I suppose it’s similar to a bully who likes to pick on weak people or stupid people or whatever target they choose. There is perhaps some rationalized justification (I tell myself it’s okay to be mean to people who I perceive as being mean, for example), but there may as well be any other motive, from getting a kick out of bothering others to just wanting attention.
The reasons for why an atheist would lash out at religion are just going to be highly personal, and perhaps too numerous to catalog completely. There’s probably some who have even taken their cues from religion itself. Christianity is known for encouraging the spread of “the truth” to others, and there’s no reason a person raised as a Christian would abandon every last vestige of what they were taught as children.
Christians have this mentality which is instilled early on that you are helping someone by professing your faith to them. One way it was put to me many times (both before and after being an atheist), is that a Christian proselytizing is like someone who sees another person in the road about to be hit by a car. You would urgently try to save them. This is the justification given for evangelism: it’s for the good of others. Most atheists who try to convince someone to abandon their religion wouldn’t see things any differently.
Indeed, I have felt like I was saved by atheism, that I am a born-again heathen. There is a clear demarcation in my attitude and outlook between when I was a believer and when I became a non-believer, and I would like to share that with others, but personally, I think it’s not something I can make someone feel… they have to allow themselves to feel it on their own. It almost sounds eerily familiar to what some Christians might say, but I would like to imagine it’s a universal outlook, that all those who feel they have the answer wish to share it with others so they can have it.
I might also consider the opposing view… why are Christians so obsessed with homosexuality? I personally am not of the opinion that every Christian who harps on the evils of homosexuality is actually in the closet, but there are those who believe this, and there have even been individuals for whom this is has turned out to be true. However, I know that what’s actually happening is usually much more simple than mere self-loathing: Christians who oppose homosexuality are generally not secretly gay, they just want to stop people from doing something they believe is wrong. It is likewise with many atheists regarding religion, atheists do not secretly love religion, they explicitly do not like it and find it harmful.
Perhaps it is merely that what we most oppose is something we also see as the cause of many other problems. Capitalists always gripe about unions, while socialists constantly complain about corporations. Republicans harp on liberals, and Democrats rail against conservatives. The old malign the younger generations, while the youth mock the elderly. Inside many of us, there must simply be a need that goes beyond just being, which instead seeks to also change others and the way they do things in a way that we perceive to be better.
Personally, I think it’s a small price to pay to be bothered by others to know that we have come so far. Even among the religious in America, so much progress has been made. We aren’t burning witches anymore, we don’t torture people to force them to convert, we keep the religious violence to a minimum. None of this could have happened if people were just left alone to do their own thing. It took the efforts of people seeking to improve things, and it required some people being dragged, kicking and screaming, towards progress.
All this because we kept our eyes not only on what we ourselves were doing, but also on others. We achieved all that we achieved not as atheists, or as Christians, but together, as a whole, and when some of us fail to get it and refuse to move ahead, we’re all held back. We rise and fall as one, because nothing any of us does happens in a vacuum. We are interconnected, and I believe it’s for the better far more than it’s for the worse, even if it means sometimes being irritated by someone shoving their ideas in my face.