Science Sunday #2: Atheism and Anger

In the upcoming May 2015 issue of The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied (Vol. 149 Issue 3, p219) researchers from Gettysburg College, North Dakota State University, and Lebanon Valley College ask whether or not people view atheists as angry individuals and whether or not atheists are indeed angry individuals. The results of their study are not surprising to me but, based on the findings, they might be pretty surprising to most people.

First, the researchers acknowledge that the angry atheist trope is popular in pop culture and the media. It’s so prevalent that it appears to be a fact rather than a question. They identify several examples of the angry atheist trope and suggest:

A general theme in these anecdotal examples is that atheists are particularly angry people and that they challenge religion and believers in an angry and confrontational manner.

And with the “New Atheist” movement, these challenges and confrontations against religion are within the public sphere, whereas long ago they were more underground. The fact that atheists are more willing to publicly express their dissatisfaction with religion suggests (to some people) that atheists’ anger has boiled over. Because of this the researchers hypothesize that atheists will be viewed as angrier than non-atheists.

But the researchers point out that the angry atheist stereotype is unfairly mischaracterized in the media, which focuses on examples that confirm the stereotype while ignoring examples that disconfirm the stereotype. Therefore, they hypothesize that atheists are not angrier than non-atheists.

The Studies

The research is broken down into two parts, consisting of seven studies. Studies 1-3 asks whether or not people perceive atheists as angrier than theists. Studies 4-7 asks whether or not atheists are indeed angrier than theists. The methods of the studies are rather robust for a short post, so I’ll sum it up as (from the abstract), a study of “1,677 participants from multiple institutions and locations in the United States.” I’ll add that this is more than sufficient. (Note that the authors discuss some statistical limitations towards the end, but from where I’m sitting, they are only minor limitations).

The researchers find that:

Our studies revealed that people believe that atheists are angrier than believers [and] people in general … Yet, we did not find any evidence to suggest that atheists—or those people believing in God to a lesser extent—are particularly angry individuals.

They call the angry atheist a “myth” and add:

Although people espouse the view that atheists are angry, and although such associations are embedded at an implicit level of cognition, the idea simply does not appear to be true.

So why does it appear to be true?

They suggest when an atheist makes a statement that counters deeply held beliefs, it’s natural to assume one must be angry to make such a statement. Angry at god, perhaps? Furthermore, and perhaps associated with this, the researchers suggest the reason might be that religious people are

projecting their own anger onto atheists. Religion is a major source of meaning and comfort to a large number of Americans (Pew Research Center, 2008). Atheists may be perceived to threaten this source of meaning, thereby triggering anger and the defensive sorts of processes identified by existential psychologists (e.g., Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2000).

The researchers also discuss the implications of such findings, suggesting that the mischaracterization of atheists as angry justifies discriminatory practices against atheists. But because this suggestion is outside the scope of this research, they propose more research:

Future research should focus on whether the angry-atheist stereotype actually drives discriminatory behavior. For example, does an angry-atheist perception correlate with a tendency to withhold rights from atheists? Or, perhaps, does an angry-atheist perception lead others to start arguments with atheists leading to an induced confirmation of the stereotype? In sum, the angry-atheist perception might partially drive discriminatory behavior against atheists. Studies that assess both variables will be useful in examining this idea.

Discussion

This is something we’ve all experienced as atheists. If I say a certain religious belief is absurd, I’ll often be asked why the belief makes me so angry. It’s nothing new, but it’s always frustrating. And it undermines our ability to further the discourse of the roles religion plays in our societies. Even if we were angry, our anger would say absolutely nothing about the strengths of our arguments, but the word “angry” often stops the conversation, putting atheists on the defensive.

The angry atheist stereotype is nothing more than a rather effective way to stifle dissent, particularly when espoused by media members, such as Bill O’Reilly. But rather than trying to stifle dissent, dissent should be questioned so it can be understood. And it’s rather difficult to understand something if one has a presumptive misconception that it’s based on anger.

Being aware of this research is a great first step. Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, it appears The Journal of Psychology has made this article freely accessible, meaning it’s not behind an expensive paywall. I hope everyone will refer to the link in the first paragraph of this post, download the article, and read it for yourself. And the next time someone makes the erroneous claim that atheists are angry people, refer them to this article and say, “That’s not what the research suggests. Here’s a peer-reviewed scholarly article that suggests you’re wrong.” That should be sufficient to keep the discourse going without putting the atheist on the defensive. (If for some reason the article is not available, feel free to contact me).

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political and social activist.
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9 Responses to Science Sunday #2: Atheism and Anger

  1. notquiteany says:

    In my experience as troll on highly conservative groups I’ve encountered many inflammatory atheists. But they’re like me. We are really more playful than angry and the angry responses we elicit are things to tease and poke fun at, even correct, rather than us being in a violent angry road rage state of mind.

    I think the trope is popular because they see a group of people motivated that are 100% antithetical to their metaphysical beliefs. And it is all too often that motivation is confused with actual anger.

  2. Barry says:

    Of course you know what fundamentalists will say: “Most scientists are atheists, so naturally they will come to that conclusion – peer review or not”.

    Personally I’ve met just as many angry Christians as I have angry atheists, and Christians are in a minority here. I’m not brilliant at statistics, but I’m sure the previous sentence goes some way to counter the notion that atheists are an angry lot.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      You might be right. I figured SOM would be the one to make a point like that, but he’s been absent from my comments section lately, which doesn’t bother me in the least.

  3. I think you prove this claim is true

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