What has struck me over the past few weeks is the anger with which certain writers (I won’t name names, but there are more than one) excoriate the New Atheists—even if those critics are atheists themselves! (I call atheists sympathetic to religion “faitheists.”) One thing I do recognize is that the vitriol is stronger when someone used to be religious or was raised in a religious home. That’s one clue to what’s going on.
But given that New Atheists aren’t nearly as strident, arrogant, or dogmatic as are some believers, the degree of criticism simply seems disproportionate to what people like Dawkins, Harris, or I actually have to say. For our criticism of religion basically comes down to this: “Your confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the strength of the evidence supporting it.” Is that really something that should inspire such nastiness? And it’s not just a criticism of religion, but a criticism of faith in general, including pseudosciences like ESP and “alternative medicine.”
Recently one reader pointed me to an interview with author Terry Pratchett in 2002, reported, of all places, in the New Zealand Herald. In the interview Pratchett says this:
JG: Do you view death that way?
Pratchett: It’s my hope, if you like. I am a disappointed atheist. I feel upset on the whole that I’ve had to resort to atheism. I’m kind of angry with God for not existing.
(As you might know, Pratchett, born in 1948, is a really famous British writer of fantasy novels. He is now suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and has written poignantly about its toll.)
But Pratchett’s answer, I think, may tell us why some faithesists, especially those who were once religious or were surrounded by the faithful, now spend their time excoriating atheists rather than believers—even though believers do far more harm. It’s because the critics want God to exist, and are angry that he doesn’t. They realize that rationality gives them no reason to believe in deities, miracles, or the tenets of faith, but it would be oh so comforting if they could just believe.
Of course, you can’t force yourself to believe in your heart what your mind tells you is unbelievable—or at least has told you so forcefully that it’s turned you into an atheist. This causes cognitive dissonance which—and this is my theory which is mine—gets resolved by making these people excoriate New Atheists like Dawkins. It leads to faitheists spending their time extolling the virtues of faith, arguing that morality is grounded on religion (have they read the Old Testament or Qur’an lately?), telling us what a wonderful social glue religion is, and how important it’s been in art and history—all the while insisting that they don’t believe a word of it. And that’s why if you scratch a faitheist, you nearly always find a religious background. They’ve either experienced the comforts of religion, and mourn their loss, or have seen how many people are happily drunk on the liquor of faith, and long for that same state of spiritual inebriation.
They’re not angry at New Atheists; they’re angry at themselves—for being unable to believe in a God that they know doesn’t exist. And they’re angry at that God for not existing. They just take it out on us.