You may have noticed that the cold war between religious people and atheists has been seriously heating up the past few years. After the release of a spate of books from the so-called "new atheists" (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al) a vicious war of words broke out in print, online, across the airwaves, and anywhere else people interact. And it's only getting more intense.

The war, of course, has been going on for centuries--but now, with so many communication options available, it has migrated into venues accustomed to tamer exchanges.

Reasonable people, religious or otherwise, can agree to argue reasonably, without toxic assaults that only add to the rage. At least in theory. But the reality is that wherever these debates are happening, strong feelings overpower restraint. Hate mail, bile-laden comments and death threats are unfortunately not uncommon.

I was reminded of this again while reading a post from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True (also the name of his book). From Coyne:

Perhaps some atheists have issued death threats against religious people, but I don't know of any, and, at any rate, they must be much rarer than those aimed in the opposite direction.

Yesterday Blair Scott, communications director for American Atheists, was on the FOX News show America Live with Megyn Kelly. As soon as Scott returned home after the show, his inbox began filling up with hate mail and threats. Equally distressing, the Fox News Facebook page was soon inundated with death threats aimed at Scott and atheists in general, comments that are being taken down rapidly (see the report by William Hamby in the Atlanta Examiner).

The American Atheists web page has put up some screenshots of those comments posted on the Fox FB site. [you can see screen shots of the comments here, here and here.]

Coyne's first statement intrigues me, and my inner-researcher wants to know if he's right. Which side is responsible for most of the hate mail and death threats, the religious or the atheists? Who has the greater right to call themselves reasonable and tolerant?

It would be difficult, I think, to answer those questions quantitatively. But I'm betting there's enough evidence out there that a fair qualitative estimate is reachable.

So let's make this a community project. Please send me, or leave in the comments section, any information you think helps flesh-out an answer. I'll take a look at everything you send, in addition to what I find, and report back with results in a future post.

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