Atheist-Believer Conversations: What's the Anger About?

Dump the anger and listen if you want to get anywhere with religious debates.

Posted Feb 18, 2014

When it comes to religion (as well as politics, money, and sexual behavior for that matter) people can get pretty hot under the collar pretty quickly. When folks don't see eye-to-eye on these topics conversations can easily escalate into to angry outbursts, raised voices, name calling, and bullying. Sadly, some people of faith (and some people of no faith) can tangle in ways that are disrespectful, inhumane, and cruel. What’s up with that? I wonder why so many are so angry when religion is discussed. The meta-message too often in these debates is “I’m right and have all the answers while you’re wrong…and you should agree with me on that!”

As a psychologist I have to wonder about what lies beneath the surface of these conflicts. Perhaps many who argue the loudest and with the most aggression have unresolved issues that may actually appear contradictory. For example, do their strong statements really reflect their certainty or perhaps suggest doubt in their own arguments and beliefs? Freud referred to this as reaction formation…basically act the opposite as you really, deep in your soul, believe. Or as Shakespeare put it so eloquently in Hamlet, perhaps “the lady doth protest too much.”

It seems to be a great disservice to both religious people as well as to atheists that their often most vocal and well known proponents tend to behave in angry and know-it-all ways. For example, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins come to mind on the atheist side while Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell come to mind on the religious side. Let’s face it, when it comes to really fully understating the Ultimate Truths there is no way that any human being can have all the answers and know for sure. Additionally, these "representatives" are not exactly informed scholars on the topics that they claim expertise in either. Those who often know the most tend to speak softly after all and with humility. Some degree of humble doubt and struggle has to be part of the any truthful believer or non-believer’s experience. Otherwise, they are simply deluded, defended, and perhaps full of hot air. In the words of the famous contemporary writer, Annie Lamott, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty."

Some leaders are excellent examples of reasoned, thoughtful, and compassionate representatives of their religious or non-religious position. The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis both come to mind for example.

In order to have any meaningful, reasoned, and thoughtful dialogue about faith, or no-faith, one must approach the conversation with those maintaining different points of view with openness, tolerance, compassion, and a strong desire to learn from each other. Oh, and did I mention compassion? 

For over 30 years my father-in-law and I have engaged in these conversations. He is an atheist (an engineer by training) while I am a person of faith. We love and respect each other and have learned a great deal from each other during these conversations. While he maintains an atheist position while I maintain a believer position we have wrestled with each other in a thoughtful, respectful, and tolerant manner and are both better off for it. I am grateful for these conversations for sure even if we agree to disagree on many topics.

So, atheists, believers, agnostics, and everyone in between might be better for it if they engage in thoughtful, meaningful, open, and tolerant dialogue if learning and enrichment is to be expected. Yelling, bullying, and anger is counterproductive in these conversations for sure and likely reflect underlying issues that have little to do with the real discussion going on.

So, what do you think?  Be polite! 

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Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP