07/30/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Rex Murphy and the Myth of the Angry Atheist


A few days ago, the well known and respected commentator Rex Murphy presented a blistering critique of atheists, which seems to have been triggered by the recent debate over whether atheists soldiers should have access to their own chaplain. Graham Templeton's interpretation of Rex's comments lead to scathing review of the article, where he took aim at what appeared to be Mr. Murphy's suggestion that atheist soldiers are less deserving and less in need of counselling. Obviously, such statements are appalling and deserving of criticism.

It would be redundant for me to critique Mr. Murphy's objection to atheist counsellors. However, I believe it is worthwhile to highlight another glaring weakness of Mr. Murphy's article -- his misuse of the term anger and the double standard he seems to hold for its use.

Mr. Murphy confuses two different forms of anger:

(1) Predispositional anger: A part of someone's character or personality

(2) State anger: An emotion that gets triggered by certain situations

The former type of anger would include people whose personalities tend to chronically reflect an underlying irritability. "Angry" people, if one were to use such a categorical phrase, would tend to be angry across many situations. This is the type of "angry" that Mr. Murphy seems to be using in his article. The atheist, in the estimation of Rex Murphy (and others, such as Stephen Prothero), is an angry person.

So, the question is: "Is Mr. Murphy right?" Is the personality or fundamental character of atheists one best described as "angry," or is it more accurate to say that something triggers their anger? For all we know, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens may be jovial, light-hearted individuals who become angry primarily when triggered by certain issues -- like religion.

I have no idea whether the personalities of atheists are more "angry" than those of believers. I have no idea whether there is available research that has tested such a possibility. However, the burden of proof is on Mr. Murphy, having leveled a charge against the character of others, to provide accompanying evidence.

The only thing Mr. Murphy offers is examples of the aforementioned atheists' writings on religion. Admittedly, these writers have a tendency toward the polemic and controversial, but that is hardly evidence that they are "angry people."

I would never use Mr. Murphy's article, which clearly demonstrates that he is angry at atheists, to draw the conclusion that he is an angry person. Alternative conclusions are just too obvious -- perhaps Mr. Murphy is a really great guy who is generally quite happy in his daily life. Occasionally, he may become angry at some topic or issue and express that anger in a public forum, but it would be unfair as a result to say that he is an angry person. Anyone drawing such an unfair conclusion would be guilty of confusing or misusing the term "angry."

In terms of Mr. Murphy's double standard when it comes to anger, I am sure many readers of Mr. Murphy's article were aware of the sad irony dripping from the page. Mr. Murphy essentially used an ad hominem attack on the character of atheists, belittling them for their indignation, while the delivery method of his critique was angry prose. The double standard is obvious. When atheists are angry, it negatively reflects unseemly aspects of their character, and when I (Rex Murphy) use anger, it is to highlight an injustice.

In psychology, we call this the fundamental attribution error. When other people engage in behaviour X, it is due to their character, but when I do behaviour X, it is justified by the context and situation.

A more equitable analysis of both the aforementioned atheist writers and Mr. Murphy would be this -- they all are erudite individuals capable of rational thought, and there are some issues that cause them to feel anger. Anger is an emotion that is triggered when we perceive injustice. Atheists do not attack religion because they are angry people (although some of them may be!). They attack religion when they see the injustices that religion can provoke. Anyone who has read the work of Dawkins or Hitchens knows that these writers take care to offer justification for their anger, with both individuals having written books dedicated to such pursuit.

All of us inevitably find things in this world that make us feel angry. If there is to be any forward momentum generated among people with different beliefs, including atheists and believers, it will come only when time is taken to fairly contemplate the injustice that drives the anger of one's opponent.

There are multiple layers of irony to Mr. Murphy's story -- a writer condemning the angry words of writers by using angry words being but one. However, it is the following that I think is perhaps most relevant for the present purposes: If Mr. Murphy would like readers to consider his arguments fairly before reacting emotionally, and further, not to confuse Mr. Murphy's writing style with his personality, then he should be willing to offer the same respect to others.

The irony is that such sentiment and advice -- essentially the Golden Rule -- should not have to be given to a Christian attacking atheists.