In my review for 50 Great Myths about Atheism I noted that the authors (Russell and Schüklenk) insist that the claim that “Atheists Hate or are Angry with God” is a “myth”. Not only do they reject the claim that all atheists hate or are angry with God (a point with which I’d agree). They go further by repudiating the claim that any atheists hate or are angry with God. As they put it,
“Let us start with a pretty obvious point: atheists cannot be angry with God, and we cannot resent God … because we do not believe God actually exists. How could you hate or resent something you do not think exists?” (21)
This seems to me quite wrong. But before I rebut the claim (a task I already did briefly in the review), it is worth reflecting on the importance of the question. Why might Russell and Schüklenk be keen to argue that atheists in principle cannot be angry with God? The reason should be obvious: negative emotional investment calls into question the objectivity of one’s reasoning processes.
Consider an illustration. If Jones is angry with Smith then immediately that casts a pall over Jones’ objectivity when it comes to thinking about Smith. Imagine, for example, that Jones is Smith’s workplace supervisor. If Smith discovers that Jones personally loathes him, Smith will have reason to question the objectivity of the performance reports about him that Jones submits to management. (It is no surprise, then, that the Loftus apologists have sought to marginalize my extended critique of the book Why I Became an Atheist by suggesting that I have a “vendetta” against Loftus or even that I “hate” him. I guess the idea is that when you can’t critique the message, you try to discredit the messenger.)
By arguing that atheists could not possibly be negatively disposed toward God, Russell and Schüklenk score a coup for the reasoning of atheists. To be sure, this does not guarantee that atheists will always be perfectly rational in their reasoning about God. But it does at least secure the conclusion that their reasoning will never be clouded by any degree of hostility toward God.
Now that we’ve considered the significance of establishing that atheists cannot be hostile toward God, I will rebut Russell and Schüklenk’s claim in two ways.
Hoping God doesn’t exist
The first point is that some atheists express their disbelief as including the hope that God doesn’t exist. For example, the renowned atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel famously declared that he hopes God doesn’t exist. It stands to reason that if you hope that x doesn’t exist, then you have some degree of hostility toward (or perhaps fear of) x. In Nagel’s case, it certainly appears to be hostility. As Nagel put it, “It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Prepared to oppose God if he does exist
This brings me to the second (and related) point. One might be conditionally hostile to God should it happen that he does exist. Consider a parallel example to which atheists love to compare God: Santa Claus. Is it possible to disbelieve in Santa Claus whilst having a disposition to be hostile to him should it happen that he does exist? Certainly. A few years ago when my daughter was younger and we were watching a news story about poverty in Africa, I posed the following question to her: “Why does Santa Claus seem to provide gifts to rich North American kids but he never gives presents to most African children?” That was the start of an interesting conversation.
Think about that for a moment. What kind of jolly old elf would do that? Year after year he supplies spoiled North American brats with yet more toys they don’t appreciate whilst failing to provide poor African children with 20 cent malaria medicine and clean drinking water. Now of course, if you’re like me you don’t believe in Santa Claus. But surely you could also take the view that should Santa Claus happen to exist, you would be actively opposed to him based on the data that we see around us. Similarly, an atheist may believe God doesn’t exist and still be hostile toward the very possibility of God’s existence based on the distribution and intensity of evil in the world.
Thus, one may also be hostile toward God in the sense that should God happen to exist, one will be opposed to him.
In conclusion, it is perfectly coherent that an atheist would be hostile to or even hate God in the sense that they hope he doesn’t exist and that they would be disposed to oppose him actively should it turn out that he does exist. Consequently, the fact that atheists believe God doesn’t exist does not inoculate them against the emotional investment in the non-existence of God which could, potentially, skew their reasoning about God’s non-existence.