“Dr. Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.”
“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”
Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with someone who knows me pretty well and he said, “You have a lot of anger in you.” At the time, I didn’t know how to take that comment and my initial reaction was to deny it. I’m a pretty laid-back, easy-going guy who doesn’t get bitter or hold grudges. I don’t feel pissed off all the time and I don’t dislike being around people. I didn’t think that anger really applied to me. I’ve since changed my mind about that. It’s not that I didn’t understand myself; I didn’t understand the nature of anger.
I recently had another conversation with the same person and the same comment was made. This time however, I smiled and replied, “Yes I do have anger in me. And I like it.” Let me explain.
Anger seems to be poorly understood. We only get as far as the feelings of antagonism and we consider that to be the essence of anger. It isn’t. That’s just being pissed off. There’s more to anger than that. I’ve studied it, but examining it at work in myself is what has really brought anger to life for me and helped me embrace it.
I like the operational definition of the American Psychological Association (APA) for anger:
Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong. Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems. But excessive anger can cause problems. Increased blood pressure and other physical changes associated with anger make it difficult to think straight and harm your physical and mental health. 1
We often disregard those who speak with some anger because we associate it with irrationality and unnecessary aggression. If we operate under those assumptions, we’ll naturally tune out what’s being said as a means of self-defense. I certainly don’t wish to behave like that (besides, if I wanted to listen to irrational rants about how wrong I am, I’d be in a relationship).
Don’t Do Me Like That
Many atheists are former believers, and although not all of us left religion over how others treated us (at least not exclusively or even primarily), bad experiences with believers after deconversion seems to be a common experience. I haven’t had any big personal altercations with believers. One reason is because
I’m not looking for a fight (though I certainly won’t back down from one if they feel scrappy), but a bigger reason is because none of the believers I know have the guts to carry on a conversation for very long without retreating.
It can’t be a conversation for them. It has to be a contest and they have to win. When they see they aren’t getting any traction with platitudes, misinformation, and long-debunked arguments, they begin their retreat, hurling verses and religious catchphrases while they slither away. To counter my reasoned approach with accusations that I’m “mad at God” or “hard-hearted” serves only as evidence that they are classless sacks of shit.
I find this retreat and dismissal profoundly insulting whether they mean it or not. The implication is that it is not worth their while to discuss with me these important life issues, simply because of my considered analysis of their views and my resistance to brush-off responses. No wonder it makes me angry!
Rage Against the Machine
Even if they don’t experience difficulties with believers, many atheists feel a strong sense of antagonism towards religious institutions themselves. For those of us who are former believers, there’s also a sense of betrayal. It goes well beyond just being pissed off, and there’s a lot to unpack. A central question to ask is what we are angry about. Countless words have been written about the atrocities committed in the name of religion throughout history. But let’s be honest here – none of us are really as emotionally invested in the Dark Ages or the Inquisition as we may claim. I’d wager we’re much more angry about things like the spread of misinformation, the denial of scientific research, and attempts to force others into social compliance, just to name a few. So let’s cast off vague generalizations and focus on the areas where we most feel our anger.
Religion has demonstrated throughout the centuries that it cannot sustain its own claims when pitted against reason and evidence. The rise of apologetics with all its fallacious assertions and calculated dishonesty is an admission of religion’s abandonment of reason and its embrace of psychological manipulation.
Religion is lying to us. There would be something terribly wrong with us if we didn’t become angry.
If I learned anything from watching “The Incredible Hulk” on TV as a kid, it was that it’s possible to do positive things yet still leave destruction in one’s wake. Anger is powerful, and it’s made even more powerful when it is brought under control and focused. If you’re an asshole to everyone who disagrees with you, you’re probably accomplishing little more than being an asshole. That’s fine if that’s what you want to hang your hat on, but I personally think there are better uses for your time and energy.
It starts with knowing yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know your personal hot buttons and keep a gauge on your emotional temperature. Keep your mind sharp and engaged. When you’re in a discussion or a situation and the moment comes, you’ll know it. Turn it loose and let them feel it. Let them see the fire in your eyes, hear your measured, focused words, and feel the weight and force of your challenge. Anger can be a very good thing.
“Even now I can feel it, buried somewhere deep inside, watching me, waiting... But you know what scares me the most? When I can't fight it anymore, when it takes over, when I totally lose control... I like it.”