New Thoughts on Atheist Anger, and the Difference between Peace and Complacency

Can we find some degree of peace and acceptance in our lives, without becoming complacent about all the things that are terrible in the world?

Or, to turn the question around: Can we let ourselves feel anger and frustration over all the terrible things in the world, and fight passionately against them—while still finding some degree of peace and acceptance?

A few years ago, when I was first learning secular meditation (don’t worry, this isn’t one of those articles where the writer gasses on endlessly about their meditation practice), the teacher was talking about how meditation could help us be less angry. My immediate reaction: “Why on earth would I want to do that?” I am a passionate advocate of anger. I literally wrote the book on atheist anger (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless). Anger can be a powerful and positive motivator, in our personal lives and in the larger world. When we experience injustice or see it around us, when we’re harmed unnecessarily or see others suffer, anger is an entirely appropriate response. Anger is hugely powerful, even necessary, in any social change movement—and when people tell atheists, or any marginalized people, not to be angry, they’re telling us to disempower ourselves. So when someone says, “Here’s a way you can be less angry,” there’s no way I can hear it without feeling like they’re trying to shut me up.

Yet at the same time, I understand the value of peace. I don’t mean world peace, although of course I understand the value of that. I mean personal peace. I mean the kind of peace that lets us appreciate our lives, and that lets us appreciate each other. I mean the kind of peace that lets us stop being frantically driven by our lives, and lets us simply experience them. I mean the kind of peace that lets us accept that we have limitations, even as we strive to push past them.

Yes, anger can be motivating and empowering. It can also be debilitating and draining. When we look at all the terrible things in the world, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Rage can easily turn into despair: the reason to keep fighting can turn into the reason to give up. And yes, anger can do real damage. Not everyone experiences anger as a positive, healthy, “get out there and change the world” boost of motivation. Anger can eat people up inside. And while anger can motivate people to do wonderful things, it can also motivate us to do terrible things.

So how can we feel anger and frustration over all the terrible things in the world—and not get exhausted, poisoned, or devoured?

It would be easy to just say, “Find a balance. Have the right amount of anger. It’s like Goldilocks—you don’t want the porridge blazing hot, and you don’t want it gluey and cold, you want it just right.” I think that’s part of the answer. But I don’t think it’s enough.

When I think about draining, debilitating anger, and when I think about toxic anger, I see more than just the wrong amount of anger. I see anger about the wrong things. I see anger aimed at the wrong people. I see a whole lot of free-floating anger looking for a target. I see people made helpless by powerful institutions screwing them over, who are desperately looking to take out their anger on someone with even less power. And I see people controlled by anger, unable to step back from it or set it aside.

I see religious fundamentalists, upset about powerlessness and sexual fears in a rapidly changing world, aiming their anger at queers, at women, at heretics and apostates, at anyone who shakes up the way they see the world. I see racists, upset about powerlessness in an economy that screws over just about everyone, aiming their anger at people who get screwed over worse than they do but who they still see as a threat. I see misogynists, upset about powerlessness and sexual loneliness and impossible standards of masculinity, aiming their anger at any and all women who threaten their manliness simply by being autonomous human beings. And I see people of all varieties, hurt by the world in every way imaginable, and taking it out on anyone who happens to cross their path.

So when I’m angry about the world, I want to make sure I’m not doing that.

This may sound weird, but I don’t want a peaceful life. I want to let myself be shaken by the world. I want to let myself be surprised by the world. I want to shudder with joy, all the way down to my bones, when I hear a song I’ve never heard before that sounds like it was sung by my best friend, or when I read an idea that radically shifts how I understand reality, or when I see a shaft of sunlight filtered through the trees at a wedding in the woods. And I want to shudder with rage, all the way down to my bones, when I see terrible injustice and harm. I don’t ever want to be someone who looks at gay teenagers getting kicked out of their homes, who looks at brutal theocracies forcing girls and women into miserable lives, or who looks at black people in the United States being shot by cops (by a conservative estimate there’s one such shooting every four days) and says, “Well, that’s just how the world is. Whaddya gonna do?” No. Absolutely not. When terrible things happen, I bloody well want to be angry about it.

But I want my anger to be a tool in my hand. I want to aim it at the right things. I want to aim it at the people who actually fucked things up, and I want to aim it at the places where it can actually do some good. I want to aim my hammer at the nail that will build a new world—or else chuck it through the windows of the institutions that screw us over. And I want to be able to set it aside when it isn’t the right tool—or when I want to take a few hours, and just live my life.