“You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand! They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away, I need my pain!”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
In memory of Ricky Ransome, who never got to testify;
and with thanks to my friend Peter
who asked me for the more generic details of this story.
One common criticism of atheists by religious folk is that “You’re just angry at God” – opening up a litany of distractions, deferrals, and false equivalences. It seems that some religious people simply seek to recontextualise the discussion so that the presumed reality of their God remains central to the conversation, or maybe they want to imply that atheists are somehow being dishonest about their motives for declaring their non-belief. Generally speaking, however, the ‘being angry at God’ argument is silly, because people who don’t believe in a God cannot be angry at him.
And yet I was angry at God once – a few decades ago. That was how I became a born-again atheist – and how this life experience rebooted my passion for activism onto a higher level. And as I will explain towards the end of this story, maybe I am still angry at God – but not in the way people might think.
I had grown up in a church family, and my parents had been relatively progressive, humanitarian, and encouraging of reading and critical thinking. After leaving home for my first job, I ended up living out of town, and despite the concerns of my parents, this led to my becoming involved with what I would nowadays call a cult – a group created by a self-proclaimed prophet who declared that he had been anointed by God with a special mission for his followers to uphold. There, amidst the many excesses and abuses I witnessed and experienced, I was forced to undergo gay conversion therapy that naturally failed to ‘cure’ me.
I remember being called into a meeting with one of the group’s leaders, who demanded to know if God had cured me of my homosexuality, and the smirk on his face suggested that he expected a positive answer. I recall how quickly his confident smirk turned to a face of ashen anger when I told him that, after much earnest praying and begging for change, I had been forced to conclude that I was still gay because that was the way God had made me. The group subsequently denounced me (and a gay friend, who ironically, I had met in the same group, and who later became my first boyfriend), placing us on the same overnight bus to leave that country town forever. We arrived in Melbourne on 13th September 1987, and began a new life. It seems that while being ghosted, we lost the Holy Ghost. But freed from religiosity, we finally found reality.
The immediate after-effect was one of anger, bitterness, and a sense of betrayal – primarily by my friends and trusted leaders, but ultimately at the God who had allowed this to happen. I was advised by some people to forgive those involved, so I could move on – but I quickly decided that I would never forgive – because to do so would somehow give moral assent to the leaders of that group inflicting similar damage upon others. But we all understand the difference between climb-the-clocktower-with-a-rifle-and-take-out-the-town anger and what might be termed righteous anger – using your sense of moral outrage to motivate you to act in ethical and peaceful ways to confront injustice (the sort of anger that often inspired me to write letters for Amnesty International, and to join a Holocaust survivor friend in undertaking varied campaigns for human rights).
Ultimately, I learnt to walk away from the religious gaslighting and manipulation, and started to be true to myself, free from worrying about a hellish afterlife or needing to live up to the demands of religious others. Even a Christian friend observed after my deconversion that I was happier than I had been in years. Ironically, anger helped me to discover happiness.
In Praise of Anger
We all associate anger with a loss of impulse control, lashing out physically or verbally (possibly even violently), and the saying or doing of things that we could regret later. Such behaviours can never be endorsed or excused. But the Australian Psychology Association asserts that anger can also be expressed in healthy and positive ways:
“Although anger is often seen as a harmful emotion, it can be a healthy emotional response when expressed assertively and respectfully. Sometimes anger can be helpful; it can motivate a person to take positive action to change a situation for the better or to achieve his or her goals.”
History is full of heroes whose anger has inspired positive change in the world. Rosa Parks stated that her bus boycott was motivated by anger:
“She said her anger over the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the failure to bring his killers to justice inspired her to make her historic stand.”
Martin Luther King’s teenage anger at having to give up his seat on a bus helped to inspire his later human rights work:
“Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that non-violent resistance offered a way to channel anger into positive forms of protest.”
Playwright and author Larry Kramer, whose definitive HIV/AIDS activism helped to change the world and save possibly millions of lives, is well known not only for his activism but for the rage that fuelled it – which serves as a role model for others still today, because choosing to angrily ACT-UP can change the world.
Nelson Mandela recounted how a child crying over the death of a sparrow mellowed his anger at apartheid and helped prepare him for a lifetime of non-lethal civil rights protest and political leadership.
Clinical psychologist Bertram Rothschild notes that it is our human (humanist) responsibility to ourselves and to the world around us to: “… accept responsibility for our emotions and behaviors and not accuse others – – whether human or supernatural – – for our reactions”. A more grounded summary of this idea was given to me by my heart surgeon, who commented to me before heart valve transplant surgery (a topic that somehow seems curiously metaphoric for a discussion about anger in my life) that we cannot change the hand that life has dealt us, but we can change how we respond to it. This wisdom challenges us all in at least 16 ways to use anger as a motivation for self-improvement and optimism when confronting injustice in what some would posit is an increasingly angry world. We can turn from being bitter into being better.
An extension of this approach is to also direct compassion towards others, particularly those who might be victims of the perceived danger that angers us in the first place. I know many people who express anger in healthy and socially constructive ways: they visit refugees or others in detention, they participate in street protests or form delegations to meet politicians and try to address injustice, they write submissions to government inquiries, they run fetes selling second-hand books and donate the proceeds to charity, they give out food or offer spare bedrooms to homeless people.
I invite everyone to consider a social issue that makes them angry and find a way to channel that anger constructively towards positive change.
The Personal is Political
On a personal level, my own rage regarding my 1987 injustice motivated me to read more widely in search of answers, and I began to see the world through a non-religious lens. My rage eventually gave way to enlightenment, and I woke up one day realising that I no longer felt emotionally turbulent because I no longer believed in God – hence no need to feel angry at a character I now consider to be as fictitious as Spock or Spiderman – and who is perhaps nothing more than a theoretical idea which explores human nature: balancing our ideals and principles against our frailties and faults.
Politically however, I still see the ongoing detrimental effects of religion upon the lives of LGBT+ people and others, from Uganda to the USA. This week, the world also pauses to reflect upon the anniversary of an act of religious terrorism that killed thousands of people and ultimately changed our world. It is here that this theoretical construct called God is effectively a Rorschach Test for saints and sinners alike, being used daily to not only motivate great acts of compassion, but also to justify all kinds of evil, bigotry and intolerance. So while I am happy to let the average religious person live and let live – they are, after all, well intentioned people simply trying to get through life like the rest of us – I remain committed to challenging injustice wherever I find it – including those who demand the ‘religious freedom’ to hurt others.
More recently, I have been involved in research about certain forms of religious abuse against LGBT+ people, often leading me to recall my 1987 experiences, which had impacted both my life and that of my first boyfriend. I remember Ricky Ransome, now long deceased, who was also left angry by those experiences, but whose righteous rage had helped to encourage me in my activism. He had indirectly contributed to my somewhat small but deeply personal involvement in helping to change the law, and I think this would have made him quite proud. From a non-religious perspective, contributing to a community groundswell to help ban a form of torture or to prevent religious-based discrimination is perhaps the best type of immortality that he (and I) might ever want.
As for anger? I have spent some decades living in contentment, but with a continuing passion to address injustice – especially any that might be rationalised by religion, race or rhetoric. We can all move from anger to atonement.
The author thanks Phil Ransome for his consent to use Ricky’s name and photo.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn