Well I've given it some thought, and I know that we all wonder why theists tend to be very hositle towards those who criticise them; even if the criticism is not outwardly critical such as many of the billboards going up in the U.S, saying things like "you can be good without god." In some cases the mere existance of atheists or people of other religions can create hosility. So the question is why? Well this week in my anthropology of religion class we examined some of theorietical contexts in which religion can be viewed fron the anthropological perspective which can also explain why theists are hostile towards anyone who would criticize their brand of dogma.
Now this may read a little like an essay, but I'll try to keep it easy to understand.
The first theoretical framework is functionalism. To understand functionalism just think of society like a puzzle and each piece of the puzzle is required for that society to function, so media, capitialism, religion etc are required for the society as a whole to operate.
The first question to ask in this framework is "is religion really nessicary for society to function." I would argue that no, it is not, but the theist would argue differently, and they do... alot. To understand this is to ask what does religion to for society? And Durkheim, the father of Anthropology, and the originator of this theoretical framework, argues that religion can be seen as an intigrative force in society because it establishes a common set of practices and rules of conduct. It also, supposedly, contians the natural selfishness of individuals and promotes social cooperation. Though I think that last point is debatable, it is easy to see how the presence of a non believer, or even another form of dogma might be considered to be destructive to the theist.
Since many theists believe that religion and even their god provides humanity with codes of conduct, the presence of someone who does not share the same beliefs could also be someone who does not share the same codes of conduct, and since religion is considered to be a part of a functioning society theists will defend it out of fear that the loss of religion will somehow lead to anarchy. Which explains the degree of hostility atheists and believers of religions other than the dominant religion recieve.
The next theoretical framwork is historical materialism, otherwise known as Marxism. Now the Marxist view is that all of human history is the history of conflict between the ruling class and the working class, and the role that religion plays in this conflict is a means of reinforcing the social order. It is also used as a means to distract the working class from the misery in their own lives, provides solice to those in distress and provides a reason for people to participate in the capitalist culture which is not in their best interests (the best examples being the prosperity gospel and prostistantism). Now why would the theist fight so hard to protect such a devisive system?
Perhaps the average theist is unaware of the devisiveness of religion, and genuinely believe that they need this establishment in their day to day lives in order to get through the misery of everyday life. Many religions also promise something better in the afterlife which would mean an end to their misery. This theoretical framework also explains why the leaders of various religions and other political leaders work so hard to keep their various brands of religion around, because they want to maintain an order within which they are on the top and in order to do so they have to convince others that not only are their roles nessicary, but they are devine, and the presence of non believers threatens their positions because they don't believe their positions are nessicary, or devine. Not to mention religious leaders convince their followers that religion is nessicary for the reasons listed while discussing functionalism; which leads to the same problems for the non believer because they become symbols of anarchy and people who might threaten the status quo.
Another framework which can be examined is the psychosocial, which is an extension of the psychoanalytical. Now I'm sure we all know about Freud and his obession with genitalia, but he did have a few things to say about religion. He believed that religion fulfilled our innate instinctual desires. For instance if one did not have a good relationship with their father they were likely to reach out to the heavenly father. This is also a defense mechanism which people use to reduce their anxiety towards the things within their lives which they cannot control. If they believe that everything is part of a mysterious plan put in place by a godly agent it tends to make them feel better.
People tend to get a little... well... defensive of their defense mechanisms and when they feel those mechanisms being threatened, perhaps by the presence of a non believer, they will employ others, hostility being one of them. I personally don't put much stock in psychoanalysis, but there are plenty of people out there who do and this could be a reason why the religious are hostile towards non believers.
The final theoretical framework is the symbolic, the symbolic approach primarily examines the language of smybols and how they are used to interpret the world around us. When it comes to religion the symbolic approach suggests that religion is a cluster of symbols which provide a means for people to interpret the world around them. This is not only true of religion, but culture in general.
This framework give rise to the concept known as "the other" which is generally a person or groups that relies on another set of symbols. These symbols are unfamilliar to the dominant group, and this creates fear and hostility in the overall group, though some members may be curious or tolerant. This is generally what happens between atheists and theists, since many atheists are former theists they understand the symbols of theism, but the theist finds the atheist symbology confusing and even frightening; which can lead to hostility.
Now that we understand all the theoretical frameworks anthropologists use to explain religion, we can also understand why theists are so hostile; but what it boils down to is that a criticism of religion can be interpreted as a criticism of society by the theist and any criticism of society is met with hostility.
I hope this is helpful in understanding why hostility towards non believers is so prevelent, and if anyone has any other suggestions I'm happy to hear them.
That's all for now,