When atheists are angry with God

reblogged from First Things


I’ve shaken my fist in anger at stalled cars, storm clouds, and incompetent meteorologists. I’ve even, on one terrible day that included a dead alternator, a blaring blaring tornado-warning siren, and a horrifically wrong weather forecast, cursed all three at once. I’ve fumed at furniture, cussed at crossing guards, and held a grudge against Gun Barrel City, Texas. I’ve been mad at just about anything you can imagine.

Except unicorns. I’ve never been angry at unicorns.

It’s unlikely you’ve ever been angry at unicorns either. We can become incensed by objects and creatures both animate and inanimate. We can even, in a limited sense, be bothered by the fanciful characters in books and dreams. But creatures like unicorns that don’t exist—that we truly believe not to exist—tend not to raise our ire. We certainly don’t blame the one-horned creatures for our problems.

The one social group that takes exception to this rule is atheists. They claim to believe that God does not exist and yet, according to empirical studies, tend to be the people most angry at him.

A new set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that atheists and agnostics report anger toward God either in the past or anger focused on a hypothetical image of what they imagine God must be like. Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University and the lead author of this recent study, has examined other data on this subject with identical results. Exline explains that her interest was first piqued when an early study of anger toward God revealed a counterintuitive finding: Those who reported no belief in God reported more grudges toward him than believers.

At first glance, this finding seemed to reflect an error. How could people be angry with God if they did not believe in God? Reanalyses of a second dataset revealed similar patterns: Those who endorsed their religious beliefs as “atheist/agnostic” or “none/unsure” reported more anger toward God than those who reported a religious affiliation.

Exline notes that the findings raised questions of whether anger might actually affect belief in God’s existence, an idea consistent with social science’s previous clinical findings on “emotional atheism.”

Studies in traumatic events suggest a possible link between suffering, anger toward God, and doubts about God’s existence. According to Cook and Wimberly (1983), 33% of parents who suffered the death of a child reported doubts about God in the first year of bereavement. In another study, 90% of mothers who had given birth to a profoundly retarded child voiced doubts about the existence of God (Childs, 1985). Our survey research with undergraduates has focused directly on the association between anger at God and self-reported drops in belief (Exline et al., 2004). In the wake of a negative life event, anger toward God predicted decreased belief in God’s existence.

The most striking finding was that when Exline looked only at subjects who reported a drop in religious belief, their faith was least likely to recover if anger toward God was the cause of their loss of belief. In other words, anger toward God may not only lead people to atheism but give them a reason to cling to their disbelief.

I’ve argued elsewhere that, according to the Christian tradition, atheism is a form of self-imposed intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends—a case of vincible ignorance.

Vincible ignorance is intentional suppression of knowledge that is within an individual’s control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, St. Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Acknowledging the existence of God is just the beginning—we must also recognize several of his divine attributes. Atheists who deny this reality are, as St. Paul said, without excuse. They are vincibly ignorant.

Recognizing this fact, however, does not mean that the cause of this self-imposed dysfunction has been understood. While I firmly believe all forms of atheism are instances of both vincible ignorance and an obstinacy of will, I’ve sometimes mistakenly assumed it to be a purely intellectual failing—a matter of the head, not the heart. Only recently have I begun to appreciate how much the emotional response to pain and suffering can push a person to an atheistic worldview.

Most pastors and priests would find my epiphany to be both obvious and overdue. But I suspect I’m not the only amateur apologist who has been blinded to this truth. As a general rule, those of us engaged in Christian apologists tend to prefer the philosophical to the pastoral, the crisp structure of logical argument to the messiness of human emotion. We often favor the quick-witted response that dismisses the problem of evil rather than patient empathy, which consoles atheists that we too are perplexed by suffering.

Many atheists do, of course, proceed to their denial of God based solely on rational justifications. That is why evidentialist and philosophical approaches to apologetics will always be necessary. But I’m beginning to suspect that emotional atheism is far more common than many realize. We need a new apologetic approach that takes into account that the ordinary pain and sufferings of life leads more people away from God than a library full of anti-theist books. Focusing solely on the irate sputterings of the imperfectly intellectual New Atheists may blind us to the anger and suffering that is adding new nonbelievers to their ranks.

Joe Carter was the web editor of First Things.


Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Anger at God common, even among atheists
Julie Juola Exline and Alyce Martin, Anger Toward God: New Frontier in Forgiveness Research
Joe Carter, Do Tummy Aches Disprove God?

Categories: Atheism, God

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10 replies

  1. I think that a lot of people need to stop reading Psychology books and studies, and start reading the dictionary, which clearly states that an atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods. If you believe in God enough to be angry at Him, you are NOT,/strong> an Atheist, no matter what you, or anyone else claims.
    On the upside, for Christians, that probably means that there are actually fewer true Atheists than are reported.
    On the downside, it means that there are a lot more Heretics. 😯

  2. Paul, two things that strike me as I read your article.

    1) Julie Exline is a professor of the “psychology of spirituality and religion”, who works under grants from the Templeton Foundation. I’m not saying that disqualifies her from being objective, but it sure seems like she isn’t.

    2) As Archon noted above, there is a huge difference between being mad “at” something, and being mad about people that follow that said something. As an example, I don’t like Klu Klux Klan beliefs. That doesn’t mean I’m secretly mad at the “reality of white power” or some such nonsense. It’s an old, completely dishonest trick of religious propaganda to assert that atheists are mad “at” god. We’ve corrected the record enough to know that you either are not well read, or you are lying.

    3) You seem to imply that my life was horrible, that’s why I’m an atheist. I don’t know if there’s a study out there specifically addressing this issue, but I do know two things. a) my upbringing was happy, my life has been generally pretty good, and I’m not mad at my lot in life. I also just happen to see no reason to believe in any god. And b) contradictory to your implication, societies that are better off overall tend to be less religious. On the whole, people faced with high degrees of pain and suffering tend to be MORE religious. Look at the United States vs the rest of the modern countries. The US scores the poorest on everything from crime rates, divorce, abortions, education, average wage, poverty rates, death from preventable diseases, average debt, etc compared to every other developed nation, and is the most religious of all developed nations. This reality is the complete opposite of your flippant assertion.

  3. This is the dumbest post I have ever read, and I have read some pretty dumb ones. You might as well argue that people who do not believe in Santa Clause are angry at him for not giving them good presents when they were young.

    • you sound like a angry atheist

      • Au contrarie my good man, You May not believe it but it is entirely possible for someone to not believe something without being angry with those who do.

      • True, so get over the atheist thing. We’re not angry at anyone except the goobers that are always telling us we’re angry at ”god.” I don’t know a single atheist that exhibits this behavior. Gushopper’ s reference to Santa Claus really captures the ridiculous nature of your argument.

        But what exactly is your problem with atheism? We don’t believe your childish mythology, so what? Plenty of people have contemplated the nature of religion and have also decided it’s just a ridiculous fantasy made up by man, people, and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Your doesn’t either but, for some reason, you have to lash out at those that have rejected it. Why? Why not just live and let live? Do we all have to believe what you believe? What about all the other religions that believe THEIR belief is the “right one?” Consider the 32,000 variations of Christianity in the world; which one is the “right one?” How do you know your’s is? You sure about that?

      • yet your first comment betrays your unconscious hatred for God. Nice attempt at a cover up in your second comment though.

        An Oscar worthy performance 😉

      • His first post does nothing of the sort; I have to question your ability to comprehend written English.

      • lol another angry atheist!

      • do not confuse being angry at dumb theists with being angry at God

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