Joe Carter reports on a study that shows that atheists are angry at a God they don’t believe exists. Or, rather, their anger at God motivated them not to believe in 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 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.
To be angry at something you don’t believe exists is, of course, illogical. To not believe in God as a way of rejecting Him makes an emotional sense, though that is illogical too.
The expectation that God is and must be benevolent derives from Christianity. Zeus and the other pagan deities were certainly not benevolent. Hindus have the evil creation deity Kali. Muslims, I suspect, do not hold Allah to these high moral standards, since he is above them all.
And yet, as I have complained, so many Christian projections of God leave out the distinctly Christian understanding of God, that He is incarnate and that He is crucified.
I think an apologetic to this emotional atheism–which I suspect underlies much of the rational atheism as well–must center around the God who suffers, the God who dies (phrases some Christians cannot abide, though such language is affirmed against them in the Lutheran confessions). We must emphasize not just a transcendent deity looking down on the suffering of the world, but a God who enters that evil and suffering world and takes it into Himself and bears it for us. That is, Christ on the Cross.