July 6, 2011

Mad at God? Get in Line.

I don’t know if birds, bees or educated fleas do it, but a lot of people do it – get mad at God, that is. Even atheists do it (well, sorta).

Photo: Zane Selvans


At least that’s one finding of a line of research on “Anger toward God” being conducted by Julie Exline and her colleagues at Case Western University. Dr. Exline’s studies have sampled opinions among populations of undergrads, bereaved individuals, and cancer survivors to come up with these major conclusions:

  • — A lot of people get mad at God.
  • — People can be angry at God while still feeling love or respect for God (oh, that crazy, mixed-up love o’ God!).
  • — People get mad at God for the same reasons they get mad at other people (i.e., He’s unfair, He’s so unpredictable, He’s really made a mess of things…).
  • — People’s anger with God is not a mental health issue unless it becomes chronic (“That God makes me so mad, I could just KILL somebody!”).

Photo: AllisonKo

The survey’s most controversial responses came from atheists and agnostics, and showed that, yes, even nonbelievers can get pissed at God – sometimes virulently.  This discovery led to a spate of somewhat smug and overstated reports in the popular media, circulating the idea that most atheists harbor a fury against the God, in spite of their professed non-belief.

Not surprisingly, there was soon a backlash from nonbelievers who protested: Pray tell— how could they possibly be miffed at Someone who doesn’t exist?

As is so often the case with scientific research, the devil was in the details. Aware that self-identified atheists were unlikely to have much of an answer to a point-blank inquiry about anger at God, Exline had tried to accommodate their stance by asking: 1) if they had ever been angry with God earlier in their lives, perhaps before they became atheists; and 2) how would they feel toward God if He did exist?

The press didn’t always report these subtleties, and some atheists charged Exline with a sneaky study design. Exline responded with a revised summary, clarifying that: “We are by no means claiming that all nonbelievers are angry at God.”  Nonetheless, she stuck to her guns by asserting that the findings suggest “the topic of anger toward God has some relevance for at least some nonbelievers.”

One thing is clear: if you want to piss off a bunch of atheists, just try implying that they might be mad at God. You’d get a friendlier reception if you just insulted their mommas. My atheist pal Jack Wathey, who’s writing a book that puts forth a biological explanation for the feeling of God’s presence, acknowledges that his comrades can get a little testy on the subject. But that’s only because they are tired of being told that they’re not really nonbelievers:

“We are told this all the time, again and again, almost every time we discuss the existence of god with believers… This stereotype is a smear; it implies that we have not thought deeply about the existence of god, that we have not examined the evidence and found it wanting, and that we are lying when we claim not to believe that any god exists.”

Personally, I find Exline’s cautious finding of “relevance” to be, well, relevant. Many years ago, during a serious health crisis that would initiate my own spiritual journey, I realized that I was mad at God. This was quite a shock, because at the time I was a full-blown agnostic with pronounced atheist sympathies.

Watching my life fall apart, I first recognized that I was deeply angry at the way things were – and then it dawned on me that this was personal. Somebody had to be at fault for the mess my life had become, and if I was perfectly honest with myself, I knew who that Somebody was.

Over time, I grew up enough to let God off the hook and to try out some personal responsibility instead. The significance of my angry-at-God phase was that it made me aware that I had a full-blown and passionate spiritual life. At that time it was inchoate, inarticulate, and largely inaccessible, but it was nonetheless there inside me, clamoring for attention.  My illness was its megaphone. Gradually bringing my spirituality to the forefront of my awareness would eventually heal me and change the direction of my life.

Still, I’d agree with the atheists that there really is no “God” to get mad at – so long as you’re talking about the anthropomorphized, blessin’-and-blamin’ superdaddy God of conventional religion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that both conventional believers and nonbelievers are missing the point of what’s going on in the spiritual life of the West these days, where anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of American adults now identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

More about that in the next installment of Sense & Spirituality: “Has God, like Elvis, Left the Building?”

Dr. Exline’s “Anger at God” study is ongoing and more participants are invited.  Check out the project’s webpage to weigh in or sound off.

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