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Religion, science

Anger at God: The Scientific Facts

Anger at God is a difficult phenomenon to quantify.  There are several limiting factors, including dogmatic stigma against admitting anger, which has been prevalent among theists in past research.  Additionally, there are definition issues when atheists and agnostics feel anger.  Can we discuss anger about God in the same study as anger at God?  Finally, there are both positive and negative aspects of anger, and it is difficult to tease out the difference between kinds of angry responses:  Is anger at the suffering of millions of children in Africa the same as anger that a job interview went badly?

There is some data out there, and thankfully, some researchers have gone to the trouble of controlling for many of the potential confounding variables.  Even so, it takes a good amount of digging to get at the real phenomena underlying anger at God.  The following bits of data represent the most uncontroversial and best controlled studies I could find.

Demographics

  • 62% of Americans report feeling angry at God on occasion.  (It should be noted that only 3% of respondents marked “none” as their religious belief.)
  • Women are more likely to be mad at God than men.  (This makes sense based on men’s position of superiority and authority in traditional Western monotheism.)
  • African Americans are significantly less likely to admit anger towards God.
  • Catholics and Jews reported more anger than Protestants.  However, nonaffiliates — religious people who are not attending church — reported the highest levels.
  • Age was negatively associated with anger.  That is, young people reported more anger than old.

Events that Trigger Anger

In their effort to ferret out more specific data about anger, the researchers had to control for the problem of backward rationalization.  That is, when we remember past events, we generally filter them through whatever coping mechanism we have employed to accept them.  Social desirability, feelings of victimization, generalized anger responses, and other measures of “reverse memory engineering” were included in supplemental analyses of the data, providing a measure of isolation for the desired variable — anger.

Some anger towards God is attributable to specific events.  Among participants reporting such experiences, the breakdown was relatively unremarkable:

  1. Bereavement (35%)
  2. Injury or illness (34%)
  3. Abuse, breakups, parental divorce (31%)
  4. Accidents (18%)
  5. Personal failures (6%)

(Don’t worry that it doesn’t add up to 100%. Researchers attributed one incident to multiple categories where appropriate.)

This research quantifies one of religious belief’s most powerful tools.  Of the religious respondents who reported such events, 87% described feelings of anger towards God.  Surprisingly, a slightly larger percentage also reported positive feelings towards the same event that caused the anger!

The explanation for this is profound:  Negative and positive emotions are not opposites.  They can — and often do — coexist.  (If you can, remember as vividly as possible the last time you were furious with a close loved one.  You were both angry and felt deep love towards them.  If you didn’t love them so much, you wouldn’t have been so angry.)

There is more to it.  Typical Western monotheism offers God an escape hatch which is part of many reports of rationalizing negative events.  That is, “God has a plan,” and he often uses negative events for “character building.”  The Biblical figure Job is taught early and often to give believers a sense of their own part in God’s design.  Suffering is viewed as a positive experience since it (1) brings people closer to God, and (2) is part of a larger plan for the universe.  So ironically, the act of blaming God for an event provides the rationalization for “forgiving” him.  Since his action is part of a bigger, loving plan, it is difficult to blame him for cruelty or malevolence.

Interestingly, the kind of event experienced was not correlated to the likelihood of feeling anger towards God.  (Atheists rejoice!  It’s true that theists’ assumption that your mom’s death made you an atheist doesn’t hold any water.)

Predictors of Anger

This graph represents a flow-chart of the relevant predictors of anger towards God.  If it’s a bit difficult to follow, here are the most salient findings:

  • Religious belief salience:  People who see God’s hand in the world are more likely to get angry than deists.  (Simple enough, right?)  However, people who believe in an interventional master plan are also likely to rationalize away their anger.
  • If the event was severe and the believer holds God responsible, then anger is likely.
  • Above all else, the attribution of cruelty is the lynch pin.  That is, if any other predictors are present AND God is believed to have acted cruelly, anger is very likely.

These findings are consistent with recent findings that humans’ cognition of God is neurologically identical to cognition of other humans.  The implication is clear:  We hold God accountable in the same way as other people.  However, we leave God more loopholes than other people.  We are more likely to invent “extenuating circumstances” for God since he is purported to have superhuman foresight.

Interference

It’s not very Christian, but anger towards God is often focused on interference with personal goals.  Meaning was an important predictor:  When someone is able to rationalize “greater meaning” that supersedes personal goals, anger is less likely.  Conversely, when someone sees their own understanding of meaning as consistent with God’s they are likely to feel betrayal when life events are perceived to contradict these goals.

In broad terms, anger towards God is linked with coping skills.  People who are better at adjusting to unexpected life events are generally less likely to be angry at God than those who go off the rails when things don’t go their way.

Implications

The main implication for the “evangelical atheist” is simple.  Theists view God as a very smart, very powerful human.  (They don’t think they view him this way, but their brains and behavior patterns betray them.)  They allow God a couple of loopholes they typically don’t give other people, though.  First, they allow him a greater latitude for “having purpose” in allowing or causing harm.  Second, they are less prone to attributing cruelty to perceived actions.

These exemptions, then, ought to be the focus.  If a believer can be influenced to adjust their perceptions of God’s actions away from the exceptions, and towards more “human” standards, their brains are ready to accept the shift.  Once God is held accountable in more human terms, anger might well be the natural result.

Unfortunately, there is still a question to be answered:  What is/are the mechanism(s) by which anger leads to rational examination of the cognitive dissonance inherent in god belief?  That is, what separates people who get angry and think their way out of religion from those who get angry and change churches?

A Note About Non-Believers

These studies focused nearly exclusively on theists (non-theists = 2.5%).  However, researchers found an odd anomaly in the results:  Atheists and non-believers reported more anger towards God than comparable theists.  However, this should be taken with the tiniest grain of salt.  Close examination of the test procedures reveals that non-believers were asked to imagine the level of anger they would have if they believed.  Not surprisingly, they believed that their anger would be quite severe if they were convinced of a god’s existence.  There is no evidence in these studies that non-believers actually do feel anger towards God.

Sources:

Exline J, Park C, Smyth J, Carey M. Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [serial online]. January 2011;100(1):129-148.

Edmondson, D., Park, C. L., Blank, T., Fenster, J. R., & Mills, M. A. (2008). Existential well-being and quality of life in cancer survivors: A meaning system perspective. Psycho-Oncology17, 161–169.

Mikulincer, M. (1998). Adult attachment style and individual differences in functional versus dysfunctional experiences of anger. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology74, 513–524.

Murray-Swank, N. A., & Pargament, K. I. (2008). Solace for the soul: Evaluating a spiritually-integrated counseling intervention for sexual abuse. Counseling and Spirituality27, 157–174.

Pargament, K. I., Smith, B. W., Koenig, H. G., & Perez, L. (1998). Patterns of positive and negative religious coping with major life stressors. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion37, 710–724.

 

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Anger at God: The Scientific Facts

  1. I think that last paragraph sums up quite nicely how I respond when told I’m an atheist because I’m angry at their god. It’s difficult to be angry at a non-existent entity, but I can tell you I’m pretty angry at the people who do things in their god’s name, so I’m guessing I’d be pretty angry with any deity proven to exist.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 27, 2011, 3:56 pm
  2. I remember being mad at god and jebus when I was theist.

    Mostly due to….imperfections of his supposed creation and always watching over my shoulder watching every little thing I do and judging it.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 27, 2011, 4:32 pm
  3. How can I be angry towards something that doesn’t exist?

    Anyway, I remember when I was a deist that when bad things happened I would either use the “everything happens for a reason/it’s part of God’s plan” way of coping. A lot of people still do that; I still see that type of response to natural disasters, and it sickens me. I never felt angry, though.

    Now I’m at “everything happens because of stimulus: response.”

    Posted by bellesouth | June 28, 2011, 9:05 am

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