Atheists angry at God?

Anger at God is nothing new. In the Hebrew Bible, anger goes back at least as far as Abraham, who, … Continued

Anger at God is nothing new.

In the Hebrew Bible, anger goes back at least as far as Abraham, who, according to Genesis 18:23, was angry at God for God’s readiness to destroy the innocent people of Sodom along with those who were guilty. One could also argue that it goes back even farther, to the story of Cain found in Genesis 4:5. But however far back the notion of getting angry at God can be traced, it is also the topic of a newly released study by Case Western Reserve University psychologist, Julie Exline.

Among the most interesting findings in Exline’s study are the place of anger at God in the lives of self-declared atheists, and also the compatibility of simultaneous angry and positive feelings about God. I mention positive feelings and not faith because by definition, if one is angry at God, one clearly has faith in the existence of God. Was that not the case, at whom is one angry? That returns us to the first finding about non-believers and their anger at God.

Self-declared atheists, according to the study, not only report getting angry at God, but report higher levels of anger than that experienced by believers. How does that work? Why bother being angry at something which one doesn’t believe even exists?

Some believers will rush to proclaim that this is proof of the old adage about there being no atheists in foxholes i.e. that when things get bad, we all realize that there is a God and seek that connection, even if it’s one established through anger. That weak connection to God when things go bad may be true, but it certainly doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God or the wisdom of believing that God exists.

Perhaps there is a God and perhaps there is not. While extremists on both sides of this debate hate to admit it, there is proof for neither conclusion. What this study tells us is that there is a human desire to express outrage at the existence of evil and tragedy. There appears to be a need to ascribe authorship and even will on the part of that author, when we experience tough times.

That need transcends the philosophical categories in which we often place ourselves, showing us that such categorizations are of limited use. In fact, while it does not appear that the study’s finding are broken down by levels of attachment to one’s atheism, my guess is that all but the most fanatical among them find themselves getting angry at the God they were certain didn’t exist five minutes before the trauma which provoked the anger occurred. That in turn brings us to the second finding.

Anger at God and faith/positive feelings about God is entirely compatible. The notion that belief in God demands calm acceptance of everything that comes our way is simply absurd. That approach may serve some people well but clearly, most of us can hold together faith and anger at the same time and telling people otherwise betrays our own inner spiritual wisdom.

I appreciate that for some theologians one ought never to be angry at God because that anger represents rage against that which, by definition, by virtue of coming from God, is good and just. Those theologians belong alongside the atheists who insist that anger at God makes no sense and so it has no place in the life of a “good atheists.” They all insist that philosophical consistency is more important than meaningful, usable spirituality. In other words, they put ideas before people, which is always a bad idea, whether it is done in the name of God or no God.

Believers get angry because whatever God may be out there deserves our anger, if that God is the author of our suffering. Our insistence that things need not simply be as they are affirms God’s existence, at least in the mind of the believer, and calls that God to a new level of relationship.

Anger at God, dissatisfaction with the state of the world or the shape of our lives is not only compatible with faith; it is an act of faith. From Abraham to Moses to Jesus and Muhammad, realizing the unacceptability of the status quo, not simply accepting it as God’s will, was the spark which lit the fuse of a new spiritual explosion.

Exline’s study contains many interesting revelations and insights, but none more important than these two, at least not when it comes to a world often bitterly divided between atheists and religionists. This study shows that almost all of us are more complex than those reductive categories. It shows us that what we really need are atheists who are comfortable with anger at God as a kind belief, however momentary it may be, and religionists who admit that anger at God is not only possible, but is itself a necessary component in any healthy relationship with the God in whom they may believe.


Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
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