New study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion

From First Things, based on research reported by CNN. (H/T Apologetics 315)

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’m having trouble understanding how someone can read the gospel, realize how God did not prevent Jesus from enduring suffering, and then expect God to be Santa Claus. I’m drawing a blank. And this is not to mention the responses to the intellectual problem of evil.

Basically, here are four of the major reasons why people leave Christianity, in my experience.

  1. They want to do something immoral that is forbidden in Christianity. This type of person wants to do something immoral that is forbidden by Christianity, like pre-marital sex. They dump Christianity in order to feel better about seeking happiness in this life, apart from God and his moral duties.
  2. They think that God’s job is to make them happy by giving them everything they want no matter what they do. When God disappoints them by not giving them what they expect in order to be happy, they leave the faith and just pursue happiness without caring about God.
  3. They want to be loved by people, not by God. This type of person thinks that Christianity is compatible with being liked and popular. When they try to articulate the gospel in public, they find that people don’t like them as much, and they feel bad about offending people with exclusive truth claims that they cannot back up using logic and evidence. So, they water down Christianity to get along with atheists, liberal Christians and other religions. Finally, they jettison Christianity completely and just say whatever makes people like them.
  4. They don’t want to learn to defend their faith. This type of person is asked questions by skeptics that they cannot answer. Usually this happens when people go to university after growing up in the shelter of the Church. The questions and peer pressure make them feel stupid. Rather than investigate Christianity to see if it’s true and to prepare to defend it in public, they dump it so they can be thought of as part of the “smart” crowd.

My advice: prepare for tragedies – save money and take no chances. Live smart.

More on what causes atheism here.

13 thoughts on “New study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion”

  1. The reasons people leave Christianity reminds me of the seed that was planted on rocky soil from Jesus’ parable on the soils. The soil that was planted on rocky soil sprang up quickly, but then shortly died because it had no depth. They (people’s faith planted on rocky soil) first believe with joy, e.g., they think the journey will be unicorns, rainbows, health, and prosperity, but in Jesus’ words: “…in time of testing fall away.” (ESV)

    Like you said Wintery, these folks have nothing to secure their faith when trouble comes along their path. Their pastor, friend, etc. teach them that Christianity makes life easier (I’m overstating here), but that’s just not true. When I read the Bible I don’t find that Christianity makes life easier, I actually find the contrary, that life will be more difficult culturally speaking. Christianity goes against what is popular, which will make the Christian seem boring and “not cool.” Then, at the more radical side, the Christian will seem like a bigot and hater of others, which can make a Christian question God’s moral standard (which is he himself) and it’s during those times that knowing arguments for God’s existence, resurrection of Christ, and the Bible’s infallibility that can really strengthen the Christian and help him/her get through the tough times.


  2. I don’t want to oversimplify, but don’t you think that the main reason people leave Christianity is because they were never a part of it? You can’t “leave” Christianity if you are actually saved (at least not if you’re a Calvinist :) )


  3. Have you folks considered that some people just don’t believe in the existence of god, or that the bible is god’s inspired word? Atheists and agnostics are not naughty little children who deep down really belive in Jesus…… they don’t believe in the fundamental premise of a god or deity. Perhaps if one is speaking only in respect to those who have left religion later in life, as a direct result of some causal agent or event, this conversation would make sense; albeit, it seems supercilious to assume all people are born believers. Some people inherently just don’t believe!


  4. Sure, I’ll take the bait, as one of “you people”. (Closet bigot, there Jack?) We’re discussing what the report said. Did you consider that?

    According to the study, atheists and agnostics are angry at a God they don’t believe in, which is paradoxical. However, it’s that continued anger, nourished, and fed over the years, that keeps them going.


  5. Many Christians lose their faith simply because they don’t believe the evidence is there. That is what happened to me. I never even considered that what I’d been taught since I was a child might not be true. I simply assumed that it was true.

    When I stepped back and objectively looked at the evidence, and reasoned my way through it, I realized that there is an unbridgeable gap between faith and reason. To be consistent, I had to choose one, and I chose reason.

    The process was slow (it took years), and was somewhat painful, but for a logical thinker as myself it was inevitable. I believe most religious people simply are not willing to exert the mental effort that is required to “unlearn” religion.

    That’s my two cents worth.


    1. Which arguments for Christianity did you find unconvincing?
      Which Christian scholar do you think is the best at making the case for Christianity?

      And, which arguments for atheism did you find the most convincing?
      Who do you think makes a good case for atheism?


  6. I don’t consider myself an atheist. For lack of a better term, I’d say I am agnostic. I can’t say there isn’t a God, but if there IS a God, I don’t think it’s the God of Christianity.

    As far as Christian scholars go, I can’t say I’ve read any as of late. The reason is that I’ve never seen a Christian author or scholar make an argument purely on reason (they always seem to fall back onto “faith” at some point).

    A number of books, including Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene” have strongly influenced me to believe in Darwinian evolution. And once I started down that path there was no return. Evolution and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible.

    Another huge influence was Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Her philosophy brilliantly demonstrates how reason and faith are contradictory in that book. Ironically, “Atlas Shrugged” is popular with a lot of Christians due to it’s support of capitalism, but it’s actually quite hostile towards religion.


    1. I would recommend reading up on the following Christian scholars: William Lane Craig, William Dembski, N.T. Wright, Mark D. Linville, and Paul Copan. Their work would be excellent for you to study because these scholars don’t rely heavily on faith, but on reason.


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