Study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion

From First Things, based on research reported by CNN.

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 think the best defense to this phenomena is for the church to not tell people that God’s job is to make them happy in this life on Earth. I think if we spent less time selling Christianity to young people as life enhancement, we would have much fewer apostates. If young people get into their minds that God is their boss, not their waiter, then that is a good preparation for the real world. And all of the challenges that Christians face – from poverty, to peer pressure, to health problems to persecution. Stop expecting happiness, that is not God’s goal for you.

I was blessed to have discovered apologetics at a very early age. This passage from C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” always stood out to me back then:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

When I was young, I shortened this quote into my motto, which lasted until just a few years  back when I finally started to feel some security. And that motto was “nothing works”. Nothing works. That’s right, so get used to it. Everything sucks, nothing works. Nothing works.

Stop expecting God to make you happy. You are a soldier, and your job is to fight to the last breath in your body for the General. Hold until relieved. You’re damn right it’s unfair. Your whole life is unfair and then you die. Get used to it. When I was in college, my Christian friends and I used to joke that even if we fought our entire lives for God and he tossed us into Hell like firewood, we would still do the same things. We were happy to serve and we didn’t think about whether we were getting what we wanted. We did not take stupid chances, but we just didn’t care about being happy. We felt that God was in the right, and sinful humans were in the wrong, and that it was enough for us to serve on the right side. We didn’t expect anyone to care how we felt, we just expected to serve. And if our first plan failed, we went on to the next plan, and the next, until we found a way to serve in spite of the unfairness of it all.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

8 thoughts on “Study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion”

  1. What a closing paragraph, WK. I don’t know if it’s healthy/right to go the extreme of being okay with having Him send you to Hell, but otherwise, your attitude in college seems to me the best perspective a believer can take. The pursuit of/desire for “happiness” may be the single biggest obstacle to Christians fulfilling God’s perfect, abundant will.

    As to more of the content of this post, I stumbled across the only WLC “v.” Hawkins debate I think might exist. They aren’t debating each other specifically, but they are each a part of a panel of a few men representing each side. Of course, the emotional accusation comes up. Hawkins makes, and Craig counter-insists it’s actually the atheists who are making emotional arguments.


  2. Yes, that was an exceptional final paragraph – well done! This also seems to refute the belief that people turn from unbelief to Christianity when bad things happen to them? But, it does confirm the a-theist operational contradiction that “there is no God, and I hate him.”


  3. After reading this article earlier today, I came across another Lewis quote that seemed pertinent. ‘It is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should reach it.’

    Also, ‘If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, “I am.” To know God is to know that our obedience is due to Him. In his nature His sovereignty de jure is revealed.’

    Both are from Surprised by Joy, the second part of which I think you may enjoy.


  4. I hope that your quote “God is our boss, not our waiter” is not trademarked, because I have been using it already – although I did credit you, WK. Never heard that one before, but it will be spread wide and far, I can assure you. It is so … Chesterton. Just kidding! :-)


  5. I am an atheist who is angry at God. I am grateful that God does not exist. If It existed, it would be my duty as an ethical person to battle It and suffer eternally in hell.


    1. That is exactly what a state chapter president for the American A-theists told me when we had a wonderful debate over lunch in a Subway restaurant! I asked him what if he was wrong and found himself in Hell, and he said that he would lead a rebellion against God. I said “That won’t be necessary.” He asked “Why not?” I replied “God won’t be there.” :-) (For those who do not know it, Hell is theologically defined as the “absence of God.”)

      But, one of the best parts of our debate occurred 5 minutes into it, when I challenged him with Carl Sagan’s ridiculous statement “The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be” and asked him to support it – since he claimed to be an a-theist. He did the a-theist two-step and quickly retreated to the expected reply “Well, actually, I am an agnostic non-theist.” :-)

      I gave him a cookie as consolation for getting waxed by a relatively new Christian. I had not even heard of William Lane Craig at that time, so I didn’t question his presuppositionally naturalistic “moral” outrage at a God he didn’t believe in. I forgot to ask him when the American A-theists would rename their organization “The American Agnostic Non-Theists,” but he did promise to not refer to himself as an a-theist again. (Didn’t keep that promise, no big surprise.)


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