Study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion

Navy SEAL Matthew "Axe" Axelson
Image of Navy SEAL Matthew “Axe” Axelson from the movie “Lone Survivor”

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 because of my contingency fund’s size. 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.

Certainly, we did not take stupid chances to get ourselves into trouble deliberately. But we just didn’t care about being happy, that was not our goal. 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.

There is no way that you could read the New Testament and come out with the idea that Jesus wanted fun and thrills and good feelings. He never laughed. He was killed for his obedience to God. He desperately wanted to avoid punishment, but he did things that he did not feel like doing because it was for the benefit of others, in obedience to God his Father. And it’s that kind of realistic pessimism – downbeat practical resignation – that we ought to be striving for. This life is not a trip to the mall where everything is on sale and we grab what we like. At all.

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

  1. Well i’m not angry but i guess i would part of a very small group of nonbelievers that is not angry at god.

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  2. William Lane Craig makes a good point about “moralistic, therapeutic deism” in one of his latest podcasts, actually.

    On another level, it’s about time one of these studies came out. There have been a number of studies showing that the people angriest at God are those who don’t believe in Him. Look at the New Atheism, for example. Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris spend hundreds of pages railing against something they don’t think exists.

    And yes, I think it’s time the “atheism is based on reason and evidence” canard gets shot down in the public sphere. I once defended the minimal facts to an atheist, at which point she said “Well, why should I bother worshiping God anyway? As long as I’m a good person, I’m saved.” Atheism is, in many cases, a desire to be free of an absolute moral obligation. As WLC often points out in his debates, if there is no God, then absolute moral obligations and standards do not exist. Of course, that makes “good” and “bad” complete matters of preference, but don’t tell the secular left that.

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  3. I heard William Lane Craig say something once like, “if you chase happiness in itself you will never be happy, but if you forget about happiness and seek righteousness you may suddenly find yourself with true joy in your life.” I think it is important to distinguish between worldly happiness and the true joy that being in Jesus brings. I don’t think you can necessarily say that Jesus never laughed just because it wasn’t recorded. He said His burden was light. He ate and drank. I think He was probably a generally joyful guy during His 30 something years on Earth and joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Paul spoke of having joy even through imprisonment and so on. it’s important to count the cost, but ultimately following Jesus brings true joy and peace and it is worth all the pain, as I am sure you would agree.

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