I’ve shaken my fist in anger at stalled cars, storm clouds, and incompetent meterologists. I’ve even, on one terrible day that included a dead alternator, a blaring blaring tornado-warning siren, and a horrifically wrong weather forecast, cursed all three at once. I’ve fumed at furniture, cussed at crossing guards, and held a grudge against Gun Barrel City, Texas. I’ve been mad at just about anything you can imagine.
Except unicorns. I’ve never been angry at unicorns.
It’s unlikely you’ve ever been angry at unicorns either. We can become incensed by objects and creatures both animate and inanimate. We can even, in a limited sense, be bothered by the fanciful characters in books and dreams. But creatures like unicorns that don’t exist — that we truly believe not to exist — tend not to raise our ire. We certainly don’t blame the one-horned creatures for our problems.
The one social group that takes exception to this rule is atheists. As C. S. Lewis once testified, “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” Lewis’ experience is not uncommon among atheists. Many claim to believe that God does not exist and yet, according to empirical studies, they tend to be the people most angry at him.
In 2011 a set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found 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 that 2011 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 also give them a reason to cling to their disbelief.
I’ve argued elsewhere that, according to the Christian tradition, atheism is a form of self-imposed intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or — to borrow a term from the Catholic tradition — a case of vincible ignorance.
Vincible ignorance is intentional suppression of knowledge that is within an individual’s control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Acknowledging the existence of God is just the beginning — we must also recognize several of his divine attributes. Atheists who deny this reality are, as Paul said, without excuse. They are vincibly ignorant.
Recognizing this fact, however, does not mean that the cause of this self-imposed dysfunction has been understood. While I firmly believe all forms of atheism are instances of both vincible ignorance and an obstinacy of will, I’ve sometimes mistakenly assumed it to be a purely intellectual failing — a matter of the head, not the heart. I’ve begun to appreciate, though, how much the emotional response to pain and suffering can push a person to an atheistic worldview.
Most pastors would find my epiphany to be both obvious and overdue. But I suspect I’m not the only amateur apologist who has been blinded to this truth. As a general rule, those of us engaged in Christian apologists tend to prefer the philosophical to the pastoral, the crisp structure of logical argument to the messiness of human emotion. We often favor the quick-witted response that dismisses the problem of evil rather than patient empathy, which consoles atheists that we too are perplexed by suffering.
Many atheists do, of course, proceed to their denial of God based solely on rational justifications. That is why evidentialist and philosophical approaches to apologetics will always be necessary. But I’m beginning to suspect that emotional atheism is far more common than many Christians realize. We need a new apologetic approach that takes into account that the ordinary pain and sufferings of life leads more people away from God than a library full of anti-theist books. Focusing solely on the irate sputterings of the imperfectly intellectual New Atheists may blind us to the anger and suffering that is adding new nonbelievers to their ranks.