A new set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology find that those who are atheists and agnostics are also those who are most angry at God.
The irony, of course, is how an atheist can be mad at someone who, in their mind, doesn't actually exist. But there's a more serious question in play: How much does that anger fuel their stated disbelief?
Quite a bit, I would think.
As Bruce Springsteen plaintively sings in The River, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" With God, many would say, "something worse." People who are angry at God feel deceived by the promise of goodness and love matched with the reality of a life of pain and loss.
But can there be another response?
David Ireland, diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease that would eventually take his life, was frequently asked, "Do you believe God will heal you?" He would respond with a question of his own, one that he often asked himself: "Do I really need to be healed?" In his book, Letters to an Unborn Child, Ireland explained his thinking:
I'm firmly convinced that God is extremely good and that He does love and understand all the world and all the people in it. Does He want to heal me? I can't even answer that. My faith is in the genuineness of God, not in whether He will do this or that to demonstrate His goodness...That's not the nature of my relationship to God.
I ran across a similar sentiment in the life of a young mother who had lost one child to a ravaging disease, and was set to lose a second in the same manner. In an article on the dynamics of faith in light of torturous life conditions, she wondered aloud to the reporter that perhaps we come to God weakly seeking comfort rather than accepting the moral challenge he brings to bear on our living.
It occurs to me that we seldom reflect that the deepest nature of God's blessing may very well be a life formed in the crucible of a fallen world's realities. And that it is this life - shaped by the choice to trust in the character of God and live in light of that character - which stands favored above all.
Our tendency is to reduce faith to the expectation of a predetermined, desired end. We trust that things will turn out a specific way, instead of trusting that things are in the hands of a particular - and trustworthy - Person. The former mentality, a type of "power of positive thinking," cannot be found in Scripture, whereas the latter is the recurring theme of life after life, story after story, chapter after chapter within the Scriptures. Our dilemma is the temporal nature of our faith. It is rooted in the present, not the future. It is based on our single story, as opposed to the wider narrative of the cosmic saga. Thus we submit our faith to a steady, slow torture that, in the end, finds little to sustain it in the face of life's adversities.
Yes, there are many haters of God. But why do they hate?
My sense is not because He has been, in their minds, harsh and cruel and unfeeling. My sense is that it is because they can't let go of God. He is still too important to them to brush away with a cavalier disbelief. Instead, he brings out their deepest emotions, because in the deepest parts of who they are…they still believe.
They know there is a larger story that they can't quite escape, yet they thrash around in their pain like a dog that has been hit by a car. The first person to their side will probably be bit, but only because it is blinded by pain.
And God is the first to our side.
It reminds me of the 2001 season finale of NBC's The West Wing which revealed the emotions of fictional President Josiah Bartlet following the death of his personal secretary in a drunken-driving accident, and the impending announcement of his own multiple sclerosis. His pain and anguish over life's cruel twists finds him lingering in the National Cathedral following her funeral in order to offer his heart to God.
But his prayer didn't begin with "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."
Instead, with nerves raw and faith tested, the President's prayer begins by calling God a "son of a b****" and a "feckless thug."
That was just what was offered in English.
The rest of the prayer, perhaps not to overheat the network's switchboard, was offered in Latin.
Here's the translation:
"Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To h*** with your punishments. I was your servant here on earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To h*** with your punishments. To h*** with you."
The scene ends with Bartlet, in a gesture of contempt, crushing a cigarette butt on the sacred ground of the cathedral floor.
Yet by the time of the closing credits, Jed Bartlet's faith was intact.
How? Because he saw that God was bigger than the circumstances of his life, and so was his faith. And that God was big enough for his anger and, yes, even hate.
So welcome the haters of God. Most are scorned lovers who are trying to piece their emotional lives back together in light of Someone they care enough about to engage with emotion. Perhaps, by the time of their closing credits, they will find their faith intact as well.
James Emery White
"Anger at God common, even among atheists," Elizabeth Landau, CNN. Online at http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/01/anger-at-god-common-even-among-atheists/
David Ireland with Louis Tharp, Jr., Letters to an Unborn Child (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).
Nancy Guthrie, as cited by David Van Biema, "When God Hides His Face," Time, July 16, 2001.
On the West Wing episode, see Lynn Elber, "‘West Wing' Ends Season Powerfully," Associated Press, Thursday, May 17, 2001, as found on dailynews.yahoo.com; David Bianculli, "In God, They Dis-trust," from Arts and Lifestyle/Television, Friday, May 18, 2001, New York Daily News online at www.nydailynews.com; Ted Olsen, "TV president: ‘To Hell with you, God,'" Weblog, May 18, 2001, www.christianitytoday.com.
For more on this subject, see the author's Wrestling with God (InterVarsity Press).
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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