If you've ever responded to tragedy by raging at God, you're not alone. A new study finds that anger at God is a common emotion among Americans.
"People can be angry at God while still feeling love or respect toward God," Exline told LiveScience. "In other words, the feelings are not mutually exclusive."
Exline and her colleagues collected data on people's feelings toward God from five separate studies. Two studies asked undergraduate students to reflect on negative experiences in their lives and how those experiences made them feel about God. Another was a 1988 national survey that asked people if they had ever been angry at God. The final two studies asked similar questions of both people who had recently lost a loved one and people with cancer.
The participants spanned many religious traditions, but Christians predominated in all groups.
The 1988 survey revealed that 62 percent of people were sometimes angry at God. Women, people who were more highly educated and younger individuals all showed a slightly greater tendency toward God-directed anger. White people were more likely than black people to report such religious anger, and Jews and Catholics were slightly more angry than Protestants.
People achieved peace with God as they aged, the survey showed, with older people reporting less anger at God than younger people. That result was echoed in the studies of undergraduates, bereaved people and cancer patients, Exline found.
Among college students, 87 percent of believers reported feeling negative emotions about God after a personal setback or loss. Forty percent of grieving people reported anger at God. In both groups, however, positive feelings about God outweighed negative emotions.
Why the anger?
Even those who didn't believe in God were sometimes angry at the deity. College students and bereaved people who were atheist or agnostic reported more anger at God than religious people in the same demographics. The findings don't contradict the participants' agnostic or atheist beliefs, either: The study asked people about past experiences, and many atheists and agnostics had stories of anger dating from their religious pasts. Many of the study questions also asked atheists and agnostics to imagine their feelings toward a hypothetical god.
"It's probably not best with some of the studies that we did to try to compare the believers and the non-believers," Exline said. "The believers are talking about a God they think is real, and people who aren't believers are talking about an idea" based on cultural conceptions of God, she said.
People tended to become angry at God when they saw God as personally responsible for negative events and when they saw the deity's intentions as cruel. In that way, people relate to God much as they do to other people.
On the other hand, many people stayed positive about God even in the face of tragedy, especially people who viewed God as fundamentally kind. Other research has found that prayer can provide an emotional reprieve for victims of domestic violence. Religious belief is also associated with happiness.
How anger changes
By following up with the cancer patients a year after they were initially surveyed, the researchers were able to get a preliminary glimpse of how anger at God changes over time. Unsurprisingly, the angry feelings tended to match up with a patient's general level of mental distress. More distress was linked to more anger at God, Exline found. It isn't clear whether the anger caused the distress, the distress caused the anger, or some other factor caused both. What does seem clear is that a passing anger at God is nothing to be alarmed about, regardless of how theologically troubling some people find such emotions.
"We get mad at people every day," Exline said. "Usually it passes, and then it's probably not going to affect your mood or your mental health all that much. But when it turns into a grudge ... that's where anger tends to become more of a problem for people. It's the same sort of thing with anger toward God."
Exline emphasizes that the research is preliminary, and she is recruiting participants to complete online surveys about their feelings toward God at her research website. She hopes to answer the question of how anger toward God influences people's decisions to believe or not believe. She's also researching how people cope with their negative feelings about God.
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