What happens to one’s relationship with God when they experience significant adversity? Do they pray for support with their personal struggles? Do they embrace the notion that the Lord works in mysterious ways? Or, do they become angry with God? In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of researchers led by Dr. Julie Exline, completed a series of fives studies that dealt with predictors, prevalence, and individual differences in anger toward God. Dr. Exline said she became interested in the topic of anger at God when researching interpersonal anger and forgiveness: “It occurred to me that people could also become angry at God. For those with religious commitments, the topic is interesting in part because it is often seen as taboo. For the nonreligious, the topic can also be interesting because anger toward God can be part of a process of disaffiliating with religion or deciding not to believe in God.”
With this in mind, Dr. Exline and her colleagues designed a study to indentify how prevalent anger toward God truly is and if there are differences between age, gender, and religious affiliation. Their first study explored a national sample of almost 1,500 men and women and found that anger toward God was reported most by young, white, highly educated, women. That said, more than 60% of participants surveyed described some anger at God. Dr. Exline states that this is one of the primary messages to be taken from the study: Quite simply, “many people experience anger toward God”.
Studies two and three looked at the types of incidents that led to anger toward God and the other types of emotions people felt in these situations. Dr. Exline found that “people tend to get mad at God for the same reasons they get mad at other people”. However, the following types of incidents seem to cause the greatest anger toward God: bereavement, illness or injury, interpersonal problems, accidents, and personal failures. Anger was a common emotional response to these situations but positive emotions were reported as well suggesting, as Dr. Exline points out, that “people can be angry at God while still feeling love or respect toward God”.
The fourth and fifth studies focused on the emotional responses toward God following specific types of losses. In the fourth, it was the death of a loved one. Participants in this study again reported more positive than negative emotions toward God. However, certain circumstances led to greater anger toward God. Specifically, participants were more likely to be angry with God if participants held God responsible for the loss, if the deceased was younger, and/or the death was sudden. Finally, in the fifth study, the researchers looked specifically at emotional responses toward God when diagnosed with cancer. Here, they found that older cancer patients were less angry at God and the participants who were most angry at God were those who identified their cancer type as severe. Likewise, participants who thought of themselves as victims reported greater anger.
Dr. Exline identified the take home message of the study as being that “if you’re angry at God, you’re not alone.” She also wanted to reach out to those readers who may be “interested in sharing their own relevant experiences” as she and her colleagues are “still seeking participants for several online studies. Any English speaker aged 18 or over is welcome to participate at http://psychology.case.edu/research/god/index.html.”
By Jennifer Meiselwitz
Jennifer Meiselwitz is a 2011 graduate of the Human Development and Psychology departments at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She plans on attending graduate school to earn an advanced degree and, ultimately, become a college professor.