Jan. 6, 2011 -- It's a tough time to be God. Some leading scientists argue in widely-read books that God is no longer necessary. Science now knows how the universe was formed, how humans became what we are today, and, to some degree, what the future holds. Those questions used to be left up to God.
And now, it turns out, lots of ordinary folks are angry at God. Why does He allow babies to starve in third world countries, why does He allow bad things to happen, why does He -- either actively or passively -- cause so much grief?
What does it suggest when many people, according to various studies, are angry at the guy at the top?
"We find that anywhere between one third and two thirds of people we've surveyed in the United States admit they sometimes feel angry at God in response to some current thing they are suffering with, such as a cancer diagnosis," psychologist Julie Exline of Case Western Reserve University said in a telephone interview. "It's a very high number."
For more than a decade Exline has focused on anger toward God, and her current findings, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, lead to a number of provocative questions. If God is perfect, as many theologians argue, what's the point of getting angry at Him just because life isn't quite a neat as we might like? Is He prone to mistakes? Isn't anger basically questioning the very existence of God, or at least the limitations of His power?
"Some people feel God can make a mistake, and so for them it's not an issue if they get angry at God," she said. "But a lot of people see God as perfect and holy and not capable of making mistakes, and they still might get angry."
Many studies over many years show that untreated anger that is allowed to fester is a very bad thing, both socially and physically. When someone gets angry at another person, the two can sit down together and work out their differences and reach a compromise that allows the anger to fade. But can a human convince God to compromise and change his hurtful ways?
Anger at God
According to Exline's research, resolving anger at God is not a lot different from smoothing the feelings of a ruffled spouse.
"I don't have the solution for anger at God," she said, "but it's clear that people get angry at God and at other people for the same types of reasons." They didn't get what they wanted, and it's the other guy's fault. She describes that kind of anger as "like a little wave that comes and passes," so we get on with our lives.
If the wave doesn't pass, anger is best dealt with by reflecting on the situation, looking for some good in the relationship, and concluding that fault may lie on both sides. That's whether it's with a spouse or with God, she insists. It may be a little harder, of course, for folks who believe God never errs.
And some studies show that most Americans believe God is a bit of a micro-manager in human lives. A national survey conducted in the United States by sociologist Scott Schieman of the University of Toronto found that 82 percent of Americans depend on God for help in their decisions. A separate survey by sociologists at Baylor University reached similar conclusions.
Schieman found that 71 percent of Americans believe both good and bad things are part of God's plan; 61 percent believe God has set the course for their lives; 32 percent believe "there is no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God's hands."
But if they believe all of that, how could they possibly be angry at God? I asked Exline if anger is the first step, or at least an important step, toward disbelief. If God makes blunders, is he really God?
She described anger toward God as one of several "spiritual struggles" that humans deal with throughout their lives. And spiritual struggles like anger towards God "are like a fork in the road for people. It can be a turning point. You have a choice. Are you going to disengage from the relationship, deciding that a loving God couldn't do this, and stop believing in Him? Others might suppress their anger and sweep it under the rug. And still others could work things out in their relationship, with another person or with God."
Faith and Anger
She said she doesn't know how many persons take which of those three forks in the road. But if they decide to disengage, these days they have more support than perhaps any time in the past.
Not too many years ago expressing disbelief in God could lead to exclusion from much of American society. But today, many highly respected scientists argue passionately that we no longer need God to understand the world we live in, and how it came to be.
Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and many others are leading what has come to be known as "new atheism." Stenger argues that naturalism, or the view that all of reality is reducible to matter and nothing else, is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, including human origins.
There is no suggestion here that either of these opposing views are right. But it's clear that it's somewhat easier to "disengage" now than it was just a few years ago.
No anger intended.