“You’re Just Angry at God!”
De-converts from fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity get used to hearing a lot of things from our former fellows, especially with regards to the reasons for our apostasy. One of the more common and familiar charges made is that we rejected (and continue to reject) Christianity because we are “angry at God”. I think there are some important issues involved in this discussion, so I would like to address them in more detail.
Unfortunately our answers to this charge, while of course as varied as the people writing them, are often unsatisfactory, I suggest. They usually seem to cluster around the theme that one cannot be angry at that in which one does not believe. The standard formulation is something like: “I’m angry at the Christian God in the same way that you are angry at Zeus.” As a reply this is entirely understandable, because what the Christian is charging is, in effect, that the nonbeliever has been irrational in his belief-decisions, letting his emotions guide him where he ought to have known better. Nonetheless, in the end I think this response from the de-convert is not a good one. Here, I want to tell you why, and what I think is a better one.
This “Zeus reply” implies, in a nutshell, that it is irrational, and therefore somehow impossible, to be angry at a non-existent being. The main problem with this reply, I suggest, is that it shares too many unspoken (but false) assumptions with the Christian. It seems to agree that emotions have no place at all in these matters, because (it is assumed) the presence of such an “irrational” emotion as anger would be iron-clad proof of irrational decision making. The de-convert thus responds by implicitly denying the mere possibility of an emotional response. But this is problematic because it offers a very constricted view of what it means to be an integrated and healthy human being. A moment’s reflection will I think show why.
To ever argue that it is irrational to feel anger is, it seems to me, rather peculiar – because anger is, obviously, an emotion. That would be kind of like accusing green of not being blue-colored, or charging that circles have no corners. In other words, emotions are by definition not the same thing as logic or reason. Every one of us gets angry, all the time, at things and events in which it is, strictly speaking, “irrational” to do so. We get angry at traffic, at the weather, at sporting events, at our computers, at missed airlines flights… the list is literally endless. And the point is obvious: the human brain’s limbic system (that which controls emotion) does not consult a syllogism before deciding whether or not to fire. We are emotional creatures, wired by evolution to be so, and feeling is a separate human experience (and separate brain function) from reasoning and deciding. Emotions operate by their own rules — rules which, though not formal logic, make their own kind of sense.
So Mr. Spock was right. It is – strictly speaking – always “illogical” to be angry, at anything. That’s what makes it anger, rather than deductive logic. Humanly speaking, though, it makes perfect sense – is perfectly “reasonable” – to say we might be angry at something that we don’t actually believe exists. We may personally be uncomfortable with that, because we like to think of ourselves as being rational through and through, but that is precisely the problem. We are not rational through and through, ever, and no one ever stopped having an emotion just because he or she decided it was irrational to feel it.
But even more, I think we should be especially wary of colluding with fundamentalist assumptions that some emotions are somehow “bad”, because that assumption can only lead to dishonesty about them. In the “Zeus reply”, the implied assumption that to be angry would be irrational (and thus a bad thing) leads to the dubious conclusion that to be angry would be impossible, in this situation. But it is not a bad thing to be angry, and it is not impossible either, and emotional health means recognizing that.
Now, let me be clear: I am not for a moment arguing that the Christian critic here is correct, and that it is indeed accurate to infer that de-converts are necessarily angry at the God. That is clearly and indisputably a question for that individual, and only that individual, to answer. The main problem with this charge of anger at God, rather, is its presumptuousness. It suggests that the Christian knows better than the nonbeliever himself what’s going on inside the nonbeliever’s own head. That is of course arrogant and false, and invites a sharp criticism of Christianity’s built-in psychology, but that is outside the scope of this discussion.
So the Christian who says you are angry at God may be wrong, or he may be right. The central point here is that even if it is true – so what? The fact that one has an emotional response to “God” , as one formerly experienced God psychologically, does not somehow give lie to, de-legitimize, or negate in any way all the many other reasons that we might have for leaving fundamentalism. Again, it smuggles in an unspoken assumption: that if you are angry at “God” then that must have been your only reason to reject Christianity. Clearly, this is a non sequitur.
So why does this matter? Why am I making such a point of all this? There are four reasons, I suggest, why presenting ourselves as “dispassionate” and strictly rational in our decision-making is not a goal we should aspire to:
- It is not true.
As I have argued, we are emotional animals. We may indeed be angry at “God”, or at Christianity, or at the theology (how “logical” is that?), or the church we were in, or any number of things from our experience. Indeed, given the totalizing nature of most people’s immersion in fundamentalism, it would be almost shocking if we did not have intense reactions to all these things, reactions that might include anger. It is easy to set up a dichotomy between reason and emotion, but it is a false one, and it is false for everyone, include those who say otherwise. Our experience as human beings is not and should not be either/or, it should be both/and.
- It is unhealthy.
Part of the destructiveness of fundamentalism, I believe, inheres in its psychological teachings. It teaches, for example, that to feel certain things is sinful (e.g., Matthew 5:27-28). It teaches that whenever one feels intense shame or guilt, that is the truest and most accurate feeling you have about yourself – i.e., it shows you how bad you really are. These things combine to produce massive pressure on fundamentalists to deny those feelings altogether. Again, no on can stop feeling any emotion just by wishing to, no matter how painful it is or how negatively it is interpreted. So powerful defense mechanisms get brought into play in the fundamentalist psyche to repress all the anger, pain, sadness, lust, greed, selfishness, et cetera, that are an intrinsic part of being human. But we ex-Christians should know that emotional health means accepting these “ugly” parts of the self, making one’s peace with them, and learning to manage them effectively. In other words, if we are to model psychological health to believers, we need to show them that there is nothing especially bad or destructive or undermining about being angry. One can be angry, admit that honestly, have peace about it, and still make reasonable decisions. Fundamentalists implicitly believe that can’t happen. We should show them it can.
- It truncates our experience.
As I have tried to show, being emotional is an intrinsic part of being human. It is a beautiful part of us, and many would say it is a large part of that which makes life worth living. Our emotional experience provides zest and spice to our lives in a way that nothing else can. But we cannot evacuate painful emotions and keep only the good ones. That was part of the fundamentalist illusion, and we know better now. We have to learn to live with those aspects of ourselves, not reject them. And I suggest that when we do so, we will find new directions and new depths opening up to us in our lives.
- It is counterproductive.
When we present ourselves as champions of rationality over primitive, emotional superstition, we alienate those we might otherwise reach. No one willingly comes to see themselves as “just irrational”, and presenting our own belief-decision as purely a matter of what’s reasonable is not only false, as I have argued, it also will set up a similar stance in those fundamentalists with which we interact – an immediate need to justify and defend their faith as being rational, in order to defend their self esteem. (And make no mistake: we do this too, we people tell us that we are being irrational). In other words, telling someone he is irrational does not change his mind or even win an audience; it just engages his defenses.
Let me close with an example: Many people, believer and atheist alike, feel grateful in their lives for what they have. The American holiday of Thanksgiving often brings out these feelings. But if we are uncomfortable with the basic “irrationality” of our emotions, then we are going to have trouble here. To whom or what are we grateful? Believers have it easy – they think God did it all. For us, as non-fundamentalists, the question remains: how can we be thankful, in a larger sense, if we normally understand “thankfulness” in interpersonal terms?
What I suggest is that if we are comfortable with our emotional life, and allow it to follow its own logic, then we have no dilemma. We simply feel grateful. It does not have to make sense, or any sense other than it’s own. Indeed, liberal Christian theologian Don Cupitt has said that life is a Gift without a Giver. It is proper to be thankful for gifts we receive – even if there is no sender. And gratitude, an enhanced appreciation and awareness for what one has, has the power to make life even more beautiful than we already know it is.
So the next time a believer tells you you are angry at God – be honest. The answer may be yes, or it may be no, but either way it is still followed with a so what? Show him what it means to be human. It may, in the long run, even do him some good. In the meantime, rejoice in your humanity – all of it.