Occasional questioning of God is common among Americans. Now, research reveals that the people who are most comfortable with this fact may well be those who feel closest to the deity.
In general, people who are strongly religious are more likely than the less devout to say that it's not okay to be angry at God, the new study found. But people who describe their relationship with God as close and resilient are actually likely to accept complaining and questioning directed toward God.
"Having that room to do that seemed to be associated with a good, close, secure relationship," said study researcher Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, referring to questioning God. The findings are important, Exline told LiveScience, because many people get stressed if they feel the need to question God.
"I think it could be helpful for people to see that people who report good relationships with God have some room for this, kind of like you would in a marriage or other close relationship, where there's some room for disagreement or griping even," Exline said. [ Life's Extremes: Atheists vs. Believers ]
Raging at God
In an earlier study, Exline discovered that rage against God is not uncommon — as many as 87 percent of people in one college sample reported feeling anger at God after personal setbacks. The next question to explore was whether people feel that this anger is okay, Exline said.
Using two samples, one of 358 college undergrads and another of 471 adults, Exline queried people on whether they felt it was morally okay to question God, complain to God, get angry at God or turn one's back on God altogether, up to and including becoming an atheist. About 39 percent of participants were Protestant Christians, 30 percent were Catholic and 5 percent Jewish. The remainder were made up of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, people who were spiritual but not religious, and a few other faiths.
All of the participants believed in God to some extent, though some were more skeptical of God's existence than others. In general, more religious people and people with a positive view of God felt that anger at the deity was immoral, while those who viewed God as a tyrant or bully were more positive about God-directed anger, perhaps because they saw it as righteous or brave.
Looking more closely at the religious participants, Exline found that those who reported their relationship as close and resilient were firmly against turning one's back on God. But having this close relationship was linked with greater acceptance of questioning God or complaining about negative events, she and her colleagues reported online March 19 in the journal Psychology and Religion and Spirituality.
Responding to anger
In an earlier study published in the winter issue of the Journal of Psychology and Theology, Exline and her colleagues asked participants in an online survey about what sort of responses they received when they told family or friends about their anger at God. The responses were often positive, Exline said, but almost half reported that people judged them negatively or otherwise made them feel guilty for having those emotions.
Troublingly, people who confided in an unsupportive confidant were more likely than others to hang on to their anger, to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their troubles, and even to walk out on their relationship with God. That finding has implications for friends, family and professional counselors alike, Exline said.
"Regardless of whether you think it's right or wrong for someone to get angry at God, if you respond in a judgmental way, that could really make the whole thing harder for them to deal with or even push them away from God," she said.
Most of the respondents in these studies are Christian, so Exline hopes to conduct further research to examine differences between religions. Those interested in participating in online studies can visit her research website at http://psychology.case.edu/research/god/index.html.