This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, site and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.
In this series of posts, we are employing the theoretical and empirical literature in the psychology of religion as we examine the character Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”), and the loss of faith that accompanied his defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley. A crisis of faith like Mal’s is often a turning point, after which a person’s religious life is never the same. This could result in a turning away from religion, or a deepening and maturing of one’s faith (Exline & Rose, 2005).
In the last post, we considered the possibility that Mal’s faith may have been immature to begin with, making it too “brittle” to survive Serenity Valley. Today, we will take a look at Mal’s attitude in light of the research literature on anger toward God.
One particularly telling moment in relation to this issue takes place in the episode “Train Job.” In this episode, Mal says to Book, “If I’m your mission, Shepherd, best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.” There are any number of ways that Mal could have phrased that, but he said it in a way that implies personal resentment toward God.
Julie Exline is one of the leading researchers in religious struggle (e.g., Exline, 2002) and the experience of anger toward God (e.g., Exline & Martin, 2005). A dominant theme that she has found in her research is resentment toward God as a reaction to underserved suffering (Exline, 2003). Even when the suffering is inflicted by humans (instead of being a natural disaster or illness), God can be blamed for not having prevented the trauma. The experience of undeserved suffering can disrupt one’s belief in a meaningful universe (Kauffman, 2002; Pyszczynski & Kesebir, 2011), producing confusion and anger (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Wotman, 1990).
Exline, Yali, & Lobel (1999) found that people who had difficulty “forgiving” God for allowing something bad to happen were more likely to experience anxiety, depression, generalized anger, and difficulty forgiving themselves and others. In some cases, this can lead to an “emotional atheism,” in which the individual expresses his or her resentment toward God by concluding that God does not exist (Novotni & Peterson, 2001). Exline and colleagues later backed away from using the term “forgiving” in their research, as there are certain conceptual difficulties with applying the term “forgive” to a holy and perfect being. They now refer to it as “resolving one’s anger” toward God.
In a recent series of studies (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011), Exline and colleagues examined anger toward God in response to traumas such as cancer and the loss of a loved one. They found that participants who viewed God as both cruel and responsible for the traumatic event, and who failed to find meaning in the event, were more likely to feel angry with God.
Those who saw God as responsible, but were able to find meaning, were less likely to see God as cruel, and thus experienced less anger toward God. Negative feelings toward God were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms, higher levels of physical distress, and lower levels of life satisfaction. If the anger toward God persisted or increased over time (as assessed in a one-year follow-up study of cancer survivors), then the outcomes were even worse.
While we have little evidence with which to work (more on that next time), there is no evidence presented in Firefly or Serenity that specifically indicates that Mal became an atheist (“emotional” or otherwise) as a result of his defeat at Serenity Valley. What Mal does say about God fits either with the profile of an “emotional atheist” (what Vitz might call a “neurotic atheist”) or an embittered struggler who believes that God exists but has a serious grudge against him.
The next post will be the final one in this series. In it, we will take a moment to consider the future of Mal’s attitude toward God.
Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A. M., & Wotman, S. R. (1990). Victim and perpetrator accounts of interpersonal conflict: Autobiographical narratives about anger. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 994-1005.
Exline, J. J. (2002). Stumbling blocks on the religious road: Fractured relationships, nagging vices, and the inner struggle to believe. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 182-189.
Exline, J. J. (2003). Anger toward God: A brief overview of existing research. Address presented at the 111th convention of the American Psychological Association. Toronto, ON.
Exline, J. J., & Martin, A. (2005). Anger toward God: A new frontier in forgiveness research. In E. L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 73-88). New York: Routledge.
Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 129-148.
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 315-330). New York: Guilford Press.
Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Lobel, M. (1999). When God disappoints: Difficulty forgiving God and its role in negative emotions. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 365-379.
Kauffman, J. (Ed.). (2002). Loss of the assumptive world: A theory of traumatic loss. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Novotni, M., & Petersen, R. (2001). Angry with God. Colorado Springs, CO: Piñon.
Pyszczynski, T., & Kesebir, P. (2011). Anxiety buffer disruption theory: A terror management account of posttraumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 24, 3-26.