Book Review: Schweizer, “Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism”

Title: Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism
Author: Bernard Schweizer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2010
Pages: 246
ISBN13: 978-0-19-975138-9
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

In the face of inexplicable and extreme personal suffering, the biblical Job refuses to turn on the God who gave him life: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). His property and children are destroyed, his body is inflicted with sores. Job’s wife appears and insists that Job ought to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). She isn’t given a name and she’s never mentioned in the Bible again, but she’s the prototypical adherent of what author and associate professor of English Bernard Schweizer calls “misotheism.” She is “ready to curse God in open defiance and willing to be damned rather than acquiesce in divine caprice” (29). She believes in God yet denounces him.

In his new book, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, Schweizer faces the double task of outlining the heretofore foggy category exemplified by Job’s wife, and justifying its relevance to current views of God and faith. By demonstrating that misotheism exists (my spell-checker still says no!), that it has an interesting history and typology, and that it is morally (rather than epistemologically or ontologically) grounded, Schweizer hopes to facilitate ”an increased tolerance toward those believers who cannot bring themselves to worship God in the prescribed way” (23).

What is Misotheism?

“Misotheism,” in contrast with atheism, is not the rejection of the existence of God, it is the reaction of a believer to the problem of evil—directed toward God—on behalf of suffering humans. Miso (hate) + theos (God) = misotheism, manifested as anger and disappointment toward a deity who seems either incompetent, impotent, or encouraging toward evil. Simply put, it’s difficult to reconcile the suffering people witness in the world with a God who is considered to be the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving creator. Theologians have developed various answers to the problem of evil, but such attempts fall short for misotheists. As Schweizer explains:

“They are concerned with the conditions of human happiness and with the ultimate causes of suffering, and they cannot square their empirical knowledge about these matters with what they were taught to believe about God” (23).

“The misotheist is interested in the human ramifications of the problem of evil, and he puts priority on the human response to the seeming randomness of cruelty and pain in God’s universe” (220).

Schweizer is careful to note that the misotheists he discusses aren’t static in their beliefs and attitudes toward God, nor are they so easily grouped together (224). Any time we take to putting people in boxes they tend to pop out when we aren’t looking. Still, he divides them into two broad categories: the “Agonistic” and the “Absolute.” Following a broad overview of the “history of Misotheism,” Schweizer zooms in to explore these categories in six “case studies” of writers who couched their misotheism in literature—often but not always obscuring their personal animosity by putting it in the mouth of fictional characters. Algernon Swinburne, Zora Neale Hurston, Rebecca West, Elie Wiesel, Peter Shaffer, and Philip Pullman (who, much more than the others, might be surprised to be listed among misotheists as opposed to atheists or agnostics) each represent different manifestations of misotheism within Schweizer’s overall framework.

Agonistic Misotheism

This category includes people who “are struggling with the understanding that God is not entirely competent and good, while resenting the need to praise and worship him” (17). Elie Wiesel was a pious Jew raised in a Hasidic community in Romania before a horrific eleven-months’ stay in multiple concentration camps during World War II. A decade after emerging from hell Wiesel penned Night, a memoir:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever” (154).

Rather than rejecting God’s existence, he wanted answers from Him: “Although I know I will never defeat God, I still fight Him” (155). The paradox of a prayer of attack is difficult to account for, but Schweizer contextualizes it within a wider trend of Jewish protest theology (169-170).

Absolute Misotheism

If less comprehensible, just as interesting are the ”Absolute Misotheists” who seem to “exult in the demise of deity” (18). Rather than lamenting, they happily slam the judges gavel without hope that God might pull things off for the better in the end. Algernon Swinburne’s “Hymn of Man” treats God as a criminal on trial being judged and condemned by a jury of men:

By the dread wherewith life was astounded and shamed out of
sense of its trust,
By the scourges of doubt and repentance that fell on the soul
at thy nod,
Thou art judged, O judge, and the sentence is gone forth
against thee, O God.
Thy slave that slept is awake; thy slave but slept for a span;
Yea, man thy slave shall unmake thee, who made thee lord
over man (99).

Swinburne’s innovative adaptation of biblical motifs is uncovered in Schweizer’s careful literary analysis, for instance he notes Swinburne’s skillful parody of Matthew 7:1 (“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you,” 99). It is particularly difficult to classify such writing as “misotheist,” even most of Swinburne’s contemporaries saw him as atheistic at best. But Schweizer points to one perceptive review which said “the strangest and most melancholy fact in these strange and melancholy poems is, not the absence of faith, but the presence of a faith which mocks at itself” (100). In Mormon parlance you might say these are people who “leave God, but can’t leave God alone” (see p. 66).

Drawing the Line?

The difficulty of placing any given believer in a particular misotheistic category is apparent as Schweizer compares various believers in sometimes dizzying ways. Discerning the difference between a person who really believes in but hates God and a person who wrestles with ideas about God without actually believing in him seems near-impossible. (One perceptive atheist who reviewed Schweizer’s book believes the division actually isn’t relevant anyway. Citing the so-called “Paradox of Fiction” he notes that people can have emotional responses to characters they know aren’t real.)

While people will squabble about where (or whether) to draw the line, Schweizer finds a common thread tying the strugglers together: by operating within a religious framework, drawing on religious motifs, scriptures, and icons, misotheist writers have managed to testify of their belief even while protesting the substance of it. Because his analysis is so literature-centric, however, it misses out on non-print manifestations of misotheism. Think Woody Allen’s quip, ”If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.” Parenthetically, I was much more interested in Schweizer’s literary analysis than his psychoanalysis, as when he employs a healthy dose of Freud to explain why certain misotheists’ broken relationships with their fathers most likely led to their conflicted approach to God (105, for instance). He doesn’t take any time justifying this psychoanalytic approach, but he spends a good deal of time justifying his biographication of the writers’ fictional literature (see 104, 114-115, 124, 208, 223, 225).

Bloopers and Oversights

A few theological blunders or overstatements can be detected here and therein Schweizer’s discussion. Two examples should suffice. First, he asserts that believers ought to know better than to try and make a bargain with God. Following Augustine’s view of Providence, and certain Protestant views about predestination he concludes that “each individual’s fate has already been decided prior to his birth” (183). This essentially labels all Christians as 5-point Calvinists with a heavy emphasis on “unconditional election.” Second: Tony Watkins critiques Pullman’s Dark Material series by noting that Christians don’t claim a monopoly on morality and values but that they believe “morality only functions because it has an objective basis in the character of God, whether or not anybody believes in him” (204). Schweizer objects to Watkins on the grounds that Watkins presents a contradiction: Watkins can’t consistently claim that morality can exist apart from religious belief and at the same time link morality explicitly to God, the object of religious belief. Regardless of whether I agree with Watkins’s claim, Schweizer has overlooked the distinction that can be made between ontological and epistemic considerations. In other words, gasoline can make my car run regardless of whether I understand the actual process of fuel combustion, or whatever it’s called (see?).

Schweizer’s lengthy introduction (1-25) differentiates misotheism from multiple other approaches to God, including atheism, antitheism, gnosticism, agnosticism, and deicide, but he still misses a few possibilities. Think of the feeling expressed in novelist Julian Barnes’s lament: “I don’t believe in God but I miss him,” for example. Of course, one book can only do so much, and Schweizer spends plenty of time contrasting misotheism with other manifestations of troubled relations between humans and their God. Speaking of which, why did Schweizer spend plenty of his time on this?

What about the author?

It’s inevitable with a book like this that readers will question the author’s perspective, which he, oddly enough, doesn’t directly address in the book. This is ironic considering how much time he spends talking about writers who masked their own misotheism. It might even be seen as a tantalizing invitation to investigate the author himself, but I’m not sure it was deliberate. Is he a misotheist? Elsewhere he says no (in the third person!): “Hating God is not written by a misotheist and it is not advocating misotheism” (Bernard Schweizer, “Hating God: The Untold Story,” religiondispatches.org, 6 February 2011.) But by his own lights this is entirely contestable: “Thus, once again we can observe a degree of concealment and distancing when it comes to publicly avowing misotheism” (223). Again, is he?

 

The strongest indication in the book that he might be a misotheist, or at least identify with them strongly, is found when he turns apologist for Robert Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy of children’s books (see especially 205-207). The rhetorical advantage is clearly leveraged for Pullman, and to misotheists generally. It is clear that Schweizer is not out to reclaim or reform misotheists, but rather to make space for them, to offer a category as an alternative to the dichotomy of faithful believer or god-hating atheist. The underground nature of misotheistic output has led to little interaction and explication of the phenomenon. With an outline like Schweizer’s we need not “reinvent the wheel every time this idea comes up.” Misotheism will become more publicly relevant (Schweizer estimates there are six million American misotheists based on a recent sociological publication, see “Six Million God-Hating Americans Can’t Be Wrong,” religiondispatches.org, 18 February 2011). More pragmatically, it can “begin to spawn new ideas and lead to different spiritual and philosophical arguments that will contribute to making misotheism an evolving system of ideas rather than a static, reiterative position” (80).  ”Process, development, critique, and invention” will follow in due order.

Who’s gonna like this book?

Is this a feasible hope? “Schweizer’s insistence that his work is groundbreaking gets tiring,” notes one reviewer for the Washington Post. Who might respond more positively to Schweizer’s insistence? Atheists might reject misotheists as fools who should just give up the act. Or they might give misotheists a warm welcome, happy to have more evidence against God’s existence: even those who try to follow Him can’t ultimately be satisfied with Him. If anything, atheists and doubters will welcome Schweizer’s repeated point that those who doubt, struggle, or disbelieve are not by necessity evil or sinful; some of them base their feelings firmly on moral grounds (see 14). “In fact,” he notes, “for many misotheists, love is precisely the centerpiece of their moral philosophy” (220). Based on the “master story-tellers, great thinkers, and dedicated humanitarians” Schweizer profiles in his book, “it would be reductive and unfair to condemn God’s opponents as unworthy and in league with the devil” (217). At the same time, many of these readers who don’t retain a feeling of desire for or allegiance to God might be confused or upset with Schweizer’s assertion that atheists and agnostics, like misotheists, can also be just as “religious” as true believers (a topic for another whole essay, see pp. 206-207, 209, 211, etc.).

 

On the other hand, misotheiets like Elie Wiesel would likely claim believers will almost certainly have a more difficult time with the book: “The tragedy of the believer is much greater than the tragedy of the non-believer,” Wiesel noted (168). Ultimately, they might simply be turned off by the misotheistic critiques of God which range from the uncomfortable to the blasphemous, leaving misotheists without a welcome home among their ranks. If they believe in God they wouldn’t feel that way, it might be suggested. I think there are deeper reasons why the book might be difficult for the faithful to read. First, it deprives the pious from easily dismissing those who struggle with their faith as simply being doubters, haters, or sinners. Schweizer’s narrative includes deeply religious people facing real problems and seeking to maintain faith, even if that faith is antagonistic. Second, in the complexity that makes up our own religious life experiences it would be strange not to experience similar frustration with God at some point. Such feelings can be replaced through prayer, scripture study, or seeking solace in worship, but bringing the undercurrent of frustration to the surface seems awfully dangerous, though for some it may feel therapeutic.

 

By grounding his discussion from the position of rationality and liberalism (something like ‘here, good reader, are proofs that misotheists can be good people, too, that they can be believers, and thus we see they need a spot at the table’), Schweizer has shown his cards (217). Fundamentalists, it is expected, are not likely to embrace this kind of off-the-beaten-path religiosity. Nevertheless, the book might be most useful in providing a category for those who experience such feelings of frustration, it may give them a more constructive way to conceive of doubt, anger, or sorrow directed toward God without chalking their feelings up to religious apostasy or the loss of faith.

 

To argue for the necessity of such a place, Schweizer points to Julia Duin’s book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It (2008). Duin notes that many people surveyed for the book “were disappointed and perplexed in some way with God” (216). Such people may not be satisfied by some of the common responses to their perplexity, like “things happen for a reason” (218). Misotheism may provide one fruitful, and paradoxically faithful, avenue for people to struggle through, perhaps opening their eyes to help lift the burdens other people bear, to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” Misotheism, Schweizer argues, “will continue to play a role in fiction and memoir as long as there are people who feel they have been harmed by God, either as individuals or as a community…[T]hose hostile to God—supposedly the fountainhead of all goodness—will continue to labor under the burden of making their paradoxical stance meaningful” (226).

Mormon misotheists?

Of course, some Mormons might object that Mormonism offers a different view of God which can help circumvent some of the problems facing those who accept a God who created everything ex nihilo. I could only think of a few examples of Mormon misotheism (in Levi Peterson’s novel The Backslider and Richard Dutcher’s film Falling; hopefully more to come on these examples later), but I sensed a Mormon-esque possibility in a complaint from non-Mormon British journalist and novelist Rebecca West, one of Schweizer’s featured agonistic misotheists:

“Indeed we should pray ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive thee thine.’ For it seemed to us that there might be a divine plan that would excuse divinity. The agonies of this world might be the birthpangs of a dispensation that should be like the dawn after the dark night of this life. It might be that we were horses dragging the chariot uphill from the dark bog of disorder to the hilltop where there would be a temple full of worshipful and comprehensible gods and all things should be clear and happy. We were part of the plan. But a plan may be too cruel” (134, full quote from Bernard Schweizer, “God’s Cruel Plan: Where New Atheism Falls Short,” religiondispatches.org, 10 February 2011).

Misotheism seems to be a fruitful field of inquiry in religious studies because different manifestations are under-examined, or still emerging, depending largely on the social, religious, personal, and political circumstances of various believers (211, 217). Schweizer pays due attention to various modes of thought which influence misotheists, including feminism, Epicureanism, Greek mythology, anarchism, liberalism, humanism, Judaism, Christianity, and many more, though his is a preliminary overview. In Hating God Schweizer’s malleable typology of misotheism keeps the ball rolling, but also gives it some much-needed direction.

***

Cross-posted from lifeongoldplates.com. Schweizer has been pretty active at promoting the book online: guest-blogging for CNN and Religious Dispatches, posting updates on his own website. In addition to his book and the informative wiki article (the talk page is active!), these links might be of interest:

  • Clark

    I think Misotheism is an understudied area particularly with regards to Mormons. I know the people who lose faith especially due to historic or political reasons (i.e. learn about polyandry or hate prop-8) get all the notice. But I probably know more people who would love to leave Mormonism but don’t because they have had spiritual experiences they can’t deny. In some cases this just leaves them in a difficult spot but in other cases (particularly with regards to variations on the problem of evil or issues such as late singleness or homosexuality) they really do come to hate God while still believing in him. It’s an interesting dynamic I’ve just not seen studied enough. Some move on to disbelief or at least idiosyncratic modifications of their religion. But others are unwilling to go that way.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    Clark, I really appreciate you plowing through this post and commenting! Like you, I thought this was a very interesting and understudied aspect of belief in God.

  • Latter-day Guy

    BYU playwright Eric Samuelsen explores this theme a little bit in his recent work Borderlands with the character Phyllis (dying of cancer), who lost her husband and two little daughters in a car accident many years before the play begins. She seems to keep the commandments almost to spite God.

    PHYLLIS: Yes. Why did he? Just left us alone, nothing but pain and loneliness. and no answers. None. And ab­solutely nothing to look forward to.
    GAIL: No.
    PHYLLIS: So unfair. How long we have to wait. [A long pause.]
    GAIL: But you still go? To church: you still believe.
    PHYLLIS: I don’t want to hurt forever.
    BRIAN: No.
    GAIL: Of course not.
    PHYLLIS: If there’s a forever. If it ends and there’s nothing, then it ended and there was nothing. But if there’s a for­ever, then I will do what I need to so I can spend it with them. Restore what God took from me. And so I go, every Sunday.

    And later:

    BRIAN: What about you, Phyllis?
    PHYLLIS: What about me?
    BRIAN: Do you count? As a Mormon?
    PHILLIS: I attend all my meetings; I fulfill all my callings; I go to the temple weekly. I read my scriptures and I pray. I am certainly a Mormon. In nearly every way that matters.
    BRIAN: So okay.
    PHYLLIS: But I never have forgiven him. I’m sorry, this rain seems to have gotten to me, I don’t usually talk like this. But he took them all. I did not deserve that.
    [...]
    BRIAN: So you’re like us too. A sort-of Mormon.

  • Clark

    BTW – I think any author who self-identifies as groundbreaking is annoying. Let others decide if you are groundbreaking.

    Getting back to the Mormonism angle. I think one reason this is more relevant for Mormons in particular is particularly the epistemology. I know Schweizer is primarily dealing with morality but the epistemological question is pretty significant. Afterall many people encounter the moral issue and simply disbelieve because there’s not a strong positive reason to believe beyond tradition. You look at why most people believe in God and typically it’s just unreflexive. Some of those may come to hate God and not even conceive of rejecting belief in God. However in our culture with a long atheistic and naturalistic tradition that’s less likely.

    Mormonism is different in that so many believers do so on the basis of positive experiences. Now not all Mormon believers have such experiences. (Sometimes I wonder how many have them at all) And of course not all experiences are of equal strength. But if someone has a fairly strong experience that leads them to believe then the move to disbelief requires either thinking:

    1. they were some variation of delusional such that the experience itself wasn’t trustworthy

    2. enough distance from the experience that it can be discounted (i.e. it doesn’t have the impact but there really isn’t a big interpretive problem – it’s more “forgotten.”)

    3. the experience is reinterpreted – although this is much trickier with strong experiences and typically requires some variation of (1).

    If you can’t really do one of these three, and I think this is more common than people realize, then all that is left is Misotheism. Contrast this with say Protestantism where the grounding of experience as justifying belief is much rarer. So it would seem to me that one should expect far more of this within Mormonism simply because of why people are Mormon.

    It’s also interesting that Korihor, the most famous anti-christ in Mormon narratives, preaches against God but interestingly is revealed not to actually be doing this because he disbelieves. It’s not hard to read Alma 30 as an example of Msotheism.

  • Clark

    To add Laman and Lemuel probably fit as well – they know there is a God and have remarkable experiences of angels and the like. But they consciously fight against God.

    The idea of cursing God is prominent in the Book of Mormon as well. We have the enemies of the Nephites at least portrayed as cursing God. (Alma 49:27) And of course the famous climax of the Nephite destruction is an example of misotheism

    And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. Nevertheless they would struggle with the sword for their lives. (Mormon 2:14)

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    Latter-day Guy, very cool inclusion, thanks for bringing that excerpt to my attention.

    Clark: I think any author who self-identifies as groundbreaking is annoying. Let others decide if you are groundbreaking.

    Agreed. I get the feeling the author has a quality of self-promotion that he isn’t afraid to use! Also, it’s probably leftovers of his initial pitching of the book, trying to argue for its relevance and newness to attract a good publisher.

    I know Schweizer is primarily dealing with morality but the epistemological question is pretty significant.

    Yes, this is an interesting distinction which he doesn’t really explore.

    So it would seem to me that one should expect far more of this within Mormonism simply because of why people are Mormon.

    Very interesting, this would be cool to explore in-depth. Also, excellent possible scriptural examples.

  • JLMerkling

    Very interesting.

    As a Pop culture note, misotheism is on of the major themes in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and the central premise of his first movie “Praying in Anger”.

  • Bernard Schweizer

    I appreciate B. Hodges’s comprehensive, sophisticated, and fair review of my book Hating God. I also enjoyed reading the comments posted by readers of this website.

    As for my self-identification: I am simply a secular humanist who is fascinated by people who paradoxically believe in God and yet oppose him. Specifically, I have great respect for artists and thinkers who, even while they struggle with their anti-devotional belief, derive considerable creative impulses from it.

    By the way, I find it intriguing to be critiqued for supposedly touting the “groundbreaking” character of my work. While I strongly believe that my book explores an aspect of God-thinking that has not been given its due attention to date, it was actually a Washington Post reviewer who put out the notion that I imply to be doing groundbreaking work. To me, that is a pretty superficial and rather irrelevant comment.

  • BHodges

    Cool, thanks for stopping by Mr. Schweizer. I enjoyed the book a good deal. Read it through in two sittings. If by chance you are still following these comments I’d love to do a Q&A or something with you. My email is blairdhodges (at) gmail.com.

    I thought the WaPo reviewer’s comment about the “groundbreaking” thing was interesting to consider. Basically, your introduction did what almost all introductions do: argued for the relevance and uniqueness of what your study has to offer. The reviewer took off on that point, and I thought it was a good springboard to discuss your potential audience(s).