Title: Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism
Author: Bernard Schweizer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
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.
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).
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.)
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?).
What about the author?
Who’s gonna like this book?
“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).