Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, by Bernard Schweizer (New York: Oxford Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-975138-9) 256 pp. Cloth $29.95.
Modern theorists often pose a dichotomy of belief as “faith versus science,” but Bernard Schweizer’s book, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, reminds us that the situation is really more complicated. Before reviewing Schweizer’s work, I’ll do my best to clarify the terms used to describe various attitudes toward the divine. This will help locate where Schweizer’s God-haters fit along the spectrum between science and faith.
First, there are people who simply do not believe in gods: atheists are confident there is no God, so they can operate in a scientific world with little emotional investment in the supernatural. Agnostics might also fit into this category, for although they do not have the full faith of atheistic certainty that there is no God, they move through the world as if God does not exist.
Believers—those who feel at least a measure of the certainty of faith—are also covered by a range of terms. Deists (often inaccurately accused of atheism) believe in a creator deity who started up the world but no longer has any active involvement in it. Deists might invest the supernatural with awe and respect, but they expect no divine intervention—or even comfort—as they muddle through this world.
The final broad group of believers actively trusts in a God who intervenes in their lives, and this group may include monotheists or polytheists or even satanists. This is not to say that all believers accept religion without critique. Some of the faithful have turned against established religious structures—churches, mosques, or other institutions—that they believe have corrupted God’s message and caused evil in the world. Schweizer includes many anti-institutional believers in his God-hating category, although he recognizes that people can easily blame a church for perceived ills in the world while leaving God untouched by the criticism.
Finally, there are people who blame the creator god, a being they believe is all-powerful, for the evils of the world. These faithful blame God for standing aloof while humans suffer, and Schweizer calls them misotheists: people who actively hate God. Most misotheists are driven to hate God by observing injustices here on Earth—from events like genocide to personal losses; they can’t reconcile their belief in a loving god with the presence of evil in the world. It seems they have the worst of both worlds: the deep faith of the believer combined with a deep disillusionment in the god they believe in. They have neither the detachment of the atheist nor the comfort of the faithful.
Schweizer argues that there is a hidden tradition of people who hate God, and his book attempts to describe this belief and to bring the term misotheism into wide usage. He hopes the dissemination of this term will help people become aware of this phenomenon so that it can come to the forefront of intellectual discourse instead of remaining in the shadows, largely unrecognized or denied. Although some of Schweizer’s examples often blur the lines between misotheists and other religious critics, his argument holds up: there are those who reveal a deep hatred of the god of their faith. The author, who focuses on written works of literature and philosophy, also argues that writers are often more comfortable revealing their god-hatred in their fictional creations, so literature offers fertile ground for misotheism.
To add weight to his thesis, Schweizer demonstrates that misotheism is not new but has a history of its own, which he proceeds to trace through the intellectuals antecedent to those who now vent their anger at God. With this goal in mind, Schweizer presents “A Brief History of Misotheism” in the first section of his book. He begins with the biblical Book of Job, which is where Christians who try to understand the random misfortunes bestowed by a seemingly whimsical god usually begin. The misotheist in the tale isn’t Job, who questions God but remains faithful to him. No—the term applies to Job’s wife, who cries out for Job to curse God and die. I always thought her position was the more moral one; she grieves the random loss of her beloved children instead of being comforted by the replacement family provided in the end. Here is the conundrum faced by many believers: Do you forgive God for his cruelty? Misotheists don’t.
Schweizer continues his historical survey by analyzing writers both familiar and obscure. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 b.c.e.) had disdain for gods, who created the universe then withdrew, leaving humans to their own devices and to find their own comfort in the face of pain and disaster. Schweizer shows that many thinkers returned to Epicurus’s views as they struggled with their own beliefs. For example, the author argues that Thomas Paine, who is considered a deist, actually actively hated the Old Testament God for his injustices. Schweizer’s list continues through philosophers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin to feminists like Naomi Goldenberg.
The most familiar articulation of misotheism comes from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whose proclamation that “God is dead” echoed into the twentieth century, even making the cover of Time magazine in 1966. Although some might argue that Nietzsche was simply describing a rise of atheism in people’s hearts, Schweizer writes that this view “disregards the visceral hatred for the concept of the divine that inspired Nietzsche’s tirades” (p. 57). Here is the issue at the center of the case for misotheism: there is an active energy expressed toward a god who has let you down.
Other examples are less convincing. Icons like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud were more concerned with attacking religious institutions that impede human flourishing. Whether he claims that the church is an opiate of the people (Marx) or an instrument of sexual repression (Freud), neither bothers to seriously rage at the deity that stands behind the institution. In fact, both men have usually been considered atheists. The same argument can be made for feminists whose protests against patriarchal religious institutions make them religious critics more than God-haters.
Even eliminating such borderline examples of God-hatred, Schweizer has compiled a sufficiently impressive list of people in fields from philosophy to literature in making a convincing case for the existence of misotheism. Then, he proceeds to identify three types of misotheists and to structure the remaining part of his book around exploring the texts that explain the types.
The first kind of God-haters are agonistic misotheists, people who engage in an ongoing internal struggle with their negative relationship with God. People like Mark Twain, Rebecca West, and Elie Wiesel are constantly berating God for his injustice. Elie Wiesel’s experience in the Holocaust surely makes his anger at God understandable. What is harder for me to grasp is Wiesel’s continued belief in a deity that could allow such injustice; it seems easier to become an atheist than an agonistic misotheist. In the case of people who fight with God, faith seems a curse that they can’t eliminate, so they hate the deity that has such a hold on them.
A second form of God-hating is absolute misotheism. These people cheerfully hate God and want to eliminate him from the world. In this group, Schweizer includes Friedrich Nietzsche, Peter Shaffer (author of Amadeus and Equus), and Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy had enough of a misotheistic theme that churches boycotted the film version of its first book, The Golden Compass. Again, to me, atheism seems an easier solution, but it probably makes for less compelling fiction.
Schweizer calls the final category of misotheistic writers political misotheists. These he admits are the most problematic because they often fall into the category of those who reject religious institutions rather than those who hate God. But Schweizer suggests that the issue is one of the passion of the critique, because these misotheists rage against the Godhead that supports oppressive political structures. Political misotheists flourished with anarchist movements and fell away in the twentieth century, when atheism was a viable political alternative. (Maybe political misotheism will return in twenty-first-century America, where atheism does not seem possible in politics—but that idea is outside the scope of this book.) Most of Schweizer’s book describes writers who are either agonistic or absolute misotheists.
Although Schweizer is primarily interested in demonstrating the existence of believers who hate God, he periodically reflects upon the results of misotheistic beliefs, and the consequences are remarkably positive. It seems people’s hatred of God came from a deep compassion for humans. For such critics, a god who promised justice in exchange for worship didn’t live up to the bargain, so humans have to look out for themselves. This humanistic impulse makes people more able to withstand adversity because they are not waiting for divine intervention that doesn’t arrive; it makes people willing to improve this world rather than wait for a better one to come along. How can one disapprove of such a desire to make the world a better, more humane place to live? Secular humanists have been working toward this goal for a long time. Yet I am left feeling a little sad for those who have such a deep faith in God that they can’t just dismiss him—they have to hate him.