Editor’s Note: When we heard that Bernard Schweizer had written a book and was blogging about an iteration of “-theism” we had never even heard of, we invited him to do a guest stint at RD. He graciously accepted, and we’re glad to welcome him.
Just when you thought that “new atheism” marked a radical turn in nonconformist thought, along comes an even more rebellious concept of religious dissent: misotheism.
What I’ve tried to do in my work is to take the lid off this simmering, largely repressed stew of blasphemy — and to do away, for good, with the false notion that atheists hate God. While atheists may oppose religion or clerical institutions they cannot reasonably hate God, since one cannot hate that which does not exist. What atheists from Annie Besant to Christopher Hitchens will do is express contempt for the fictional construct called “God,” much as one might dislike for a fictional villain, say Uriah Heep or Iago. In addition, atheists may take exception to the fact that so many people consider God to be both real and praise-worthy.
Misotheism is a different kettle of fish. In fact, it may well turn out to be more threatening to the pious than atheism because misotheism makes the radically subversive claim that there is a God but that he is malevolent or at least incompetent, indifferent—in any case not worshipful.
Is this just a modern twist on blasphemy, the latest development in the long history of iconoloclasm? Not really. There is a considerable pedigree for this anti-devotional attitude, starting, of course, with the Book of Job. I’m not referring to Job himself, who, after quarreling with God and questioning his justice, finally submits to the will and the wisdom of the deity. Rather, I am referring to Job’s wife, who, witnessing random destruction of life and property—all supposedly sanctioned by God—denounces God and bluntly suggests that they should “curse God and die.” She was not heard of again in the Bible.
But surely, her irreverence had imitators. And while it may be difficult to isolate a distinct fury against God from texts written by medieval heretics or even from Descartes’ more risky speculations about the nature of deity, misotheism proper comes into clearer focus from the 1800s onwards. William Blake called “the Creator of this World a very Cruel Being,” Percy Shelley thought of God as a tyrant, Mark Twain identified God as a celestial bandit, and Rebecca West referred to him as “master criminal.” The blunt curse of Job’s wife finds more eloquent expression in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anti-prayer:
God is stupidity and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and misery; God is evil. As long as humanity shall bend before an altar, humanity, the slave of kings and priests, will be condemned; as long as one man, in the name of God, shall receive the oath of another man, society will be founded on perjury; peace and love will be banished from among mortals. God, take yourself away!
This was written in 1847, and the world has not come to an end. But such anti-devotional fury could be a dangerous game for those voicing it. Britain’s blasphemy law (repealed only in 2008) could be invoked to do more than give slanderers of God a slap on the wrist. In 1821, the bookseller who sold pirated copies of Shelley’s Queen Mab went to prison for four months. While blasphemy laws and public censure of God-hatred did not stifle people’s need to rebel against God, it did force the writers among them to cleverly hide their misotheism. Writers from Blake to Shelley to Mark Twain, to Zora Neale Hurston, to Rebecca West devised ingenious schemes to be able to say “I hate God” while appearing to do no such thing. And how well they succeeded!
Mark Twain, a closeted misotheist, confided in his private journal that
we all conceal it, just as I am doing, until I shall be dead and out of reach of public opinion…we all know that God, and God alone, is responsible for every act and word of a human being’s life between cradle and grave. . . . In our secret hearts we have no hesitation in proclaiming as an unthinking fool anybody who thinks he believes that he is by any possibility capable of committing a sin against God—or who thinks he is under obligations to God and owes Him thanks, reverence, and worship.
What surprised me as I researched this radical anti-God stance is that most readers even today don’t seem not to take notice of it when they look God-hatred in the eye. It’s as if most of us lacked the proper receptor to take cognizance of this stance. So, here is a paradoxical religious phenomenon—people who cannot disbelieve and yet find that God is cruel, indifferent or incompetent—and this stance didn’t even have a commonly agreed upon name! I therefore revived a rarely used term—“misotheism”—to capture just this sort of antagonistic religious belief (“misos” meaning hatred in Greek and “theos” God).
It may well be that the feeling of misotheism is more widespread than we think, especially during times of crisis, both personal and public. In her book titled Quitting Church (2008), Christian author Julia Duin noticed that a surprising number of her respondents “were disappointed and perplexed in some way with God”.
More recently, a social science study was published under the title “Anger Toward God: Social-Cognitive Predictors, Prevalence, and Links With Adjustment to Bereavement and Cancer.” The study’s main author, Lulie J. Exline, writes that “these studies suggest that anger toward God is an important dimension of religious and spiritual experience, one that is measurable, widespread, and related to adjustment across various contexts and populations.” I will comment on this study in future blogs. But here I would like to say that this academic interest in anger toward God is really a recent phenomenon. There has been very little work on God-hatred in the past decades, both in the social sciences and in literary and philosophical inquiries. Again, this confirms the fact that misotheism, though existent, has until recently been avoided as a theme of serious inquiry.
One reason for this avoidance was referred to in Exline’s study as well: the fear that hating God would be perceived as an indicator of immoral or devious behavior. This is another misconception that my book clears up. It may surprise, and possibly irk, pious believers to realize that people’s misotheism is not usually correlated with criminal, antisocial, or even cranky behavior. The misotheists I studied for my book are committed humanitarians, great artists, profound thinkers, and decent citizens. This would be grist on the mill of secular humanists who claim that morality is not dependent on religious reverence, and it surely is a comfort to those who feel guilty for maintaining an adversarial relationship with God, a relationship they cannot shake and yet feel apprehensive about.
Hating God is not written by a misotheist and it is not advocating misotheism. What it does is to close a knowledge gap about one of the most unusual forms that the human relationship to the divine can take.