God-Haters Can Be Great Company

I am always grateful when a reader picks up one of my books and reads it with attention and interest—and presumably from cover to cover. That’s not something any writer should take for granted, not today anyway when claims on our attention are so manifold and insistent. And when a reader goes even further and types out a reasonably perceptive review and publishes it, I am on the verge of giving out hugs for free.

But sometimes another feeling settles in… a quiet desperation when—after having written one’s fingers numb to make a fairly simple but important point—that very point has not gotten across.

Jake Meador’s review, online at Christianity Today, is a case in point. I truly appreciate the favorable things he has to say like “Schweizer has written an engrossing history.” At the same time, I feel that I need to set the record straight regarding the main quibble that he has with my book.

In Hating God I go to some lengths to explain why atheists are not, and in fact cannot be, haters of God in any genuine sense of the word and that, conversely, those who really do hate God, cannot be atheists. A new term was needed, and so I revived a forgotten word—misotheism—to denote people who believe in God and yet denounce him.

To be an atheist is to deny God’s existence, not to become enraged about God’s acts (or lack thereof). Sure, atheists have been known to condemn God, but they do this in the same spirit as one would condemn a fictional character—say, hapless Othello or the Grinch who stole Christmas.

There is absolutely nothing unusual about people expressing disgust and dislike of fictional characters, and that includes the atheists. What is more unusual and, indeed, highly paradoxical, is to encounter people who do believe in the existence of God (hence, for them God is not a fictional character) and yet to reject that God on moral grounds.

It puzzles me that Jake Meador sees no difference between the two stances, saying that my attempt “to demarcate ‘misotheists’ . . . and the New Atheists, like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens seems like a superficial, ephemeral distinction.” But I am not splitting hairs. If we refuse to make a distinction between the hatred of a fictional character and the hatred of, say, one’s mother-in-law, then we must refuse to make other kinds of distinctions as well. If hating a non-existing personage and hating an existing one are one and the same, then worshipping God and worshiping Harry Potter must also be considered on the same level. I wonder if Jake Maedor will agree that worshipping God and worshipping the boy wizard are, at basis, the same thing.

Meador’s misreading of my book deepens when he insists that I “fail to show that [the misotheists’] actual beliefs are substantially different from those of the contemporary New Atheist movement.” But I show that they are different all the time: misotheists are religious people, New Atheists are not (at least not in the conventional theistic sense). Also, New Atheists are trying to convince people of the harmfulness of religion—by contrast, misotheists, are not trying to discredit religion per se, they just find that God is not worshipful (which leaves them with plenty of religiosity).

I cannot help but wonder what could be behind these misconceptions? Right away, I realize that Meador’s strategy is deeply defensive in several ways. 1. He seems very uncomfortable with the thought that God-hatred can be found among the faithful. Indeed, if you grant that believers are really condemning God’s character, then there is something about belief that can be dangerous, deeply subversive. 2. Recognizing the distinction I make between misotheists and atheists deprives the pious from discrediting non-believers as God haters. 3. Or is it all just a red herring? Meador didn’t mention another thesis of mine: that God-hatred is not linked in any causal fashion with amorality. In other words, God-haters can be great company (St. Paul would have flatly denied that finding). Among the misotheists are outstanding artists, thinkers, humanists—people we’d want to be proud of, like Mark Twain, Elie Wiesel, Zora Neale Hurston.

So, in the final analysis, I don’t think Meador does justice to the compelling paradox explored in my book. What he does, unwittingly, is confirm one of my central contentions: that people generally lack the cognitive receptor to recognize misotheism as the third stance beyond piety and atheism. Many people want to live with the comforting myth of such a simple dichotomy: people either accept the existence of God and worship him or they deny/doubt God’s existence. Meador echoes this need in his closing plea for a “cleaner, simpler distinction” based on St. Paul’s vindictive stance against religious non-conformists in his Roman Epistle.

Well, I guess I should be sorry for having messed up the neatness of St. Paul’s you’re-either-for-us-or-against-us ideology by introducing the category-defying species of misotheists, a type of religious believer who is neither fish nor fowl. But then, the misotheist surely is a colorful, exotic, and fascinating animal worthy of a separate display in the menagerie of religious stances.