Misotheism

Misotheism [miss-oh-thee-iz-uhm] is the ‘hatred of God(s).’ In some varieties of polytheism, it was considered possible to inflict punishment on gods by ceasing to worship them. Thus, Hrafnkell, protagonist of the eponymous Icelandic saga set in the 10th century, as his temple to Freyr is burnt and he is enslaved states that ‘I think it is folly to have faith in gods,’ never performing another sacrifice.

German mythologist Jacob Grimm in his ‘Teutonic Mythology’ observes that: ‘It is remarkable that Old Norse legend occasionally mentions certain men who, turning away in utter disgust and doubt from the heathen faith, placed their reliance on their own strength and virtue.’ ‘…in themselves they trusted.” In monotheism, the sentiment arises in the context of ‘theodicy’ (the problem of evil, the Euthyphro dilemma). A famous literary expression of misotheistic sentiment is Goethe’s ‘Prometheus,’ composed in the 1770s.

A related concept is ‘dystheism’ (‘ungodly’), the belief that a god is not wholly good, and is possibly evil. Trickster gods found in polytheistic belief systems often have a dystheistic nature. One example is Eshu, a trickster god from Yoruba mythology who deliberately fostered violence between groups of people for his own amusement, saying that ‘causing strife is my greatest joy.’ Some Dualist interpretations of Christianity would conclude that demons are gods in those subsets of religions. In that context, misotheism is encouraged for one third of all deities but not the other two thirds. Some versions of ancient Gnosticism also often portrayed the Demiurge, the desire to believe in an intelligent creator, as a generally evil entity.

Many polytheistic deities since prehistoric times have been assumed to be neither good nor evil (or to have both qualities). Thus dystheism is normally used in reference to the Judeo-Christian God. In conceptions of God as the summum bonum (‘the highest good’), the proposition of God not being wholly good would of course be a contradiction in terms. A historical proposition close to ‘dystheism’ is the ‘deus deceptor’ (‘dieu trompeur’) of Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy,’ which has been interpreted by Protestant critics as the blasphemous proposition that God exhibits malevolent intent. But Kennington states that Descartes never declared his ‘evil genius’ to be omnipotent, but merely no less powerful than he is deceitful, and thus not explicitly an equivalent to God, the singular omnipotent deity.

Misotheism first appears in a dictionary in 1907. Strictly speaking, the term connotes an attitude towards the gods (one of hatred) rather than making a statement about their nature. Long Island University English professor Bernard Schweizer (2002) stated ‘that the English vocabulary seems to lack a suitable word for outright hatred of God… [even though] history records a number of outspoken misotheists,’ believing ‘misotheism’ to be his original coinage. Applying the term to the work of Philip Pullman (‘His Dark Materials’), Schweizer clarifies that he does not mean the term to carry the negative connotations of misanthropy: ‘To me, the word connotes a heroic stance of humanistic affirmation and the courage to defy the powers that rule the universe.’

While ‘dystheism’ is the belief that God exists but is not wholly good, the opposite concept is ‘eutheism,’ the belief that God exists and is wholly good. However, many proponents of dystheistic ideas (including Elie Wiesel and David Blumenthal) do not offer those ideas in the spirit of hating God. Their work notes God’s apparent evil or at least indifferent disinterest in the welfare of humanity, but does not express hatred towards him because of it. A notable usage of the concept that the gods are either indifferent or actively hostile towards humanity is in the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. ‘Maltheism’ is an ad-hoc coining appearing on Usenet (an early Internet message board) in 1985, referring to the belief in God’s malevolence inspired by the thesis of Tim Maroney that ‘even if a God as described in the Bible does exist, he is not fit for worship due to his low moral standards.’ The same term has also seen use among designers and players of role-playing games to describe a world with a malevolent deity.

‘Antitheism’ is direct opposition to ‘theism.’ As such, it is generally manifested more as an opposition to belief in a god (to theism per se) than as opposition to gods themselves, making it more associated with antireligion, although Buddhism is generally considered to be a religion despite its status with respect to theism being more nebulous. Antitheism by this definition does not necessarily imply belief in any sort of god at all, it simply stands in opposition to the idea of theistic religion. Under this definition, antitheism is a rejection of theism that does not necessarily imply belief in gods on the part of the antitheist. Some might equate any form of antitheism to an overt opposition to God, since these beliefs run contrary to the idea of making devotion to God the highest priority in life, although those ideas would imply that God exists, and that he wishes to be worshiped, or to be believed in. ‘Post-theism’ accepts the validity of the concept of God as inducing morality at a certain stage of human development, but postulates a stage where morality can exist without support in religious cult, rendering the concept of God superfluous.

Certain forms of dualism (the belief that the brain and the mind are separate entities) make the assertion that the thing worshiped as God in this world is actually an evil impostor, but that a true benevolent deity worthy of being called ‘God’ exists beyond this world. The Gnostics believed that God (the deity worshiped by Jews, Greek Pagan philosophers, and Christians) was really an evil creator or demiurge that stood between us and some greater, more truly benevolent real deity — although there is no reason given why the higher deity is not a creator-god as well, nor why the higher deity allows the realm of the evil demiurge as flawed and unjust to continue to exist. Similarly, Marcionites held beliefs deemed maltheistic in nature, depicting God as represented in the Old Testament as a wrathful, genocidal, malicious demiurge.

Dystheistic speculation arises from consideration of the problem of evil — the question of why God, who is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, would allow evil to exist in the world. Koons notes that this is only a theological problem for a eutheist, since a dystheist would not find the existence of evil (or God’s authorship of it) to be an obstacle to theistic belief. In fact, the dystheistic option would be a consistent non-contradictory response to the problem of evil. Thus Koons concludes that the problem of theodicy (explaining how God can be good despite the apparent contradiction presented in the problem of evil) does not pose a challenge to all possible forms of theism (i.e., that the problem of evil does not present a contradiction to someone who would believe that God exists but that he is not necessarily good). This conclusion implicitly takes the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, asserting the independence of good and evil morality from God (as God is defined in monotheistic belief). Historically, the notion of ‘good’ as an absolute concept has emerged in parallel with the notion of God being the singular entity identified with good. In this sense, dystheism amounts to the abandonment of a central feature of historical monotheism: the de facto association of God with the ‘summum bonum.’

Much of post-Holocaust theology, especially in Judaic theological circles, is devoted to a rethinking of God’s goodness. Examples include the work of David R. Blumenthal, author of ‘Facing the Abusing God’ (1993) and John K. Roth, whose essay ‘A Theodicy of Protest’ is included in ‘Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy’ (1982): ‘Everything hinges on the proposition that God possesses—but fails to use well enough—the power to intervene decisively at any moment to make history’s course less wasteful. Thus, in spite and because of his sovereignty, this God is everlastingly guilty and the degrees run from gross negligence to mass murder… To the extent that [people] are born with the potential and power to [do evil things], credit for that fact belongs elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ is God’s address.’

The ‘deus deceptor’ (French ‘dieu trompeur’) ‘deceptive god’ is a concept of Cartesianism. Voetius accused Descartes of blasphemy in 1643. Jacques Triglandius and Jacobus Revius, theologians at Leiden University, made similar accusations in 1647, accusing Descartes of ‘hold[ing] God to be a deceiver,’ a position that they stated to be ‘contrary to the glory of God.’ Descartes was threatened with having his views condemned by a synod, but this was prevented by the intercession of the Prince of Orange (at the request of the French Ambassador Servien). The accusations referenced a passage in the ‘First Meditation’ where Descartes stated that he supposed not an optimal God but rather an evil demon ‘summe potens & callidus’ ( ‘most highly powerful and cunning’). The accusers identified Descartes’ concept of a ‘deus deceptor’ with his concept of an evil demon, stating that only an omnipotent God is ‘summe potens’ and that describing the evil demon as such thus demonstrated the identity. Descartes’ response to the accusations was that in that passage he had been expressly distinguishing between ‘the supremely good God, the source of truth, on the one hand, and the malicious demon on the other.’ He did not directly rebut the charge of implying that the evil demon was omnipotent, but asserted that simply describing something with ‘some attribute that in reality belongs only to God’ does not mean that that something is being held to actually be a supreme God.

The evil demon is omnipotent, Christian doctrine notwithstanding, and is seen as a key requirement for Descartes’ argument by Cartesian scholars. The progression through the First Meditation, leading to the introduction of the concept of the evil genius at the end, is to introduce various categories into the set of dubitables, such as mathematics (i.e. Descartes’ addition of 2 and 3 and counting the sides of a square). Although the hypothetical evil genius is never stated to be one and the same as the hypothetical ‘deus deceptor,’ the inference by the reader that they are is a natural one, and the requirement that the deceiver is capable of introducing deception even into mathematics is seen by commentators as a necessary part of Descartes’ argument. Scholars contend that in fact Descartes was not introducing a new hypothetical, merely couching the idea of a deceptive God in terms that would not be offensive.

Paul Erdős, the eccentric and extremely prolific Hungarian-born mathematician, referred to the notion of deus deceptor in a humorous context when he called God ‘the Supreme Fascist,’ who deliberately hid things from people, ranging from socks and passports to the most elegant of mathematical proofs. A similar sentiment is expressed by Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ in reference to the temptation of Adam and Eve by God: ‘[God] puts an apple tree in the middle of [the Garden of Eden] and says, do what you like guys, oh, but don’t eat the apple. Surprise surprise, they eat it and he leaps out from behind a bush shouting ‘Gotcha.’ It wouldn’t have made any difference if they hadn’t eaten it…Because if you’re dealing with somebody who has the sort of mentality which likes leaving hats on the pavement with bricks under them you know perfectly well they won’t give up. They’ll get you in the end.’

There are various examples of arguable dystheism in the Bible, sometimes cited as arguments for atheism (e.g. Bertrand Russell 1957). Most of these are from the Pentateuch, the theological nature of which is still close to henotheism (the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped). A notable exception is the ‘Book of Job,’ a classical case study of theodicy, which can be argued to consciously discuss the possibility of dystheism (e.g. Carl Jung, ‘Answer to Job’). Thomas Paine wrote in ‘The Age of Reason’ that ‘whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the word of God.’ But Paine’s perspective was a deistic one, critical more of common beliefs about God than of God himself.

Misotheistic and/or dystheistic expression has a long history in the arts and in literature. Bernard Schweizer’s book ‘Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism’ is devoted to this topic. He traces the history of ideas behind misotheism from the ‘Book of Job,’ via Epicureanism and the twilight of Roman paganism, to deism, anarchism, Nietzschean philosophy, feminism, and radical humanism. The main literary figures in his study are Percy Bysshe Shelley, Algernon Swinburne, Zora Neale Hurston, Rebecca West, Elie Wiesel, Peter Shaffer, and Philip Pullman. Schweizer argues that literature is the preferred medium for the expression of God-hatred because the creative possibilities of literature allow writers to simultaneously unburden themselves of their misotheism, while ingeneously veiling their blasphemy.

The characters in several of Tennessee Williams’ plays express dystheistic attitudes, including the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in ‘The Night of the Iguana.’ In Jewish author Elie Wiesel’s play ‘The Trial of God’ (1979), the survivors of a pogrom, in which most of the inhabitants of a 17th-century Jewish village were massacred, put God on trial for his cruelty and indifference to their misery. The play is based on an actual trial Wiesel participated in that was conducted by inmates of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Nazi holocaust, but it also references a number of other incidents in Jewish history including a similar trial conducted by the Hasidic Rabbi Levi Yosef Yitzhak of Berdichev: ‘Men and women are being beaten, tortured and killed. True, they are victims of men. But the killers kill in God’s name. Not all? True, but let one killer kill for God’s glory, and God is guilty. Every person who suffers or causes suffering, every woman who is raped, every child who is tormented implicates Him. What, you need more? A hundred or a thousand? Listen, either he is responsible or he is not. If he is, let’s judge him. If he is not, let him stop judging us.’

Several non-Jewish authors share Wiesel’s concerns about God’s nature, including Salman Rushdie (‘The Satanic Verses,’ ‘Shalimar the Clown’) and Anne Provoost (‘In the Shadow of the Ark’): Why would you trust a God that doesn’t give us the right book? Throughout history, he’s given the Jewish people a book, he’s given the Christians a book, and he’s given the Muslims books, and there are big similarities between these books, but there are also contradictions. … He needs to come back and create clarity and not … let us fight over who’s right. He should make it clear. So, my personal answer to your question, ‘Should we trust [a God who can’t get things right],’ I wouldn’t.’

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