May 1, 2011

Review: Bernard Schweizer, "Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism"

Title: Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism
Author: Bernard Schweizer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2010
Pages: 246
ISBN13: 978-0-19-975138-9
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

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).

"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, which is manifest in 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.

"Agonistic Misotheism" 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).

Less comprehensible but 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).

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.)

While people will squabble about where (or whether) to draw the line, Schweizer finds a common thread tying the strugglers together: by operating within a religious framework, drawing on religious motifs, scriptures, and icons, misotheist writers have managed to testify of their belief even while protesting the substance of it. Because his analysis is so literature-centric, however, it misses out on non-print manifestations of misotheism. Think Woody Allen's quip, "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. I think that the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." Parenthetically, I was much more interested in Schweizer's literary analysis than his psychoanalysis, as when he employs a healthy dose of Freud to explain why certain misotheists' broken relationships with their fathers most likely led to their conflicted approach to God (105, for instance). He doesn't take any time justifying this psychoanalytic approach, but he spends a good deal of time justifying his biographication of the writers' fictional literature (see 104, 114-115, 124, 208, 223, 225). 

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?).

Schweizer's lengthy introduction (1-25) differentiates misotheism from multiple other approaches to God, including atheism, antitheism, gnosticism, agnosticism, and deicide, but he still misses a few possibilities. Think of the feeling expressed in novelist Julian Barnes's lament: “I don’t believe in God but I miss him,” for example. Of course, one book can only do so much, and Schweizer spends plenty of time contrasting misotheism with other manifestations of troubled relations between humans and their God. Speaking of which, why did Schweizer spend plenty of his time on this? 

It's inevitable with a book like this that readers will question the author's perspective, which he, oddly enough, doesn't directly address in the book. This is ironic considering how much time he spends talking about writers who masked their own misotheism. It might even be seen as a tantalizing invitation to investigate the author himself, but I'm not sure it was deliberate. Is he a misotheist? Elsewhere he says no (in the third person!): "Hating God is not written by a misotheist and it is not advocating misotheism" (Bernard Schweizer, "Hating God: The Untold Story," religiondispatches.org, 6 February 2011.) But by his own lights this is entirely contestable: "Thus, once again we can observe a degree of concealment and distancing when it comes to publicly avowing misotheism" (223). Again, is he? 

The strongest indication in the book that he might be a misotheist, or at least identify with them strongly, is found when he turns apologist for Robert Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy of children's books (see especially 205-207). The rhetorical advantage is clearly leveraged for Pullman, and to misotheists generally. It is clear that Schweizer is not out to reclaim or reform misotheists, but rather to make space for them, to offer a category as an alternative to the dichotomy of faithful believer or god-hating atheist. The underground nature of misotheistic output has led to little interaction and explication of the phenomenon. With an outline like Schweizer's we need not "reinvent the wheel every time this idea comes up." Misotheism will become more publicly relevant (Schweizer estimates there are six million American misotheists based on a recent sociological publication, see "Six Million God-Hating Americans Can't Be Wrong," religiondispatches.org, 18 February 2011). More pragmatically, it can "begin to spawn new ideas and lead to different spiritual and philosophical arguments that will contribute to making misotheism an evolving system of ideas rather than a static, reiterative position" (80).  "Process, development, critique, and invention" will follow in due order. 

Is this a feasible hope? "Schweizer’s insistence that his work is groundbreaking gets tiring," notes one reviewer for the Washington Post. Who might respond more positively to Schweizer’s insistence? Atheists might reject misotheists as fools who should just give up the act. Or they might give misotheists a warm welcome, happy to have more evidence against God's existence: even those who try to follow Him can't ultimately be satisfied with Him. If anything, atheists and doubters will welcome Schweizer's repeated point that those who doubt, struggle, or disbelieve are not by necessity evil or sinful; some of them base their feelings firmly on moral grounds (see p. 14). "In fact," he notes, "for many misotheists, love is precisely the centerpiece of their moral philosophy" (220). Based on the "master story-tellers, great thinkers, and dedicated humanitarians" Schweizer profiles in his book, "it would be reductive and unfair to condemn God's opponents as unworthy and in league with the devil" (217). At the same time, many of these readers who don't retain a feeling of desire for or allegiance to God might be confused or upset with Schweizer's assertion that atheists and agnostics, like misotheists, can also be just as "religious" as true believers (a topic for another whole essay, see pp. 206-207, 209, 211, etc.).  

On the other hand, misotheiets like Elie Wiesel would likely claim believers will almost certainly have a more difficult time with the book: "The tragedy of the believer is much greater than the tragedy of the non-believer," Wiesel noted (168). Ultimately, they might simply be turned off by the misotheistic critiques of God which range from the uncomfortable to the blasphemous, leaving misotheists without a welcome home among their ranks. If they believe in God they wouldn't feel that way, it might be suggested. I think there are deeper reasons why the book might be difficult for the faithful to read. First, it deprives the pious from easily dismissing those who struggle with their faith as simply being doubters, haters, or sinners. Schweizer's narrative includes deeply religious people facing real problems and seeking to maintain faith, even if that faith is antagonistic. Second, in the complexity that makes up our own religious life experiences it would be strange not to experience similar frustration with God at some point. Such feelings can be replaced through prayer, scripture study, or seeking solace in worship, but bringing the undercurrent of frustration to the surface seems awfully dangerous, though for some it may feel therapeutic. 

By grounding his discussion from the position of rationality and liberalism ('here, good reader, are proofs that misotheists can be good people, too, that they can be believers, and thus we see they need a spot at the table') Schweizer has shown his cards (217). Fundamentalists, it is expected, are not likely to embrace this kind of off-the-beaten-path religiosity. Nevertheless, the book might be most useful in providing a category for those who experience such feelings of frustration, it may give them a more constructive way to conceive of doubt, anger, or sorrow directed toward God without chalking their feelings up to religious apostasy or the loss of faith. 

To argue for the necessity of such a place, Schweizer points to Julia Duin's book Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It (2008). She notes that many people surveyed for the book "were disappointed and perplexed in some way with God" (216). Such people may not be satisfied by some of the common responses to their perplexity, like "things happen for a reason" (218). Misotheism provides a fruitful, and paradoxically faithful, avenue for people to struggle through, perhaps opening their eyes to help lift the burdens other people bear, to "mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort." Misotheism, Schweizer argues, "will continue to play a role in fiction and memoir as long as there are people who feel they have been harmed by God, either as individuals or as a community...[T]hose hostile to God—supposedly the fountainhead of all goodness—will continue to labor under the burden of making their paradoxical stance meaningful" (226). 

Of course, some Mormons might object that Mormonism offers a different view of God which can help circumvent some of the problems facing those who accept a God who created everything ex nihilo. I could only think of a few examples of Mormon misotheism (in Levi Peterson's novel The Backslider and Richard Dutcher's film Falling; more to come on these examples later), but I sensed a Mormon-esque possibility in a complaint from non-Mormon British journalist and novelist Rebecca West, one of Schweizer's featured agonistic misotheists:

"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).

Misotheism is a fruitful field of inquiry in religious studies because different manifestations are emerging depending largely on the social, religious, personal, and political circumstances of various believers (211, 217). Schweizer pays due attention to the modes of thought which influence misotheists, including feminism, Epicureanism, Greek mythology, anarchism, liberalism, humanism, Judaism, Christianity, and many more. In Hating God Schweizer's malleable typology of misotheism keeps the ball rolling, but also gives it some much-needed direction. 


***


Schweizer has been pretty active at promoting the book online: guest-blogging for CNN and Religious Dispatches, posting updates on his own website. In addition to his book and the informative wiki article (the talk page is quite amazing!), these links might be of interest:



8 comments:

BHodges said...

Sorry about the length, but to be fair, it could have been thrice as long and I still would have had more to say about this book. Liked it and hated it, in a good way.

DR said...

I liked it, it is definitely an interesting topic, and thought process. I would probably say that my biggest problem with it lies in the author essentially picking someone's beliefs for them. I think the label of a person's belief structure is solely their own providence. If the book had brought forth examples of people who do claim misotheism I probably would have appreciated it more. Great in-depth review though.

I am Chree-uz said...

Before I read the review I want to sort of respond to the idea in the previous comment. I don't see how someone else labeling them is a problem. In my experience, there are people that bleed certain traits and don't even know it. In fact, most idiots I know have no idea they are idiots and would never claim to be one themselves. Anyway, my response might change when I read the review...

Anonymous said...

The issue isn't labeling someone; some labels are a good thing others are not. My specific bone of contention is with labeling another person's belief structure. There are other things I feel this way about but I won't get into them here. When something is so personal (as this is) the right to label or not and what that label is only belongs to the person whom it applies to.

BHodges said...

DR: I agree that labeling, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, can be problematic. Personally I think the most harmful thing about labels is their potential to stop people from thinking through positions, or to dismiss someone's perspective because you have a convenient scare label for it. In this case I don't see misotheiem as something the believers themselves would be developing as a category for themselves, and Schweizer talks about a few reasons why this is the case. It being quite taboo, for one.

aquinas said...

Thanks for the review. I noticed that you don't mention anything about C.S. Lewis in your review. Didn't he have a bout after his wife's death where he was upset with God? Does Schweizer mention this at all in his book?

BHodges said...

Right, good call aquinas. IIRC Lewis manifested a bit of misotheism after his wife (of only a few years) died of cancer. He seems to question the reasoning behind it all, his crisis, like these other authors, is spurred by a tragedy, but it doesn't turn him away from God. Actually it turns him to God in a different way, with a bit of anger.

Schweizer doesn't mention Lewis, and I'm not sure why he doesn't. I get the feeling he is from a different school of literary criticism than Lewis though. (For one thing, Lewis really hated attempts to look for an authors biography within their works of fiction, whereas Schweizer has built some of his argument on that method.) Plus, Lewis was somewhat conservative politically from what I can tell, in the sense of not liking pacifists, etc. which might be another reason. The misotheists Schweizer highlights here tend to be somewhat liberal. Lewis would be a great example showing that misotheism isn't confined to liberal freaks!

Cameron said...

I think what resonates with me is why here, why me, why this and what outcome is expected, something along those lines. Like with this new Temple, I look around the world and can't for the life of me see why a Temple is being built to suit one stake-I know we are to grow but growth rates in Canada...move ins mostly. I can't see what is here that isn't in other areas of the world, like what makes us "worthy" or somehow "better" then others who travel way farther and incur more cost then us. I have been looking aorund and am like I hope that God wants this and not some man-made thing, like some goal to have a Temple in every Province goal, regardless-like you HAVE to grow now, no excuses,forcing people to do things in Church turns me off. I don't hate God because of it but I am like why us and not someone somewhere else? I don't want to see us getting into a ends justifies the means, I don't know.

I don't know what to make of people who commit suicide, especially us LDS. How and why would things get so bad that they get that thinking and God doesn't intervene or they don't see it or, where is the plan of happiness for this person?

Something that came up in ward council last week, it seemed that leaders of the Church are wealthy and does God favour wealthy people more then poor? Why bother learning the Gospel if being wealthy is all that is needed to be a leader? Plus being married. I know a single friend who quit the Church recently after 38 years of membership, her thinking is the Church is for married and succesful people and if you aren't that then God doesn't care, because God is what the Church does, so if you get kicked to the curb at 31 from a YSA ward then God is kicking you to the curb as well. Now some of these can be wedges in which people turn off from God and end up saying, why even bother with the whole of it? I don't need it and I don't know what I am supposed to think and feel and why do I have to feel I am "supposed" to be happy about not being married in our Church or whatever. I have no answers!

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