Dystheism (from Greek δυσ- dys-, "bad" and θεός theos, "god"), is the belief that a god, goddess, or singular God is not wholly good as is commonly believed (such as the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Judaism), and is possibly evil. Definitions of the term somewhat vary, with one author defining it as "where God decides to become malevolent". The broad theme of dystheism has existed for millennia, as shown by trickster gods found in polytheistic belief systems and by the view of the God of the Old Testament through a nonreligious lens as angry, vengeful and smiting. The modern concept dates back many decades, with the Victorian era figure Algernon Charles Swinburne writing in his work Anactoria about the ancient Greek poet Sappho and her lover Anactoria in explicitly dystheistic imagery that includes cannibalism and sadomasochism. Swinburne's long poem 'Atalanta in Calydon' contains some of the strongest expressions of dystheism in English literature, especially through the words of the poem's Chorus:
Because thou hast made the thunder, and thy feet
Are as a rushing water when the skies
Break, but thy face as an exceeding heat
And flames of fire the eyelids of thine eyes;
Because thou art over all who are over us;
Because thy name is life and our name death;
Because thou art cruel and men are piteous,
And our hands labour and thine hand scattereth;
Lo, with hearts rent and knees made tremulous,
Lo, with ephemeral lips and casual breath,
At least we witness of thee ere we die
That these things are not otherwise, but thus;
That each man in his heart sigheth, and saith,
That all men even as I,
All we are against thee, against thee, O God most high.
Background and details
The concept has been used frequently in popular culture and is a part of several religious traditions in the world. 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." Another example is the Norse Loki, through Odin has these qualities as well. Zoroastrianism involves belief in an ongoing struggle between a creator god of goodness (Ahura Mazda) and a destroying god of hatred (Angra Mainyu), both of which are not totally omnipotent, which is a form of dualistic cosmology. The Greek god Ares, depending on time and region, was associated with all the horrors of war.
Dystheists may themselves be theists or atheists, and in the case of either, concerning the nature of the God of Abrahamic faiths, will assert that God is not good, and is possibly, although not necessarily, malevolent, particularly (but not exclusively) to those who do not wish to follow that faith. For example, in his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), Jonathan Edwards, a devout theist, describes a God full of vengeful rage and contempt, seemingly different from one with Christ-like omnibenevolence. Such absence of omnibenevolence is one kind of theist counterargument to the notion that the problem of evil poses any great logical challenge to theism.
One particular view of dystheism, an atheistic approach, is summarized by the prominent revolutionary philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote in God and the State that "if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him". Bakunin argued that, as a "jealous lover of human liberty, and deeming it the absolute condition of all that we admire and respect in humanity", the "idea of God" constituted of metaphysical oppression of the idea of human choice. Said argument is an inversion of Voltaire's phrase "If God did not exist, it would be necessary for man to invent Him".
Usage in popular culture
Dystheism as a concept, although often not labeled as such, has been referred to in many aspects of popular culture. As stated before, related ideas date back many decades, with the Victorian era figure Algernon Charles Swinburne writing in his work Anactoria about the ancient Greek poet Sappho and her lover Anactoria in explicitly dystheistic imagery that includes cannibalism and sadomasochism. More recent examples include the popular Star Trek television series. Fictional character Worf claims that his race, the Klingons, have no gods, because they killed them centuries ago for being "more trouble than they were worth."
As well, the DC Comics character Darkseid is known as a sort of 'God of Evil' in that fictional universe, with the character famously remarking in the graphic novel series Final Crisis that "There was a war in Heaven. I won."
Prominent American singer-songwriter Randy Newman expresses a dystheistic worldview in his song "He Gives Us All His Love", a piano based ballad with sardonic lyrics describing how God has created a suffering world with its "babies crying" and "old folks dying" and smiles at it while doing nothing to help those unfortunate people. The track has appeared in both his 1972 album Sail Away and his 2011 album Original Album Series.
- Evil demon
- God as the Devil
- God and the State
- "He Gives Us All His Love"
- Problem of evil
- Problem of hell
- Human, Dirk J. (2012). Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 25.
- Algernon Charles Swinburne (Nov 17, 2013). Delphi Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. External link in
- Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (Jan 1, 2009). God and the State. Cosimo, Inc. p. 28. External link in
- Michael Okuda; Denise Okuda; Debbie Mirek (May 17, 2011). The Star Trek Encyclopedia. Simon & Schuster.
- Esch, Jim. "He Gives Us All His Love" at AllMusic. Retrieved June 23, 2014.