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Dystheism (from Greek δυσ- dys-, "bad" and θεός theos, "god"), is the belief that a god or God is not wholly good and is possibly evil. Definitions of the term somewhat vary, with one author defining it as "where God decides to become malevolent". [1] 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.[2]

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, though 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), neither of which are 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.[3] Said argument is an inversion of Voltaire's phrase "If God did not exist, it would be necessary for man to invent Him".

Political theorist and activist Thomas Paine similarly wrote in The Age of Reason, "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." He added, "It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel."[4] Unlike Bakunin, however, Paine's condemnation of the purported nature of the divine from his time didn't extent to outright atheism and disbelief in all spirituality, Paine stating that he accepted the deistic notion of an almighty mover behind all things.

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.[2] 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."[5]

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.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Human, Dirk J. (2012). Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 25.
  2. ^ a b Algernon Charles Swinburne (Nov 17, 2013). Delphi Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Illustrated). Delphi Classics.
  3. ^ Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (Jan 1, 2009). God and the State. Cosimo, Inc. p. 28.
  4. ^ Paine, Thomas (1877). The Age of Reason. Citadel Press.
  5. ^ Michael Okuda; Denise Okuda; Debbie Mirek (May 17, 2011). The Star Trek Encyclopedia. Simon & Schuster.
  6. ^ Esch, Jim. "He Gives Us All His Love" at AllMusic. Retrieved June 23, 2014.

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