A world without God

21 February 2012 § 5 Comments

The believers and the atheists are at it again, with plenty of dangerously ill-informed nonsense being spouted on both sides. One of the things that has always troubled me is the assumption made by some believers that without God, society will collapse into immorality, and that everyone will give up in despair, with nothing to guide them onwards. At the same time, the more militant atheists defensively insist that all believers make this assumption, which only makes the misunderstandings worse.

It’s easy to assume that Dostoevsky falls firmly into the first camp: after all, there’s Raskolnikov the nihilist murderer apparently finding salvation and repentance through the Gospel and through Sonya’s faith; Stavrogin driven to despair by his inability to find redemption; Ivan Karamazov preaching that “everything is permitted”; and various dreams and visions of a monstrous future without god, where people devour each other and are crushed under the feet of Nietzschean supermen. Richard Dawkins certainly claims that Dostoevsky thought this way, when he writes in The God Delusion (p227):

It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness. It is widely believed that Dostoevsky was of that opinion, presumably because of some of remarks he put into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov…

And he goes on to quote from Ivan’s “Geological Upheaval” poem where he has imagined a world without God, in which there are no longer any moral laws and that everything is permitted. But what Dawkins doesn’t mention here is that these are the words of a younger Ivan, and that when they appear, they are being thrown back in his horrified face by the devil of his nightmare. The young Ivan had gone on to say that anyone who renounces God ahead of the masses is already entitled to contravene all the old moral laws – but he has taught this to Smerdyakov and has now seen the terrible consequences. His father has been murdered, his brother Dmitry has been arrested,  two women, Katerina and Grushenka, have had their lives turned upside down, and if you’ve read the book, you know even more (as you know, I try to avoid plot spoilers!). Ivan by this point has seen the awful consequences of “everything is permitted” and is being driven out of his mind by the knowledge of what he thinks he has unleashed. Similarly, Raskolnikov is already being tormented by his actions before he meets Sonya. It’s true that her Gospel message brings him comfort, but it’s his own conscience that  has led him to Sonya.  Stavrogin finds no respite from the torment caused by the memory of his crimes; rejecting God doesn’t release him from the consciousness of his sin, and every moment of possible happiness is tormented by the memory of his victim. Dostoevsky knows full well that the human spirit is perfectly capable of telling right from wrong, without needing a church to boss us around and tell us what to do. His (Roman Catholic) Grand Inquisitor says that weak mortals need the discipline of the church to make us behave but for Dostoevsky free will trumps all. He offers faith, and above all, the loving example of Christ, as something for us to aspire to, but  that’s not the same as saying that religion gives us our morality.

Rowan Williams has pointed out that Dostoevsky isn’t actually that bothered about proving the existence of God either way, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Where Dostoevsky is really interesting is in his explorations of the borderlands between faith and unbelief . Characters like Ippolit and Kirilov are assumed by those around them to be atheists, but really they’re just furious with God and rebelling against him, without actually denying his existence. Ivan Karamazov gets himself completely tied up in knots, especially over the business of suffering; I think he’s desperately trying to find in himself a faith that isn’t there, and he would be much better just acknowledging that for him, God doesn’t exist, and getting on with his life.  One of the messages I get from reading Dostoevsky is that some people have the right psychological make-up to benefit from a religious faith, and others don’t. What’s important is to know which  type of person you are, and not to force yourself into believing in God or denying him, if that goes against your nature. I don’t think Dostoevsky ever quite worked out whether he actually had faith or not, and his great devotion to the figure of Christ  complicates things, and his fiction is his own way of trying to find out.  It helped me to work it out though, allowing me to admit to myself what I think I’ve actually known for a long time.

And to those who fear moral breakdown in a godless society, Dostoevsky in fact offers a much more  positive vision of a world without God, in The Adolescent, in a dream inspired by Claude Lorrain’s painting Acis and Galatea:

The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world. To people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state…The would wake up and hasten to kiss each other, hurrying to love, conscious that the days were short, and that that was all they had left. They would work for each other, and each would give all he had to everyone, and would be happy in that alone. Every child would know and feel that each person on earth was like a father and mother to him. ‘Tomorrow may be my last day,’ each of them would think, looking at the setting sun, ‘but all the same, though I die, they will all remain, and their children after them’ – and this thought that would remain… would replace the thought of a meeting beyond the grave.


The Adolescent

12 January 2012 § Leave a comment

Somehow, I ended up only being given one book for Christmas this year – Dostoevsky’s messy, jumbled, neglected novel The Adolescent (also known in English as A Raw Youth, thanks to Constance Garnett). I’ve  described Brothers Karamazov as being like a soap opera, but The Adolescent  approaches the daftness of an opera plot. There is impossibly tangled intrigue; in one part of the plot, a young girl is planning to marry an old man for his money, but her plans are at risk because the old man’s daughter may succumb to the proposals of the young girl’s father and then the marriages would be illegal. There are secret documents, a gang of fraudsters, fallen women and philandering men galore, lust, betrayal, a mad gambling scene, a wicked French whore, and plenty of hiding behind doors. No-one dresses up as anyone else, but we’re not far off that level of silliness. It kept the pages turning though, and I had to read quickly before I lost track of what was going on.

It doesn’t help that Arkady Makarovich, the narrator, is the adolescent of the title, and that Dostoevsky portrays the self-centred arrogance of the teenager all too vividly and accurately. Furthermore, he takes the interesting step in this, his penultimate novel, of trying once again to write in the first person, so there is no escape from Arkady’s tediousness. Many of Dostoevsky’s early stories, as well as Humiliated and Insulted and Notes from Underground were written in the first person, and he never quite pulls it off. I think it’s because being inside the head of his central character prevents him from giving us the acute psychological analysis that he does so well – the trick with Dostoevsky is that we come to understand his characters better than they do themselves. In the same way, the first person narrator cannot plausibly delve deep into the consciousness of the other characters either. Dostoevsky’s literary genius really starts with Crime and Punishment – and he struggled with that until he devised to his intimate third-person narrative form.

There is some interesting stuff in The Adolescent though, and it provides clues to how Dostoevsky’s mind is working in the years leading up to Brothers Karamazov. I was particularly struck by Versilov’s lovely vision of  a post-Christian world, a golden age in which people live calmly, rationally, freed from superstition and fear  because they know that they are alone in the universe. It’s a lovely, soothing contrast to the horrors that Ivan Karamazov imagines, and I came across it just in time for making the case for atheism in my final chapter. There did that surprise anyone?

three brothers

23 December 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve just finished writing my first thoughts about the Karamazovs, mainly focussing on the three brothers. My notebook contains a lot of  other thoughts which I haven’t really managed to fit into what I wrote, but it’s all there for eventual use.

As the narrator of Brothers Karamazov says at the beginning of the trial:

“I trust that my readers will not complain if I describe only what struck me personally, and what stuck in my head”.

Now I’m going to break for Christmas, read trashy novels for a week or so, then come back in January to start on The Idiot.

Brothers Karamazov

22 December 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov – it’s taken exactly a month, which I think is a record-breaking speed for me. I’m struck again by what a cracking good story Dostoevsky can tell – if you strip out all the clever theology, it’s a real pot-boiler, with dramatic twists all over the place to keep you turning the pages right up to the end.

I’m conscious that when I wrote my little essay on Crime and Punishment to kick this off, I gave away a lot of the story, and at some point I’ll have to correct that. I think I was sliding back to the mindset of university essay-writing where, of course, your reader has read the book. I have some jottings already on the Karamazovs, but will be more careful not to give away all the delicious surprises of the plot. I wouldn’t like to inflict on anyone what happened to me when I first read Anna Karenina – halfway through it, I had a query and thought I’d read the introduction – which promptly gave away the plot in its opening paragraph.

I’ve been trying to remember when I have previously read it, and haven’t had much luck. My copy is inscribed with my name and Durham college, so I obviously bought it as an undergraduate, but I’m sure I never read it then. My memory of reading it is that I was particularly struck by the trial, and the reaction and interest it provokes in the town, and across Russia, and I compared it at the time with the intense interest and public speculation that surrounded the trial of Louise Woodward, the British nanny accused of shaking a baby to death in America. If so, that would put it at around 1997, so I either read it in London or in Moscow. Funny how I can’t remember. There’s also a postcard tucked inside it as a bookmark which was sent to me by my mother and the message on the back appears to date it from the time I lived in Chile, so I must have read it again there.

PS: I have to add this link too http://onion.com/hOy9qY – very very funny.

here we go

12 December 2010 § Leave a comment

Whilst not paying attention to a boring sermon in church this morning, I decided it might be useful to start a blog so that I can leave things for my very helpful friends to read as and when they want to, rather than clogging up their inboxes. I think P may have suggested it when he came up with this mad idea. Let’s see what happens.

I’ve posted my little introduction and my essay on Crime and Punishment. I wrote these mainly to get myself started, and to get something together quickly for P to read. If this evolves into something bigger, it’ll all have to be re-written but it’s a start. I also wrote something on the Grand Inquisitor as soon as I’d read it, because I wanted to get my own thoughts together before I read what everyone else has to say.

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