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.

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