Dostoyevski’s most famous quote is not a quote but an abridgment of a conversation, is from The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no God, all things are permitted.” Dimitri Karamazov is in jail. His brother, Alexei, comes to visit him on the eve of the trial. Dimitri says he is lost, not because of the impending trial, but because he is sorry for God. The new science is squeezing God out, explaining him away. He asks, “how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” Later he asks, “What if [God] doesn’t exist? What if Ratikin is right, that it’s an artificial idea of mankind? So then, if he doesn’t exist, man is chief of the earth, of the universe. Splendid! Only how is he going to be virtuous without God?”
Turns out not only is Dostoyevski wrong, he couldn’t be more wrong: Since there is a God all things are permitted. This has nothing to do with God, of course, and everything to do with the ways we exploit the authority of God’s name to do as we please. If we want to do something that no ethical argument will justify, like beating homosexuals with bats or burning down AME churches or murdering people on the streets of Paris, all we need do is invoke God’s will.
Recent studies have shown that claiming to have God on your side to do immoral, or at least ungenerous, things isn’t restricted to extremists. Jean Decety, University of Chicago psychologist, led a research team in a study of 1170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 from Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa. 43% of the households studied were Muslim, 24% were Christian, 28% were not religious, and the remaining 5% were from a smattering of other religious traditions. Almost without exception parents in the religious households described their children as more empathic and sensitive to justice issues than non-religious parents. And yet, religious children proved to be much less altruistic and much more punitive than their non-religious counterparts. Across cultures and faith traditions not only did religiousness fail to promote virtue and high moral character it appears to have encouraged the opposite. (You can check out the study here.)
If you’re like me and grew up going to Sunday school, none of this is very surprising.
More to Dostoyevski’s point, or rather its opposite, a 2012 Baylor University study found that professing Christians who tend toward narcissism are more likely to demonstrate worse ethical judgment than “skeptics”, including narcissistic skeptics. This leads me to wonder, which came first, self-centered love or religious training?
Not all religious practitioners are narcissistic or punitive/judgmental, anti-altruistic or unethical. Indeed, all the great and historic religious traditions teach compassion and virtuous self-restraint as both the means to and fruit of enlightenment. They’ve produced history’s most beloved and revered exemplars: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, St Francis, the Bal Shem Tov, and on and on.
What did they get that most others miss? They didn’t use God to do as they pleased. You could say that God used them—called them—to do and be what they never would have chosen for themselves.
It seems to me that not only is religious affiliation not vital for moral development, moral development is necessary for a properly religious sensibility.
For Mother Teresa, MLK, Gandhi, et al, and maybe Dostoyevski too, their experience of God meant that not all things are permitted and few are encouraged. Yet everything is given.