Dostoyevski was wrong

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.

2 thoughts on “Dostoyevski was wrong”

  1. But, Dostoyevski was right! Without a code of conduct that is based on morality, there is no measure of human behavior and anything can be justified. The great world religions all teach moral principals at their center. Because of their reference to a supreme power religions wield extreme power for a cause if the extremists can interpret their actions as the will of god. In more subtle ways, we try to justify our own selfish acts. Because the religious have a code by which to live, it becomes more important for them to justify their actions. Others, without religious convictions, only have to answer to an inner sense of right and wrong.
    The “call” of a Christian or other religious is a response to the code of conduct. It probably is not necessary to be religious to hear this call but it helps. It is easier to follow through when we understand that the motivation and capability to carry out the call is not borne entirely by the individual, but is powered by God.


    1. Thanks Bob. Is the call of religion a response to a code of conduct or is a code of conduct the result of genuine experience of the holy that calls one to faithfulness?
      What I’m arguing in the blog entry is that a conception of God as a supreme power who demands strict obedience to a specified code of behavior is a conception begging to be abused. All one has to do is cite God as the authority and actions that no ethical argument could sustain instantly become unexceptionable. Wahhabi extremists can rape Shiite girls or blow themselves up on the Boulevard Voltaire. “Bible-Believing Christians” can burn crosses or put bullet holes in a Planned Parenthood door. And so on. What God has ordained let no one put asunder.
      I’d also argue that “the inner sense of right and wrong” is pretty powerful among us mortals, a feature of consciousness wired into us by God—and it’s there whether you believe in God or not. As far as I can tell, it’s by this same feature that we long for transcendence, an experience of the holy, God or what you will. In a hugely Pauline irony it seems that the notion of obedience to divine writ tempts us to claim divine writ for acts that no loving God could sanction. (Romans 7, anyone? especially vv. 7-11)
      Dostoyevski is wrong because most people’s conception of God—i.e., God as author and judge of moral standards—unwittingly gives them license to enlist the authority of God’s name for anything they want morality to be. Thus all things—things civil discourse would never condone—are permitted.
      But what if the moral character you and I strive so earnestly to embody is not obedience to a code (for fear of God’s retribution) but faithfulness to the reach of grace that we have known, you and I? It is the response we cannot help but make since the depths in us where God’s image abides have been touched by the depths that brought it and all things else to be.
      Dostoyevski got most things right, though. Especially in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.


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