Fyodor Dostoevsky-If God did not exist – the real story

This post examines the quote:

Без бога всё позволено

or translated

If God did not exist, everything is permitted – Is Ivan’s in The Brother of Karamazov’s by Dostoevsky philosophy in a nutshell.

  • Dostoevsky did mean to convey this, contrary to revisionist misinterpretations on the web such as Andrei I. Volkov’s secular article which is an academic Ivory tower  play on worlds. If you read the book you can make your own judgement.
  • I recommend you read the original or at least take a look at it. I made a free PDF you can download here Brothers of Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

A look at the The Brother of Karamazov’s by Dostoevsky universe with and without God

We will never know what the Universe would be like without God, because God exists. I know it for a fact. Deus Absconditus (the hidden God) becomes Deus revelatus (God revealed) to those who have faith.

When the self-righteous atheists proclaim  –  Cogito ergo Deus non est or translated, I think, therefore there is no god, it does not make any sense because Deus est ergo cogito (what do I know of Latin, I am sure I got this wrong with the grammatical cases here).

Voltaire wrote:

If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.

You can see how intertwined God is with our biology.  Dr.Andrew Newberg makes this point in his book How God changes your Brain.

Our brains do not have the cognitive reach to perceive all aspects of the universe but there are logical interferences or the signature of God everywhere as well as the experience of the Divine in our lives.

So to speculate with metaphysical philosophy about the universe with or without a Divine creator, it is like speculating about the warmth of the sun minus fire.  The Universe would be the absolute zero of non-existence without the Absolute.  We are all sparks off the Divine flame and all that is seen and unseen in our perception including ourselves is only possible because God exists.

Without God all is an abyss.

Therefore, when you ask the question ‘if God did not exist, would all things be permissible or possible’, the answer is yes, but a universe without God is impossible.

Russian novelist and psychologist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 800 page novel – The Brothers Karamazov as well as this earlier work Crime and Punishment deals with the issues of religion, God and the moral philosophy of men acting on their free will to commit acts of good and bad. 19th century Russia produced many brilliant minds that could see reality as it was without the technological distractions of the 20th century.

If anyone thinks I am off base and that a moral life is possible without God let me know. I do acknowledge humanists and ethical atheists can develop a personal ethic, yet they

Atheists and ethical humanist often delude themselves in thinking that ethics without religion is possible. To an extend it is possible. An individual gets a lot of psychological juice, in taking pride in the fact that you are acting for the good. I think it is part of our evolutionary programming as man is a social animal. You receive psychological reward for having behavior that conforms to the greater good of the group you live in. Ideas of sacrifice and contribution have both instinct and external rewards.

It makes sense because from a genetic evolutionary standpoint nature is concerned with the survival of the species rather than the individual. The whole is more important than a part so it embeds a genetic mechanism which regards altruistic behavior.

This is why you have the delusion of ethics without an absolute. In a word it just feels right, to behave a certain way. Further, ethical humanism conforms to much of what the religions teach.

Personally I have no problem with ethical humanism, except if you take your logic to its corrosive end like Friedrich Nietzsche or Albert Camus did, you will find that you are in an existential abyss. Nothing is there or left. Ethics without an objective reality can be acted on but has no basis.

Further, I fully acknowledge the problems with religion. The purity of the message is interpreted through the lens of an imperfect human psychology and God does not give us a set written code of behavior as with any law, it is the spirit rather than the letter of the law that counts. Many people think they have the liberal prescription from God in a book. A book written by imperfect humans and change and interpreted through history. What you do have is one way that God reveals himself to us.  It is one aspect of how we experience God in our lives. You have to experience God yourself and whether through prayer or scripture or logic or your imagination it does not matter as much as the experience and what you do with this.

Dostoyevsky was criticizing Roman Catholicism and atheistic Socialism in his dialogue.

At a pivotal point in the novel, Ivan (John), the atheist, take the stance there is no objective reality. Why not lie, cheat and steal if is to your advantage’. Moral absolutes are an illusion.  Ivan’s brother murders his own father (symbolic of destroying the idea of God the father). The act is not wrong if God does not exist. If you think about it in the measureless universe it is just an action by organized organic chemicals to change them into inorganic.

It sounds crazy but I would tend to think that ethics without God are possible but probable.  Many good atheists have the light of God in them even if they do not see it in themselves. Yet pushed to the limit of philosophical thought their ethics are on shaky ground. I think this is why so many people cheat on each other and get divorced and do all kinds of immoral things, they do not really have the love of God in their heart. They might even be religious but they lack the courage of their convictions, so it really is a matter of faith that God exists.

I believe like Plato says, a person will not knowingly do wrong because good is congruent with the whole picture.  An immoral action is a result of a distorted picture of reality. If you do not have the Divine in your worldview you will have a distorted moral action.  That reality has a God who loves us in it.

14 Replies to “Fyodor Dostoevsky-If God did not exist – the real story”

  1. Yes, he did write it that way in Russian in the Brothers Karamazov. The quote is “Если Бога нет, то всё дозволено”.

  2. Thanks for the feedback on the Dostoevsky quote, because I have read others say he did not. I think its one of my favorate quotes because without God, then all things are morally ok, Dostoevsky took ideas to the end to their full understanding, while many modern thinkers can not do this. Dostoevsky was a brilliant light.

  3. Hi there. I came across your site while I was browsing. And you mentioned Fyodor Dostoevsky. Well, his book Crime and Punishment is a good read. It’s a classic Russian literature. Very interesting book.

    1. I love the basic ideas in the book. The reason Dostoevsky was such a great writer was he was able to penetrate morality to its corrosive end. He did not mess around. I wish more modernist read him and maybe they would think twice about some of the diluted ideas they have about good and evil.

  4. Mark,

    I take considerable offense at your “favorite” quote from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and your statement that….”without god,all things are morally ok”! Are you saying that there is no sense of morality unless god is there to oversee or punish the act itself. Cannot there be a sense of morality in our own human existence outside of any “god”. Why must there be a god in order for us to have any sense of decency or care or empathy in our shared existence on this planet?

    I have a deep sense of morality and espouse all of the “best” qualities that any of the great religions of the world share, though I have an absolute and resolute disbelief in any “god” worshipped by these same religions.

    Morality and belief in god do not have to go hand in hand………

    1. There are some ethical atheists (usually going around attacking paper tigers, close minded, pedantic and proselytize in hopes to show the world the light) and certainly people without ideals that are nice people and many faithful who have horrible moral behavior.
      However, you do not penetrate the question deep enough. You stop short for some reason. If you take the question about morality and God to its end you will see what Dostoevsky’s point is.
      All is relative, and your decency is not the same as another persons.
      I do not know, I live in Kraków, Poland in the old Jewish ghetto. In the ashes of two past great humanistic derived moral systems, fascism and communism. Both sides thought that their global ethic and decency for a share existence of this planet was good.
      There are wrongs with the way people practice religion, but the ideal is correct. There is a complex stratification of reality and an ultimate reality which gives this life meaning. Whilst secular derived morality is madness as Friedrich Nietzsche realized as did Camus tried to rise above.
      You need to take this thinking to the end and not develop some self projected illusionary artificial rose-colored view of the reality.

  5. Mark, I am not an athiest, nor am I religious. I guess you could call me agnostic but that doesn’t really work in my opinion either. I am still offended by your remark on athiests. Athiests are no more close minded than Christians. And people like me who try to keep an open mind to all sides still can’t see past our own bias’. We’re all ignorant to part some of the process of existence and we always will be.

    Imagine everybody in the world has their own puzzle and they’re all missing pieces. some are missing only one, others are missing many. Is it any worse to be missing two pieces than one? Is it any better if you draw your own piece to put in place of the missing one? Does it make it better if you pretend none of the pieces are missing? Now, what if you just don’t care that it’s missing. In my opinion no option is better than the next, but you would be happiest not caring.

    Now I do agree there are no natural “morals”, but that is only due to how we define the word morals and natural. I take a view similar to that of Sigmund Frued, we have a conscious and subconscious mind. We are being driven by our subconscious mind and our conscious mind makes up reasoning for our actions. I believe that religion and morals are perfect examples of this. They are just excuses to act the way that we do when we cannot consciously explain it.

    But my real point is, we are all living in our own self projected illusionary artificial rose-colored view of the reality. You shouldn’t be condescending because you think you’re further out of it than the rest of us. I disagree with Socrates, philosophers do not make it out of the cave, they get the tinniest glimpse of the outside world and spend the rest of their lives trying to understand what they saw.

    1. Do not be offended by differences in opinion. As a believer I am not offended by athiests, nor agnostics. Never, be offended by a heated argument about theology or philosophy or politics. I am like you, I have friends that are from all over the spectrum in terms of belief on these issues. Peace and love.
      Bottom line you and I can argue until we are blue in the face and we will not come to a conclusion. The smartest people in the world are believers and the smartest people in the world are not.
      Faith is something you have to experience for yourself. And once you experience it it is hard to deny it, in fact to deny it would be like to deny gravity. It just is. But those who have not this experience will be puzzled by those with faith, and often even see them as naive. Sorry for any ruffled feathers, none intended, you know the Internet gets this way at times.

      Faith in is something that follows prayer rather than comes before it. If someone is waiting for some great sign to shake the earth they will have to keep waiting.

  6. this is something a character said in his book, seems like too many people are trying to bend it to their own ends…

    1. The character was written by an author with a point and after deep thought based on his personal observation of reality. I do not think it is just a character in a book.

  7. Why does it seem as if everyone is taking offense to the comments here? The world is full of opinions and the expression of one that does not align with one’s own, or perhaps could be construed as critical, should not produce offense. It is merely one person’s perspective. But, the difference in opinions and the lack of a consensus does help to demonstrate the thinking behind the quote in question. I have always said that with God, all things are possible. Without God, all things are permissible. The simple conclusion by Dostoevsky is that without God, morality is simply a matter of personal opinion and/or general consensus. And, as opinion and consensus changes, so does what is or is not moral. In other words, without God, there are no moral absolutes. For instance, today murder is universally considered to be immoral, but that has not necessarily always been the case. Historically, murder has often been condoned in the course of war. And, what if the murder is of oneself? Or, what if we all got together and agreed murder was acceptable? Would it not then also be moral? So, the point of the quote is that morality is completely relative and dynamic without the transcendent morality of a God; a higher set of principles that cannot be changed by man. Further, the idea that there is an absolute truth or truths which exists regardless of our perceptions speaks to the existence of a God. Without these absolutes, how can one really be critical of the actions of another? You may not approve of what one does, but who is to say you are correct? From where do you derive your moral authority? From the consensus? Again, subject to change and distortion. Or, perhaps, you could rely upon the authority of the state, but were does the state derive its moral authority if not from the people, which is merely the consensus. And, have not governments murdered? Further, to say something is permitted implies there is no punishment. If there is no God, there is no punishment for those who’s evils are not discovered, condemned, successfully prosecuted and punished. No, basic logic argues for the existence of God, as does nature and the universe at all levels.

    1. I think there are some basic universals about morality: Every individual and society needs to be responsible for.
      For example Han Kung suggests four ideas in this global ethic see http://www.weltethos.org – Both spiritual and humanistic. It would be hard to argue against these ideas:
      1) commitment to non-violence and respect for life – do not kill, torture, torment, violate
      2) commitment to a just economic order – do not steal, exploit, bride, corrupt
      3) commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of true and honesty – do not lie, deceive, forge, manipulate
      4) commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women – do not commit immorality or abuse, cheat, humiliate or dishonor.

      The idea about if God exists or not is a complex issue, it is not simply, God does not exist because I do not see him. Human experience and reality is multilayered, like the human brain. The physical construct of our evolved brain can being us so far, but we can not penetrate the next level of reality any more than a dog understands calculus. It is not currently build into our evolution. We can explain the world to a point and it seems complete, but reality and the cosmos is multi layered. Faith is a fundamental trust but something more and experience and a gift.

      Can you live without God a moral life? maybe? There are ethical atheist that have said yes to a fundamental trust to life but not to faith. These are secular humanists. So in theory yes but the people I have meet personally like this lack a joy or zest for live in my personal experience.
      Their atheism becomes their religion. Like Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche or the madman looking for God after he has been killed (I forget which work). I find that they are on stable humanistic ground but often live melancholy lives.
      Like Voltaire said ‘if God did not exist it would be necessary for us to invent him’. I think ethical atheists do this with a projection of their spiritual longings onto something else. Often it is is with a negative outcome even if their intentions are positive. Communism, fascism, hedonism or simply proselytizing their believes like Richard Dawkins does, which robs people of hope in their lives.
      He tries to be all scientific but really it is more about his own ego.
      So I guess you are right, you do not need God to live on this earth in an ethical way but Fyodor Dostoevsky – If God did not exist seems to me more true if you take nihilism to its conclusion.

  8. There is no evidence that ‘God’ (religious) ideas of morality brought about ethics and not the reverse. Belief in a God is fine, but it would be a highly immoral person who believes that, were there no God to govern their actions, everything would be permitted on an ethical level.
    In fact, there is no reason to believe that ethicality is not a naturally arising human phenomenon.

    1. Stalin, Mao etc, I think there is pretty good evidence that and ethic based on man alone, can lead to ‘the ends justify the means’ thinking. Now religious people are not exempt from immoral behavior, but think about how the humanisc ideologies of the 20th century nearly destoryed the world.

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