Throughout this post series on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (click here for parts 1, 2, and 3), I’ve been writing about some of the themes and concepts that are of particular interest to me, for example, the concepts of moral objectivity, God, an afterlife, immortal souls, free will and determinism, moral desert, and others. In this post, I wanted to tie these themes all together with the main theme present throughout this entire novel, namely the existentially relevant conflict between religious faith and doubt.
Dostoyevsky clearly has a bias toward a world view that is based on or embedded within religious faith, and this can be seen most explicitly by the distinctions he makes between the idealistic religious characters Alyosha and father Zosima, and that of the logical skepticism instantiated by the atheistic Ivan (and through his influence, Smerdyakov). Alyosha and Zosima clearly display an active form of love, forgiveness, and a consistent effort to do good in the world presumably predicated on their belief in the existence of God (though a very particular formulation of God is necessary here, not simply any kind of God). Ivan on the other hand, as a result of his attributes of rationality, logic, and the importance he places on empirical evidence and analysis, ends up rejecting any belief in God (or at least, rejecting any belief in a good or loving God due to the Problem of Evil), rejecting conventional notions of (or foundations for) morality, and subsequently maintains a cold and callous view of mankind while suffering from a debilitating form of inner despair.
From the contrast seen between these limited character types (and many more characters in the novel), we are to ascertain that a life embedded in religious faith is clearly one with more happiness, stability, and goodness, whereas a life presumably encumbered by religious doubt is a life filled with chaos, despair, and often evil or immoral behavior. As I’ve alluded to in my previous posts in this series, I think this perspective is highly flawed for a number of reasons. However, in defense of Dostoyevsky’s perspective, I will say that I think it is often the case that religious faith inspires people to be happier than they otherwise would be, that it often gives people another form of social or psychological stability in an otherwise chaotic world (that’s why humans invented religion in the first place), and that it can lead people to do many good things. And likewise, I will even concede that religious doubt or atheistic worldviews can often be nihilistic, and if so, can lead to less happy lives, less social or psychological stability, and possibly leading to more immoral behavior (though some religious beliefs can promote immoral behavior as well). I wouldn’t describe my own atheism this way by any means, but many atheists would likely fit the bill (so to speak).
The problem however with Dostoyevsky’s perspective is that it is misleading with respect to the implied inherent characteristics of these divergent world views (theism vs. atheism), the obvious social and institutional causal factors that reinforce those different types of behaviors (what religious and non-religious institutions exist at any point in time), and the fact that people that abandon or reject religious faith often haven’t critically examined or formulated the philosophical foundations for their belief systems. People that are indoctrinated with various religious beliefs often use the religion itself (or various theological claims) and the cultural traditions that have followed from them, as the foundation for many of their beliefs including those pertaining to morality, a sense of purpose, and ultimate meaning in their lives — a mistaken foundation that unfortunately has become deeply ingrained in our society and for quite some time now.
This erroneous foundation has become deeply ingrained, most especially in societies that have been Christianized or that have been theocratic at one time or another. As a result, even if secularization eventually occurs in those societies (with the separation of church and state often improving lives by increasing equality and human rights), many non-religious individuals within those societies simply don’t know how to ground many of their beliefs within some secular/atheistic philosophical framework. The assumed religious foundation for many of those beliefs has simply been taken for granted, and if that foundation goes away with secularization, and people actually realize that the foundation they once had for those beliefs is no longer valid, many people don’t know how to avoid slipping into some form of nihilism.
Nietzsche spoke about this process in his Will to Power, that is, the process of inevitably slipping into nihilism once one realizes that the foundation for their beliefs is in fact a false one. The problem is, as Nietzsche pointed out, that nihilism should be treated as merely a transitional stage since it is ultimately pathological, and like all pathologies, ultimately needs to be overcome. People slipping into nihilism and then concluding that life is meaningless or that moral action is meaningless is really a result of a false generalization. Rather than rejecting their old beliefs and striving to search for new beliefs or a new foundation for them, some people simply give up the search and then erroneously think that there can’t be any real meaning in their lives or in humanity. Nietzsche saw this perceived futility as fallacious, and believed that it really should be seen as an opportunity for one to find their own form of meaning for their lives, without any need of anything superhuman or supernatural. Once one realizes this error in their nihilism, they can shift from a passive form of nihilism to an active one, such that it truly becomes a transitional stage toward a non-nihilistic world view.
In The Brothers Karamazov, the atheistic character, Ivan, seems to have simply fallen into a more or less passive form of nihilism. As such, Ivan seems to have made the same erroneous generalization that Nietzsche warned us of. Having been so deeply entrenched in a Christianized society, his lack of belief in God has pulled his (presumably original) foundation for morality out from under him, leading him to think that without God, anything is permissible and therefore no action can be said to be truly good or bad. Dostoyevsky seems to believe (or so implies with his characters) that this passive form of nihilism (or something analogous to it) is all that can result with individuals that lack religious faith. And on the other end of the spectrum, his devout religious characters (Alyosha and father Zosima in particular) don’t suffer from this problem because their belief in God, some of their religious traditions, and their particular religious perspective, have bestowed upon them a perceived foundation for their values and purpose in life. Though this foundation is one that is not based on reason and evidence and therefore can have no reasonable claim of being true or valid, religious people nevertheless believe that it is true and valid and so it inevitably motivates their behavior which can often be for good.
So I think it’s fair to say that I agree with Dostoyevsky at least insofar as religious doubt (when compared to religious faith) can lead people down a path of decreased happiness and with a general disregard for (at least certain) moral considerations. However, this is generally only going to be the case when those with religious doubt slip into a passive form of nihilism (rather than an active form, that can lead to a re-grounding and/or reformulation of one’s values). And Ivan, with his admiration for evidence-based logic, should have realized that this passive form of nihilism is irrational and illogical, a fact that becomes obvious once one critically considers what human morality really is and what it is not (i.e. it is not rationally nor pragmatically based on Divine Command Theory, or any form of religious faith or dogma — even if people mistakenly believe this to be the case). And it is a fact that becomes obvious once one realizes how morality is actually grounded in the natural world, where it can be described and optimized using a number of objective facts pertaining to our psychology, our biology, and how we interact with one another as a social species.
The radical freedom that people find themselves possessing in this world creates an existential crisis as Dostoyevsky and many other philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and others) have talked about at great length. This crisis leads many people into adopting any manner of beliefs, including but not limited to religious beliefs, to help them cope with this burden of choice (among other things to cope with), and to help make sense of a highly chaotic world. Others that reject the religious path for coping and that are also unable to do so within their atheistic framework, will likely be led to a worldview full of despair and (passive) nihilism. But if people want to have the most fulfilling lives that they can, while also seeking the truth to make as responsible of decisions as they are able to (including moral decisions), then they must find a way to incorporate reason and evidence into their philosophical framework (which means eventually rejecting religious faith and dogma) while not losing sight of the non-nihilistic end goal that they ought to strive for.
We need to give our own meaning to our lives and only then will we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment. The current challenge for our society is finding more ways of replacing religious institutions with secular versions that accomplish the social cohesive structure that many people long for, and to better prepare and empower our children and the young adults in our society with more rigorous philosophical training in ethics and epistemology. Reading the works of wonderful authors such as Dostoyevsky should be a part of this philosophical training, so we can look at our lives from multiple perspectives with any number of often difficult to describe nuances and subtleties, to find the truths and flaws in those perspectives and build off of them to better understand ourselves and to get where we want to go as individuals and as a species. I must say that I’ve rather enjoyed writing this post series, reading this wonderful novel, and I hope to do more post series like these in the future.