Monday, September 14, 2009

Dostoevsky, God, and morals on Facebook!

Sunday morning I posted this quote by Roger Kimball as my Facebook status:

"Dostoyevsky once claimed that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. Considerable ingenuity has gone into proving Dostoyevsky wrong. To date, though, the record would seem to support him."

It is a quote that readily lends itself to the same misunderstanding on the part of people who agree with it and with those who do not. This was brought to my attention by a very insightful comment made a young woman who is studying at university, who wrote:

"I disagree, I think if a person falls into this thinking, that then allows for prejudice against those who do not believe in God (or a different god), and that leads into non-respectful/ unchristianly acts....I suppose I disagree with the statement then more because of what can result from the philosophy and not necessarily the philosophy itself. However, I also think the topic of morality has to come into play...and am not convinced that morality it strictly bound to religion as would be the claim with this statement."

Fyodor Dostoevsky
I see this response as one I would have made at a similar point in my education. This is not to be dismissive in the least. It is a great point, even a necessary one, because it goes right to the consequences of people who agree with D's thesis, but who misunderstand and oversimplify it, that is, reduce it to their measure.

"Dostoevsky is really talking about the ultimate basis for and rational grounding of morality. He is not making the case that atheists are practically immoral but that morality can't be arbitrary. It is easy to cite many examples of people whose stance toward God is either agnostic or downright disbelieving, but who are moral people, even more moral than many who believe. Neither Dostoevsky nor Kimball suggest otherwise. Kimball is referring to political systems that are ideologically atheist. Otherwise, the danger you describe become possibilties and even realities.

"To make a claim that morality is not strictly bound to religion is easy and is done often; to demonstrate what else it might be that morality can ultimately be based on is far more difficult without making everything relative by having no ontological footing. Because morality does not exist apart from people, it comes to down to one's view of the human person and, more to your point, a person's view of her/himself."

It occurred to me after making this reply that it is necessary to point the obvious: that even to say that someone who is an atheist is moral requires some criteria as to what counts as being moral, that is, acting rightly. I replied a few moments later with this follow-up, which I think is more to her point:

"A couple more quick, but relevant, points:

"1) D's thesis about the necessity of God for the ontological grounding and rationale for morality does not so much posit God as the supreme law-giver who must be obeyed, the transcendent means of social control, whose ontological necessity morality requires. Such a view does not get us past Feuerbach. But God the origin and end of human existence, this is what brings us back to it coming down to one's view of the human person.

"2) Faith can never be reduced morality. It is precisely this reduction at which I think you are taking aim. It is a worthy target. The most obnoxious and unconvincing believer's and institution do precisely this. It something that manifests itself often."

This is exactly the kind of discussion to which Camus' brilliance and honesty lend themselves nicely. It also shows that social media can and sometimes does facilitate thoughtful conversation, even if not in real time. The advantage of written communication not in real time is that those conversing can be more thoughtful and incisive, even if it results in a few misspellings and some very poor grammar, all on my part!

Apropos to the tenor of this discussion and the main point I am trying to make, today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Realizing the relevance of this feast to the topic, along with a few more incisive comments, prompted me to write that, as Christians, "we do not believe in the God of logical necessity and social control, the so-called god of the philosophers, but in the God who for us 'and for our salvation came down from heaven' and who 'by the power of the Holy Spirit was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.'

"Experience that teaches us this, even if we spend a long time asserting ourselves against reality."
We must love the other's destiny enough to help get them over this hump that all too easily for too many becomes an insurmountable wall.


  1. "More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: 'Men have forgotten God. That's why all this has happened.' Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution. . . . If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: 'Men have forgotten God. That's why all this has happened.'" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    (On a side note... Dude, you're on Facebook?!?)

  2. I am on FB. I have had an account for awhile, but I have only really been using it for a month or two.

  3. nice blog, thanks.