Religion and Morality in The Brothers Karamazov

Individuals have often challenged the foundations of human life in an attempt to explain what motivates our behavior across documented human history. Over the years, scholarly debate has focused on issues such as human identity and equality. In this sense, the relationship between morality and religion has often been a contentious issue that has often culminated in muddled debates with a number of limitations. Dostoevsky addresses this metaphysical problem in a classic piece of literature, “The Brothers Karamazov.” As a result, the focus of this paper will be on Dostoevsky’s main statements about the relationship between morality and religion. The objective is not only to analyze the role of various characters in fortifying the book’s claims but also to determine Dostoevsky’s position regarding the topic in question.

The dilemma about the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on the morality of human beings can be traced back to the origins of Greek philosophy. One of the main players in this era, Socrates, challenged the view that morality was dependent on a deity as is maintained by theistic religions. In this context, one could question whether an action is right in a moral sense because a deity makes it so or whether a deity makes an action right because it is inherently moral. The first claim puts morality in the control of a god meaning that they could change it thus fundamentally changing our view of certain things. The second claim, on the other hand, asserts that human beings do not need a supernatural being to know what is moral and what is not. It is important to consider possible how a religious thinker would answer the questions posed by Socrates. The answer must avoid the implication by the first claim that morality could have been different in the past. The most common response to this dilemma is that morality is fixed as is the essence of the supernatural being that never changes. This understanding will inform the analysis of morality in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

The groundwork laid by Socrates and other subsequent thinkers forms the basis of Dostoevsky’s work. The most quoted phrase from the book is arguably, “Without God…. Everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 589). This phrase puts into question the very essence of morality. It is, however, a contraction of a longer sentence that incorporates the question of mortality in the question. “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now one can do anything” (Dostoevsky 589). These claims question the origin of morality and why it exists in the human society. The contracted statement is essentially an extension of the argument put forward by Socrates. Dostoevsky successfully combines both sides of the spectrum in the statement. It can be directly interpreted as the author concurring that it was virtually impossible for the human society to have a moral system without God. However, the inverse of the statement is also emphasized throughout the book with Dostoevsky questioning whether God could exist while an immoral system dominated the human society.

The first interpretation of the claim explores the issue of what makes human beings moral. Religious scriptures are full of teachings that provide guidelines as to how we should treat other people. The concept of life after death also informs our actions in some way. Abrahamic religions share similarities in this aspect due to the warning of eternal punishment if one goes against the teachings of religious scriptures. In this context, an individual’s actions will always be skewed towards the avoidance of eternal punishment. This interpretation that insists on a positive correlation between morality and religion forms the basis of most people’s view of morality. In the context of “The Brothers Karamazov,” this interpretation is wrong since it analyzes the author’s intentions based on a single phrase rather than evaluating it in the context of the entire book.

In my opinion, the claims are a challenge to the notion that morality is dependent on religion. Dostoevsky develops his argument throughout the book by trying to disprove the existence of God due to the immorality that exists in the world. The main supporting argument adopted in the book is the suffering of innocent children. The following examples are cited: “Turks torturing children, starting with cutting them out of their mothers’ wombs with a dagger” (Dostoevsky 238), “A Russian family beating a five-year-old girl and locking her all night in an outhouse” (Dostoevsky 242) and “An eight-year-old boy who accidentally hurts a cruel general’s dog and thus is punished by being ripped to pieces by the man’s dogs” (Dostoevsky 243). The author argues that if God is responsible for morality, then he sees no sense in the existence of suffering for innocent children. This position is a major issue raised by opponents of the religious theory of morality. In many cases, Christians support this point of view by claiming that the suffering of innocent individuals is necessary for the creation of harmony on earth. The view is challenged by the question posed by Ivan, “if everyone must suffer to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what children have got to do with it?” (Dostoevsky 243).

The dilemma created by the claims posed in the book is based on how human beings view evil. How can a supernatural being who is all-good and perfect permit the existence of evil in the world? The religious theory of morality is greatly challenged in this case. The response by Christians that God has an unchanging perspective on what is right or wrong fails to answer the question since it suggests that human beings are too ignorant to understand God’s plan with regard to his moral plan for creating the universe. The defense put forward using ignorance actually raises more questions about the relationship between morality and religion. It taints the credibility of the claim that religion provides a guarantee when it comes to distinguishing good and evil. In addition, it questions why one would discard their understanding of good and evil in order to conform to the religious theory of morality.

Since it is impossible for a human to communicate directly with God, we can only know his view of morality through his creations and teachings. The implication, in this case, would be that everything creates by God is perfect from a moral point of view and that such creations and teachings are responsible for how human beings perceive good and evil. Since we can know good by looking at God’s creations, the reverse is also true regarding evil. Dostoevsky’s dilemma ends up in proving that religion is not helpful when it comes to distinguishing good and evil. This is because if some of God’s creations are evil, then they cannot guide human beings in issues to do with morality. Dostoevsky’s gradual argument, therefore, proves that morality is not and should not be dependent on religion.

The discussion of morality and religion in “The Brothers Karamazov” is based on the assertions of characters in the novels. The most important in this context is Ivan whose theories in the book form the core of the topic in question. He is actually responsible for the classic quote, “Without God…. Everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 589). Ivan is a smart and honest guy with his depiction throughout the book being that of a good guy. He is well educated and practices journalism as revealed by his articles in a leading newspaper of the day. His analysis of current issues and the articulation of his ideas means that Ivan is popular among not only churchgoers but also individuals who lead more secular lives. Dostoevsky develops this character as an independent thinker throughout the book with Ivan generating a couple of original theories in addition to his usual commentary.

The claim that “Without God …… Everything is permitted,” (Dostoevsky 589) is a simplification of Ivan’s theories throughout the book. As such, it is important to consider the context in which it was written. His theories take the direction of the cited claim with some seeming quite contradictory which limits the ability of one to gauge Ivan’s beliefs accurately. A perfect example is his claim that “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented” (Dostoevsky 236). On the face of it, it would seem as though Ivan is a proponent of the biblical perspective, acknowledging the importance of God in the modern society. However, his conversation changes direction abruptly with Ivan going on to attack religion, especially its purported connection with morality. It is at this point that he raises the issue of the morality of innocent children suffering for apparently no reason. This shows how difficult it is to judge Ivan’s position on first glance. However, a look at more claims throughout the book would help build Ivan’s belief system.

In Part 1, Book 5, Chapter 5 Ivan attacks organized religion more directly as compared to the other claims throughout the book. The relationship between morality and religion, according to him, comes down to the issue of freedom. Ivan is of the opinion that the coming of Jesus Christ was supposed to set human beings totally free. However, his problem with this tenet is that Jesus did not guide human beings on how they would use this freedom. This resulted in a world characterized by unhappiness, conflict, and anarchy as we observe in the modern world.

The review of the three theories put forward by Ivan sheds some light on his belief system. He is very skeptical of organized religion. In his hallucinations, a voice proposes that human beings should destroy the idea of God and do away with the old worldview especially the entire former morality and effectively replace it with a new version. The voice believes that this way man will prosper since he is well aware of his mortality and will, therefore, concentrate on the present. When asked whether it believes that such a time will come, the voice replies that the only hindrance at the moment is man’s stupidity. The voice in Ivan’s hallucinations maintains that it does not believe in the existence of either God or the concept of life after death (Dostoevsky 649). However, Ivan is conflicted over the matter and has not made up his mind about what to say.

Ivan’s confusion is illustrated in his conversation with elder Zosima. In this case, the elder questions his belief that there is a positive correlation between virtue and immortality. The elder maintains that he must either be very blessed or very unhappy for sticking to his belief system. A statement in their conversation proves the contradictory nature of Ivan’s beliefs. When Ivan asks why he would be unhappy, Zosima replies as follows: “Because in all likelihood you yourself do not believe either in the immortality of your soul or even in what you have written about the Church and the Church question” (Dostoevsky 70). The confusion with regard to his claims can be attributed to finding the balance between freedom and responsibility. This is a problem that is very common among religious scholars in the modern world. As such, while he stays true to his claims that God and immortality are non-existent, Ivan struggles to clarify this issues in his mind using a proper theory and does not seem to find any answers from his immediate environment.

The claims discussed throughout the book can help understand the author’s position. A common theme observed is a constant challenge of God and the concept of immortality. Dostoevsky challenges modern morality which is greatly influenced by religion going to the extent of accusing God of supporting immoral behavior when innocent people suffer for the world to live in harmony. He dissects human behavior and reveals that what morality presents as “moral” is never purely “good” which supports his point that morality can never help man eliminate evil in the world. Ivan’s confliction over how to balance freedom and responsibility highlights how Dostoevsky thinks about morality. According to him, “only that which is free is truly good.” As such, every man should freely choose to fight and eventually defeat evil rather than basing their moral classification of “good” and “bad.”

Dostoevsky’s stance on the claims that “If there is no God then everything is permitted” and “There is no virtue if there is no immortality” is quite confusing since it essentially mirrors Ivan’s assertions. He overrules the role of religion in morality and the concept of immortality thus, based on a deep analysis of the text, he does not believe in the claims. Instead, he maintains that the tough task of finding the proper balance between freedom and responsibility should guide morality. This is based on his evaluation of human nature. According to him, human nature is such that we are bad and good at the same time. This, therefore, discourages people from judging the morality of others and instead concentrating on themselves since that is the only way evil can be eradicated from the world. The reliance on religion to achieve this for us is misplaced and wrong, according to Dostoevsky. As such, it is up to human beings to utilize their freedom and choice to create a system that will last for generations and one that will not compromise its values in certain circumstances.

Works Cited

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: The Lowell Press (1912).

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