A few months ago I chose five books to illustrate the idea of morality without God for The Browser’s Five Books interviews. Now, Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, has picked his list of five works through which to introduce Christianity. One book is common to both lists: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is not surprising that both Harries and I should so treasure Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel. There are few writers who possess the psychological power and the unnerving eye of Dostoevsky, few who can express so eloquently both the necessity of faith and its impossibility. And of all Dostoevsky’s works The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the one that is most committed in its faith and yet also the most  ambiguous about it; a novel that is, at one and the same time, a celebration of existential faith and an excoriation of the immorality of God’s creation.

This is what I said of the novel in my Five Books interview:

This might seem an odd choice for a list of books about morality without God. Dostoevsky was a devout Christian and The Brothers Karamazov, his last and possibly greatest novel, was a heartfelt plea for the necessity of faith. The phrase ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’ is often attributed to Dostoevsky. He actually never wrote that, but the sentiment certainly runs through much of his work, and most especially through The Brothers Karamazov. But if Dostoevsky wanted to warn of the moral perils of godlessness, he was nevertheless also unflinching in his portrayal of the dilemmas facing believers. So much so that The Brothers Karamazov can be read as much as a novel of disbelief as of belief.

Tell me about some of the characters in the book.

The novel is built around the emotional and intellectual rivalries of the three Karamazov brothers – Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha. Out of these rivalries Dostoevsky creates a passionately spiritual drama about God, faith, doubt and reason, set against the background of the social fragmentation of a Russia attempting to move from a feudal to a modern world. The key debate takes place between Ivan, a fervent rationalist and would-be philosopher, and Alyosha, a gentle, generous, almost Christ-like figure, who is a novice in a monastery. Ivan refuses to accept God’s authority because He has created a world full of undeserved suffering. ‘It is quite impossible to understand’, he observes, why the innocent, especially children, ‘should have to suffer and why they should have to purchase harmony with their sufferings’. He adds that ‘if all the sufferings of children have gone to replenish the sum of suffering that was needed in order to purchase the truth, then I declare in advance that no truth, not even the whole truth, is worth such a price’.

What about the parable of the Grand Inquisitor?

It’s the most celebrated section of the novel – and perhaps the most ambiguous in its meaning. In the parable, told by Ivan to Alyosha, Christ returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Christ’s work, the Grand Inquisitor tells him, is at odds with the vision of the Church. In resisting the temptations set by Satan, Christ introduced the idea of free will into the world. But Christ misjudged human nature. Humanity can never be free, for it is ‘weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious’. Free will is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind. ‘Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?’, the Grand Inquisitor demands of Christ. Nothing, he says, ‘is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering’.

In giving humans freedom to choose, Christ has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Far better, the Grand Inquisitor insists, for Christ to have given people security rather than freedom. Those too weak to follow Christ might still be damned, but at least they would have found happiness and security on Earth, rather than being forced to carry the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Church has ‘corrected Thy work’, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, by taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security, by rooting human life not in freedom but upon ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’.

The parable, like the novel, is complex, intricate and subtle, and lends itself to many readings. Dostoevsky himself appears to identify the Grand Inquisitor with atheism – he draws parallels between Alyosha and Jesus, and Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor. Without God, he seems to suggest, there is no possibility of moral choice and therefore no possibility of freedom. Atheism buys security at the expense of morality. Yet this is a reading that sits uncomfortably with the idea that if God does not exist, then everything and anything is permitted. God, in other words, is a form of security, an insurance that while humans may have moral choice they are also constrained in the choices that they have – and in being able to define what is good.

Do you think that the parable can be read in a different way?

If freedom is what truly defines humans, so much so that it should take precedence over security, then of course, it should also take precedence over the security provided by God. For freedom to be truly freedom, it cannot be freedom given by God, it must also be freedom from God. Freedom is not simply the freedom to choose whether or not to accept divinely sanctioned moral rules, but to set those rules themselves and to define what it is to be good. In other words, the freedom to set our own boundaries, not have them set for us. It is to accept that the human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net, no God to protect us from the dangers of falling off the moral tightrope that is to be human.

And these are Harries’ reflections on The Brothers Karamazov:

This is a great novel of belief and unbelief. Dostoevsky himself was a passionate Orthodox Christian, but of course he felt the flames of unbelief as much as anybody and the novel is about the relationship between Alyosha, who is one of the brothers who believes in God, and Ivan, who doesn’t. In particular it poses in acute form the problem of suffering. Ivan tells a story of most horrific cruelty to children and he turns to Alyosha and says, ‘It is not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket’. In other words he could not believe in a God who allowed such things and he argued that no kind of future happiness could justify the cruelty we saw on human earth.

And those thoughts represent many people’s point of view.

Yes, and that is the heart of where the real difficulty is for a religious believer. All the usual moves are obvious – for example, if you have free will you must be free to choose wrong as well as right. It is not possible to have the kind of conscious life we know without the possibility of accident and mishap in terms of earthquakes and so on. Things like that belong to existence as such. But, given all this, the question to put it brutally is, ‘Was God justified in creating a world in which such things happen and which he presumably knew would happen?’ That, I think, is how the problem ought to be posed and it is posed that way in Dostoevsky’s great novel. And it is not only about that dialogue, of course. There are some wonderful characters in it. It is a great novel and the greatest novel of belief and unbelief that has ever been written.

For you personally, as a Christian, how do you square the problems he poses?

I think in all our experiences we have some idea of good coming out of evil. It is not that God wills the evil in order to bring the good, but all of us in our life know that sometimes you go through a very difficult patch and you manage to get some good out of it. Obviously the God in which we believe must think there is some ultimate good that can come out of what Keats called ‘this veil of soul making’. Secondly there is a sort of feeling that a lot of people have, that life is more than a calculus of pain and pleasure and that something big is at stake. Why is it that most people in life don’t commit suicide when things are difficult? In my view it is because they feel that something big is at stake – it is more than a paltry happiness or unhappiness, however important those things are.

Of course, this is a very shorthand description of my point of view and only a little bit of what I would want to say. In my understanding of Christianity I can hold on to Christian belief on the basis of two fundamental Christian doctrines. One is that God himself and Christ himself shares in human anguish through the incarnation. Secondly, that through my belief in the resurrection and eternal life I believe that this life is not all there is. It is only on the basis of those two features that I think it is actually possible to believe there is a wise and loving power behind the universe.

I disagree, of course, with Harries’ attempt to resolve the problem of evil (I might write on this issue soon). I am not  sure that even Dostoevesky would have agreed with Harries. He would probably have insisted that there could be no rationalisation of the existence of evil in God’s creation. One simply had to accept it as a burden of faith. But as for The Brothers Karamazov being ‘the greatest novel of belief and unbelief that has ever been written’ – on that I am at one with the Bishop. Go read.

(The picture of the manuscript is of Dostoevsky’s notes for chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov)


  1. Good timing. I just finished this book about a month ago. A few things stand out from what Harries says about the book: “… some idea of good coming out of evil,” “God… must think there is some ultimate good,” and that many of us have a [mystical?] sense that “something big[ger] is at stake…” This is exactly the position that Dostoyevsky is arguing through the words of Ivan.

    For example, he talks with Alexei about how an all-powerful God could conceivably allow for the suffering of children. The answer must be, as it is frequently claimed – that God’s plan is mysterious and incomprehensible to we mortals – we must have faith in His knowledge (Harris seems to be making this same kind of appeal – to mystery). Good will be rewarded in Heaven, while Evil will be punished in Hell. To which Ivan follows: “And where is the harmony, if there is a hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price (p. 245).” While this is sometimes interpreted as evidence against the ‘truth’ of God’s existence (i.e. God is ‘all-good’… how can a ‘good’ God allow for such things, therefore we have reason to doubt His existence), Ivan is saying something else: even IF God’s truth was the only truth capable of understanding or explaining the world, he would nonetheless reject it (he would return the ticket) – not on rational grounds per se, but on grounds of morality and justice.

    Kenan, I think I you either mistyped something or I misunderstand what you mean here: “Without God, he seems to suggest, there is no possibility of moral choice and therefore no possibility of freedom. Atheism buys security at the expense of morality.”

    Here’s my take on the Grand Inquisitor: ‘Without God, he seems to suggest, there is an infinite possibility of moral choice and therefore a limitless burden of freedom. Religion buys security at the expense of freedom.’ (maybe we’re saying the same thing).

    Without God, we are without moral compass and are doomed to freedom and personal responsibility. The Inquisitor claims that “nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom! (p. 252).” He scolds Jesus for trying to sell his belief in God while trying to maintain some sort of freedom for people to choose. The Inquisitor questions Jesus: ‘why did you not turn stones into bread?’ – there would have been no doubt or mystery – man would be forced to believe because he cannot deny what he sees with his own eyes. His followers would have been in greater numbers and would be unified. He again taunts Jesus: “Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? (p. 254).” The people, according to the Inquisitor, rejected the freedom that Jesus wanted for them.

    Belief involves sacrificing freedom: “precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet. It is our doing, but is it what you wanted? This sort of freedom? (p. 251)” It is thus religion (not atheism) that buys security by relieving the burden of freedom and responsibility. Atheism entails having to carry it, or otherwise find some secular equivalent that limits our freedom and responsibility (e.g. Universal Darwinism): “… you did not know that as soon as man rejects miricles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks… though he be rebellious, heretical, and godless a hundred times over (p. 256).”

    • Brad, are you not confusing the voice of Dostoevsky and that of the Grand Inquisitor? Dostoevsky indeed believes that ‘Without God… there is no possibility of moral choice and therefore no possibility of freedom.’ The Grand Inquisitor, as your quotes show, sees freedom and choice as a problem. But Dostoevsky’s meaning, here as elsewhere, is complex and ambiguous. The Inquisitor speaks for the ‘Church’. At one level the story sets the person of Christ against the church founded by him. Dostoevsky is championing an existential form of faith against the claims of institutionalized religion. But he appears to view the Inquisitor as a representative not simply of institutional religion but of atheism too – hence the parallels he draws between Alyosha and Jesus, and Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor. ‘Thou didst reject’, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, ‘the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone – the banner of earthly bread; and Thou has rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of heaven.’ Dostoevsky seems to be identifying institutionalized religion and atheism, both as possessing faithless, materialist visions that deny humans choice and freedom. But one can look at the parable another way, too, as I suggested in the interview, and insist that freedom to be truly freedom, must be freedom not given by God, but also freedom from God.

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