One of Western civilizations most important and well-respected piece of literature is The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoyevsky. Among other important religious issues, Dostoyevsky has one of his characters bring up the theme of permissiveness in society and its relationship to unbelief in a God.

Without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?

Or as Sartre commented:

Dostoevsky once wrote: "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

In other words, Dostoyevsky implies that "Without a promise of ultimate reward, or fear of ultimate retribution, without God as the law-giver and sin-punisher, men are released from any motivation to observe their moral obligations, or even to justify those obligations in the first place." (Conifold, philosophy SE, #97098)

The results of this were seen and expressed by Dostoyevsky later:

If God did not exist, everything would be permitted; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself... Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legislate our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse---We are left alone, without excuse. That is, what I mean when I say that, man is condemned to be free. (Quoted by Ibid)

So, does Dostoyevsky warn modern civilizations about the consequences of departing from Christianity? Or is too late; he is describing what modern civilization has already become? Condemned to be free! Or...?

  • It would be more correct to say "Without a belief in God …"; it isn't necessary that God actually exist. And why restrict the question to "Western Civilization" and "Christianity"? Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 13:47
  • Just a Belief? The quotation is more affirming: not "just a belief" but "an actual existence" of God! In this enlightened, educated, technological Era, a "hope so" belief in a God would be quite insufficient. Faith in God must be an Informed Faith, based on reasonable, historical, and evidential proofs. People see through "belief systems" based on presumptions....AND a moral system (Ethic) based on the existence of a God Who Is, would certainly apply to the whole world. But Dostoevsky's literature is mainly known and appreciated in the West.
    – user18834
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 19:14
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    By "belief" I mean a true belief, not wishful thinking. The world has many religions, and many people that believe what those religions teach, but at most one of them can be right. But "If there is no God, then everything is permitted." works just as well for those with the wrong belief. It doesn't require that God exist, only that people believe that he exists. (E.g. The history of India has been largely shaped by a belief in reincarnation, but Christians "know" that that belief isn't true. But true or not, it has had the same effect as if it had been true.) Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 20:15
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    This is a question that has been wrestled with for centuries. In the early 1800s there was an Antinomian movement that believed in salvation by faith in God without the need to follow the 10 Commandments or moral laws. This movement wrestled with this very question. I doubt Dostoyevsky was trying to answer the question as much as address it. Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 0:24
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    Please take into account that not everything a character says represents that character's true opinion, let alone the author's point of view.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 10:37

1 Answer 1


Dostoevsky brings out the idea that there is a higher essencethan just a simple reward and punishment. It is the noble, essential virtue called accountability. With a laissez faire approach to moral conduct sans accountability, there is a void, not just of a sense of justice, but justice itself. This is perhaps what Dostoevsky wanted to portray in his character, a character who is being held accountable for his actions.

Without the "after life" (and pending accountability) injustice reigns the universe. And that is unthinkable, unbearable, unconscionable. Even Benjamin Franklin, an old fashioned Deist, acknowledged Dostoevsky's afterlife wherein each man would be judged according to his deeds, and spent the later part if his life doing as many "public works" as possible (See his Autobiography, and learn of his establishing a post office, hospital, sewer works, library, etc....as well as his creed.)

Did the Russian people take full advantage of Dostoevsky's warning? What has the history of modern Europe revealed? What philosophies have dominated academia as far as this topic is concerned? What has been the result(s)...consequences...of European society's response? Dostoevsky looks on.

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