Godless Morals: The Challenge of Ivan Karamazov

Daniel C. Maguire

Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov was a worried man. “Without God and immortal life, all things are permitted,” he fretted. Without these beliefs, “the moral law of nature” would collapse and everything, including “crime” and even “cannibalism” would be permitted.

Karamazov’s thought gave classical expression to a common delusion that undergirds much of traditional theism. If there is no Moral Lawgiver there is no moral law. And if there is no Great Enforcer to mete out rewards and punishments, here and hereafter, morality is flaccid and ineffectual. So it is that many plant their feet on the loose plank called “God” and on the belief that when you die, you are not really dead. You look dead; you really do. And if someone doesn’t do something quickly, you will smell dead. But you are not dead: you have just moved on to an invisible parallel universe, leaving your body behind. And, in that invisible parallel universe, you’ll get your just deserts for your depravity or your virtue. We needed beliefs like that, Ivan thought, to tame our barbarity.

Trouble in God-dom

The idea that there is a benign supernatural intelligent power running the universe, governing everything from fruit flies to quasars, has crashed on the facts of life. The monotheistic idea of one deity who is both almighty and all merciful, omnipotens et misericors, has been buried in the cemetery of oxymorons. Most ancient religionists who also liked to imagine super-beings running things insisted that there had to be more than one of them—at the very least, two.

One of those deities is merciful and good, artful and generous. This good god makes the first smiles of infants, fashions rosebuds that unfurl gently into beauty, and paints sunsets in the skies that our best artists cannot match. That is surely a good god who does all that. With uncanny skill, this good god fashions brains and optic nerves and swallows that know their way back to Capistrano. That god is one fine god indeed.

But anyone with access to a newspaper knows that if we go the god route to explain the real world, we must posit a very active, god-awful god who makes tsunamis and earthquakes to gobble up those smiling infants, who makes childhood cancer and Tay-Sachs, and who sends Ebola viruses to kill both parents and their children.

And, by all means, let’s not forget mosquitoes. No good god would wake, look out at his creation, and say: “Today I think I’ll make some nasty blood-sucking, disease-carrying little needles with wings and toss them into the mix.” No decent god would do that; that’s bad-god work. And here is the horrific bottom line: it’s the really, really, bad god, the mosquito-making god, who in several billion years will triumph over the good god by sucking this planet, or what’s left of it, back into the sun from which we sprouted. At that point, as Carl Sagan wryly noted, our current concerns will seem rather trivial. And at that point, too, faith in the good god will be of no avail.

The good god is destined to be a loser. And in most of the universe, the good god is already a loser since there is more chaos than order out there. Our planet and we ourselves are on a short holiday, in cosmic terms, from the chaos of the universe. We are, after all, reconfigured stardust, and unto stardust we shall return.

In the Beginning, We Created ‘God’

Since we create the gods, not the other way around, we do so with a purpose. We’re not frivolous god-makers. We use them as an explanation of things we cannot explain. In antiquity, the good things in nature—from olives to peaches, from salmon to turtledoves—had gods and goddesses assigned to make them happen. There were as many as two thousand gods in ancient Mesopotamia handling all the challenges of nature and life. There were gods for potters, warriors, weavers, and sex workers. Gods were the cure for anxiety and ignorance.

The gods-as-the-answer-to-everything idea was seductive. Ultimately, however, it was a bit lame as a solution for two major reasons: (1) Saying “God did it” to explain everything about nature and morality was a handy one-stop-shopping contrivance, but it fell on its face when people asked who or what this hyper-achieving “God” is. No one could rightly say. And (2) morally speaking, the gods we made were a mess of contradictions. They suffered from multiple-personality disorder, at times being loving and carrying us on eagle’s wings of benevolence and at other times being sociopathic in their cruelty. With the gods, it seems, everything really was permitted.

Pious Agnostics

A prime motive for god-making was to answer the “Who done it?” question: “Who made that beautiful strawberry?” Answer: “God made it.” The inevitable follow-up question was: “Who’s God?” That question got swamped in baffling answers. Indeed, thoughtful theologians bent over backward explaining how “God” was the most unknowable of all the unknowables. They didn’t want their god to seem too much like us. That would not be godly.

Thomas Aquinas was a superstar theologian. Surely he can help us. Not! Aquinas said “God” is best known “as the unknown.” That’s a letdown. He went on: “Now we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which God does.” Atheists and agnostics would complain: “You’re stealing our thunder. That’s what we think!” Augustine was no better: He was in fact a veritable tease. He said if, when talking about “God,” you think you understand what you are talking about, then what you are talking about is not God. Si comprehendis non est deus. A real “Gotcha!”

This effort to make “God” so transcendent that he becomes unimaginable reached its silly nadir when a sixth-century Christian thinker called Denys insisted that God was “a mystery beyond being.” To be “beyond being” would seem to be, well, not being. And Denys took that plunge. He said “God” is so “beyond being” that he is neither a unity or a trinity and is best thought of as a “nothing.” It takes a peck of courage for someone in the God business to say that. The modern-day theologian Elizabeth Johnson sums it all up: “God is outside of all classes and categories and beyond the possibility of being imagined or conceived.” Theology, then, appears to be a very dead end. If the answer to everything is “God” and you confess you don’t have the slightest idea of what you are talking about in your God-talk, all you are doing is substituting one unknown for another. That is not progress. Those believing in such a god would be best described as “pious agnostics,” for such they truly are.

Three = One

The god-identity problem got even worse. While trying to clear out the crowded pantheon and settle on one super-god, Christians stumbled badly. They never made it to a tidy monotheism. Instead, they came up with the idea that it took three persons to make one god. No wonder Jews and Muslims cried “polytheism!” They had a point. No matter how hard the dons dunned it, and dun they did, three never did equal one. It’s amazing that any Christian children ever grew up to be mathematicians since a central tenet of their faith was the insistence that three equals one. We can understand the little girl in a catechism class who was asked what “faith” is. She replied with endearing confidence: “Faith is what helps you to believe what you know is not true.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, an esteemed theologian, was less helpful and certainly less charming than the little girl when he took on the three versus one puzzle. He said that when used in relation to “God,” “three” is quite different from the three we use as part of “a sequence of numbers.” He had our worldly three right. Our three does mean one less than four and one more than two. Not with God. God’s three total up to one. It prompts questions such as: If God’s three is not like our three, could it be a two? No, Von Balthasar insists, it’s a one. A brave try, Professor Balthasar, but what you just said is not a great contribution to god-talk or good sense. It doesn’t compute. Pity the kicker who blesses himself before attempting the field goal forgetting that with God, three equals only one.

The Male Coup d’Eglise

Making “God” the solution to life’s moral and physical quandaries has still other problems. The gods were slippery mutants. They suffered from gender instability and pioneered sex-change. For thousands of years in the Fertile Crescent, where humans did some major organizing, the supreme deity was female, the Great Goddess. In the year 1500 BCE, goddess religion predominated. Then the big switch began. Two thousand years later, the Mother Goddess had been dethroned and guys took over. A numinous female-to-male sex change took place. Given my bias in favor of women—who rarely start wars and almost never mug you on dark streets—I do not see this as progress. And it certainly was not progress for women. By the time the male coup d’eglise was finished, the political and economic subjugation of women was well on—more proof that we make the gods in our own image and likeness. As society turns macho, the gods follow suit. As Jesuit religion scholar Ignatius Jesudasan puts it: “Every image that has ever been projected of God is a mirror reflecting the age and person or group which produced it.” Karen Armstrong says that the statement “I believe in God” has “no objective meaning, as such.” If you look at the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is no steady, consistent view of “God”; “each generation has to create the image of God that works for it.” Armstrong wisely notes that the same is true for atheists. They have to specify which conception of a deity they are denying.

So if God made the strawberry and the moral law, and if God is fickle and unreliable—as well as an unknowable nothing—we’d best leave god-talk behind and try to figure out how the strawberry evolved and how we ourselves can distinguish right from wrong, and do so before we complete the wrecking of the planet. We don’t know everything about evolution and natural selection and we never will, but we know a lot and are always learning more, and that’s far better than the godly confections served up over the centuries by exuberant and unfettered religious imagination.

The ninth-century Celtic philosopher Duns Scotus Erigena agreed with the sixth-century Denys that “God” is unintelligible. We cannot even say that God exists since God is “more than existence.” That is surely a mind-stretching thought. He boldly faces the question: Can we really say that “God” is? At this point, Erigena sounds a lot like Bill Clinton when he too was on the spot. Erigena says we can say that God is, but “what that ‘is’ is” cannot be defined. If we say that God is, we do not know what that “is” is. At this point, trapped in the linguistic maze of his own making, he falls back on Denys, saying that God is best thought of as a nothing. That is simpler.

However, Erigena offers us more than this contorted gobbledygook. In an insight worthy of his Celtic roots, he says that theology is “a kind of poetry.” A refreshing breakthrough! As Karen Armstrong says, humans created gods at the same time they created poetry and music. That makes sense. They were of a piece. And we do know what poetry is. Poetry is the mind on safari, at its soaring imaginative best. A good idea needs no passport to an open mind, whatever its source. Forget the gods; the world’s religions are poetic enterprises, and like great poetry they peek, sometimes with great success, into the human psyche.

Rogues Turned Teachers

Just as the nature gods were a substitute for science, the morality gods were a substitute for ethics. Of course lots of the gods were not interested in morality, and they were a scandalous lot to boot. In many of the ancient religions, the pantheon was the last place you would go for moral instruction. One look at the rambunctious behavior of the Greek divinities makes it clear that they needed some stern moral tutoring. Rape, murder, intrigue—they indulged in all of that and more.

Eventually though, especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, “God” became the lawgiver, the root and source of morality, the boundary-setter between good and evil. God moved into the ethics business big time. From thundering mountaintops and burning bushes, the didactic deity issued firm “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.” God would tell you what was right or wrong and would enforce the moral law with hair-raising sanctions in this life and in the afterlife. This was the frame of thinking that Karamazov addressed.

The gain from this ploy was clear. We did not have to figure out what was right or wrong—that is, what enhanced life and what defaced it. Let “God” do the figuring. And since few humans are inclined to think that virtue is its own reward, we gave our god enforcement power—formidable enforcement power. When God told you to go to hell, you went there. No ifs, ands, or buts. And hell is not where you would want to go. Medieval Christians thought that the mouth of the volcano of Mount Etna was the entrance to hell. In that cauldron you would roast eternally. While alive, that amount of fire would consume you instantly. God had arranged that you acquired noncombustibility when you ended your evil life and entered into your eternal punishment. At least Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, and the alleged witches knew that there would be an end to the horror inflicted on them. Not in hell. “Burn, baby burn” is written on the gates of hell in flame-resistant ink.

In the thirteenth century, the Christians choked on the hell thing and they officially opened an escape hatch. They created purgatory (from purgare, to cleanse). If you were not hopelessly bad, you could end up there, and then, having served your time, you could proceed straight to heaven and all the joys thereof. Still, purgatory was no cakewalk. Some thought you also had to go through Mount Etna. You would thus arrive piteously scarred into eternal bliss when your time had been served.

Aside from heaven, hell, and purgatory as postmortem residences, there was also limbo. This was reserved for infants who died without baptism and hence were mired in original sin and clearly unfit for heaven. These babes did not commit the original sin that stained their newborn souls; they inherited it from Adam and Eve, an unhappy legacy indeed. Since the kids had committed no crimes, it would be unfair to put them in purgatory or hell. Still, limbo was not a fun place. You wouldn’t wish it on any baby. Aquinas said they would enjoy natural happiness but not supernatural happiness—whatever that might be. But the dour old Augustine said the babies would be afflicted with “a mild punishment.” Small comfort that. Even a mild punishment would be pretty hellish if it lasted forever. Just try to imagine an eternal itch. Remember, there was no exit ramp from limbo. As unbaptized outsiders, these poor little tots were not fit company for the saints in heaven.

Eventually, even the grim Pope Benedict reneged on this nasty scheme, and he quietly eased limbo off the list of must-believes. It was only a “theological hypothesis,” he said—not noting that heaven, hell, purgatory, and God are hypotheses too. Limbo is now free to be nothing more than a dance for those with back-bending festive proclivities. That dismissal of limbo and his decision to resign from the papacy were, in my view, the best two things Pope Benedict did in his short and ill-starred papacy. His surprising resignation had the important effect of demystifying the papacy. It took God out of the picture. Without any divine intervention, the tiara could be doffed as well as donned. The divine right of popes began to go the way of the divine right of kings.

A Moratorium on God-talk

So relax, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov. The question “Would morality collapse if there is no deity?” is a stupid question. Rape, child abuse, torture, empire-building, Earth-wrecking, ethnic cleansing, and the greed called “neoliberalism” are bad, morally bad, destructive, and repugnant—and there is no need to base that condemnation on those imaginative projections we call “gods.” Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have produced rich moral wisdom with no perceived need for a deity. As Chinese scholar Chun-fang Yu writes: in the Chinese religions, “there is no God transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge.” The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not based on theism, and a fine step toward a global ethic it was. The Parliament of World Religions does not require theism from its participants. Even Pope Francis invites atheists to join in his moral mission against poverty and militarism. Theism is not required to be at one with him on all that. Quite an admission from a pope!

Hamlet’s assurance is too much with us: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” The idea of “God” as an indulgent parent who will clean up the mess left by our profligacy is a bad symbol. It deserves to die. If current trends continue, we will sink into an agonizing extinction, after which the rest of nature would surely be better off. Our damage to the good Earth is well on, and some of it is irreparable.

We may, of course, beat the odds and take the turn to moral sanity, but there is no “God” to do it for us.

Daniel C. Maguire

Daniel C. McGuire is a professor at Marquette University. His article “Christianity Doesn’t Need God” appeared in Free Inquiry’s October/November 2014 issue. Reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Read more at www.religiondispatches.org.


Humans created “God,” not the other way around. Better that we take that lesson before we finish wrecking the planet.

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