In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky sets up two antagonistic theories of the way in which mankind seeks virtue and social order. The first is related by Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov (a wealthy landowner) as he explains that Ivan Karamazov gave an address in which he stated that

there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has not come from natural law but solely from people’s belief in their immortality. . . . Were mankind’s belief in their immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person . . . who believes neither in God nor his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evil-doing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation. . . . Evildoing should not only be permitted but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person!*

The second theory, as expressed by Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin, a young liberal seminary student, is that

mankind will find strength in itself to live for virtue, even without believing in the immortality of the soul! Find it in love of liberty, equality, fraternity, . . .#

This book was written in 1880 and it seems to me that we have spent much of the intervening years arguing back and forth about these two theories. Can one have love of mankind, virtue, morality, and social order without a belief in God and the immortality of the soul? Or, are such qualities impossible without the concept of final consequences for our actions? This argument is particularly strong today as one considers the long history of world religions and the voices of militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

I have found it helpful to listen to atheists, agnostics, and God followers. I read books by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking and balance them with ones by Alistair McGrath and Francis Collins. I talk to my atheist friends and ask them how they live. And then I keep quiet – and listen. I do the same with my friends who follow Jesus. You could try it yourself. If you are a follower of a religion, try inviting an atheist over for dinner. If you are an atheist or agnostic try listening to a follower of one of the world religions as you eat dinner together some time. I highly recommend it.

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamozov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002 edition, p 69.

#Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamozov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002 edition, p 82.