When speaking of existentialism, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously worried that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Although I believe that the presence of God in our society is beneficial, to some extent in morality, I do not believe that it is a necessity for mankind. At the time that Dostoevsky made his statement, we were still deep in the 19th century. In the past 200 years, our belief in God has suffered a dramatic decline among millennials. A growing amount of American identifies as atheists.
I do believe in a higher power, but I also have a very broad view of the world. I see people doing well each day. Not because they fear the almighty wrath of God but purely from the good nature in their heart. If what Dostoevsky said were true then all criminals would have no faith when in fact, many do.
Simone de Beauvoir was skeptical of this as well. She has a rather long quote in which she rejects the very notion: “Today’s believers use this formula for their advantage.
To re-establish man at the heart of his destiny is, they claim, to repudiate all ethics. However, far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements. He bears the responsibility for a world that is not the work of strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well. A God can pardon, efface, and compensate.
But if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable. If it is claimed that, whatever the case may be, this earthly stake has no importance, this is precisely because one invokes that inhuman objectivity that we declined at the start. One cannot start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has no importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure. And if it is again said that nothing forces him to try to justify his being in this way, then one is playing upon the notion of freedom dishonestly. The believer is also free to sin. The divine law is imposed upon him only from the moment he decides to save his soul. In the Christian religion, though one speaks very little about them today, there are also the damned. Thus, on the earthly plane, a life that does not seek to ground itself will be a pure contingency. But it is permitted to wish to give itself meaning and truth, and it then meets rigorous demands within its own heart.” (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 15-16)
Beauvoir dismisses the claim against secularism made by Dostoevsky. In her view, without God to allow us to repent for our sins we are absolutely and indefensibly responsible for our actions. Dostoevsky was incorrect. The issue with secularism is not licensed, it is the issue of us collectively. Our responsibility could be a good thing.
Human beings naturally desire happiness. A life filled with villainy and immorality would not fulfill our innate need for virtue. Housed in all of us is the yearning for friends, love, family, etc., all things that do not call for violation of ethical norms. As long as I have those three things, and I think many people would agree, I can safely say that I would genuinely be happy. There is no desire in me to commit true, evil sin and it is surely not a fear of God that has instilled this in me.
Another flaw in Dostoevsky’s worry is that human beings have empathy as well. Only sociopaths would hold no guilt for their sins. I would go as far as say that empathy is the driving reason for our morality itself. Why would we choose not to kill when we felt no guilt for our actions? The catch is that we do. Enormous amounts. A simplified version of existential ethics would merely be good nature.
Given this reasoning, however, it is also important to recognize the context of the opposing argument. That if God does not exist then there is no strict set of rules for us to live by, no ethical law that we “must” follow, and that we are free to do “whatever we want”. Without God we would have no motivation to be ethical and so would choose to live an unethical and immoral existence. Unless we had the incentive of divine approbation or fear of divine judgment, then we would not care about being ethical because we would not encounter any superior consequences for our actions.
If this were true, is God a necessity for ethical motivation because without Him mankind could not be moral? I think it would go on a person-by-person basis. There would be some that would rebel against the notion that goodness comes from the heart, that unless they were to feel any sort of repercussions, a portion would lead unethical lives. However, there are currently many atheists who still believe that it is important to be moral, and who do not live in a hypothetical.
I feel as though the existence of atheists completely debunks Dostoyevsky’s fear. Although they lack a divine presence, atheists still feel that there are many motivations to be ethical beyond the desire for divine approval or fear of eternal punishment. Humans may act ethically because we house inherent desires to fit in, to impress a potential love interest, to avoid prison time, etc., etc. So, if the opposing claim is in fact that without divinity, no one would have any motivation to be ethical, then the claim is false.
Furthermore, it should be said that if a forgiving god already exists, everything is already permitted. The current Catholic faith believes that sinners can repent from their sins and be pardoned from their wrongdoing. They claim to be incredibly strict in their moral laws and heavenly teachings but allow for error constantly and let “sinner” after “sinner” into the envisioned gates of heaven. Personally, growing up Catholic, my father broke one of the ten commandments. After confessing his sin and going through the due process of repentance, I doubt that he feels any more remorse for his action or doubts in any way that he will be greeted at the pearly gates. Dostoevsky seems to assume that all believers adhere to the guidelines set by their religion. This is oftentimes not so.
I do believe that the presence of God in our society is beneficial to some extent, but I surely do not view it as necessary. In the past 200 years, our beliefs as a people have altered greatly, the atheist population is only growing. Atheists do good, not for a divine entity but themselves, and I think that encapsulates my view. The basis of existential optimism is that we must create meaning in our lives. Striving after divine approbation allows us to neglect certain responsibilities. And is that any meaning at all?