Without God, Everything Would be Permitted (the, “If there is no God (i.e. no divine reward or punishment for our actions), people will act selfishly and without conscience” interpretation)
With these words, Dostoevsky has appealed to the intuitions of generations of Christians and various Christian apologists who can’t imagine people being nice to each other in a world without a transcendent being to reward or punish us. Obviously this is not an argument about the existence of God; it is a thought experiment examining the consequences if God doesn’t exist. Whether we like those consequences has no bearing on the question of whether God exists or not.
So is it true? Without a ‘reward-offering’ and ‘punishment doling-out’ God, would we all run morally amok?
I would argue that it isn’t. For it to be true it must also be true that we act selflessly only because we hope to receive some reward or avoid punishment from God, typically (although not necessarily) in an afterlife.
Now, is that true do you think? If it is, how can it be possible for an atheist who genuinely doesn’t believe in God, heaven, or hell to be nice? Every time an atheist opens a door for someone they refute the legions of Christians who purport to take this maxim seriously.
Another consequence of seriously accepting this proposition as it stands is that no single Christian is genuinely nice. They always have an eye on the end goal; they are acting nice because they know God is watching them. This has another interesting consequence. It means that if scientists conclusively proved that God didn’t exist and this proof was so convincing that all Christians accepted it (of course this is impossible but still valid as a thought experiment), we could expect them all to suddenly go berserk, and murder, rape, pillage, and steal (and worst of all, take the Lord’s name in vain!). After all, there’s no God right? And God was the only thing keeping them from acting on their true, (apparently) depraved natures.
Is there really no other reason for being nice to each other?
The problem with this statement is it assumes that the only, or at least the deciding, reason we are nice to each other is because we think God is watching. This is obviously false as my above points have strived to show.
Now, you might argue that believing in a God who is watching and recording your every action, word, and thought (isn’t it funny how we seem to find it unforgiveable that the government is recording our phone calls but accept as natural a God who would do the same thing with our thoughts) would keep us all on the straight and narrow. Well, it might (however that point is eminently debateable, think of all the faithful Christians who still commit crimes/sins; oh, and the ultimate ‘get out of jail free’ card; believe in Jesus and your sins get expunged thanks to his heroic efforts on the cross), but it doesn’t change the fact that people (quite a lot of them these days) still do the right thing without any eschatological prodding.
But haven’t we just been tamed by Christianity? Sure, now we value charity, equality, and goodwill but that wasn’t the case back in the good ol’ days when kings and emperors ruled over us and life was cheap. Didn’t Christianity civilise us? Did it?
Were the Middle Ages, when the church at times had more power than the kings, a shining beacon of equality, happiness, and prosperity? If you believe that, you have been a little too zealous and uncritical in your acceptance of Christian history. Moreover, how are we to explain the fact that virtually every other culture we know of derived the same pearls of wisdom Christianity did (love thy neighbour, turn the other cheek, etc. and all sometimes without the extra baggage of guilt and vicarious salvation through blood)? Doesn’t this suggest that there is a universal drive within humanity to these ideals?
And, perhaps even more poignant, why did we have to wait for the Modern age (i.e. secularism and humanism) to actually see any of these virtues? Where was the equality when popes and priests were living like kings and the average citizen was poverty-stricken? Where was our freedom when we were liable to be burned at the stake on just the rumour that we had read a certain book? Where was the love and goodwill to all men when Christians surged into foreign countries with, in the words of outspoken Christian debater, Dinesh D’Souza, Bibles in one hand and swords in the other?
We have changed, that much is true, but it is not thanks to Christianity. Even today, a woman can be the leader of a country but a female pope is still unthinkable. And which is the last segment of society still refusing to accept homosexuality?
To bring things back to the topic at hand, if there was no God is it true that everything would be permitted (in the sense that we would have no reason for acting ‘morally’)? Of course not. Not only do most atheists disprove this every day of their lives but I suspect most Christians aren’t so tenuously moralistic either. If they are, the greatest danger to all of us is not from IS (more of God’s dedicated faithful) or those faithless atheists, but from Christians who have lost their faith and along with that, their only reason for being good.