Without God Everything is Permitted

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In Dostoyevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov, the Russian author’s symbol for the scientific, rational, Western outlook, wrestles with the problem in the title of this article; without God, everything is permitted. Since then, this proposition has been used in countless discussions to justify belief in (typically the Christian) God. At least a part of its appeal for the religiously inclined lies in the near instant assent it tends to evoke. If there is no God, and therefore no higher Authority to dictate to us what our ethical rights and obligations are, how can we have any? We need God to ground morality. In this article, I will challenge this claim.

Without God

There are actually two ways Dostoyevsky’s line can be understood, and it’s important that we separate these out because they carry us into very different territories. The first and stronger of the two interprets it as an argument for the existence of God and runs something like this: Without God, everything is permitted. Since everything can’t be permitted, God must exist.

The problem, of course, is that everything could very well be permitted. This means that the argument gets its force from the fact that we don’t want it to be the case that everything is permitted. I mean, wouldn’t it be so unjust if everything were permitted? How could the universe be like that? At this point, we realise that this attempted proof, rather than being an argument, is actually an instance of special pleading, which therefore cannot be a reason for or against anything.

The second, weaker interpretation doesn’t necessarily try to prove the existence of God but still tries to take advantage of the ethical implications of God’s existence. This can best be captured with the following formulation: Without (belief in) God, everything is permitted. Therefore, if we want any morality at all, we need (belief in) God.

There are two ideas buried in this interpretation. The first is that without some ultimate, transcendental Authority, morality somehow lacks meaning. Everything is permitted because morality has no ground. This is just not the case. Without God, morality may not have a transcendent ground, but there is absolutely no reason why it can’t have an immanent one; i.e. why we can’t ground our own morality. We are the ones who are going to live by it, after all. Morality is just a code of conduct we all agree to live by; a code based on a set of values we can agree on. We can argue about whether it would be better for a transcendental Creator God who knows much more than us to just tell us what to do (some of our ethical decisions in the past have left quite a bit to be desired after all; we need look no further than our very own Bible for plenty of examples of this), or for us to actually think about it and take some responsibility for our own choices, but whether (belief in) God exists or not, our morality is just as meaningful either way.

One might argue that this would render morality completely arbitrary. This just isn’t true. We don’t formulate our morality arbitrarily; i.e. on a whim or without reason. On the contrary, we think deeply about, argue for, provide evidence in support of, and (if we’re at all enlightened) encourage reasoned debate, about our moral principles. We tweak them when we believe they need tweaking and throw some of them out completely and start again when that is what is required. Are we flying by the seat of our pants? Absolutely. Is this difficult, in the sense that we actually have to think for ourselves and be responsible for our own decisions? Definitely. Is it messy, in the sense that different cultures (or even segments within the same culture) may end up clashing over different moral systems? Totally. Is the process therefore arbitrary and meaningless? Absolutely not. If anything, as Simone de Beauvoir says, God’s absence, rather than authorising all license, means that we alone bear the “responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of [ourselves]”. What could be less arbitrary and more meaningful than this?

The second idea is that without an ultimate, transcendental Judge, there are no ultimate, transcendental consequences for failing to live by the agreed-on moral code. Everything is permitted because there are no serious punishments. It is, of course, true that without God, there are no supernatural or post-worldly consequences, but there most definitely are punishments, which means, by definition, that everything is explicitly not permitted. Whether those punishments take place through the justice system, or are more socially mediated (shame, exclusion from the group, etc.), these punishments absolutely do exist for violating moral strictures, and absolutely do forbid the breaking of those moral rules.

One might object that such ‘earthly’ punishments are too easily circumvented, or lack the gravitas of a supernatural Will (Biggest Brother, if you will), watching and tallying our every misdeed. This is surely true, but as with the ultimate, transcendent Authority above, the argument that it would be better for a transcendental Creator God to back up our moral rules with some heavy-duty punishments, is quite different from the discussion we are having here. Either way, punishments (which do work) exist here and now – i.e. not in some post-world existence – with the explicit and immediate goal of preventing wrongdoing, and this means that without (belief in) God, everything most definitely is not permitted.

With God

We have at this point, I think, shown that without God, everything is quite clearly not permitted, but I would be remiss if I didn’t go on the offensive and put the question to the believer, “How is it then, with God?” If it’s true that without God, everything is permitted, then it must be the case that, ‘with God, everything is not permitted’.

This rephrasing doesn’t bring with it a particularly interesting position regarding the existence of God, so we can move straight into the moral claim; with (belief in) God, everything is not permitted. Unfortunately (for the believer), this is absolutely, irrevocably, and demonstrably false. We don’t even need to engage our reasoning or imaginative faculties to disprove it. We can just look at Christian (or indeed, virtually any religion’s) history. I shouldn’t need to, and won’t waste your time, listing the many atrocities and cruelties visited upon the human race by God’s representatives whenever they had the power to wreak the havoc they did. This may sound one-sided, and I guess it is, but that is because the proposition is also one-sided. Since the argument is that without (belief in) God, everything is permitted, it must be true that with (belief in) God, everything is not permitted. The problem, as even a cursory peek at Christian history will reveal, is that even when it was taken for granted that God existed and He was waiting in the wings to punish us for our misdeeds, all manner of depravity and viciousness was carried out; i.e. with (belief in) God, everything is just as permitted as without (belief in) God.

The objection here is that, while everything is still permitted, as in able to be done here in the earthly realm, everything is not permitted, in the sense that God has decreed some things impermissible, and will punish miscreants in the afterlife. Well, while that is a beautiful sentiment regarding our all-loving God, it doesn’t change much for us mortal beings down here on Earth. Bad behaviour, while (allegedly) having been prohibited by a higher power, is still permitted because that same higher power does nothing to prevent it. Punishment after the fact is not the same as not permitting the crime to take place in the first place.

This is where I would also address an objection which more properly belongs in the preceding section, and one I remember hearing William Lane Craig make; if there is no God, the entirety of a mortal, earthly morality can be overcome with a single word; No. No; I reject your premises, I disagree with your reasoning, I dispute your arguments. The reason I left this objection to now is because it is true; anybody can take issue with any specific ethical rule or injunction, and indeed, anyone can simply refuse any ethical precept without any reason whatsoever. However, it is also true that even regarding a morality grounded in the authority of a Creator God, and backed up by the promise of eternal, post-life torture, a simple ‘No’ dispenses with the whole edifice. Indeed, is this not what Christians say in the face of Islamic divine commandments or Hindu ethical dogma? Is it not what modern Christians would say even in the face of Medieval ethical tenets espoused by an earlier incarnation of their own God? The truth is no morality, whatever you ground it in, however terrible the punishment, however blissful the reward, will ever be immune to a simple ‘No’. If it weren’t, morality would cease to be, because we would all be automatons mindlessly doing what we had been ‘programmed’ to do.

Without What Then, is Everything Permitted?

We have seen that with or without (belief in) God, everything is still permitted, but surely this need not be the end of the discussion. While prefacing the clause ‘everything is permitted’ with something related to God failed to yield a valid proposition, we don’t have to think that hard to find something that will do the job.

Without compassion, without good old-fashioned human decency, everything is permitted.

This non-religious formulation succeeds where the God-centred one failed because it turns the focus of the proposition inwards, making it subjective (in the Kierkegaardian sense of the word), pressing it upon the individual in his or her core, rather than looking outwards for justification in an external authority figure. With compassion, no human being could ever harm another human being. If they could, they would be demonstrating their lack of compassion. On the other hand, without compassion, truly anything is permitted, irrespective of whether the individual in question happens to believe in a God or not. Would it amount to a perversion of the faith if terrible things were done in the name of God? Perhaps. But this doesn’t change the fact that terrible things have been, are being, and will be, done in the name of God as long as Gods exist. With or without God, everything is permitted.

The objection will still be made that compassion just isn’t strong enough to ground an effective morality on. How can this influence the behaviour of the person who says, “Screw your compassion. I’m taking your stuff because I want it”? Of course, it can’t. But, as we’ve seen, appeal to an external Law-Giver isn’t immune to such rejection either. The believer has exactly the same problem when the villainous individual says, “Screw your religious mumbo jumbo. I’m taking your stuff because I want it.” What’s even worse is he or she doesn’t have to reject belief in God to reject the morality of the believer. History is full of Christians doing things which were obviously wrong, and which they nevertheless justified to themselves anyway. Not only that, the appeal to this God has no hold over someone who believes in that God.

Compassion and human decency rise above these petty concerns, revealing them as vacuous and completely unable to ground any morality deserving of the name. Morality can never be grounded in super-human myths and fantasies. If we want a morality, it can only be grounded in something that unites us as human beings, and such a thing will never be a belief or proposition about something external to us. The truth is, a morality that doesn’t turn inwards and ground itself in the imperfect, flawed creatures who live according to it, just isn’t a morality at all.

14 thoughts on “Without God Everything is Permitted

  1. That was very well written. I’m not a fan of Dr. Craig I find him dry and pedantic but he likes Dostoevsky so at least he’s got good taste in literature. I understand the advantage in Sartre etc of creating your own meaning and morality in the world because it puts the locus of responsibility on the person instead of externalizing it onto some abstract principles where the end justifies the means , which if we are being honest has been done with both religions and secular ideologies. I myself am an anarchist I think governments always justify violence in the name of abstractions . Jes was reported to have said , Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ There’s also something called the Law of One that as one suffers all suffer but without some kind of transcendental basis I think these concepts kind of are open to option or inclination to some extent . For instance what stops someone willing a nihilistic or evil meaning to the world. Take satanist Boyd Rice for example he expounds , ‘History’s lesson is written in the blood of the vanquished, it is spelled down in the ruins of forgotten civilizations, in the monuments to their grandeur, and the monuments to their falling.
    History’s lesson reveals that war is the father of all and the king of all And some he has made gods, some men, some bond, and some free.’
    I know he’s quoting Hereclitus and I’m not a Boyd fan I’m using him as an example of a psychopath .

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    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Absolutely, there’s nothing about secular ideologies that guarantees they will be any better than religious ones. No imagination is required to see that either.
      And I agree that there is nothing to stop the Rices of the world from willing what they will. The problem for me is that people often think this is the goal though. It’s what makes the ‘without God’ argument seem so persuasive to many. Even aside from the fact that it doesn’t do what people tend to think it does; i.e. ground morality in some absolute way, this isn’t what we should be trying to do with ethics. Projecting our values onto supernatural entities or espousing a simplistic ethical formula (e.g. utilitarianism, deontology) only muddies the ethical waters, and it does so precisely when we most need to be seeing clearly.

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      • I agree with you and existentialism that morality has to be weighed by it’s real world immediate consequences and can’t rely on abstract formulas that often just end up as an excuse for bad behaviour. As Sartre said there are no excuses. I do believe in Moral Laws though . I think reality gives us back what we give. This can be seen in religions axioms like you sow what to reap or karma etc . I’m aware that this doesn’t explain suffering (the problem of evil) on whole . However no maters what worldview you adopt you have contend with this .

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  2. As an Atheist, I would like to know your opinion regarding the “new attacks” made by Dr. Feser against Atheism in his book: 5 Proofs for the Existence of God and The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. It’s okay if you haven’t read it, but if you have it would be good to hear what you think. From what I’ve seen, Dr. Feser use to be an atheist.
    Hope you had a blessed Thanksgiving.

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    • Hi Paul,
      I haven’t read those books, so I can’t give you an informed opinion. I did have a quick look on Amazon though and from what I can see there, I think I would find the arguments for God wholly uninteresting, but I’d probably find quite a bit of common ground in his criticisms of naturalism (in The Last Superstition). I’ve written plenty about that here, by the way.
      By coincidence, I did recently read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God (at the prompting of a friend) and am writing an article at the moment in which some of these same ideas crop up, and which you might find interesting. I’ll post it here when I finish.
      Truth be told Paul, I don’t read much atheist/religious stuff anymore. I had a couple of years on the atheist bandwagon, but now that whole topic is pretty much settled for me. I feel like I’ve just moved beyond it (if I can say that without sounding patronising).

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      • Thank you for you response and time. I am a Theist, but it is very interesting to hear what you have to say. Best wishes and God Bless you in His Mercy.

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      • Hey Nathan . Ever heard of the term ‘negative identity ‘? I feel that this term applies to the new atheists . Sartre and Nietzsche are very different and Nietzsche even référés to the pale faced atheists that kind of define themselves I this fashion. Glad you’ve moved beyond them

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      • Yes, even when I was more actively interested in the atheism/religion debate, I recognised it as a reaction to the culture I grew up in, but for me, it was something I had to go through to put the whole issue behind me. I had a lot of thoughts on the topic which I had to organise and get on paper to kind of get it out of my system. Once I did that (I wrote two massive articles / small books very critical of Christianity), the whole debate just lost its interest.

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      • I think many of those debates miss the point though because the people debating them and those thinkers both assume you can kind of step outside the problem and view it as a math question where’s we can never totally divorce ourselves from personal experiences
        I go by mindhack on your form btw

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  3. Sorry my response is so late Jon. I didn’t get a notification, which is weird.
    First, don’t worry. I know you and Mindhack are one and the same.
    Second, that is a very interesting point you make about us being unable to step outside our situation and view it like a math problem. I totally agree with this if we are talking about human life (hence the existentialist push against Hegelian-like ‘world-systems’ that encapsulate everything, including existence), not so much if we are talking about religion though. Surely, we can, and should, step back from and critically evaluate our beliefs; whether they are about empirical observations, philosophical musings, or supernatural entities. Likewise, I don’t see why we can’t subject someone’s claim that they have experienced some kind of ‘revelation’ or ‘vision’ to thorough examination. Of course, I can’t literally experience what they experienced, but I don’t think there is anything preventing me from looking on it from my external, third-person perspective and coming to a meaningful conclusion about it.

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    • I agree actually in regards evaluating if someone makes a claim that has to do with interactions of an extra dimensional, UFO or religious vision one can and should step back and evaluate using ones logical tools etc I certainly do . I just mean no one can tell another person what they ‘personally ‘ experienced in some cases and it may make all the difference . For instance someone’s friends may ask a man prove you love your wife . He might not be able to logical demonstrate why he does and yet this could be one of his most important meanings . The reasons people have for believing or disbelieving in God often contains there subtle hard to pin point factors .

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  4. Every single time an angry atheist tries to explain morality without God becomes one of the biggest oxymorons, it is really revealing how atheism is the only worldview that cannot account for morality and anything else, the entire atheist belief-system is self-defeating as to even try to defend it since you have to presuppose immaterial realities such as the laws of logic.
    Without God every sense of morality is compeltely destroyed as not only there is no objective standard to derive from what it is good and evil but there is no standard for anything, everything becomes relative and meaningless, humans are mindless accidents of nature with no purpose or value, all your “thoughts” are just illusions from chemicals from your brain, whether you slaughter or help someone it is the same thing, you can never say someone is wrong or right, atheism always leads to complete absurdity and ultimately insanity and suicide (atheists are the most suicidal minority from all these mental illness minorities such as feminists, veganists etc)
    Also, you seem to be displaying an extreme amount of anger and misery, where does all this bitterness come from? Isn’t it kind of revealing that atheists are such a small minority of the angriest, most bitter and most miserable neckbeards with the highest suicide rates? In the end, it is impossible to escape God as he is the explanation and source of everything.

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    • i created an account so i could just agree with you 🙂

      If someone really proves to me and convinces me that theres no God and after i die theres nothing, well… i wont even talk about what would i do

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