The question of God’s existence is archaic and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Everyone has pondered if there is a god out there. Dozens of philosophers have staked their positions, some are firm while others remain agnostic. But, a select few have ventured into the depths of this question to find existential closure. During the nineteenth century two thinkers who would change philosophy forever did precisely that. They had differing positions on God’s existence, one a skeptic and the other a seeker. But, when they asked what it meant if God didn’t exist — they ended up with the same conclusion.
Fredrick Nietzsche, an atheist, is a favorite among modern skeptics. He’s influenced figureheads like psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Nietzsche is known for his pithy rhetoric, crushing ad-hominems, and critique of worldviews. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche dismantles Stoicism in a single sentence, “Living–is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature?” Living according to nature is opposite to nature itself, says Nietzsche. It’s imperative to be careful when digesting his writings without a well-grounded worldview. You risk being turned on your head, left questioning your assumptions.
“God is dead.” Is one of Nietzsche’s most cited quotes among laymen. The quote is normally used as a rhetorical device. However, many who use Nietzsche’s words here don’t fully grasp what he was saying. The quote continues, “[God is dead] … And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?” It isn’t obvious Nietzsche is claiming the “death of God” excitedly after reading the rest of the quote. Rather, he did so with caution. During the late 19th century The West began to outgrow Christian theism, and without a belief in God, the philosopher realized moral duties would have no explanation. All the explanatory power was nested inside Christianity. Therefore, moving away from it was like pulling the rug from under society. Considering this, Nietzsche’s solution was that one could create their own values. However, it’s not clear how Nietzsche could claim some values were weak and others were strong they are self-created.
Another thinker would have the same realization hundreds of miles away. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a famous novelist known for his thought-provoking stories. Dostoyevsky stirs his readers in Crime and Punishment with a story of a young, atheist law student by the name Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov, who is poverty stricken, murders an abusive pawnbroker and steals her money. He does so after convincing himself it’s permissible. She was an evil woman, and he needed the money, so Raskolnikov justified the murder. But after the deed was done, his life would take a turn. He falls into a neurotic state and finally admits to the murder after a battle with his conscience and avoiding law enforcement. Dostoyevsky would dig deeper into this theme using fictional characters. In The Brothers Karamazov one of his characters asks “But what will become of men then?’ … “without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”
Dostoyevsky’s books are cathartic of his own contemplation. Surely, he struggled with God’s existence, but he was haunted by the consequences if God didn’t exist. Without God, Raskolnikov didn’t do anything wrong, because “all things are lawful then”. The novelist wrote in a letter to N. L. Ozmidov, “Now suppose that there is no God or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds, if I die entirely on earth?” With a rhetorical question he explains that if there is no God, there is no reason to do good. In fact, there is no reason for anything – you can do whatever you want. After all, that’s what Raskolnikov did.
Two brilliant men –an atheist and an inquisitor– came to the same conclusion. Without God, there is no reason for anything, and we can do whatever suits us. Sure, we can formulate our own purposes and duties, but such standards are ultimately contrived in our own minds. They are relative, contingent, and are nothing but an opinion. How can we justify them? Without God humanity is then participating in a game somewhere far in the cosmos, coming up with phenomena that only means something to the players. Nothing more.