Spooky Special: The Journey of the Prideful Atheist Through Hell in “The Brothers Karamazov”

The Grand Inquisitor by Ilya Glazunov. Illustration to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov

I recall cozying up by the radiator with The Brothers Karamazov that nass Hamburg winter with much joy. Being the last book Dostoyevsky would ever write, I wasn’t surprised that it seemed an even greater reflection on death and morality than any of his other works. But surprise or not, to see him address what I consider to be among the first order of philosophical questions with such intent and specificity, I felt grateful that he was spared the worst of the gulag.

At the same time, some of the beautiful novel’s passages jumped out in the eerie style of deja vu. Oftentimes, the acclaimed writer’s perspectives on those themes played out through the brothers’ conversations just as they might in my own heart and head. I was closer to St. Petersburg than I had ever been and looking out at the dark Tor zur Welt (“gateway to the world” as Hamburg is known) to feel the philosopher’s gaze from Nevsky cemetery was a truly psychological experience. I felt as if I were listening to a ghost.

And, surprisingly, the novel stood out to me as parallel to horror in more tangible ways. While we tend to think of horror as fantastical or mythical, Dostoyevsky’s realism spares nineteenth century St. Petersburg no romance: it’s all serfdom, disfigurement, destitution, crime, and insanity. The novel is more than a horror show without the monster and spirits of an Edgar Allan Poe story (fantastic as those stories are). So I figured I might share the lesser explored with a quick passage: Alyosha’s anecdote of the atheist gone to hell. Not only does it come to us from a novel not typically classified as horror, but the passage evokes a more untapped fear, the existential.

In it, the youngest and most devout of the legitimate Karamazov brothers, Alyosha, shares an old monks’ tale with his atheist brother, Ivan. I find the legend more unsettling than other manifestations of hell. As Alyosha notes, the idea of hell as a spiritual pain is played out. Myths of physical pain are more interesting and sensible. And myths of physical pain other than the lakes of fire are perhaps even more likely to inspire existential dread.

“There is an anecdote precisely on our subject, or rather a legend, not an anecdote. You reproach me with unbelief, you see, you say, yet you don’t believe. But, my dear fellow, I am not the only one like that. We are all in a muddle over there now and all through your science. Once there used to be atoms, five senses, four elements, and then everything hung together somehow. There were atoms in the ancient world even, but since we’ve learned that you’ve discovered the chemical molecule and protoplasm and the devil knows what, we had to lower our crest. There’s a regular muddle, and, above all, superstition, scandal; there’s as much scandal among us as among you, you know; a little more in fact, and spying, indeed, for we have our secret police department where private information is received. Well, this wild legend belongs to our middle ages—not yours, but ours—and no one believes it even among us, except the old ladies of eighteen stone, not your old ladies I mean, but ours. We’ve everything you have, I am revealing one of our secrets out of friendship for you; though it’s forbidden. This legend is about Paradise. There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. ‘This is against my principles!’ he said. And he was punished for that … that is, you must excuse me, I am just repeating what I heard myself, it’s only a legend…he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometers in the dark (we’ve adopted the metric system, you know) and when he has finished that quadrillion, the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he’ll be forgiven—”

“And what tortures have you in the other world besides the quadrillion kilometers?” asked Ivan, with a strange eagerness.

“What tortures? Ah, don’t ask. In old days we had all sorts, but now they have taken chiefly to moral punishments—‘the stings of conscience’ and all that nonsense. We got that, too, from you, from the softening of your manners. And who’s the better for it? Only those who have got no conscience, for how can they be tortured by conscience when they have none? But decent people who have conscience and a sense of honor suffer for it. Reforms, when the ground has not been prepared for them, especially if they are institutions copied from abroad, do nothing but mischief! The ancient fire was better. Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometers, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. ‘I won’t go, I refuse on principle!’ Take the soul of an enlightened Russian atheist and mix it with the soul of the prophet Jonah, who sulked for three days and nights in the belly of the whale, and you get the character of that thinker who lay across the road.”

“What did he lie on there?”

“Well, I suppose there was something to lie on. You are not laughing?”

“Bravo!” cried Ivan, still with the same strange eagerness. Now he was listening with an unexpected curiosity. “Well, is he lying there now?”

“That’s the point, that he isn’t. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on.”

“What an ass!” cried Ivan, laughing nervously and still seeming to be pondering something intently. “Does it make any difference whether he lies there for ever or walks the quadrillion kilometers? It would take a billion years to walk it?”

“Much more than that. I haven’t got a pencil and paper or I could work it out. But he got there long ago, and that’s where the story begins.”

“What, he got there? But how did he get the billion years to do it?”

“Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth—and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious—”

“Well, well, what happened when he arrived?”

“Why, the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in, before he had been there two seconds, by his watch (though to my thinking his watch must have long dissolved into its elements on the way), he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometers but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power! In fact, he sang ‘hosannah’ and overdid it so, that some persons there of lofty ideas wouldn’t shake hands with him at first—he’d become too rapidly reactionary, they said. The Russian temperament. I repeat, it’s a legend. I give it for what it’s worth. So that’s the sort of ideas we have on such subjects even now.”

“I’ve caught you!” Ivan cried, with an almost childish delight, as though he had succeeded in remembering something at last. “That anecdote about the quadrillion years, I made up myself! I was seventeen then, I was at the high school. I made up that anecdote and told it to a schoolfellow called Korovkin, it was at Moscow…. The anecdote is so characteristic that I couldn’t have taken it from anywhere. I thought I’d forgotten it…but I’ve unconsciously recalled it—I recalled it myself—it was not you telling it! Thousands of things are unconsciously remembered like that even when people are being taken to execution…it’s come back to me in a dream. You are that dream! You are a dream, not a living creature!”

“From the vehemence with which you deny my existence,” laughed the gentleman, “I am convinced that you believe in me.”

“Not in the slightest! I haven’t a hundredth part of a grain of faith in you!”

“But you have the thousandth of a grain. Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest. Confess that you have faith even to the ten‐thousandth of a grain.”

“Not for one minute,” cried Ivan furiously. “But I should like to believe in you,” he added strangely.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brother’s Karamazov

20 thoughts on “Spooky Special: The Journey of the Prideful Atheist Through Hell in “The Brothers Karamazov”

    1. I’m interested in how you read “homeopathic doses are perhaps the strongest.” My reading was that Alyosha is giving Ivan a homeopathic dose of piety in the sense that they are from the same blood and home.


      1. Understood. I certainly would not call homeopathy a success in itself. As for religion being a failure, I would have to say my stance is more complicated even as an atheist.

        Regarding the homeopathic dose of piety though, I think for Alyosha to even sense that Ivan might have “a thousandth of a grain” of faith is quite an exciting accomplishment being that Ivan is so staunch in his disbelief. But yes, I find it amusing and ironic that piety could be a “small dose.”

        Thanks for commenting. I hadn’t considered the very end of that passage in as much depth as I ought to.


      2. I find the concept of the pious trying to prove the existence of god extremely contradictory or fascinating at the very least. Just so that I can cover all my corners, allow me to pretend to address just the American Christian. In my experience they seem to entertain the idea of finding proof often.

        That proof, though, is wholly antithetical to the concept of faith which is potentially the most admirable aspect of Christianity. I say potentially because I believe it is horrifying as well to believe in something with no proof (and I suspect you are of the same opinion). I couldn’t tell you wholly where my feelings pull there but if we are speaking logically, I must naturally assume the latter position.
        Nonetheless, it is fascinating that some Christians wish to prove the existence of god instead of maintaining faith, a blind belief. Would you agree?

        As for the second part of your comment (and the first to some extent) I am puzzled as to why you have only two if-statements. Again referring to Christianity, Nietzsche had his own theory on the origin and goals of the Christian church. His theory was only one of a million and we are only speaking of the Christian church.

        Thanks for the most insightful comments. You have given me a lot to reflect on.


      3. I am always amused when someone tries to pretend that somehow American Christians are different from others. It’s another facet of how theists love to pretend that only their version is the right one and they have no more evidence of that than the next theist.

        I do wonder how blind ignorance aka faith as the bible presents it, is admirable at all. All Christians are desperate for evidence that their nonsense is true; none have only faith in their nonsense. This is why there is an entire industry of apologetics.

        I do not understand what you are talking about with this “As for the second part of your comment (and the first to some extent) I am puzzled as to why you have only two if-statements. Again referring to Christianity, Nietzsche had his own theory on the origin and goals of the Christian church. His theory was only one of a million and we are only speaking of the Christian church.”


      4. I think it is important to address what one knows. The American Christian is what I am most familiar with. If we pretend that we know all theists are the same, we fall to the same dogmatism they do.

        As for the admiration in faith: as I noted, I have only a feeling of admiration (as useless as feelings are). But perhaps as an atheist I can empathize with that blind belief. Indeed, I’m sure you have heard Christians say that we cannot possibly prove that no god exists? What is your take on that argument? To me, the atheist and the theist are more alike than they let on.

        To the part that you did not understand: what I mean is that the goals of religion are far more multi-faceted than “[showing] that a god exists” and/or “making people feel good” as you put it.
        I alluded to Nietzsche’s opinion in “the Anti-Christ.” In it, he mentions that Jesus had his own original vision for Christianity. That vision was bastardized and muddied by the disciples (Paul in particular) for profit and power.

        In all, dealing with religion is dealing with a big multi-dimensional question. It is an understatement to me to try and understand the goals of religion, let alone sum it up in two if-statements. It might all just be a machine for profit and power.

        But I too find a great contradiction and irony in the branch of apologetics. I am glad to see that I am not alone in seeing it.


      5. Interesting. Believe me I cannot. Just like trying to define the goals of religion and trying to box all religion in together, the water is greatly muddied.

        But I’m disappointed to hear that. I thought our dialogue would be quite productive: two atheists trying to get to the bottom of it as we always have.

        If you don’t mind my asking, what drew you in to my post?


      6. yep, I didn’t think you would, despite this “Indeed, I’m sure you have heard Christians say that we cannot possibly prove that no god exists? What is your take on that argument? To me, the atheist and the theist are more alike than they let on.”

        I’m always drawn to posts about atheists and hell and belief. I also find that atheists who seem to need to cling to even a little faith to be curious. However, I may be reading what you said incorrectly when you think religion is not a failure.

        Now, back to this:
        “Indeed, I’m sure you have heard Christians say that we cannot possibly prove that no god exists? What is your take on that argument? To me, the atheist and the theist are more alike than they let on.”

        It is no difficult effort to show that there is no god or gods. There is no evidence for any and plenty of evidence against what is claimed that they have done. So we have absence of evidence and evidence of absence. Those Christians who try to claim we can’t show that some god doesn’t exist end up with vague claims like “ground of being” invented so they can still cling to their beliefs.

        This is why I asked you to define “god” since, if you can’t define it, there is no reason to think it exists. It’s just nebulous nonsense invented as a place holder. Do tell how you tihnk atheists and theists are “more alike than they let on” in view of the above.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Let me start by just saying we will equate god to a higher power for the sake of conversation. In that, I believe humans are limited in their ability to disprove a god(s). Consider for example how a dog sees the world: with very little color. Now ask yourself how the way we view the world informs our “evidence” for anything. Do we see the world without all of its colors symbolically? I believe my skepticism that we can disprove god is summed up by Wittgenstein: ““It is an hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow: and this means that we do not know whether it will rise.” In that, I believe there is a sensible point about how little our observations mean, how little human understanding of the universe is.

        But don’t get me wrong, I do dislike when theists fallaciously use that argument as proof of a god’s existence (just because you cannot disprove something, doesn’t mean it exists). And in fact, as you have said, all evidence points to the lack of a god. And among what human evidence we have, I agree: god does not exist. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow.

        So really, I believe our skepticism just differs slightly.


      8. and unsurprisingly, no evidence for a god again, Liber. You try the common theist nonsense that we can’t know things, which is the usual step toward solipsism that theists end up at.

        It is not a hypothesis that the sun will come up tomorrow. We already know the laws of physics, and unless they don’t work, we are stuck with the sun coming up tomorrow.

        You want to pretend humans don’t understand the universe so you can have your god of the gaps. alas, that doesn’t work as humans keep understanding the universe more and more.

        *you* use that argument to try to have a god. There is nothign that shows an atheist and a theist “skepticism just differs slightly”.


      9. Unfortunately, I’m unsure that you have followed that I am an atheist myself. Yes, I am atheist myself.

        And yes, I think it is clear our skepticism differs slightly. You’ll have to excuse me that I am willing to admit that the universe is much beyond current human understanding.

        You can have your opinion but it tastes of dogma to me. And dogma is a smear on the atheist community. We say that we are dedicated to logic, evidence, and thought…yet so many atheists are unwilling to admit the unknown.

        So, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Or will you tell me that there is nothing to be agreed upon, only facts? I hope it is the former. I believe in discussion not argument.


      10. By the way, have you read “The Brothers Karamazov?” It’s guaranteed to have you stuck for a few days at least if you’re drawn to posts about atheists, hell, and belief. Dostoyevsky was a Christian but seemed quite in tune with the mindset of an atheist. In fact, all I have read from him with the exception of “Crime and Punishment” crossed me as the work of an atheist.


      11. Another conclusion I have reached after checking out your page: wow, there are a lot of deep rabbit holes to delve into in religion. I can imagine it is difficult to run out of ideas haha. Perhaps I will have address this theme more often.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s