Ivan isn’t an atheist, he’s the True Detective

Last week I gave a big update on my progress through The Brothers Karamazov.  I’m still working on it, waiting for the “life-affirming power” that’s supposed to come at the end that I keep hearing about.  There’s supposed to be a payoff that, according to a lot of reviews I’ve read in the past (and seem to be unable to summon via google right now), will re-affirm my belief in humanity and make me cry out in joy.  Yeah, so that’s what I’m waiting for, and that’s why I haven’t tossed the book yet.

In the meantime, let me talk about that big fat faker, Ivan the Atheist.  Or rather, Ivan the Fake-theist.  He comes off as an atheist, admitting as much, in Book II while everyone is in Zosima’s room.  But when it’s just Ivan and Alyosha together at lunch in Book V, we see that Ivan isn’t actually an atheist, he’s just angry at God for having created such a fucked-up world.

Okay, so maybe you don’t know this, but a common trope among christians is that being an atheist is the exact same thing as “angry at God.”  This is how atheism is commonly understood by christians.  It’s just, for some reason, completely unfathomable for a lot of christians that if someone says “I don’t believe in God” that that person actually means what they say.  There’s an incredible level of smarmy disrespect and insult embedded in this christian idea: “oh, you say you don’t believe, but I actually know that it’s because, deep down, you’re angry about something and that you’re taking it out on God.”

So this is our big tell about what’s happening in this book, what Dostoyevsky thinks he’s writing and where he’s planning on taking Ivan’s character.  He thinks he’s writing an atheist, but it’s actually just another manifestation of the disrespect and insult directed at free thinkers.  Ivan is being set up as this character who’s angry at the world for how children suffer and who, by the end of the book, will experience an intensely cathartic redemption wherein the character “converts” to christianity.  The character can then serve as a shining example for other potential converts.  Dostoyevsky has Ivan sink into the pits of despair and anger, consumed by “atheism,” only to eventually be lifted up by the Lord.  In other words, Dostoyevsky is trying to make Ivan the True Detective.

Which points to another really tired trope surrounding redemption in (especially evangelical) christianity: the testimony.  Think St. Augustine’s Confessions.  These days popular testimony is given with something much similar to satanism-to-christianity conversion.

Actually, the most public example of how this works (the satanism-to-christianity testimony) is with someone like Christine O’Donnell.  Remember her?  Oh yeah, I know you do.  Claims of dabbling in witchcraft in her younger, “wilder” days, and then some great moment of revelation that cements her belief in Christ for the rest of her life.  To everyone else, this sounds utterly ridiculous.  But the secret is that this isn’t for everyone else.  O’Donnell’s dabbling in witchcraft and eventual conversion to christianity is a message for those who already believe.  It’s a testimonial that acts like a yet another brick in the rock-solid edifice of their faith.

And, again, that’s what Dostoyevsky is doing with Ivan here in The Brothers Karamazov.  That’s why this book infuriates me.  Yes, it was written in 19th Century Russia, and, yes, things were different there.  Attempting to slather my 21st Century liberal views all over this book might be seen as unfair, but I say bunk that.  The idea of what an atheist is, by definition, has been constant since at least the ancient Greeks.  Attempting to dupe your audience into thinking that what one of your characters is selling is true atheism but is actually you proselytizing is bullshit.  It’s bullshit, Mr. Dostoyevsky.  Absolute bullshit.  And I’m not buying it.

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