NONBELIEVERS have got to be tired of hearing critics claim that in the absence of God, all hell breaks loose.
The famous aphorism, “Without God, everything is permitted” is credited to Fyodor Dostoevsky and is too often used to suggest that atheists have a free pass to behave badly.
Incidentally, the line is from The Brothers Karamazov, and in the translation accepted by most scholars, it’s uttered more as a question by Ivan Karamazov: “Without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”
Still, the reasoning in Ivan’s question is in the spirit of the oft-quoted line, and there’s no doubt it assigns a certain power to human beings in the absence of a creator.
Turning that idea on its head, consider a recent study published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology titled, “Why did you make me this way? Anger at God in the contexts of personal transgressions.” Case Western Reserve researchers showed that when people think God “made” them a certain way, they’re more apt to blame him for their moral transgressions. Participants were asked to think of a past action they considered morally wrong, and then discuss to what extent they viewed their transgression as the result of chance, genetics, personality, biology, circumstances, how they were born, and their environment. They were then asked about any emotional reactions they had toward God in relation to what they’d done. Participants who connected their bad behavior to their personality or biology (“as a result of who they felt they were as people,” according to one researcher) were more likely to point fingers at their heavenly sculptor.
Speaking of sculpture, while giving ideas heads and turning them is surely fun, it would be unfair to take this idea so far as to claim: “With God, all blame is transferrable.” The real focus of the issue at hand is a successful, secular alternative to treating addiction and substance abuse that acknowledges the individual’s power to change. While Alcoholics Anonymous famously tells people they’re powerless over their addiction and that a “higher power” exists to lift them out of their destructive behavior, our cover story by Deborah June Goemans explains a humanistic approach called SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training).
One of the overriding principles of SMART Recovery is that there’s no one-size-fits-all method to treating addiction or dealing with substance abuse. For example, some people simply have to go cold turkey, while others can learn to moderate their behavior. It’s all about striking a lifestyle balance—what Goemans describes as “learning to balance immediate gratification with enduring satisfaction.” (This idea is also discussed in Hiram Crespo’s article on applications of the hedonic calculus).
SMART Recovery emphasizes the idea that “you control you.” (This is quite different from the millennial affectation “you do you,” which, albeit secular, conveys the insouciant resignation that people are going to behave predictably and there’s nothing you can do about it.) SMART’s message is that you decide how you’re going to behave. As humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers put it, once you commit to being yourself, then change can happen.
Yes, Ivan, without God we can do what we like (free will denial be damned). As humanists we can—and should—strive to be happy, healthy, helpful human beings.