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February 16, 2011

F. Dostoyevsky: The Origins of Modern Atheism

By Christos Yannaras

After the Schism, certain Greek Fathers saw clearly where the "innovations" of Western Christianity were leading. Centuries later Dostoyevsky drew the same conclusions about the West: "Roman Catholicism is no longer Christianity (1) ... Catholicism is a non-Christian faith ... The Catholicism of Rome is worse than atheism ... Atheism teaches nothingness, but Catholicism goes further; it teaches a distorted Christ who is Christ's opposite. It proclaims the anti-Christ" (2).

Dostoyevsky is widely admired in the West, but most readers ignore this passage, regarding it as a typical piece of Russian hyperbole. (3) They prefer to see this as an incidental criticism or "confessional" comparison. But it is the crux of Dostoyevsky's analysis. He is making a positive point that sheds a relentless light on the Western distortions. His work as a whole attempts to set the Church's Christ against the distorted version of Christ prevalent in the West.

He writes:

"That is where atheism comes from, from Catholicism. Atheism began in the first place with the Roman Catholics themselves: could they ever have taken themselves seriously? It took root through the abhorrence people felt for them (4) ... Rome has proclaimed a Christ who has fallen for Satan's third temptation ... It has proclaimed that Christ cannot reign without an earthly Kingdom. It is as if Catholicism had proclaimed the Antichrist, and that is what has destroyed the West (5). The pope has seized territory, sitting on an earthly throne and with a sword in his hand. Nothing has changed; there are only more lies, deceit, fanaticism ... They have manipulated the people's honest, most just, most pure, most ardent feelings. They have betrayed everything for worthless earthly power. Is this not a teaching of the Antichrist? Atheism was inevitable after this ... and socialism is the offspring and essence of Catholicism. Atheism, its brother, came from disappointment, usurping the lost moral authority of religion to save humanity, not through Christ but by force. Socialism is also freedom through force and union through blood and the sword (6) ... In the West there is no Church at all, only clergy and magnificent church architecture. Denominations try to aspire to the virtues of the state that swallows them up. This is what I think has happened to the Lutheran countries. But in Rome the state replaced the Church a thousand years ago...." (7)

Dostoyevsky's novels reflect the historical experience of his age, the experience of Western expansion into the Orthodox East. The most celebrated expression of this is in Ivan Karamazov's fable, the "Grand Inquisitor", (8) which exposes the inner logic of the Western innovations.

Dostoyevsky remains the best guide to the experiential differences between Orthodoxy and the West.


1. Dostoyevsky, The Posessed II.1.8.
2. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
3. See e.g. Guardini (1964) 177ff.
4. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
5. Dostoyevsky, The Possessed II.1.8.
6. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
7. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov II.5.
8. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov V.5.

From Orthodoxy and the West, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, pp. 43-44.