In nineteenth-century Europe and among his fellow Russians, it often appeared that Dostoevsky was a voice crying in the wilderness. This was the century that witnessed the rise of social, political, scientific, and ideological systems that were implicitly or explicitly atheistic. With a kind of prophetic insight, Dostoevsky envisioned the logical consequences of these systems that ignored or rejected God. It was openly stated that God, and belief in Him, were relics of the past. Religious faith was a sign of mankind's immaturity, at best a preparatory stage in mankind's progressive liberation from dependence on supernatural assistance.
The atheistic humanism of Western Europe enticed and obsessed the Russian intelligentsia. In all of this, Christ was seen in the romantic garb of a humanitarian teacher of moral truths - or a dangerous dreamer. Marx's famous dictum that religion was the "opium of the people" seemed to capture this revolt against God in a convincing manner. Later in the century, Nietzsche declared that "God is dead." The theories of Darwin and Freud - natural selection and psychoanalysis - further reduced the human person to a product, if not plaything, of the environment, or to inner impulses and desires.
These theories both fascinated Dostoevsky and filled him with great trepidation. He was convinced that the godless world envisioned by these ideas would eventually become an inhuman world wherein "everything is permitted" against flesh-and-blood human beings not "in step" with the reigning ideas or the reigning party. Dostoevsky saw that the worth of a human being is grounded in the will and love of God, who has created each and every human person in His image and likeness. In the dialectics of Dostoevsky's artistic vision, the human person, once robbed of this spiritual likeness to God, is eventually enslaved by mankind's “liberators.” As the socialist theoretician Shigalev said in Demons: "I started with total freedom and ended up with total enslavement."
Or, from the perspective and in the words of the saintly elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:
The spiritual world, the nobler side of man's being, has been rejected altogether, banned as it were triumphantly, perhaps even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, now more loudly than ever; but what do we find in that freedom of theirs? Nothing but enslavement and suicide!
For Dostoevsky, true freedom is found in faithfully preserving the "pure and undefiled image of Christ" as it has been received "from the fathers of old, the apostles and martyrs." With uncanny insight, Dostoevsky intuitively sensed the coming storm of the twentieth century, when the truly demonic side of godless ideologies would unleash all of its fury. At times there was an apocalyptic intensity to his vision: "The end of the world is coming . . . The end of the century will be marked by a calamity, the likes of which has never yet occurred."
Yet, when the time came that really manifested the truth of Dostoevsky's statement - "If there is no God, then everything is permitted” - even he would have been struck by its brutality and ferociousness. This is why he was so alarmed at the rise of revolutionary socialism/communism in his own time. Its militant atheism, combined with a destructively nihilistic attitude toward traditional forms of personal and social life, pointed toward frightful consequences for the future.
Yet, the rise of rampant individualism and materialism imported to Russia from the West (rather scathingly depicted and exposed in The Idiot) was hardly a solution for Dostoevsky. The atomization of society caused by these forces undermined the organic vision of social life that Dostoevsky posited as an ideal based on the Christian principles of unity and love. Each person and each nation must live by a "higher idea." This found expression in Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer:
Without a higher idea, neither a man, nor a nation, can exist. But on earth there is only one higher idea, and mainly - the idea of the immortality of the soul, for all the other “higher” ideas of life, by which man can live, flow from it alone.
For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose analysis of the contemporary world is close to Dostoevsky's, the underlying problem of our century is that "man has forgotten God."