Smerdyakov tells Grigory and Fyodor about a Russian soldier who was captured by Asians and forced “on pain of agonizing and immediate death to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam.” The soldier wouldn’t renounce his faith and, as a result, was flayed alive. Fyodor says that the soldier should be a saint and that his flayed skin should be “dispatched to some monastery.” People, he thinks, would pay lots of money to see it.
The story aligns with traditional Western fears over the threat of Islam. The soldier appears in the story as a martyr to his faith and suffers losing his skin. Fyodor is less interested in the moral of this tale than he is in the material value of religious devotion. This falls in line with his financial opportunism.
Smerdyakov says that, if he were taken captive, he would renounce his faith by his “own reason.” Once he renounces his faith, he says, he’ll be excommunicated, so he wouldn’t be lying to his tormenters if he says that he’s not a Christian. Furthermore, he was never baptized, so he’s not a Christian anyway. Grigory is dumbfounded by Smerdyakov’s speech, while Fyodor bursts “into shrill laughter.”
Smerdyakov shocks Grigory by saying that he would renounce Christ if it would spare him from suffering. This contrasts with the conventional view of the time, which lauds those who are willing to suffer for their faith. Smerdyakov also uses his ignoble birth in his favor; for, his lack of baptism isn’t his fault.
Smerdyakov insists that renouncing his faith would be “a little sin” and “a rather ordinary one.” Though Grigory curses him for belittling the sin, Smerdyakov explains what he means. In the Scriptures, it says that “if you have faith even as little as the smallest seed,” one could command mountains to go down into the sea—though, he makes an exception for the Karamazov property, saying that the mountain would have to go into the “stinking stream” beyond their garden because they’re far from the sea. However, the person of faith can see that the mountain won’t move, despite their commands. This means that, even those who claim to be devout, such as Grigory, don’t really “believe in a proper manner.”
Smerdyakov regards renouncing his faith as a minor sin in probable comparison to murder or theft—two sins that he later commits. This monologue reveals that Smerdyakov is aware of right and wrong and understands the magnitude of some deeds versus others. He uses Scripture to suggest that those who claim total devotion, such as Grigory, must be making superficial claims. If they aren’t, they must admit that their belief in this portion of the Bible is merely superstition.
Smerdyakov argues that no one in their time, “except maybe one person on the whole earth, two at most,” have such devotion, and those people can’t even be found. So, then, if everyone else seems to be an unbeliever, Smerdyakov wonders if it’s possible that “the population of the whole earth…except those two desert hermits, will be cursed by the Lord?” So, Smerdyakov has hope that, though he once doubted his faith, he’d be forgiven “if [he] shed tears of repentance.”
Smerdyakov suggests that total faith and devotion to Christ would require one to separate themselves from the world, which is why Smerdyakov characterizes such people as “desert hermits.” This story about the desert hermits seems partly based on the legend of Anthony the Great. He was one of the earliest monks and established monasticism. He also lived in a mountain in the Sahara.
Fyodor shrieks for Smerdyakov to stop speaking so that he can ask him if he really believes that there are two hermits, “somewhere in the Egyptian desert,” who can move mountains. He and Ivan conclude that Smerdyakov’s superstition is typical among Russians. Alexei says that Smerdyakov’s faith isn’t Russian at all, but Fyodor is more focused on the detail about the two desert dwellers, which he believes is typically Russian, and Alexei agrees with that part.
The trope about two desert dwellers was used in literature and painting during the period of Russian Futurism, which began before the First World War. The persistence of this fable suggests that it’s a very well-known Christian allegory in Russia, which is why Fyodor describes it as “typically Russian.”
Fyodor asserts that people are unbelievers “out of carelessness” and because God has given people little time to repent. This makes it more absurd to renounce one’s faith when there’s nothing else to think about but the fate of one’s soul. That is “precisely the time” to show religious devotion.
What Fyodor means is that people don’t spend much time thinking about the fate of their souls and aren’t be encouraged to do so until they’re near death or in instances of immense suffering.
Smerdyakov agrees that faith may be “tantamount” and that, if one believes, it would be truly sinful to convert to Islam instead of “[enduring] torments.” However, he says, one would never suffer torments if one’s faith could truly move mountains and crush tormenters. However, if the person of faith tries to move mountains and nothing happens, should they not doubt “in such a terrible hour of great moral fear?” The devout would also think that they wouldn’t reach the Kingdom of Heaven because, if the mountain doesn’t move at one’s word, then “they must not trust much in [one’s] faith there.” So, why then, should one “be flayed to no purpose?” On top of this, one can lose one’s mind to fear, making it impossible to reason. One can only trust in the mercy of God and trust that one will be forgiven.
Smerdyakov logically dismisses the possibility that religious devotion gives one the power to escape from death or torments. Furthermore, even if one maintains faith, it cannot help but be shaken in a moment of distress, when no divine intervention would save the condemned from their predicament. Though the devout person would believe, they would also wonder if God has not, in fact, abandoned them. In Smerdyakov’s view, this feeling of abandonment should be sufficient justification for one choosing renunciation over prolonged pain or threat of death.