What is Jordan Peterson talking about when he talks about God? Sometimes, it seems like even Peterson isn’t sure. At Quillette, Matt Johnson critiques Peterson’s insistence on speaking vaguely about God and the Christian religion. He makes several good points. All the more unfortunate, then, that the article around them is a tissue of bad philosophy and old canards about the history of Western civilization.
Johnson is right that Peterson’s definition of “God” is so malleable as to be functionally meaningless. Not content to leave his thesis there, however, he attacks Peterson’s claim that the enterprise of Western humanism is the outworking of a fundamentally Judeo-Christian ethic. Peterson has repeatedly needled atheist Sam Harris and his ilk by claiming that they only think they’re atheists. In fact, Peterson proposes, a logical atheist looks much more like Joseph Stalin than like Harris.
Harris is unamused. In fact, he’s more than a little angry that we are still having this conversation. For the last time, he says in his recent London debate with Peterson, atheism had nothing to do with the gulags and the gas chambers. Can we not “put to bed” this religious fiction once and for all? Indeed, Johnson boldly avows, “the most heinous crimes of the twentieth century were committed by people for whom God was still very much alive.”
David Berlinski begs to differ. In his book “The Devil’s Delusion,” he recounts an extraordinary true-life exchange between an SS guard and his victim. The guard reportedly watched with callous indifference as the old Hasidic man dug his own grave. Just before meeting his fate, the old man straightened, locked eyes with the guard, and said, “God is watching what you are doing.” They were his last words.
Say what you will about the strange cocktail of beliefs or non-beliefs that formed the fabric of Nazism or communism. But, Berlinski writes, one non-belief was common to the SS guard, the Nazi doctors, the NKVD, and all the rest of them: They did not believe that God was watching them.
This passage struck a chord with British journalist Douglas Murray, who paraphrased it on stage with Harris and Peterson in London. Predictably, Harris replied that it’s hardly better if men commit atrocities in the sure belief that God is watching, nay cheering them on. But which God? It matters. Harris is on firm ground when he argues from its own tenets that Islam is a scourge. He will have little luck attempting to do the same with Christianity.
Murray puts it sharply in his 2014 article “Would Human Life Be Sacred in An Atheist World?”: “[Judeo-Christian] religion holds back the religious (even if not always stopping them).” The parenthetical quashes the routine cries of “But Inquisition! But Crusades!” This just in: Mankind still basically evil. Details at 11.
The Secular Humanists, Cross-Examined
In any case, all such horrors are behind us now. Our better angels have prevailed, and the secular humanists shall lead us all. Chief among them is Steven Pinker, who has approvingly tweeted Johnson’s critique. Yes indeed, this Judeo-Christian fetish of Peterson’s is really more than a little embarrassing. Tweets Pinker helpfully, “He needs to learn the concept ‘humanism.’” Please, Pinker begs of Peterson’s followers in a follow-up tweet, read “The Humanist Manifesto III” (and his book, available now!) So we can all move on from this nonsense.
Very well, let us oblige him. Let us give Pinker and Harris their hearing. Let us follow them into the broad, sunlit uplands of their utopian moral landscape and see what we might find there.
From “The Humanist Manifesto III,” I quote: “Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns…We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity.” As am I, Mr. Pinker! Hail and well met, Mr. Pinker!
But tell me, Mr. Pinker: What do you think about infanticide? Or, excuse me, neonaticide, as you refer to it in your article “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” now just over 20 years old. It is immoral, you write, but not incomprehensible. After all, women throughout history have made such “difficult decisions” out of biological necessity.
Melissa Drexler and Amy Grossberg were their descendants. Old programming dies hard. The judges who handed down their comparatively lenient sentences seem to agree. “Unthinkable” as it may be, you say, perhaps it is time we say it out loud: We’re not really sure if babies neonates are full persons.
The “assembly process” for a member of species homo sapiens is, after all, “gradual, piecemeal and uncertain.” Name any quality that allows us to lord it over the animals: the faculties of speech, reason, self-reflection. The baby neonate lacks them all. On what grounds, then, do we outlaw infanticide neonaticide?
“The facts don’t make it easy,” you say gravely. We draw a line if only because a line must be drawn somewhere, however arbitrarily. If we exclude the baby neonate from the moral community today, who knows how many unambiguously human persons might be excluded tomorrow?
Mr. Harris, you are nodding in agreement. As you write in “The End of Faith,” we cannot underestimate man’s capacity to tumble down such a slippery slope. How, we ask, could the Nazi guard return home from a day at the gas chambers to kiss his wife and daughter? How could ordinary men take part in such extraordinary horrors? Simple: “The Jews he spent the day torturing and killing were not objects of his moral concern” (p. 177).
But we are not SS guards. We are reasonable men here, although a few knotty problems remain. There is the small matter of the unborn child fetus. What shall a civilized society do with the fetus, Mr. Harris?
Mr. Harris considers, and reflects: “Many of us consider human fetuses in the first trimester to be more or less like rabbits: having imputed to them a range of happiness and suffering that does not grant them full status in our moral community. At present, this seems rather reasonable” (“The End of Faith,” p. 178).
Forgive me, Mr. Harris. Mr. Pinker, forgive me. Forgive me, gentlemen of the West. I thought you were humanists.
No Deus, No Imago Dei
It is that which raises us higher than the animals, to stand a little lower than the angels. It is that which Christians affirm is stamped upon us at conception, and nothing has the power to remove: not time, not physical or mental privation, not even our own attempts to degrade it. Peterson calls it “the divine spark.” Christians call it the imago Dei: the image of God.
Asks the atheist, “What have we to lose, if we lose God?” We have this to lose. This, and no more, and it is everything.
For what if Charles Darwin has indeed “put God out of a job?” What if we, like every other creature, are the product of an unguided chance process? If we are merely one more animal among animals, what right have we to assign ourselves any more worth than the apes, or the mice? What right has Charlie Gordon to think himself more valuable than Algernon, if he can’t even solve Algernon’s maze?
Bio-“ethicist” Peter Singer says “None.” We have no such right. This is why, he tells us, you will not find his signature on “The Humanist Manifesto.” Despite their scientific pretensions, he writes, humanists prove themselves still infected by this most central of Christian dogmas: speciesism.
It is not logic that moves us to say we would rescue one child over 500 pigs in a burning building, if our noble aim is to minimize the suffering of conscious beings. It is the pure animal instinct to preserve our own, an instinct that should be overridden for the greater good, if necessary. Truly, Singer has the single-mindedness of a madman. Or just an atheist.
Some Closing Remarks
The beginning of life is only the half of it. Again, Murray has put his finger on it when he writes that we see the sanctity of life being “whittled away” at both ends. And the middle as well, for those who have decided their lives are not worth living, or have had it decided for them. Indeed, it is only logical. We put our dogs down, after all. If you think me hysterical to speak of euthanized children, I have one word for you: Belgium.
This is not a pleasant place for the honest atheist to find himself. Murray concludes, with brutal candor, “The more atheists think on these things, the more we may have to accept that the concept of the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive Judeo-Christian civilisation.” Here he stands, at the end of all things, seeing only three possibilities: to tumble over the cliff’s edge, to sanctify man without sacred tools, or to go “back to faith, whether we like it or not.”
It would appear that, seeing faith and logic at odds, Peterson has openly chosen to practice his own peculiar brand of illogical faith. This is a tenuous position, as I have recently argued. But it makes me hopeful that he will, in time, walk through that door from which the stone has been rolled away. As John Updike writes, “Not a stone in a story, / But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of / Time will eclipse for each of us / The wide light of day.”
Meantime, those men who blithely assert God is not about in the quad, yet find there is some line they still will not cross, some cliff at which they still pull up short, may claim to be many things. But logical atheists, they are not.