By Jonathon Van Maren
Like many others, I have been watching the recent series of conversations between Dr. Jordan Peterson, famous atheist Sam Harris, and British journalist Douglas Murray with great interest. On stages in Vancouver, Dublin, and London, they have discussed many of the 21st century’s most important questions: What must we do about the spiritual vacuum in society? How can we face the challenges of a civilization that seems to have lost faith in itself? What is the role of religion and faith in an age of soulless hyper-rationalism?
Unsurprisingly, these three men have very different ideas about how to go about addressing the challenges currently facing the West. Sam Harris is promoting the rationalist project, asserting that religious belief is nonsensical (and perhaps even evil), and in most cases should be treated as such. Dr. Jordan Peterson is, in his typically tortured way, attempting to somehow breath the morals and meaning and sacredness of religious faith into a Darwinian framework—although he often seems to be downright Calvinist in his view of humanity’s depravity and capacity for evil, and the carnage of the 20th century seems to have convinced him that secularism leads inexorably to mass graves.
Murray, for his part, seems to be situated somewhere between the two men. He not only sees the problem with extraordinary clarity, he has written what I think may be the most eloquent book on the topic, The Strange Death of Europe. He is an atheist, and has said that while he “believes in belief,” he cannot quite force himself to believe that Christianity is true (although he’s referred to himself occasionally as a “Christian atheist.”) To the great frustration of Sam Harris, who has failed to pin Peterson down on precisely what his religious beliefs might be and repeatedly turned to fellow atheist Murray for support, Murray has begun to believe that religious faith may be necessary for the survival of society.
Throughout these discussions, Harris seemed at many points to be genuinely frustrated—and understandably so. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that Jordan Peterson has been attracting many of Harris’s followers, and for the simple reason that Peterson offers, although thus far incoherently, some measure of meaning and some sense of purpose beyond the stolid scientism and Stoicism that Harris offers on his own popular podcast. Harris seems to realize that Peterson has sparked renewed interest in religion for tens of thousands of people, and that Peterson’s stream-of-consciousness conversation with millions about the future of Western civilization is leading those followers to a very different place than what Harris had envisioned. At some points, it almost seems as if Harris sees himself winning the debate but losing the audience—they simply find what he offers to be not enough, and he struggles to explain why that is irrational where reason has already failed.
Throughout the discussions, Douglas Murray did the best job of explaining precisely why he felt that Sam’s skepticism was an insufficient response to the spiritual vacuum and loss of confidence the West now faces. I’m very much afraid, Murray told Harris, that the Enlightenment was merely a tiny blip in the sweep of human history—and that it did not go very far or very deep. If that is true, Harris responded, then perhaps we should attempt to deepen it. Murray was sympathetic, but skeptical: How many of your atheist colleagues are on board with your project, and have not succumbed to their own progressive dogmas? He smiled mischievously as Harris glumly considered. You can have a few of my fingers if you need them, Murry offered, waving his hand. Harris didn’t, and the point stood: Not even 21st century atheists are interested in the muscular secularism Harris is selling.
Murray and Harris also skirmished on morality. Murray has repeatedly pointed to the fact that secularism’s most significant and dangerous vacuum is the fact that it does not provide a coherent moral framework for good and evil—and that as a result, atheists often find themselves ill-equipped to condemn practices that they know—or should know–viscerally and instinctively, are immoral. He expressed his discomfort at the fluid moral frameworks of his secularist friends in a chilling column titled “Ethics for Atheists” in the Spectator in 2014. Some relevant excerpts:
What was your reaction recently when it emerged that thousands of unborn foetuses had been burnt by NHS trusts? And that some had been put into ‘waste-to-energy’ incinerators and so used to heat hospitals? Revulsion, I would imagine. But why? I would hazard that it is either because you are religious or because your customs and beliefs are still downstream from faith, even if you reject it. Because if you grant that an unborn foetus is not a life and that once aborted it could have no further use, there is at least an argument that these bodies might as well be put to use. Why not use unwanted babies to keep a hospital nice and warm?
It isn’t such a ridiculous argument. And it is time that atheists and non-believers began to take such stories — and their follow-on questions — as seriously as believers do. As Jonathan Sacks wrote in this magazine last year, when he was Chief Rabbi, atheists tend to imply that there isn’t much work to do after discarding God. On the contrary, after discarding God, all the work of establishing morals is still before you — just as after demonstrating mankind’s need for ethics, the work of proving a particular religion is true remains before you…
If all this sounds far-fetched, we should look back only a century, when entire schools of very intelligent non-believers could discern no moral objection to eugenics. Religion holds back the religious (even if not always stopping them). But today, despite the moral qualms which the extremes of eugenics posthumously bestowed upon us, there is no reason why atheists should not again go down such paths.
We continuously see the uniqueness of life being whittled away at all ends. With each year that goes by in increasingly post-Christian societies abortion becomes less and less of an issue. Too few atheists make arguments as passionate as those of believers over the aborting of unborn infants if they are of the ‘wrong’ sex, have some birth defect or a harelip. Even in America, which remains a significantly more religious country than ours, initially there was limited outrage at the trial last year of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician discovered to have been carrying out ‘post-birth abortions’ — or child murder, as we might once have called it…
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. Those who do not believe in God and who stare over that cliff — which as Theo Hobson points out, very few atheists actually do — may realise that only three options remain open to us.
The first option is to fall into the furnace. Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual. If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.
This is an extraordinary point for an atheist to make, and a point that makes an atheist as devout as Sam Harris recoil: The moral framework Christianity provided us, Murray says, may prove to be far more important and valuable than any intellectual atheism. Our tenuous social consensus on things like infanticide, Murray asserts, may still exist only because we all still dream Christian dreams—even the atheists. Our very conception of human rights is a Christian one, he notes, and without it, we may be staring into the abyss. Peterson agreed with this, noting the savageries of Stalinist Russia.
At that point, Harris interrupted with some Hitchensesque nonsense about the crimes of the Soviet Union having nothing to do with the atheism (he appears not to have heard of organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless or the widespread massacres of religious people), and attempting to lamely assert that the personality cult of Stalin was sort of like a religion, if you squinted at it just right. Murray’s response was devastating: Actually, there is one significant way that the actions of the Soviets who murdered millions were aided by atheism—they thought God wasn’t watching them.
Sam Harris, as brilliant as he is, genuinely did not seem to understand what Murray and Peterson were getting at when they asked how Western Civilization could survive without the Christian faith—or, as Peterson prefers, the Christian story. But to sever Western Civilization from the Judeo-Christian foundation is to cut us off from all who have gone before us in a much more profound way than Harris seems to realize. Sir Arthur Canon Doyle once made a powerful observation about the way men and women once lived their lives, long ago:
In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.
Peter Hitchens quoted this assertion recently and noted that when he was young, “in country districts, these things were really not so far away from the human mind, and in times of great distress and war they tend to reassert themselves in spasms of superstition, without the Christian understanding and the belief in the nearness of Christ and his saints that civilized them in the past.” This is precisely what Murray and, in his more jumbled way, Peterson, were trying to explain to Harris: That severed from Christianity, we cannot even understand our ancestors. We no longer think like them, and thus cannot understand what animated them, or the fierce loyalties that they possessed.
That is also why today’s petty generation exults in condemning those that went before them—because the loss of faith has created a chasm between then and now, and thus the causes of those on the other side of the chasm are bewildering, and rather than attempting to understand them, it is easier to write them off as homophobic, racist, transphobic people willing to throw their lives away for superstitious metaphysical nonsense. An observation of Dr. James Patrick sums it up well: “The great…cathedrals, so full of beauty and interest, are now like whales washed up on an alien shore, the faith that built them a flickering light.” Europe may have lost confidence in itself, as Murray, Peterson, and Harris all agree. But they lost this confidence because they abandoned Western civilization, and cut themselves off from the very men and women who built it in the first place.
And without faith and the Past to light our way forward, what do we have? We are left with Sam Harris and secular Stoicism and empty, echoing cathedrals built by men who must have been insane to devote their lives to building magnificent churches they would not live to see to completion, all to honor a God who is not there. And while many people cannot yet see their way back to the path that leads to faith, they at least have begun to come to the realization that we may have lost our way—and that Harris and his fellow atheists do not possess a map that can tell us where home lies.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.