In an earlier article I wrote about the rise of Jordan Peterson and the waning influence of New Atheism as we head into the future. While covering this topic, I mentioned that Jordan Peterson criticized the New Atheists for accepting, to some extent, Christian metaphysical presuppositions (though I argued he probably would be more accurate to call them religious metaphysical presuppositions). What, in fact, does this mean? Is there a point to be made about this? And how is one, as an atheist, to go about moving beyond this criticism?
The answer is multifaceted. Let me first observe that Dr. Peterson is making a substantive and observable point. For example, Sam Harris is quoted as saying the following at the Beyond Belief conference in 2006:
"It is rather more noble to help people purely out of concern for their suffering than it is to help them because you think the Creator of the Universe wants you to do it, or will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it. The problem with this linkage between religion and morality is that it gives people bad reasons to help other human beings when good reasons are available."
As we can see above, what the New Atheists have done is taken a religious principle (in this case Christian altruism) and merely removed it from God. Often in response to such accusations one might argue, as did Christopher Hitchens, that these ideas are not based in Christianity but can be found in a variety of societies and cultures over time. This is why I would argue that Dr. Peterson is wrong to call these ideas as requiring "Christian" metaphysical presuppositions. It is more proper to consider them "religious" metaphysical presuppositions since they are not limited to Christian constructs.
Why does this matter? It has nothing to do with intellectual dishonesty: the New Atheists seemed to have shared values beyond the dismissal of God which include personal values like altruism, helping the poor, and a love of a Truth they argue is "good" inherently. However, it is more something like this: atheists have spent years debating theists like Frank Turek who, in his famously frustrated debate with Christopher Hitchens, question where athesit morality comes from. The New Atheists have taken the same route many other atheists have traveled: they endeavor to show that a person can be "good" without God, or more specifically that a person can be just as good as a "good Christian" without God.
What they have done is to demonstrate that one can live up to the Golden Rule, or to the few parts of the Commandments they like, or have proof of Truth-as-good without God. It is like trying to live up to the standards of your admittedly abusive parents while dismissing them for their cruel behavior. The New Atheists are saying, in effect, "Look at me! I am a good Christian, but without the need for supervision." With Hitchens as an exception (who seemed to march to the beat of a different drum on a great majority of these issues), the New Atheists as a whole seem willing to prove how they can be good Christians without a God.
But, if asked what it means to be good, they will accept some sort of religious ethic, often not proudly but as an exhausted, last ditch option. They say things like: help the poor, because it is better to reduce suffering in the short time you have than prolong it. It is better to do unto others as you want done, because life is short and we suffer because of it. They accept the ethic, to whatever degree, as the ultimate sign against the God they despise, hoping to get some sort of praise for being so "good" (in a borrowed sense, obviously) without God.
I make this point for the sake of differentiating the New Atheists from the postmodern or Meta-modern Atheist. This Atheist is at first glance much like the New Atheists, tearing down the obvious contradictions of religion in a literal sense over and over again. They show you just how much a literal reading of the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, and so on makes no sense regarding any rational sense. But the Meta-modern Atheist, however, has come to a very complicated, and perhaps dark, conclusion that is different than the premise of the New Atheists. The true or proper Atheist, according to the Meta-modern Atheist, is one who completely pulls themselves away from religion. They recognize that one can only do so by rejecting even the idea of being good by the standards of God or the religious. You must stand tall, in the face of all things, and say, "I am good, not by your standards, but by my own standards."
To become a meta-modern atheist you must ask yourself, without giving into guilt; "What does it mean to be good?" "How do I know?" And once this has been found out, independently, you can start decided what values you accept. We are not here to dress up for the religious, to say, "Look at me, I give alms just as well as you, without God." The point is to say, "I give alms because of my standards, because my reasons are better than yours." Often, I would argue that the Meta-modern Atheist may not even need to mention God; for God truly to the Meta-modern Atheist does not exist outside of a historical concept. Meta-modern Atheists figure out what is good and what it means to be ethical, instead of surrendering, however loudly, to religious dictations of such terms.
Atheism, as a meta-modern endeavor, is not a fight, my friends. Meta-modern Atheism is the first step in developing who you are. It is the first step in the project of your own humanity. Find your own ethics, don't borrow it. Reconstruct your beliefs, don't deconstruct.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” -Matthew 5:14-16
Is it possible in today’s culture for there to be a place where ideas, opinions, and affiliations are challenged in a constructive manner without people being offended? Will you, as a reader, move forward in this blog with an open mind and heart to the very end? Can we have a constructive dialogue right here and now? The reality is that we live in a world obsessed with political correctness, struggling with identity, and polarized by political and religious extremism. My hope is that in the next few moments, I can discuss each of these issues and propose a resolution.
Political Correctness has become the mandate of the day. The ultimate trump card in our society boils down to two words: “I’m offended.” Use these two words in an argument, and our culture awards you the victory. We have elevated avoiding offense over and above any other value. I believe this is hindering our nation, and ultimately, hindering the church.
Why? Because using the “offended” trump card ultimately hinders constructive dialogue and discourse. It is a cheap method of victory, saving oneself from actually defending a position and sparing one’s ideas from being scrutinized. Our culture has allowed the words “I’m offended” to spare oneself from being forced to examine their own ideas and opinions. But our ideas and opinions need to be examined. How else do we grow as people if we do not challenge our ideas, opinions, preconceptions, methods, etc.? The entire scientific method is founded upon putting one’s ideas or hypothesis to the test. Yet when we engage in discourse and our ideas are put to the test, it scares us. We think, “If my idea is put to the test and found wanting, it will make me feel stupid, insecure, ill-equipped; or worse, it will force me to change.”
Why do we fear this so much? Because we have attached our ideas to our identity. Identity is a word that is used so often in our culture. We use it in politics when we ask, “which party do you identify with?” We use it to discuss sexuality by defining one’s attraction as sexual identity.
Our world has inextricably linked ideas, opinions, attractions and affiliations to identity, so much so that if one were to disagree with someone’s idea, opinion, attraction or affiliation, it is to disagree with that someone’s very personhood. And if your ideas, opinions, values and perceptions change, then your identity changes along with it. Therein lies the problem: when your identity is attached to things that can change and be challenged, can you ever truly know who you are?
This is where the church should step in and lead our world. We have the answer to identity: true identity, one that cannot change and cannot be taken away, is found in Christ alone. We discover this throughout the scriptures. In 1 Peter 2:9-10 God defines us as “chosen,” “royal,” “God’s own people.” In Titus 3:3-5, we discover who we used to be without Christ, “foolish, disobedient, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” But when Christ enters the equation, your identity changes; and more than that, your identity is solidified and founded on that which cannot change: Jesus Christ. Hebrews 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
As Christians, our identity is found in Christ and Christ alone. And more than that, I would argue that because of our identity in Christ, our diversity is highlighted, elevated, and even celebrated in a way not possible apart from Him (but more on that in a moment). Yet far too often we allow ourselves to be influenced by the society in which we live. We find ourselves “offended” at those who would disagree with our political affiliations. We are “offended” at someone who would dare to disagree with our ideas and thoughts on a topic. I would challenge that where you find yourself offended is where you find yourself placing your identity.
Let me pause here to make two things very clear:
1. This is in no way a license to denigrate another person's opinions on the basis of “religious freedom.” Far from it, this is a call to the church to a be place where no person is denigrated, but instead have their ideas challenged in a constructive manner so that we can collectively grow and mature. The church must be a place where personhood is esteemed, not on the basis of ideas, opinions, thoughts, feelings, or affiliations. Rather, we esteem every human being’s value on the basis of God’s truth alone; namely, that we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).
2. I am not saying that the church has historically represented what I am arguing for in this post. I know that in the history of Christianity and the church, there have been instances and even eras of racially motivated crusades, poor treatment of women and other minorities, political leveraging of religious power for personal gain, and many other abuses of power. I do not contend that the church has always been a proper example of this historically. What I am arguing for is that the church is called to be this type of place Biblically.
The church is supposed to be the one place where, no matter your ethnic, political, socio- economic, familial background, you can dwell unified in Christ. The church is supposed to be the one place where God’s love is strong enough to conquer our differences. The apostle John paints a beautiful picture of heaven in Revelation 7:9 when he writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Every tribe (who you affiliate yourself with). Every people (type of person, shape, size, color, etc.). Every language (every word spoken proposing ideas and opinions). Every nation (where you find yourself living and growing). In all of this, the people John saw in Heaven were unified in their worship of Christ.
I want to compare two Johns for a moment: the Apostle John, and John Lennon. One of the most celebrated songs in history is John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” In it he sings, “Imagine there's no heaven It's easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today... Aha-ah... Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too Imagine all the people Living life in peace... You... You may say I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one.” And yet, I believe Lennon’s idea of unity is cheap. Unity without diversity isn’t unity at all; it’s uniformity.
Yet look at what the Apostle John writes in Revelation 7:9. He does not ignore the differences of the people, he celebrates them! He understood that true, powerful unity comes by recognizing, inviting, and celebrating diversity! We as Christians should do the same. The church should not and cannot be a place where we leave our diversity at the door. Rather, it is a place where we bring our diversity inside, and stand unified in Christ in spite of the differences we have. The church is a place where constructive dialogue and discourse should thrive, where different opinions and ideas can be openly discussed without the fear of one’s identity and personhood being devalued because we all recognize that our identity does not lie in our ideas, but rather is found in Christ alone!
Jesus makes room for diversity to exist without the risk of being marginalizing. It’s the forgiveness we receive from him that unifies us, it is the identity that we receive through Him that defeats marginalization, and it’s the love that we receive from Him (and demonstrate to one another as a result of His love) that enables us to celebrate our differences. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
So often, Christians find themselves describing their perspective as the “good” while labeling the opposing perspective as the “bad,” especially as it relates to politics (whichever party you are affiliated with, in my experience this seems to be the case). We have to move beyond this “good guys vs. bad guys” perspective. We have to strive to see people who might have a different perspective as people, not the enemy. Ephesians 6:12 tells us, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” American Christians are in danger of falling prey to just that: "Americanizing" Christianity. We can fall into the trap of exchanging "what is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We can fall prey to exchanging “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8) for "my personal rights and freedoms must be protected, even at the expense of someone else’s."
I believe that Jesus was intentional in his final recorded prayer before his ascension to heaven. In John 17:15-23 Jesus prays first for his disciples with Him, and then for us (for all who would believe as a result of his disciples’ ministry). He says,
“15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by[d] the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
My challenge is this: are you sanctified by his truth, or are you more influenced by the world around you? Are you seeking unity in Christ, or are you more concerned about protecting your own ideas, rights and opinions? Are you celebrating diversity, or are you becoming divisive?
Jesus understood this one fundamental truth: when, in the midst of our diversity, we stand unified, “the world will know that you [God] sent me [Jesus] and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
It’s time for the church to step up, stand unified, and change the world.