Jordan Peterson’s main problem with atheism, as can be seen from the above clip, is that atheism is, supposedly, morally bankrupt. The problem, he claims, is that atheism doesn’t have any grounding in morality. If you’re a “radical atheist,” he says, why not kill? Why not steal? Why not transgress? The only thing holding anyone back would be traditional Western morality, but in the scheme of atheism, without a personified foundation, this morality has no teeth or fundamental reliability.
This translates to a confusion, on his part, as to why atheists would want to do good – why not, he says, act in our own self-interest? Why not be psychopathic? Why not be completely and thoroughly selfish?
My response is that most of us are not psychopaths. Most of us care about each other and, in addition, acting as if we don’t will lead to mutually assured destruction. Sure, we all bend the rules a bit here and there, inevitably. But most of us care about other people beside ourselves – especially those among us who make us where we are, who allow us to recognize ourselves and our position in the world, or who we respect and admire as beautiful.
That’s something I’ve found about being an atheist – for me, other people replaced God as the foundation of places I find my worth and value.
And I think, furthermore, that when Peterson tries to call us to the “transcendent” in thinking about morality, he is encouraging psychopathic tendencies – because when you say that morality transcends human emotion, you are, in effect, saying that human emotion doesn’t count. If your son is gay, for example, then your view of him would not be based on the way he sees himself or his emotion – whatever he felt, the moral code (say, a moral code that said homosexuality is wrong) would transcend all of that.
In my view, this so-called transcendent morality leads to constructions of morality that miss the entire point of a healthy moral system, which is to decrease the amount of harm and increase the amount of happiness within the population. For Peterson, this goal is unsettling, because it challenges the notion of morality as something transcendent and states that it is, fundamentally, dependent on us; a traditional, religious morality has no “transcendent” veto power on human experience.
Another thing that Peterson indicates is that you can’t start with moral presuppositions that are in religious systems when you switch to atheism; you have to start from scratch. I don’t think this is the case. In my mind, religion often follows advances and moral constructions that reflect our actual environments. So, inevitably, there will be some elements of morality in Western Christianity – like “thou shalt not murder” – that are the same whether you believe in God or not. We made that rule for a reason, and it didn’t all have to do with the Bible (especially considering all the killing in the book). I don’t want to be in a society where people murder each other for two reasons that have nothing to do with religion – one is that I don’t want to be murdered, and two is that I don’t want people I care about or rely on to be murdered.
Furthermore, when it comes to morality, you have to start somewhere to even begin to function in the world. As we live our lives in society we can find the places in a traditional morality that are nonsensical or no longer needed, and we can construct places within our morality that is needed.
There’s no God needed in this equation at all. And yet Peterson seems absolutely horrified, like many Christians, that God is jettisoned from the equation. That’s puzzling. There is no need for this anxiety.
On the contrary, those of us who base our belief as to what is right and what is wrong on empathy for human beings instead of God actually have the ability to create a more robust morality that ensures we have a society more of us would like to live in. And admitting to the absence of God enables us to say that we are the ones who construct this morality ourselves – there’s no God we rely on. It’s all us, learning from our environment and our care for each other, all the way across the moral code.
Peterson says that we don’t have foundational support for our morality, but I look at you and see otherwise. I look in the mirror and see otherwise. I feel the love in my heart, and know otherwise. I see a fraction of the value within human beings, and I see otherwise.
Perhaps it’s heresy, but it needs to be said:
There is no “spiritual” foundation needed.
The only real foundation we need for morality is ourselves.
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