Last week, I engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue on Unbelievable? radio about Jordan Peterson, the Intellectual Dark Web, the alt-right, and religion with secular humanist chaplain James Croft. James blogs at Temple of the Future on Patheos Non-Religious, and among many other things we discussed his post “The Atheist Alt-Right Connection,” which was how I was first introduced to his work when Justin Brierley sent it to me. Unbelievable? is the world’s premier Christian radio network and the only Christian network I know of that regularly hosts inter-faith dialogues. My thanks to Justin for being a gracious and capable host, and to James for the cordial, if at moments sharp exchange. I happen to know James had to do a lot of cramming on very short notice about this topic, so I commend his patience in working with me and Justin to pull this off. He is a very skilled speaker who doesn’t shy from heated disagreement, and I appreciated the opportunity to disagree with him. Hopefully, the feeling was mutual. This was my first debate, and James kindly encouraged me that I should do more of this sort of thing. Perhaps I will.
It would be impossible to summarize our entire conversation, but one guiding thread was the question that loomed over Jordan Peterson’s recent debates with Sam Harris: Can civilization survive without religion? Apropos of this question, we also spent some time discussing a 2014 article by my favorite atheist, British journalist Douglas Murray. It is called “Would Human Life Be Sacred in an Atheist World?” and I’m now losing count of the number of times that I have cited it. Murray has recently re-echoed some of the concerns he raised in that article, particularly his fear that we are losing the concept of the sanctity of life in a post-Judeo-Christian landscape. When he moderated the UK debates between Peterson and Harris, Murray said history books will remember our era as the “post-Holocaust” era, in which we all sat around asking “What the literal hell happened in the 20th century?” The totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are often categorized as experiments in atheism gone horribly wrong, which naturally offends the Sam Harrises of the world. While Murray granted it would be simplistic to ascribe all the bad things of the 20th century to atheistic philosophy, he was impressed by David Berlinski’s assessment: that the one thing we can agree all the perpetrators had in common was they didn’t think God was watching them.
At this point, my conversation with James took an unexpected turn, as James said he had smiled ruefully when thinking about the title of Murray’s piece in conjunction with the breaking revelations about the Catholic Church scandals. Clearly, it seemed to him, this implicitly held the answer to Murray’s question—or rather, it posed a different question: “How can we legitimately claim human life is sacred in a Christian world?” Clearly, some men who wear the mantle of Christianity are not good. They are, in fact, very bad indeed. Where Murray writes that “Religion holds religious people back (even if not always stopping them),” James begs to differ:
I think that the existence of such church-sanctioned horror certainly doesn’t undermine the value of all religion, everywhere, for all time, but it makes a mockery of the idea that God holds people back from doing terrible things. Clearly, as a simple psychological fact about humanity, that is false. People can do terrible things while occupying the highest positions in the hierarchy of a religious organization. And I’m certain that’s true of secular organizations. I’m not saying secular organizations are better, I’m merely saying that the claim that religious organizations and ways of thinking prevent people from doing bad things is obviously false and offensive, and doesn’t take into account the capacity for evil which is in every human person, whether they’re religious or not.
Well, as I told James in response, I certainly couldn’t agree more on that last point! Indeed, as a Christian I believe human nature is basically evil, though I also believe all humans are also capable of doing good, contrary to the popular atheist straw-man that Christians believe atheists can’t do moral things. (There’s a “So what you’re saying” meme in there, but I digress.) A separate but legitimate conversation could also be had about how certain aspects of Catholic church structure might have enabled abusers—the seal of the confessional, for example, or the fact that parishioners will keep attending church to receive the Sacrament even if they suspect something is up with the priest, because Catholic teaching says they can’t get the Sacrament anywhere else.
However, James skipped over Murray’s own immediate qualification of the statement that religion holds religious men back, namely that it does not always do so. Clearly, occupying a high position in the Church is not a sufficient condition for ethical behavior, and never has been. The apostate clergy we have with us always.
But it is just there at the word “apostate” that James objected, which led to a surprising back-and-forth. When I referred back to Berlinski’s quote and said it seemed evident that these priests also did not believe God was watching them, James was astonished. He asked, “What evidence do you have of that? They’re priests, for goodness sake!” The astonishment was mutual. I would genuinely be curious to know which God James thinks these priests did believe in, because I fail to see how it could be the Christian God. Where does Christ, the Church’s professed lord and founder, wink and nod at sexual abuse of children? Where does he give license for God’s vicars on earth to treat seminaries as a buffet of desirable young lovers? I must have missed those verses. I do remember him saying something about children and abuse of power though. I think it involved millstones and execution by drowning, but I’m a little hazy on the details.
Here James suggested that since some of them confessed their sin to other priests, this is evidence that they did believe they were in danger of judgment and “repenting” accordingly. Now this truly gobsmacked me, to the point that I actually laughed out loud. We are talking about “confessions” delivered in confidence, to priests who the perpetrators knew would not be able to testify under the seal of the confessional. These men did not submit themselves to the discipline of the Church or of the state. What they spoke with their lips, they did not prove with their actions. I ask James, and would ask anyone: What do you think repentance means? Surely, whatever it means, it cannot mean this.
Based on my response, some have accused me of implicitly defining the word “Christian” so that nobody who is committing any sin, at any time, may be called one. “How convenient!” they say. But I make no claim to make such a definition. I merely observe that Jesus does seem to place rather a premium on following him in word and deed. Can my secular friends and I not at least agree that however one evaluates people on the spectrum of apostasy, the continual, shameless abuse of power to prey on children has crossed the line? Moreover, just so that I’m not misunderstood to be saying the Catholic Church is anti-Christ, can we not agree that this flies in the face of Catholic doctrine, specifically? That’s all I’m asking for the moment. I would have thought it was a small ask, but perhaps I thought wrong.
Meanwhile, while we’re defining our terms, we really ought to clarify this term “religion.” Now, I cannot say for sure what Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris or Douglas Murray mean by this word, though they used it liberally in their dialogues. At times they seem merely to mean the structure of religion: the mass, and the private school, and the rituals, and all the motions great and small that you go through without really understanding why, but one just does. And yet I wonder: Is this the “religion” which has the power to hold men back, as Murray proposes? Can mere structure, mere formality, offer the soil in which a seed might take root and grow? Or do we need that true religion and virtue which will not be content with whitewashing the outside of a man, but demands his heart’s allegiance?
This is the rub, you see: If this whole “saving Western Civilization” business that Peterson and Murray talk about is really going to work, it can’t be nominal Christians all the way down. One must hit that bedrock of people who actually believe this stuff, and act like it. Not just people with power, not just people who have ascended some ecclesiastical dominance hierarchy, but ordinary people. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. People like you. People like me. Ordinary sinners, in need of extraordinary grace.
And here we have reached the nub of it, for here we have reached the gospel. And here, we have reached that which I fear James misses completely. James misses the alcoholic one year sober, his eyes glistening as he tries haltingly to explain who he was before he met this man Jesus. He misses the estranged mother and child reunion in the back of a church pew. He misses the prodigal running down the aisle, crying “Lord, I am not worthy. Lord, I am not worthy. But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.”
Misery, deliverance, gratitude. Misery, deliverance, gratitude. This is the transforming gospel. This is the voice which bids men come and die. This is the voice of the One who asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” This question, we must all answer, every man for himself: the pedo priest, the alcoholic wife-beater, the jealous brother, the bitter prodigal. And we know not how much or how little time we have to answer it.
“I will let you down,” Johnny Cash sings. “I will make you hurt.” This is the damned spot that will not out. Unless. Unless there is grace. Unless there is a fountain that can make the vilest sinner clean.
My hope for all men is that they might find that fountain. My hope for all the sinners. My hope for all the seekers. My hope for men like Peterson and Murray, carrying fears they cannot name, searching for they know not what, forced to admit that while perhaps God is dead, they confess to missing him at times. My hope that at the end of all their exploring, they might arrive where they started, and know it for the first time. That perhaps they might find themselves in a secluded chapel, on a winter’s afternoon, realizing that history is now. It has always been now.