Drowning in the Deep End: New Atheism and the Rise of Jordan Peterson

by R.C. Roberts

Rather recently, I have seen both an article discussing neuroscientist and pop-philosopher Sam Harris in the Burkean Conservative and the debate between Dr. Jordan Peterson and Susan Blackmore over the question “Do we need God for life to make sense?” It got me to dive back into the older videos of the New Atheist movement: members such as Dr. Richard Dawkins, Dr. Daniel Dennett, Mr. Christopher Hitchens, and Dr. Sam Harris. Their videos populate YouTube in a way that cannot be said about much else in the area of academia and debate. One merely has to see various pages that continue to post these videos, and new videos, in order to see the dominance of New Atheism, even if such dominance is waning.

The New Atheists, however, were not ready for Jordan Peterson. The professor from Toronto University, YouTube star, and renowned Jungian psychoanalyst, is a deep thinker to say the least. From his position on free speech to his position on the relation between biology and gender, he often has a well thought out, albeit very long winded form of reasoning for every position he is asked about. He is a man who admits he believes in God, although he rather insistently resents the question of belief in God, seeing it as a way to label him and being woefully unable to deal with the depth and breadth of the religious impulse. What is worse; he has this whole argument built upon, for the most part, the works of the atheist thinker Friedrich Nietzsche.

To discuss the state of the New Atheist movement, in relation to the rise of Jordan Peterson, I am going to the break down my analysis into three parts: The intellectual state of pre-Peterson New Atheism, the critique of Jordan Peterson, and my response to the Peterson’s critique.

New Atheism, Pre-Peterson

New Atheism came to rise in the minds of the world from 2006, with a slew of books published by the likes of Dr. Richard Dawkins, Dr. Sam Harris, Mr. Christopher Hitchens, and Dr. Daniel Dennett, later joined by the philosophers Peter Singer and A.C. Grayling, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Steven Pinker, and others. They came out against religion, arguing for it to be criticized along the lines of rational argument, scientific inaccuracy, and as a proponent of immoral doctrines. Following the release of their books, the New Atheists went about the country, debating theist thinkers in forums, on campuses, and on some news networks. Often scorned by their fellow atheists as well as by their opponents, New Atheism brought to the forefront the doctrine of rational humanism, Enlightenment values, and a pro-science agenda. Along with these came a support for Free Speech that the current cultural war was sparked by, as the New Atheists divided the left wing between classical liberals and (what I call them) New Age liberals. In an age where post-structuralist ideas had taken root as the status quo, with perspectivism as it’s epistemological crux, the New Atheists fought back against such a laid back, accepting doctrine.

All of this was done with the use of Reason. As Christopher Hitchens noted in a conversation with Tim Rutten in 2007 rather poetically, the basis of their belief is that “the sleep of Reason brings forth Monsters.” This is a valid point, but allow me to make a point before I continue: in my evaluation of the New Atheists, I make an exception for Mr. Hitchens for the following critique. I will address this exception later in another article.

The reliance on Reason by the New Atheists is tied to a love of science, in which they argue that science can be used, among other things, for deconstructing religion, progressing mankind, and being the basis of morality. This form of argument can be traced back to the essay Why I am Not a Christian, written in 1927 by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, which often leads one to question how New Atheism differs from Old Atheism. The difference, I would argue, between New and Old Atheism is based on the idea of faith. The old atheists may have argued against religious faith, but not faith in, say, evidence or science. The New Atheists, however, reject faith fully. They argue that science reveals the objective Truth, and thus we must realize that science and morality are inexplicably intertwined. Specifically, evolution is exalted as the basis of understanding the human condition. Altruism, compassion, charity, and even a desire for peace are extrapolated from data about the evolution of man. The New Atheists accept the idea of a natural determinism while arguing that a person can reject religious dogma based on their own Reason. Sam Harris ambitiously set out what he believed was a good argument for ethics being derived from science, in his book The Moral Landscape.

The New Atheists are practically Promethean, something I quite admire about them. In the grey mire of our post-structuralist society, the idea of men and women possessed by the idea of Truth, of Freedom (in whatever imperfect form) and of Human Progress is invigorating. It strikes at the heart of the desire to believe in the future.

The Peterson Critique

Enter Jordan Peterson. Professor, lecturer, Jungian. He talks about God and Nietzsche in the same sentence, before discussing the nature of young men, using archetypes of course. As soon as he uttered the words “metaphysical presuppositions,” I knew he was serious. He points out that the New Atheists have a faith which they deny as a faith, specifically in science. As is argued in Nietzsche’s work The Gay Science and Will to Power, Peterson points out that science presupposes a “metaphysical faith”. That is, science must assume both that there is a truth and that Truth is worth finding at all costs. To expound on this more, let me quote Nietzsche from The Gay Science, in his essay To What Extent even We are still Pious. (Prepare yourself, dear reader, for a very lengthy quote)

It is said with good reason that convictions have no civic rights in the domain of science: it is only when a conviction voluntarily condescends to the modesty of an hypothesis, a preliminary standpoint for experiment, or a regulative fiction, that its access to the realm of knowledge, and a certain value therein, can be conceded, always, however, with the restriction that it must remain under police super vision, under the police of our distrust.  Regarded more accurately, however, does not this imply that only when a conviction ceases to be a conviction can it obtain admission into science? Does not the discipline of the scientific spirit just commence when one no longer harbours any conviction? It is probably so: only, it remains to be asked whether, in order that this discipline may commence, it is not necessary that there should already be a conviction, and in fact one so imperative and absolute, that it makes a sacrifice of all other convictions.  One sees that science also rests on a faith: there is no science at all “without premises”. The question whether truth is necessary, must not merely be affirmed beforehand, but must be affirmed to such an extent that the principle, belief, or conviction finds expression, that “there is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value”. This absolute will to truth: what is it? Is it the will not to allow ourselves to be deceived? Is it the will not to deceive?  For the will to truth could also be interpreted in this fashion, provided one included under the generalization “I will not deceive” the special case “I will not deceive myself”….Thus the belief in science, which now undeniably exists, cannot have had its origin in such a utilitarian calculation, but rather in spite of the fact of the un-usefulness and dangerousness of the “Will to truth”, of “truth at all costs” being continually demonstrated. “At all costs”: alas, we understand that sufficiently well, after having sacrificed and slaughtered one belief after another at this altar!  Consequently, “Will to truth” does not imply “I will not allow I myself to be deceived” but there is no other alternative – “I will not deceive, not even myself”; and thus we have reached the realm of morality. For let one just ask oneself fairly: “Why will you not want to deceive”? Especially if it should seem – and it does seem – as if life were laid out with a view to appearance, I mean, with a view to error, deceit, dissimulation, delusion, self-delusion; and when on the other hand it is a matter of fact that the great sweep of life has always shown itself to be on the side of the most unscrupulous polytropoi.  Such an intention might perhaps, to express it mildly, be a piece of Quixotism, a enthusiastic craziness; it might also, however, be something more serious, namely, a destructive principle, hostile to life – “Will to Truth” that might be a concealed Will to Death. Thus the question “Why is there science” leads back to the moral problem: What in general is the purpose of morality, if life, nature, and history are “non-moral”? There is no doubt that the conscientious man in the daring and extreme sense in which he is presupposed by the belief in science, affirms thereby a world other than that of life, nature, and history; and in so far as he affirms this “other world” – what?  Must he not just thereby deny its counterpart, this world, our world? But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is always a metaphysical faith on which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysians still take our fire from the flame lit by a faith a millennium old, the Christian faith, which was also the faith of Plato, that God is truth, that the truth is divine…” (The Gay Science, pg. 201)

Famously, the last lines of that quote are repeated by Jordan Peterson in reference to the Sam Harris and the New Atheists. He points out that, whatever their beliefs, their tendency to rely on Reason, Truth, and Science are a product of Christian metaphysical presuppositions. This can become almost glaring when Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other New Atheists are asked ethical questions. Often, without hesitation, they will reveal a desire for ethical beliefs described in the Bible, often justifying it by referencing the fact those ideas have been around before the Bible, or outside the Bible. Jordan Peterson’s critique, thus, come as a shock often to the New Atheist, because he is not tying them to any particular religion as much as tying them to a faith that can be questioned: a metaphysical faith in Truth, and the fact that it is “good”. While Peterson says “Christian” metaphysical presuppositions, I would argue that what he is actually getting at is “religious” metaphysical presuppositions, in which faith is placed in a method or idea that one believes will lead them to a truth that is good or, as the religious call it, “divine.” It is seen as the ultimate goal.

Further, such an idea of divine Truth (I use this phrasing because that is more properly how to define the New Atheist belief in Truth) can further be tied to the idea of an almost transcendent Reason. Reason alone, the New Atheists argue, will lead to Truth, and since the Truth is good, thus Reason is good. This is something Peterson argues against, pointing out that Reason of this kind leads often to Utopian ideals, which have in the 20th Century led to absolute bloodshed and death. He points to Fascism, Communism, and other ideologies assured that Reason was good, taking their beliefs and applying them to the extremes. He makes use of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, specifically his book Notes from the Underground. In one of his many lectures, Peterson quotes a passage from his book, which is the following:

“In short, one may say anything about the history of the world–anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. And, indeed, this is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbours simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.” (Notes from the Underground, pg. 39)

What we can see from both of these quotes is that Jordan Peterson is, as he also claims, is a pragmatist. He often discusses the idea of Truth as something we cannot know, pointing out that often, we claim that science is true merely because “it works”, which is ultimately a pragmatic position. While not saying it explicitly, if one reads Nietzsche carefully, they can find the crux of Peterson’s critique of Reason: the idea that the brain is not designed to search for rational truths, but merely pragmatic solutions. Nietzsche, in his work Will to Power, put it this way:

“It is impossible that our ‘knowledge’ should extend further than is strictly necessary for the preservation of life. Morphology shows us how the senses and the nerves, as well as the brain, develop in proportion to the difficulty in finding nourishment.” (Will to Power, pg. 272)

This is perhaps the most important point to understand about Peterson and his beliefs. His critique of the rationalist New Atheist is based on the very evolution that the New Atheists espouse. It is the very natural question of how Evolution, which seems to be driven by a naturalistic pragmatism based on what best allows man to survive, may blur whether we are even developed to consider “Truth.”

A Response: Mediating the New Atheist and the Rise of Jordan Peterson

So what is a New Atheist to do? Many ignore Peterson’s religious and pragmatic beliefs. At the very least, he does not reject Evolution, they might rationalize. But when this is done, you have a performance by atheist thinkers when discussing religion with Peterson that go just as badly as they did when Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore debated with Peterson. I compare these performances with a person stubbornly flailing in the water as they are dragged to the deeper end. It is pathetic, and often traumatic to the audience, so much so one might even see ignoring it as the only way to deal with this. I say that, at least Sam Harris was able to make it back to the surface. Poor Mrs. Blackmore seems to have drowned.

In this case, what is an atheist to do? For starters, read Nietzsche. He is second to Ayn Rand as, probably, the most dismissed philosopher in field. Similar to Rand, he is dismissed as psychopathic or as mystical or as “a poet”, and it is rather damaging, given what he said and what arguments he made. There is a reason that many of those who have come to understand Nietzsche consider him so incredibly important: he is correct in many areas, including predicting that the loss of religion would lead to the rise of ideologies in it’s place, with bloody consequences. He discusses everything, including Truth, leaving nothing unexamined. This is not to say that you must agree with him, but he must be contended with.

Further, one must formulate a response to Peterson’s critique, and not a dismissal. The one thing that has always struck me as odd about New Atheism is the tendency it has to dismiss, rather than address. In the case of Peterson’s critique, it must be addressed. Does science have a metaphysical faith? Why or why not? Is Reason transcendent, or is confined to pragmatism? How do we move beyond the religious metaphysical presuppositions about Truth being intrinsically good? Or do we? Can we know Truth, and is that truth provided by science? Is there a such thing as Truth at all?

While I am not a professional philosopher, professor, or intellectual of any sort, I am rather confident that I have an answer for Jordan Peterson’s critique. I will write, in a rather short, unsubstantiated, and vulgar manner. It is mostly to serve as a basis for how a New Atheist may respond to the criticisms of Peterson:

I would agree that the New Atheists are currently operating within a set of religious metaphysical presuppositions. I would argue that atheism can far more easily move away from Truth as Good to Truth as non-axiological. Truth has no value outside of what we impose on it. As to whether we can know Truth, I argue we can, because the idea of the human mind, which psychoanalysis functions upon, is an illusion. The human mind is, in and of itself, a metaphysical entity that even Nietzsche did not question. He presumed he knew how it worked, and thus derived his conclusion that it looks for pragmatic solutions rather than rational truths. Is Reason transcendent or is it pragmatic? I would argue it is neither; it is phenomenological. Reason is the function of Consciousness in relating phenomenological values to our perception of reality. Is science built upon a metaphysical faith? Currently, yes, but it is also the one thing is most corresponds to reality, ad further it must be separated from ethics. Is there Truth? Phenomenologically speaking, yes there is.