by R. C. Roberts
In an earlier article, I set about discussing the rise of Jordan Peterson and the waning influence of New Atheism as we head into the future. While covering a very deep topic, I mentioned that Jordan Peterson criticized the New Atheists for accepting, to some extent, Christian metaphysical presuppositions, which 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? Well, the answer is multifaceted. Let me say 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, along with taking note of Richard Dawkins acceptance of Singerian utilitarianism and the general emphasis by each New Atheist on things like altruism, what the New Atheists have done is taken a Christian principle (in this case) and merely removed it from God. Often, in response to such accusations, one might argue, as did 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, as opposed to “religious” metaphysical presuppositions.
Why does this matter? It is not a matter of 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, or at the very least is better than lies. However, it is more something like this: after years of having debated theists, and those who like Frank Turek, in his famously frustrated debate with Christopher Hitchens, question where their morality comes from, the New Atheists have taken a route many atheists do. They have been working hard to show that a person can be “good” without God, or more specifically that a person can be a “good Christian” without God. Why do I say this? What they have done is they show 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. They are saying, in effect, “Look at me! I am a good Christian, but without the need for supervision.” While I again exclude Hitchens, who seemed to march to the beat of a different drum on a great majority of these issues, the New Atheists as a whole seemed willing to prove how they could be good Christians without a God.
I make this point for the sake of the rising Metamodern Atheist. The postmodern Atheist is 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 in any rational sense. 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.
The Metamodern Atheist, however, has to come to a very complicated, and perhaps dark, conclusion: the proper Atheist, that is one who truly pulls themselves from religion, must 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 standards.” 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 Metamodern Atheist may not even need to mention God, for God truly to the Metamodern Atheist does not exist outside of a historical concept. Metamodern Atheists figure out what is good, what it means to be ethical, instead of surrendering, however loudly, to religious dictations of such terms.
Atheism, as a metamodern endeavor, is not a fight, my friends. Metamodern 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.