Jordan Peterson has started a series of lectures on Psychology and the Bible. There is a moment (link below) that I’m trying to grasp so bare with me as I sort of rack my brain and try to decipher what exactly it is he’s getting at.
“Crime and Punishment is the best investigation that I know of of what happens when you take the notion that there’s nothing divine about the individual seriously. Now most of the people I know who are deeply atheistic—and I understand why they’re deeply atheistic—haven’t contended with people like Dostoevsky—not as far as I can tell. Because I don’t see logical flaws in Crime and Punishment; I think he got the psychology exactly right.”
On the surface level it seems to me that Dr. Peterson is saying that deeply atheistic societies end up with no morals. Yet, I know the good doctor isn’t this simple minded and that can’t be what he believes but he seems to suppose it time and again, citing the above Dostoevsky work—as well as Demons—and Gulag Archipelago as cases for believing in a God. Because if we don’t, and “God is dead”, then we’ll do terrible, awful things.
And I don’t disagree with him on the point that Soviet Russia and Maoist China and Nazi Germany putting ideology and politics before an absolute, fundamental system of morals is what made those places so intolerably inhumane.
But it seems that he thinks just not believing in a God is the reason why that stuff happened. To which my question becomes, well, what is an atheist? Is it just one who doesn’t believe in God? Because I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in beauty and I more or less believe in the idea of the divine and the individual, and I do believe in moral absolutism—I am not a postmodern relativist by any stretch of the imagination. By his own definition, does that mean I’m not atheist? Because I still believe in an absolute that is usually abstracted in “God”? But then you’re kind of twisting the definition of atheism, aren’t you? It’s no different than a feminist coming up to you and saying “Do you support equality for women?” [well of course I do who doesn’t?] “Then you’re a feminist!” when it’s actually far more nuanced than that and the term comes packed full of logical baggage that you have to comply with to really call yourself a feminist (or atheist).
There is a joke amongst atheists in that we’ve all overheard someone say “Well I just don’t know what their moral standing is if they’re atheist! I don’t know if they’re a good person” and we all laugh and roll our eyes at the naivete of the religious folk.
(one particularly amusing case is the one of the “Moral Barometer” as colloquialized by now-current (as of 2017) Family Feud host, Steve Harvey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hTnmZkHnTE)
I know Peterson’s comments aren’t this simple or meme-ridden but it almost seems as such.
Let me put it this way: If you ask an atheist if he/she believes in Jesus Christ, they will say no (or maybe they’ll give you some schpeal like “oh well he was a historical figure yes i’ve heard that much is true but did he walk on water and rise from the dead? no”). If you ask them if they believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ i.e. love thy father/mother, love thy neighbor, etc., they will say yes.
So then my question becomes why does Dr. Peterson assume that a society made up of the latter will inevitably lead to the Gulag? Because the evidence is already there in our history? Well it certainly is…Because people want so deeply to believe in something that when they don’t believe in God they will believe in whatever the next big ideology is? Social Justice? Alt-rightism? As circa 60s, flower-powerish as it sounds, what if the people believe in love? I mean that is, at its core, what Jesus Christ taught, is it not? Is love an ideology? You can firmly not believe in a higher power and still believe in love…Or does he equate love with the divine? In his above quote he said “deeply atheistic”, what is the difference between that and plain atheistic? Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany were “deeply atheistic” if their actions are to tell, what would “plain atheistic” look like?
Ahhh it’s all so difficult to parse out…I was hoping writing this would at least steer me toward some answers, but it’s just given me more questions.