“Peterson’s importance is his powerful and influential insistence that religion is not arbitrary or malevolent—that in every developed form we encounter it, religious stories are archetypal of the human condition in a way nothing else can or ever will be.”
n the final scene of Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, the play based on the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” Spencer Tracy’s character Henry Drummond laments Frederic March’s character Matthew Harrison Brady’s, who is modeled after William Jennings Bryan, long descent into religious intolerance as a tragic betrayal of his once true religion: “A giant once lived in that body, but Matt Brady got lost because he looked for God too high up and too far away.”
Gene Kelly’s E.K. Hornbeck, based on H. L. Mencken, immediately chides him:“Why, you—you hypocrite! You fraud! The atheist who believes in God! You’re just as religious as he was.”
Drummond, a lawyer, has just defended Bertram Cates on the charge of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a Tennessee high school. Drummond does not contest that this occurred but defends Cates by protesting the chilling conformity and intellectual intolerance enforced by a law that is transparently an imposition of religious bigotry.
Reactionary pessimist that I am, I seriously doubt we have public intellectuals of the caliber of either of these monumental figures these days. This is even more of a shame in an anachronistic sense, as H.L. Mencken would be dynamite on Twitter, provided he reigned in the racism.
This population is inheriting an immensely complex social structure built with the Judeo-Christian tradition at its core, and many do not know how to handle this either with respect to one another or even with respect to themselves. Peterson’s articulation is absolutely invaluable.
But what we do have instead isn’t all that bad, and in Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson we perhaps have two would-be Clarence Darrows: witty and original curmudgeons who see stifling intolerance all around them with no shortage of Matthew Harrison Brady’s bashing their version of a Bible to enforce it—anything, of course, besides an actual Bible. Billed “the debate of the century,” the pair joined one another onstage in Toronto on Friday night for what could variably be described as a discussion, a chat, or an intellectual love-in, but most certainly not a “debate.”
Others have penned valid critiques of the misreading of Marx on Peterson’s part that may have set the entire occasion off on an unfortunately friendly foot; others still have meta-narratively (as Peterson might put it, I suppose?) lambasted the absurdity of the event itself, that our culture is so intellectually hollow that two philosophical hacks can manage to sell out an arena on the same evening and in the same city as at least one professional sporting event. I want to take another tack entirely and tease out a concept that I think is of broad social importance—and that both touched on, albeit not for very long: the changing nature of religious atheism.
Inherit the Wind was written, after all, in 1955 and dramatizes an event that occurred in 1925. Comparing the dominant cultural forces of both periods and the present is telling. Unlike in the play and film, the real-life Scopes Monkey Trial was staged by the ACLU to test the constitutionality of Tennessee’s anti-evolution law. The town of Dayton hosted the case to court publicity and, in turn, to offer a battleground for the fundamentalist-modernist schism ongoing in the Presbyterian Church, itself arguably a latent social aftershock of the Civil War. As George McKenna recounts in The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism:
“Lincoln was literally correct in his Second Inaugural address when he said that the two sides in the war ‘read the same Bible.’ But by the war’s end it was clear that the two sides read the same Bible in very different ways. Northerners were more tolerant of the currents of modernism that questioned traditional doctrines and literal readings of the Bible, since they could transfer their religious enthusiasm into social causes and put aside doctrinal quarrels as more or less irrelevant. They could read the Bible for its social messages without worrying too much about its historical accuracy. Eventually there would be a huge backlash against these modernist trends.”
This backlash was built in the early twentieth century with various intellectuals and reformers bemoaning the outsized influence of “puritanism” on American public morality. McKenna writes,“in a famous lecture at the University of California in 1911, the philosopher George Santayana contended that Puritanism bequeathed to America a tame, emasculated public philosophy (the ‘genteel tradition’), which he identified with the American Intellect. American philosophical discourse was unable to come to grips with the wildly exciting development occurring on the streets of modern America.” H.L. Mencken was particularly loud and critical from his perch at The Baltimore Sun, offering such insights to his readers as a definition of puritanism as,“the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” When the Scopes Monkey Trial broke, Mencken, naturally, was on the beat.
The only slight trouble with Inherit the Wind is its tremendous historical inaccuracies, all the more unfortunate since the play has entered the cultural consciousness as the primary catalogue of the real-life events. The play itself was written in 1955, as a parable of the chilling effect of McCarthyism on the intellectual climate, in the vein of Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible. This involved the unfortunate artistic necessity of portraying William Jennings Bryan as a right-wing lunatic, when in fact he was almost radical in his progressivism for his entire political career and behaved absolutely nothing like Matthew Harrison Brady during the events depicted. But notice the transition in culturally dominant oppression: from overtly religious intolerance of even a milder “modernist” school of Christianity in the 1920’s, to an essentially more political suppression of the perceived threat of Communism in the 1950’s with a strong religious correlation but without a primarily religious component.
Today, we increasingly see culturally-dominant intellectual intolerance of an entirely different kind. Once again there is a strong religious correlation, without a necessarily religious component, except that now the dominant force is avowedly atheist. Moreover, it is perfectly natural to overlay the more eloquent passages from Inherit the Wind, of course with cultural shades of both the 1920’s and the 1950’s, to the current predicament:
“You cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy. You can only punish. And I warn you that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches, its upholders as well as its defenders.”
“Can’t you understand that if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it the private schools, and tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it, and soon you may ban books and newspapers.”
“This man wishes to be afford the same privileges as a sponge! He wishes to think!”
It is testament to the brilliance of the writing of Inherit the Wind that it transcends any cultural moment, even the one on which it is based, and the other on which it is a commentary. It should be screened in every high school today to prepare any students foolish enough to be considering the looming nightmare of higher education. But we needn’t rely solely on a work of fiction. Quotes from the leading figures of the modernist push against puritanism will also give a familiar and much needed impression. Randolph Bourne said of the Puritan,“His impulse to shatter ideas that he does not like will flourish wild and wanton … He loves virtue not so much for its own sake as for its being an instrument of his terrorism.”
And Mencken once more,
“The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution—these things have put an almost unbearable burden upon the exchange of ideas in the United States.”
Perhaps remarkably, this is exactly the kind of thing that Peterson rose to fame by furiously attacking in recent years, invoking the kind of radical thinkers, such as Nietzsche and Jung, that Mencken would have, too. And yet Peterson is a Christian, arguing primarily against atheists. What gives?
It gets more bizarre, and definitely more to the annoyance of those who wanted fireworks from this so-called debate. Žižek, the atheist, suggested accepting the following deep spiritual value implicit in Christianity:
“In other religions you have God up there, we fall from God, and we try to climb back through spirituality, training, good deeds and so on. Christianity is totally different. You don’t climb to God. You are free in a Christian sense when you discover that the distance that separates you from God is inscribed into God himself … The crucifixion is something absolutely unique because in that moment of, father, why have you abandoned me?, for a brief moment, symbolically, God himself becomes an atheist, in the sense of getting a gap there. That is something absolutely unique. It means you are not simply separated from God. Your separation from God is a part of divinity itself.”
It was clear that Peterson was struck by both the originality and importance of this insight, took it entirely seriously, and reformulated the core idea in answer to Žižek’s probing criticism of Peterson’s own moral imperative of, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Peterson described Žižek’s interpretation as demonstrating a scarcely believable mercifulness in God, that, “There is something that is built into the fabric of existence that tests us so severely in our faith about being that even God himself falls prey to the temptation to doubt.” And that,
“We are faced by this unbearable reality that you made reference to when you talked about the situation on the cross; that life itself is fundamentally—and this is a pessimism we might share—is fundamentally suffering and malevolence. But —and this is, I think, where we differ—I believe that the evidence suggests that the light that you discover in your life is proportionate to amount of the darkness that you are prepared to forthrightly confront, and that there is no necessary upper limit to that. I think that the good that people are capable of is actually is a higher good than the evil that people are capable of … and I believe that the central psychological message of the Biblical corpus is that—that’s why it culminates in some sense with the idea that it is necessary to confront the Devil and to accept the unjustness of your tortured mortality. If you can do that—and it’s sufficient to challenge God himself—then you have the best chance of transcending it, and living the kind of life that will set your house in order and everybody’s house in order at the same time.”
This is precisely the message of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which Žižek praised during the debate, and Peterson has favorably referenced several times previously. Jesus has forced humanity to deal with a freedom that is beyond its capacity to ethically handle; by lowering God to the level of humanity, and hence bringing humanity to the level of God, Jesus has doomed humanity to Hell given it can surely never live up to God’s example. Or so believes the Inquisitor, and Ivan, the atheistic, proto-Nietzschean narrator. But Jesus, having faced the Devil in the desert, faces this essential atheistic doubt again in the shape of the Inquisitor, and opts not for surrender, but for an ambiguous kiss, and thence simply to disappear.
This entire exchange reminded me of Claire Lehmann’s essay in Quillette, that I happened to read just a day or so earlier. The story is practically a cliché by now, and I won’t dwell on the details: some students somewhere in the U.S. had a temper tantrum and demanded a tenured professor be removed and replaced by a queer person of color.
The only noteworthy part of the story was that the administrators showed some spine and did not cave to the students. I am very happy that Lehmann praised the administration. We need more of this. But what specifically triggered a connection was that Lehmann described Camille Paglia, the brilliant and contrarian professor under attack for not being quite gay enough, as, “An atheist with respect for religion.” This struck me at the time as a very odd phrasing. Is it not like saying, “A footballer with respect for rugby”? Or, perhaps, given religion’s fundamental importance to the fabric of society somewhat above that of rugby, “A journalist with respect for plumbing.” Why did Lehmann make this qualification? It is really much the same question as, “Why did Žižek and Peterson get along and not argue about God?” It would seem that Žižek too is an, “Atheist with respect for religion.”
I think that the dissatisfying cordiality between Žižek and Peterson, on what may superficially seem to be an intractable disagreement about how the world works, can be traced back to an argument that Peterson has made several times. Peterson does not like the question, “Do you believe in God?” He refuses to answer it directly and instead says, “I act as if God exists.”
Although I wouldn’t put this down to outright malice, I do think there is a delightful cheekiness in this maneuver. Peterson knows what is intended by the original question and knows how his truthful answer will likely be misinterpreted and used against him—in all because he is a keen observer of dominant cultural mores. Wanting neither to tell the truth nor to lie, he instead answers in such a way that his intended meaning cannot be so easily misconstrued, much to the annoyance of the questioner. This is almost certainly what Lehmann is alluding to with Paglia. As Peterson is a Christian with respect for religion (clearly), Paglia is an atheist with respect for religion. She acts as if God exists. So does Žižek, almost certainly. This is perhaps why all three are able to have worthwhile conversations about the meaning of life at a conceptual level so that the original questioners cannot follow and so will likely give up and leave them alone. Or call them fascists. In either case, the message gets across.
But how did we end up in this position? Why the mental and linguistic gymnastics to address such important and yet basic questions as, more or less, “Should we be good? Why? How?
Because atheism has a far better name than it deserves. The fundamentalist intolerance of the 1920’s was waged against free scientific inquiry—and in the 1950’s against artistic expression. Only the former was explicitly religious, though a proper reading shows that the targets were not even atheists but Christians deemed insufficiently fundamentalist. It is not a coincidence that the tables have now turned completely, with Barack Obama feeling the need to implore the activist Left to stop attacking itself for not being woke enough.
But what does atheism have to do with it? Yes, both previous campaigns of intolerance were waged at least by the deeply religious for explicitly religious reasons. But they were not waged against atheism. An atheist could easily have been terrified of the threat of communist infiltration of the United States with no internal contradiction, just as nowadays Camille Paglia can be an atheist who respects religion. What happened over the course of the twentieth century was a conceptual and rhetorical sleight of hand on the part of, for lack of a better expression, “Atheists without respect for religion.”
The linguist and literary critic George Steiner, best known for his seminal After Babel, argued in his 1974 Massey Lecture Series that, “The decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct.” Steiner argues that this decay has caused a nostalgia for the absolute, the title of his lecture series, and that various pseudo-philosophical systems have arisen in the West to attempt to fill this void: namely, Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, Lévi-Straussian anthropology, and fads of irrationality including, crucially, the sociologists of the Frankfurt school—primarily Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer—whose argument Steiner characterizes as, “Objectivity, scientific law, truth-functions, indeed logic itself, are neither neutral nor eternal but express the world view, the economic power-structure, the political ideals of the ruling class, and in particular, the bourgeoisie in the West.” In 2019, we would almost certainly add to this list postmodernist critical theory, the clear descendent of the latter. Steiner elucidates the commonalties:
“Now consider these attributes: totality, by which I simply mean the claim to explain everything; canonic texts delivered by the founding genius; orthodoxy against heresy; crucial metaphors, gestures, and symbols. Surely the point I am making is already obvious to you. The major mythologies constructed in the West since the early nineteenth century are not only attempts to fill the emptiness left by the decay of Christian theology and Christian dogma. They are themselves a kind of substitute theology. They are systems of belief and argument which may be savagely anti-religious, which may postulate a world without God and may deny an afterlife, but whose structure, whose aspirations, whose claims on the believer, are profoundly religious in strategy and effect.”
Steiner comments that Marxists, “Like to refer to their beliefs as ‘scientific.’ They speak of the laws of history, of the scientific method of the dialectic.” Steiner suggests that they do this not because the claim has any accuracy or relevance, but because, “such claims can themselves be part of a mythology, that they do not reflect a scientific status in any genuine sense, but rather the endeavor to inherit the defunct authority, the dogmatic certitudes, of Christian theology.”
This distinction is a crucial one to avoid overgeneralizing among competing methods of understanding the world. Clearly neither Marxism nor postmodernist critical theory are scientific, but nor are scientists compelled to fall into a mythological attempt to, “inherit the defunct authority of Christian theology.” There are Christian scientists, atheist scientists, and anti-theist scientists. Nor is it to say that on account of being unscientific, Marxism and the like are completely without value. Steiner himself says of Freudian psychoanalysis that, “this is not to denigrate the seminal power of Freud’s insights. It is a mere commonplace that these insights have exercised a formidable feedback on Western culture. Our sense of self, or our personal relations —I would almost say of the way we move inside our skin—all these have been permeated by Freudian styles.” The key issue is of totality, of universalism.
The great historical irony is that most “theists” today do not identify at all with the puritanism underlying the fundamentalist-modernist schism of the early twentieth century. They descend culturally, and, in most cases even ecclesiastically, from the modernists. Recall McKenna’s characterization of the modernists as Christians who, “questioned traditional doctrines and literal readings of the Bible, since they could transfer their religious enthusiasm into social causes and put aside doctrinal quarrels as more or less irrelevant.” They are not universalist in the slightest, while many of their atheist opponents certainly appear to be.
And yet the “atheists who respect religion” seem to have an inversion of this attitude that creates a harmonious middle ground for productive discourse; they question traditional doctrines and literal readings of the scientific literature, since they could transfer their rational enthusiasm into social causes and put aside doctrinal quarrels as more or less irrelevant. “Does God exist?” is a more or less irrelevant doctrinal quarrel. “How should I live a good life? How should we all?” are social causes worthy of both rational and religious enthusiasm.
It’s about time we decide what we even mean by “atheism.” It ought to mean, at least etymologically, “not theistic” or “not religious.” There is no obvious reason it should mean “anti-religious,” and yet, in many cases, that seems to be what the speaker intends. In a society dominated by religious hierarchy, not being theistic may have been seen as dangerous and threatening enough to be interchangeable with being opposed to religion also. Likely, the oppression suffered on account of the former readily caused the latter. But the current cultural climate is almost precisely the opposite, at least within most nominally secular institutions of cultural power. Why then is there a conflation between the two forms of atheism? Who insists on perpetrating this linguistic fraud? And why?
Pseudo-intellectuals, by and large, might because they want to sell books. This cultural movement arguably came to a head with the impressively awful The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, from which we are still recovering as a society. Incidentally, this book is probably the best argument in favor of taking part in organized religion that I have ever come across, given that people obnoxious enough to write such doggerel will almost certainly not be there when you show up.
As the universalist fundamentalists had terrible explanations for the mystery of evolutionary biology, the new universalist anti-theists have terrible explanations for the mystery of the human condition.
I do not claim that there is no religious intolerance in the West, or that there are no religious hierarchies that still have unfortunate influence on the culture at-large. But I absolutely claim that their power is utterly trivial, and the problems they still cause are dwarfed by the unresolved problems borne out by their uprooting over the course of the twentieth century. A culture in which attesting to the literary and spiritual magnificence of the Bible, even aside from its obvious religious importance, will get you laughed out of its most prestigious institutions of higher learning is not one under the iron grip of the Pope. And yet Dawkins and his ilk think we are still fighting the Civil War, desperately keeping alive the horrible thought that, “The two sides read the same Bible in very different ways.” This was true 150 years ago and was arguably still a serious problem 50 years ago, but it is now far more pressing that two sides read Darwin in very different ways, as Dawkins will soon discover—if he hasn’t already.
The prevalent Dawkinsian strain of militant anti-theism accuses its enemies of delusion and regards itself as the shining light of pure reason, spake as if by God himself, like the Neitzschean übermensch Dostoyevsky parodied and Steiner gravely warned against. It has piggybacked on the advance of science for two largely circumstantial reasons. Millenia-old religious texts gave facile explanations for phenomena that scientific inquiry has since improved upon. This naturally made enemies in the religious establishment who happily wielded the sin of atheism as a defensive smear rather than engage the arguments on their merits. There was once a time when identifying as an atheist was radical and brave and doing so naturally aligned oneself with the forces of reason and open-minded inquiry. But this is not that time.
Identifying as an atheist now has much the same effect as identifying as a Christian during the Scopes monkey trial. The truth of the claim hardly matters as it is more a cultural signal than a metaphysical belief; it is how you fit into the dominant cultural institutions, and it is how many defend the entrenched power of these institutions by passionately, religiously attacking the upstart forces of reason and open-minded inquiry. “Do you believe in God?” is rarely a philosophical question and not a litmus test of political and cultural allegiance.
Political allegiance clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with open-minded inquiry, and indeed the implicit universalism of such a dogmatic outlook creates intractable intellectual problems. As the universalist fundamentalists had terrible explanations for the mystery of evolutionary biology, the new universalist anti-theists have terrible explanations for the mystery of the human condition. Anti-theism has gone far past its point of marginal social utility as a motivating force for rationalism and skepticism. It has metastasized into something more like amoral nihilism and has torn down cultural artifacts without having anything with which to replace them. It looks for truth too high up and too far away. Steiner reminds us, “It was precisely the belief that the natural sciences would fill—indeed more than fill—the emptiness left in the human spirit by the decay of religion and supernaturalism, which was one of the major forces bringing about this decay.”
As opposed to “atheism,” which ought to mean a fairly straightforward metaphysical belief (arguably the most straightforward metaphysical belief of all), the culturally dominant viral strain of anti-theism has proven to be desperately empty. It cannot construct a coherent or viable morality, even by metaphysical analogy because it virulently rejects anything reminiscent of traditional religion or European origin. Out goes servile faith—perhaps, of one kind—but so too goes universal love and forgiveness, personal responsibility and a duty to others, and the spiritual transcendence of the beautiful and sublime. It falls back on such odious tripe as meta-narratives of oppressor and oppressed, blank slate social constructivism, or denial of free will, with the attendant moral non-consequences. And it forces the likes of Peterson, Žižek, and Paglia to have to engage in linguistic gymnastics in order to avoid blaspheming this new religion in talking about really quite simple things.
This is Peterson’s real, fundamental importance. Not his tirades against political correctness, his relatively unique fusing of Nietzsche and Jung with neuropsychology and biblical exegesis, or his dubious philosophical method. Peterson’s importance is his powerful and influential insistence that religion is not arbitrary or malevolent—that in every developed form we encounter it, religious stories are archetypal of the human condition in a way nothing else can or ever will be. The religious hold these truths to be self-evident, but the general population hosts an ever-increasing share of atheists, and atheism is by far the dominant cultural more beyond even its numbers, to the point that treating the stories even as metaphors is disapproved of. This population is inheriting an immensely complex social structure built with the Judeo-Christian tradition at its core, and many do not know how to handle this either with respect to one another or even with respect to themselves. Peterson’s articulation is absolutely invaluable. Dostoyevsky knew this. Steiner knew it. Žižek and Paglia know it. They are atheists who believe in God—or at least who act as if God is real.
After Hornbeck mocks Drummond for his supposed hypocrisy, Drummond cuts him off by asking, “Don’t you understand the meaning of what happened here today?” Hornbeck quips back, “What happened here today has no meaning.” Drummond feints this empty retort and takes Hornbeck to task, as one might an anti-theist activist today:
“Isn’t there anything that touches you, that warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What do you dream about? What … what do you need? You don’t need anything, do you. People … love … an idea, just to cling to. You poor slob. You’re all alone. When you go to your grave, there won’t be anybody to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you, nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.”
Hornbeck is finally stirred to real meaning for the final line of the film:
“You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?”
Drummond’s criticism should be put to every anti-theist activist, every Nietzschean übermensch, every wannabe Grand Inquisitor. I can’t quite imagine any having the heart or wit to utter a response such as Hornbeck’s, though I wouldn’t put it past Žižek. Nor is it hard to imagine Žižek mimicking Drummond’s final act, after Hornbeck’s final line, of weighing up the Bible and The Descent of Man and judging them as equal. Toward the end of the debate, Žižek told a joyful story about the great physicist Niels Bohr. To be clear, Žižek told the joke in a pessimistic, ironic tone. Mimicking Peterson, perhaps, I tell it with a more positive interpretation in mind, as I believe it provides a fitting coda:
“Bohr had a horseshoe above his door to prevent evil spirits entering the house, and a friend asked him, ‘Do you believe in it?’ And Bohr said, ‘Of course not, I’m a scientist.’ The friend asked, ‘Well, then why do you have it there?’ And Bohr replies, ‘I was told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”.