By Akos Balogh
Modern Atheism has a problem. At least according to a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, named Jordan Peterson.
It has got to do with the popular view among Atheists (especially among the New Atheists) about the God-like power of human reason.
Let me explain.
Many Atheists believe that doing evil is irrational. And doing good is rational.
So human reason alone can show us morality: no God required.
According to many Atheists, anyone thinking rationally will know what good is, and do it. Doing evil, on the other hand – such as being selfish, and cheating on others – is irrational – in which case we don’t need religion of any kind to tell us what right and wrong is – it’s just self-evident.
But there’s a problem with this logic.
As Professor Peterson says: “What is irrational about me getting exactly what I want from every one of you whenever I want it at every possible second? … There’s nothing irrational about it. It’s pure naked self-interest.
“Why not every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost? It’s a perfectly coherent philosophy, and it’s actually one that you can institute in the world with a fair bit of material success if you want to do it.”
It is an interesting point. And it’s relatively easy to find real life cases of this principle.
For example, is cheating on an exam the wrong thing to do? I know both Christians and Atheists would say ‘yes’.
But: is it rational or irrational to cheat on a test?
The answer is not so obvious. After all, if you can cheat on a test, and get away with it, and it means the difference between getting that great job, or that mark needed to gain entry to that prestigious university, cheating on a test may well be ‘reasonable’.
The same could be said for that lucrative business deal: why not bend the rules, if it means you end up with thousands more in your pocket? If you are in an unhappy marriage, why not indulge in that marital affair, if you’re sure you can get away with it? In sum, if the benefi ts of doing something illegal/immoral outweigh the risks of being caught, why not do it? It’s a rational calculation.
But, there’s more.
Not only can selfishness – and other forms of evil – be rational; there are many possible situations where doing good can be considered irrational.
Jewish social commentator Dennis Prager gives the following historical example that makes the point:
want?”“Was it rational or irrational for a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II to risk his or her life to hide a Jew? We all know that this was moral greatness of the highest order. But was it rational? Not really. You can’t get much more rational than self-preservation.”
And so here, in a nutshell, is the problem for Atheism: If doing evil can be rational, and doing good can be irrational, then human reason alone can’t tell us right from wrong.
Reason leads to good only when you want it to. Just as it leads to bad when you want it to.
This is because Reason is just a tool. It is no more intrinsically moral than a knife. A knife can be used to murder or to torture people. But in the hands of a surgeon, it can be used to save lives.
So if it wasn’t reason alone that gave us the western view of human rights, human equality, and human dignity, then where did such a view of humanity come from?
Peterson makes the same case: “[T]he proposition that underlies western culture, is that there’s a transcendent morality… the ethic that drives our culture is predicated on the idea of God.”
It is the idea that we are made in the image of God, with inherent worth, dignity, and equality.
In the words of Atheist philosopher Luc Ferry : “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”
Now, I’m not saying all Atheists are egotistical and self-seeking – many Atheists are noble, virtuous people (and many Christians do awful things!). I’m merely saying that Atheists are misguided in believing that reason alone is a reliable guide to morality.
It is good that a secular psychologist like Peterson understands the problem with human reason. And from the Bible’s perspective, although human beings, in general, have some sense of morality (due to our being made in God’s image), our moral compass is far from perfect, and easily warped by our sinful desires, our culture, and other infl uences (e.g. Romans 1:18-32) .
Hence, we need a word from outside ourselves to show us what is right and wrong. But more than that: we need Someone to rescue us from ourselves, renew our hearts, and give us a new moral compass – one that actually functions (albeit not without effort). Thanks be to God, for Jesus Christ.•