Updated: Nov 15, 2020
There are no atheists
Humans are religious creatures. As conscious, spiritual creatures, we orient our lives around hierarchies of values, the greatest of which is the affirmed Good. It took a few attempts to figure our what qualifier I wanted to use here. I first typed the Good, but quickly caught that error, for it is obvious that very few of us actually orient ourselves around the Good. I then tried perceived Good, which is closer to the truth, but still is not entirely accurate.
How many of us truly know why we do what we do? How often do we delude ourselves, masking our less-than-noble intentions and ambitions with something more palatable? With a pungent question that long precedes Freud's theory of the unconscious, the prophet Jeremiah asks, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).
I finally settled on affirmed Good - not affirmed with the mouth alone, but with the life. Where are we headed and why? In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke astutely notes, "I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts." I would go as far as to say that our actions interpret our true thoughts even more poignantly than the conscious voices of our minds. This is one reason why intimate companionship is so very important to self-awareness: an external eye can often be more astute in seeing what we are than the internal eye, clouded with the lens of what is desired to be.
Attempting genuine reflection, embracing genuine companionship, and considering your history, what is your affirmed Good? Would you equate this with the Good? Here is a helpful self-evaluation: taking into account both your public and private life, would you commend your manner of life to the persons you most cherish?
In any case, it will suffice for now to say that we are all religious. We all affirm an ultimate Good that transcends the material plane. While we might debate the nature of metaphysics, this means that you most certainly are not an atheist. There are no atheists.
Socialism as the Secular Religion
"I abandoned the traditions that supported me, at about the same time I left childhood. .. In the meantime, however, my nascent concern with questions of moral justice found immediate resolution. I started working as a volunteer for a mildly socialist political party, and adopted the party line" (xii).
After leaving the church, Peterson embraced socialist ideology, which is a fairly natural fit for someone in need of a value-structure after rejecting Christianity. Christianity provides strong moral categories, emphasizes virtues such as compassion, concern for the poor and downtrodden, etc., and looks forward to a day when all wrongs will be made right. If you remove the explicitly spiritual from this structure, these categories become relegated entirely to the material here-and-now. As Peterson describes his mindset of this time, "Economic injustice was at the root of all evil, as far as I was concerned. … I turned, in consequence, to dreams of political utopia, and personal power" (xii-xiii).
Speaking anecdotally, I believe that every former Christian that I know ended up on the political Left shortly after, if not before, publicly rejecting the faith. Speaking non-anecdotally, it is evident that theologically liberal Christian communities typically ally themselves with the political Left. I believe this is largely due to the fact that any "Christianity" which denies core Christian orthodoxy is anthropocentric enough to render it a secular religion with the same philosophical needs as self-identified secularism.
To be clear, I'm not at all making the case that orthodox Christians have to be Republicans, but only that Leftism (not liberalism) is essentially inverted Christianity, in which man is supreme and God is only an image. Just ask Marx.
Be someone admirable
As a college student, Peterson became active in university politics and was elected to the college board of governors. This organization included several successful and accomplished conservatives whom Peterson admired, much to his chagrin. He plainly writes, "I could not help but admire them, even though I did not share their political stance. I found the fact of my admiration unsettling" (xiii).
In contrast, he describes most of the low-level socialist activists as follows: "They had no career, frequently, and no family, no completed education - nothing but ideology. They were peevish, irritable, and little, in every sense of the word. I was faced, in consequence, with the mirror image of the problem I encountered on the college board: I did not admire many of the individuals who believed the same things I did. This additional complication furthered my existential confusion" (xiii).
Our tribal instincts naturally incline us connect personal approval with ideological commitments. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than contemporary political discourse, as voters on both sides of the political spectrum overlook obvious defects in their respective ideological representatives while condemning every action of the opponent. However, unless you are entirely possessed by ideology, character can eventually begin to break through the tribalism, especially if character is linked to reality.
Are my ideological opponents achieving success in this world? If so, is their ideology consistent with their actions? Are my ideological companions actually contributing anything? The answers to these questions provide some measure of the ideologies at play.
I'm not sure that there is a greater apologetic for your beliefs than actually living out what you say you believe and achieving success while doing it - not just financial success, but the success of a life well-lived, which I think most people are able to recognize when they see it.
Do you want to convince others of your cause? Be authentic, and be someone admirable.
In the next regular Friday post, I will discuss Peterson's rejection of ideological possession and pursuit of authenticity.
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