Features, Religion

Why Are Non-Believers Turning to Their Bibles?

Even in the middle of the atheism boom, Richard Dawkins described himself as a “secular Christian”. To the author of The God Delusion this meant an appreciation of “aesthetic elements” such as church bells. Christopher Hitchens felt the same. At the end of one interview with the firebrand antitheist the interviewer invited him to the pub. “That’d be nice,” he said, “But actually I really want to go to Evensong.” Hitchens, the interviewer reflected, “had some enthusiasm for the words and sounds of the church, which he could easily disassociate from the actual believing part.”

Decades before, Philip Larkin had admitted, in “Church Going”, that a church was:

A serious house on serious earth…
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognised and robed as destinies.

The poet would later describe religion as “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade” but he felt a certain awe inside a church:

If only that so many dead lie round.

Europe and America, of course, have Christian heritage and there is no excuse for intelligent citizens to lack some knowledge of and appreciation for the faith. To reject it as a whole means rejecting Inferno, Paradise Lost and Four Quartets. To dismiss its power is to dismiss the power of Mass in B minor, Requiem and The Creation. To deny its influence on our social norms is to deny the influence of faith on family structures, common law, industry and social justice.

One could value our religious heritage while maintaining that religion is no longer relevant. Christianity might have inspired Dante and Donne but now artists have secular sources of inspiration. There are nonbelievers, though, who turn to the Bible for advice and inspiration and are “cultural Christians” in a deeper sense.

It is striking, if unsurprising, that different nonbelievers have taken different lessons from the same book. Some claim Christianity for progressivism. Daniel MacGuire, a former Catholic priest, argued in his book Christianity Without God that people should reject supernatural claims of Christ and yet embrace Biblical narratives as a “realistic global ethic to heal a planet sinking under the effects of our ungrateful management”. Alana Massey wrote in The Washington Post that such a message appeals to young people who see Jesus as “an anti-capitalist insurrectionist murdered by law enforcement”. Such progressive cultural Christians find it hard to rationalise the verses that relate to private conduct – often emphasising Christ’s command to love the sinner while ignoring his insistence on hating the sin – but find the carpenter’s son who chased the merchants from the temple an appealing avatar for socialist humanism.

Secular conservatives and liberals, led by the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, have also been a revisiting religion. Peterson, a philosophical pragmatist, holds that beliefs contain literal and metaphorical truths. Influenced by Carl Jung, he argues that whether or not great stories reflect actual events they reflect the archetypal narratives of human beings and their societies. Like Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind, he diagnoses cultural nihilism in the “deconstructive frenzy” of the postmodernists. His alternative, however, is more traditionalist. He returns to stories told in the Bible.

Peterson’s lectures on the “Psychological Significance of Bible Stories” make the case that knowledge of these texts “is essential to a deep understanding of Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health…and social stability”. The story of Noah’s Ark, for example, reflects the need to order one’s life so as to withstand chaos. The story of Abraham reflects the need to abjure comfort for the sake of achievement. One could teach these lessons without reference to ancient texts, of course, yet abstracting them from stories weakens the emotional punch and divides our collective consciousness. Peterson makes an effective case, though, as the biologist Bret Weinstein suggests, it is more applicable to general patterns of behaviour than to specific and complex questions.

Yet the rise of cultural Christianity may also reflect a more widespread lapse into in-group-out-group bias. Intolerant identitarians, for example, imagine themselves as modern day impersonations of the Knights Templar, defending Europe from marauding invaders.

An image found on the Knights Templar International website, which encourages civilian Christians to join the fight against ISIS in the Middle East.

Anders Breivik, a militant nationalist who massacred 76 of his fellow Norwegians in July 2011, wrote in his manifesto that while he did not have a personal relationship with Jesus he believed in Christianity as a “cultural, social, identity and moral platform”. Yet “Identity” is the key word in this sentence. The Christian lessons of mercy and forgiveness do not exist in the moral repertoire of violent vigilantes, let alone mass killers. Examples like this show that while a virtue of faith is its social and communal nature—when it is held in merely hostile and embattled terms—it can easily mutate into vice.

If some exploit the faith with the aim of conflict, others exploit it with the aim of building Heaven on earth; a more respectable desire, perhaps, except for the fact that there is at least metaphorical truth in the saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. In the Bible, man is fallen and is saved through God. Pain, and sin, are absent only in Heaven. While we could debate just how constrained the Christian vision of human nature is, there is no debating that its vision is constrained. Utopian atheists like Ernst Bloch, who wrote that the Bolshevik revolution was in essence a continuation of the “fight for God”, are puddles of what the TE Hulme called “spilt religion”; desirous of glories that the world cannot provide; worshipful of that which tends towards corruption.

And finally, there is a question we should not avoid. “Is it true?” John Betjeman once asked, “And is it true?”

For if it is…

No love that in a family dwells
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells,
Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Nonbelievers disbelieve to varying degrees. Jordan Peterson, like me, is an agnostic: someone who thinks such questions as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, “Why are things in motion?” and “What is consciousness?” might have theistic answers. But he does not like the question. He believes it is “an attempt to box [one] in”.

I agree if the question assumes that belief and nonbelief are monolithic. One can accept Christian values without a belief in God, much as one can meditate and practice mantras without accepting all the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama.

Still, I think the question matters. James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough that religions consist of two elements, one theoretical and one practical. The latter involves the duties and the rituals by which religious people serve and worship God. The former, however, is their inspiration: the belief in His existence and the truth of His words. Without this belief, and only scientific naturalism, one has no “vision of the celestial city”, no “fear of the human dead” and no cause for “dependence on the divine”. Religion exists insofar as it is functional; insofar, in other words, as it promotes human well-being. It can do this, of course, but without the grandeur of God, and the promise of Heaven, it is less compelling and less exceptional; part of the structure of societies and not their energising force. Atheists and Christians will, in most cases, diverge on the question of whether this is good or bad but it demonstrates the inescapable importance of the question.

One thing cultural Christianity of both the left and right reveals is a thirst for meaning and a hunger for direction. Austin Frank, a Christian commentator, writes that Peterson has earned such an enormous and enthusiastic following because he’s a professor and not preacher. I disagree. He’s a professor and a preacher. He presents intimidating intellectual discussion but with such eloquence, urgency, optimism and engagement that he sermonises more than he lectures. He appeals less because of academic interest in Carl Jung and William James than because of insecurities about our social and intellectual existence. We need stories. We need sermons. The great challenge is to balance them with our reasoning in the struggle to align our wisdom and will.

“There’s probably no god,” proclaimed the famous slogan on the side of the “Atheist Bus” in 2008, “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” No one stopped worrying, and, thus, here we are. The religious instinct perseveres. How it will be actualised is to be contested.


  1. Lisa Marchiano says

    As a Jungian analyst, I have a minor quibble. I absolutely agree that Peterson’s following has to do with the way he addresses questions of meaning. And this is precisely the heft of Jung’s contributions as well. Jung’s writings are dense and difficult to penetrate, but they aren’t academic. They engage the deepest issues of meaning that our society is so hungry for now.

  2. DiscoveredJoys says

    We need stories. The great challenge is to balance them with the ways we live our daily lives.

    There, fixed that for you. People pay more attention to the stories of those around them than old religious stuff. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

    • Just any story won’t do. A church of Harry Potter would be manifestly shallow. We need the stories with the most density of connectivity and complexity, that tap into history, psychology and our inner lives with timeless insight, stories powerful enough to last for 2,000 years and build entire cultures. That’s where myths come in, and the Biblical stories present some of the most durable myths ever told.

      • revelator60 says

        We have thousands of years of stories to choose from, thousands of stories from hundreds of cultures. The richness of that array far outshines the Bible. And when it comes to durability there are plenty of pagan myths that have survived and are possibly of greater relevance to one’s existence.

      • Raleigh SWAN says

        Funny that you mention Potter. Jordan Peterson talks a fair bit about archetypes found in the Rowling stories.

  3. Carl Sageman says

    “Jordan Peterson, like me, is an agnostic”

    Peterson identifies as a Christian. As an atheist, I have listened and enjoyed some of his talks that aren’t specifically religious but include religion. His religious discussions lose me fairly quickly (eg. Jonah and the Whale). Although his views on Cane and Abel are interesting.

    Peterson’s main contribution has been as a voice of reason against Social Justice Warriors. According to his interviews, he has received many letters of support from the trans community, despite a small number of trans people organising a strong campaign against him. Peterson is one of a small number of heroes fighting for western culture. Peterson often draws parallels between Western culture and Christianity.

    Peterson has videos all over YouTube. He’s definitely worth listening to, especially if you enjoy intellectual stimulation. While he doesn’t often quote sources, I have investigated many of his claims and found him to be largely correct. Most of his research is excellent – better than most public figures.

    • Malachi Hale says

      I agree. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize Jordan Peterson as an agnostic. Peterson has never called himself an agnostic.

      • Mr Peterson is best known for refusing to use people’s preferred pronouns so it would be funny if he took offence at people not using his personal definition of his faith. (I have no idea of he would do this, of course.) The fact is that he says he does not know if Jesus Christ was resurrected and without belief in Christ’s resurrection one is not a Christian. He says he acts *as if* he is a believer but that is not the same thing.

        • I don’t think that identifying as a Christian is quite the same thing as ‘identifying’ as male or female. Identifying as a Christian could be more comparable to identifying as an American, or identifying as a Marxist. The exact shape of these identities can quite contestable, especially in marginal cases. If you had one American parent, but spent the entirety of your life in another country, are you really an American? How many key ideas of Marx’s can you reject while still being able to call yourself a Marxist?

          The language of ‘identification’ is also revealing in this context. It suggests a reflexivity in self-designation that is lacking in the statement ‘I am a Christian’. In the statement ‘I am a Christian’, the term ‘Christian’ is presumed to be sufficient to do the duty of identification. However, the statement ‘I identify as a Christian’ presents the identification as something resting upon your own subjective sense of affiliation or self-reckoning, suggesting that the term ‘Christian’ in its common use isn’t sufficient to identify you as such.

          When Peterson says that he identifies as a Christian, I know what he means. And, as a Christian, I find the statement illuminating, even though I would never say ‘Peterson *is* a Christian’. He ‘identifies’ as a Christian, which isn’t the same. Someone who ‘identifies as a Christian’ is either someone who cannot say the creed without extensive hedging, or someone who has so succumbed to the self-reflexivity and performativity of modern society that they have lost the ability to ‘be’ anything anymore. Or possibly both. Either way, it gives me a pretty good idea of what I am dealing with.

          There are a number of things at stake in the personal pronouns debate, but at least a few of them have to do with the sort of identity sex is, whether it is the sort of thing that one can ‘identify’ as, and what the consequences are. Unlike being a Marxist, for instance, being male or female is not taken by most people to be a taxonomic statement about one’s beliefs or a claim about your personal affiliations, but about the objectivity of your being. ‘I am a man’ is not typically taken to mean ‘I believe myself to be a man’, ‘I believe that my behaviour, presentation, and/or self-concept are such that I should be reckoned by others to be a man’, or ‘I declare myself to be a man and you must acknowledge me as such’, even if such claims may be its corollaries. Even for those who would recognize some borderline cases (e.g. intersex persons), being a man is generally regarded as being a statement about the objectivity of one’s body and self.

          Given the character of sex, a transman saying ‘I am a man’ is a statement that many will object to. The transman may say ‘I identify as a man’, which reveals the self-reflexivity and non-givenness of that identity. Yet the same person will typically strongly object if you treated his self-identification as contestable or questionable, which we often do with other claims of people who self-identify. Peterson’s claim about his Christianity is an appropriately contestable claim, for instance, and I believe he presents it as such. He would acknowledge the right of Christians to dispute whether he is a Christian, much as someone might dispute whether he is, say, a rationalist. Even as someone who is a creedal Christian, who believes in the resurrection, my Christianity isn’t something for which people just have to take my word. I must prove myself to be a Christian in belief and practice.

          Many trans activists also want to treat their mode of sex identification as paradigmatic. We all ‘identify as’ male or female or ‘were assigned’ male or female. No one simply ‘is’ male or female. No distinction between ‘am’ and ‘identify as’ is permitted, and even the lesser measure of objectivity and public contestability of identities such as Marxist or American isn’t permissible. Yet this inconsistent mode of identification is increasingly enforced by the power of law. It seems to me that Peterson’s issue is very much with this.

          I would be interested to know how Peterson would relate to trans people who really gave ‘identify as’ its proper force, and distinguished themselves more clearly from people who simply *are* their sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were fairly open to a transwoman who ‘identified as’ a woman, while making clear that they weren’t a woman in the way women generally were (much as Peterson would make such claims about his ‘Christianity’). Such a person could be considered a ‘woman’ in their social persona, and be appropriately addressed using feminine pronouns, while recognizing that they were a woman ‘in name only’.

          • Excellent comment Alastair. And I do agree that Peterson would probably respect their wishes in those cases. But however he identifies, he is agnostic when it comes to belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is, I think, the most essential of Christian beliefs. Given this, I do not think I was unfair or incorrect.

          • I don’t think you were. And this really was another great article, by the way. I always look forward to reading your pieces on Quillette and elsewhere.

            My concern is that ‘Christian’ is an identity that is more complicated than it might initially appear (for instance, many consider themselves ‘Christian’, not as an act of self-identification, but as a given reality arising from their baptisms). As a Christian, I also am wary of the ‘no true Scotsman’ games that my fellow Christians will play with the definition. Perhaps this leads me to emphasize penumbral ‘Christian’ identities more than I might otherwise do.

            For instance, I wouldn’t simply dismiss the claims Anders Breivik made about being a Christian (although I gather he doesn’t self-identify in such a way any longer). He clearly isn’t an orthodox Christian by the furthest stretch of the imagination. But the identification isn’t without any significance. ‘Christian’ can come to stand for a particular cultural patrimony. I seem to remember Žižek observing that we start to speak about our ‘culture’ when we stop truly believing in it and displace that belief onto other parties ‘supposed to believe’. Breivik is an example of one sort of self that can develop in a penumbral Christian identity, where actual belief is disavowed, but the ‘cultural identity’ is jealously and viciously protected.

            Particularly in the current context, I think that such complex identities, where fierce cultural commitment is accompanied by disbelief in the culture’s generative sources, are important ones to study. Understanding them may help us to understand a lot of what is going on politically and socially in the contemporary world, which is one reason why I want to take the phenomenon of ‘nominal Christianities’ very seriously.

          • Thank you for the kind words! Yes, I agree that the phenomenon is interesting and deserves analysis and engagement. When I called Peterson an agnostic it was specifically in relation to his beliefs and not his loyalties, principles and so on. I agree they can be “Christian” without one accepting the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ.

            As an outsider, though, I think a church must have doctrinal limits just as gardens must have walls!

        • Sarka says

          Since in mainstream Christianity (various), doubt is recognised as a part of legitimate religious experience, and faith has been interpreted as far more than just some yes/no assent (or not) to a proposition, acting “as if” would be regarded by many Christians as going quite a long way towards being a Christian.

  4. mmghosh says

    Technically it’s Middle Eastern, or even Palestinian culture, rather than Western culture (abstracting the GraecoRoman culture of polytheism and tolerance, extirpated by early Christianity). Also Islam believes in the same Biblical myths, but with very different conclusions.

    • So the people who wrote the Bible called themselves Palestinians? Try again. Palestine is but a vague Geographical expression; as a nationality it’s less than 60 years old. As a culture Palestinians are light years behind the West.

  5. Thanks, Ben. And thank you Alistair. Very interesting reading about a fascinating man.

    If nothing else it’s worth hearing and watching him work though these questions.

  6. There are so many shades of being a Christian, or being an agnostic for that matter. Regardless, the Bible is an undeniably exceptionally meaningful book for Christians and agnostics alike. And it is on our veins…

  7. Mr Peterson is best known for refusing to use people’s preferred pronouns so it would be funny if he took offence at people not using his personal definition of his faith.

    That’s not really analogous. Religions are matters of faith so if you believe in a religion that’s your religion.

    Your sex is a matter of fact, independent of your belief.

  8. Evan Plommer says

    I’m not sure what kind of an agnostic Sixsmith is. His piece proposes that Christian belief is the only alternative to non belief. There are a lot of other gods out there. What about them? Only Harry Potter gets a nod. I’m with Hitchens on evensong, but the fact that rituals like this give us the warm fuzzies doesn’t mean we have to accept the ancient nonsense that goes along with them. As to theism providing answers to the big questions, what can be said about this, other than we’re still waiting!

    • Avigdor says

      As an identitarian, I think it’s important for Western peoples to recognize that Christianity is the creation of OUR collective unconscious. There’s a reason that Christianity and its universalist message took root and bloomed in the West. There’s something specific and special about Western man that gave rise to this fundamental element of our culture. Even though you might not believe that Christian doctrine is literally “true”, it does reflect part of what makes us, us.

      • Evan Plommer says

        I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence; no argument on this from me. As a naturalist though, I find the concept of the ‘unconscious’ incoherent, so can’t relate in any way to your opening lines. I’m currently reading Susan Jacoby’s newest book ‘Strange Gods, a secular history of conversion’. Were the Roman slaves (who were forced to convert when their owners did) responding to ‘Christianity and its universalist message’?

      • Guest says

        I’m sorry. Christianity come from outside Europe. The native religions of tree, idol and rock worship is basically the Western man’s invented religion. In fact, ever tribe on earth worshiped idols and nature until God told Abraham to leave his ancestor’s culture and follow him. Christianity took everything good from any culture and locality it spreads to, including Europe.

    • Brian Brown says

      I have struggled with this article. Yours is the only comment I have read that makes any sense. I live in a country permeated with our religious past and enjoy a few aspects of it. Evensong at Kings chapel in Cambrige for example. But that doesn’t stop me rejecting all religions as inventions but humans that are well past their sell by dates.

  9. Lynn Crystal says

    `Awe’ is the feeling that is missing in the social justice mindset. They can’t compete with it because they don’t know it exists.

  10. “James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough that religions consist of two elements, one theoretical and one practical. The latter involves the duties and the rituals by which religious people serve and worship God. The former, however, is their inspiration: the belief in His existence and the truth of His words.”

    That same structure can be said for politics, economies, art and literature, etc. Pretty common and basic motif about how human social structure is organized. So is this two element structure that is fundamental to all human social structures true? Or is a self sealed argument, like religious metaphysical belief, immune to testing and falsification? If true, then it explains the abstract, composite construct of a “religious instinct” (which takes multiple concepts and squashes them together into an incoherent abstraction which is then given the task to “perservere” in its muddled and nebulous cognitive environment).

    “Without this belief, and only scientific naturalism, one has no “vision of the celestial city”, no “fear of the human dead” and no cause for “dependence on the divine”.”

    I find the lack of imagination in this disturbing for the 21st century. At least the Buddha taught some sort of self reliance and accountability rather than depending on some outside force saving you from yourself, or whatever else that means as a soteriological question.

    “It can do this (promote human well-being), of course, but without the grandeur of God, and the promise of Heaven, it is less compelling and less exceptional; part of the structure of societies and not their energising force.”

    Again, a lack of imagination here as it tackles the question only with the removal of cognitive tools – not the ability to replace or modify and/or add more tools .
    Also, the “energising force” here actually IS the structure of societies, real and/or imagined. For example, to get into heaven, you need to follow rules of the Big Alpha(s). Don’t follow the rules you are ostracized by the Big Alpha(s). Sounds like the basic structure of society to me.
    Imagine if there was actually a god, but there was no heaven and no reward for following the gods rules? That he made you in his image, but when you died, the only thing that happens is you turn to dust. No afterlife – no heaven to meet your dead parents, children, friends, pets, etc.
    What would people do for their “well-being” when you remove the aspects of society from the metaphysics? What is heaven other than another, personal ego-optimized version of society? (A reunion of dead family and friends squashed together forever with the eventual addition of spouses, children, and some easy access to food, water, and shelter (of varying degrees of imaginary grandeur). Without a society, heaven turns into an individual hell, I would think, unless you realize that heaven is solipsism and other people are hell.

  11. Gemmel says

    A vision of God. Two men met and walked through the grounds of a mansion this is what one of the men recorded in his diary. ” The world has not yet seen what God can do with and through a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to God”…A man! Varley meant any man. Varley didn’t say he had to be educated, or brilliant, or anything else. Just a man. Well by the Holy Spirit in me I will be that man( Quoted in John Pollock, Moody: The biography.)
    Henry Varley’s words became indelibly fixed in Dwight Moody’s heart and mind…

    Back in London in the gallery of the Metropolitan tabernacle, Varley’s remark and Spurgeon’s preaching focussed Moody’s attention on” something I have never realised before. It was not Spurgeon who was doing the work: it was God.
    From John Macarthur ” What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit” John 1:12-13
    If all preached in the way as Spurgeon would their be unity in Christianity?
    Note: to get into heaven the call remains the same repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near and because of this the call remains the same Isaiah55:6 To Sean Cameron – there are no rules my friend you are spreading falsehood. He did all that was necessary for Adam and Eve to have restored relationship with Him and He has done the same through Jesus Christ for all who do exactly that. Recognise that you are not perfect and because you are not Jesus Christ has paid the price to redeem you that should you repent you can be one day where He is…”Where I am”
    Heaven does not turn society into hell, society does a pretty good job of that on its own – it is called sin and selfishness and stubbornness, anarchy and rebellion…all a result of the fall.

  12. Mark Reaume says

    I like listening to JBP, even his biblical lectures – I’m an atheist. However, when it takes 2 hours to explain the first paragraph of a book I’m left with the impression that he is reading way to much into some pretty straightforward sentences.

  13. Gustavo says

    It is absurd to believe one can establish a sustainable and widely accepted moral code without a divine source. The incentive to follow such code disapears in favour of self serving ideas. Godless comunism is a perfect example.

    • Evan Plommer says

      Rubbish. Hint: Scandinavia. You also seem to assume that a ‘moral code’ that is ‘widely accepted’ will be a positive, fair, and generous one. Dog-eat-dog is widely accepted in many societies. Does that make it right?

  14. Peter Schaefer says

    @Alastair Roberts
    “My concern is that ‘Christian’ is an identity that is more complicated than it might initially appear (for instance, many consider themselves ‘Christian’, …”

    This remembers me of a quote by Wilhelm Busch, a german preacher in and after the war. He used to say: “Being half of a christ, is being full of a liar”
    Those are the Breiviks, yet they are christians.

  15. Humanity’s biggest question is what happens to a person after death. Secular progressives have no answer and when they do, it is difficult for them to remain secular. As for life in this physical world, they have created a deity-free religion. It has commandments and it has sin. It has holy space. It has its own priesthood.

    Even should the “singularity” ever come, it cannot be implemented for anyone who lived and died prior to its arrival. And it only applies to those who have the circumstances that permit it.

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