What is God? What is atheism?

by Jamie Elsey

Although some may be heralding the end of free speech, 2018 has been a year of far-reaching debate and discussion. In the coming months, we can anticipate attending or streaming discussions ranging from such topics as the role of race in American politics to the nature of truth, from existential threats posed by artificial intelligence to the value of religion.

As sure as I am that many readers will share my enthusiasm for these events, I’m also certain I’m not the only one frustrated by the sense that many such talks end up with the participants merely talking past one another. It’s as if the speakers have agreed to play chess, but change the rules to drafts whenever they’re put in check. I at least find myself in the good company of Stephen Fry who, well over an hour into the recent Munk debate on political correctness, expressed his bemusement that “people will look back on this debate and wonder why political correctness wasn’t discussed”.[1]

Failure to properly define the topic of discussion is, I believe, a primary cause of this frustration. Changing the format from one of debate to one of open conversation is less conducive to the kind of evasiveness and rhetorical point scoring that characterizes purely combative interactions. However, even in open-ended conversation, we want to see opposing viewpoints properly challenged, and the problem of poor definition stands even when all participants are in apparent agreement. How do we know that we are in agreement if we don’t really know what we’re agreeing to?

There is nowhere this issue of definition looms larger than in recent discussions of religion, God, and morality. Grappling with these topics is as vital as it is difficult. We can’t expect to make any progress if we do not have a shared or at least mutually understood language with which to tackle them.

In the scientific domain, Karl Popper argued that a hypothesis that cannot be falsified is not scientific, and we can say nothing of its truth value. Unscientific hypotheses are typically those that are defined so elastically as to be able to incorporate any observation, or so vaguely as to render any specific observations irrelevant. A similar tenet holds for constructive debate and discussion. We can neither counter nor accept an argument stated in a way that does not mean anything specific to us, or that morphs into something else when successfully challenged. Objective truth, of course, is not everything. Many unfalsifiable or underspecified claims may provide powerful inspiration and have practical utility. However, an idea that withstands critique not on the strength of argument but by the agility with which it can elude actual confrontation has little to redeem it.

For many (typically atheist) commentators in this domain, the task of definition is relatively simple. Atheism, as the name suggests, is the rejection of theism. Theism is the belief in a supernatural creator (God), typically in the image of monotheistic religions. Hence, an atheist is simply someone who does not believe in the existence of such a God.

This simplicity is not, as many religious apologists would like to argue, because atheists have a simplistic view of what God and religion can mean to the many different people who profess faith (though certainly some do). It is because – drawing upon the Enlightenment tradition of science and reason that often leads to the rejection of belief in God – the recognition of the power of scientific thinking disposes one to accept that progress towards understanding reality cannot be made without a common understanding of the specific terms with which we are engaging. While I do not expect that everyone will immediately agree with the definitions I have provided above, in conversation such proposals could lead to a discussion of them, and an agreement could be made as to how we will use our terms. Without this, our conversation would be fruitless, or even counterproductive.

Entertaining the idea that clarity of definition is a prerequisite for productive debate, we can then consider how a lack of clarity might be undermining potentially meaningful discussions about religion, atheism, and morality.

The most prominent new voice to address these topics is Jordan Peterson. I believe that for all Peterson’s arguments for the importance of the meaning of words (as in his discussions of linguistic territory surrounding gender pronouns, for example, or rule number 10 in 12 Rules for Life: ‘Be precise in your speech’), Peterson has suffered from a confounding evasiveness and elasticity when it comes to defining terms for what he urges are the most fundamental issues.

When pushed on his beliefs about specific topics such as the historical Jesus, resurrection, or God, Peterson has rightly stated that it depends on what you mean. [2],[3]  Yet, we are left largely in the dark about what his thoughts are on the different possible meanings that might be ascribed to these concepts. Peterson’s openness and humility regarding the literal truth of founding myths may be refreshing for some to hear, but it also necessitates that he and those discussing the topic with him specify whether they are dealing with a literal or metaphorical interpretation.

When Peterson does hint at how he wishes to define terms, we can see how underspecified terminology can muddy the waters. Consider, for example, his response to Matt Dillahunty questioning whether the impact of psilocybin on smoking cessation should rightly be described as supernatural in their recent Pangburn Philosophy event:

“you’re starting to define the supernatural pretty narrowly, like do you require miracle, like here and now? Something that defies the laws of physics – or what’s your definition of the supernatural?”[4]

But the idea that the definition of the supernatural as something which defies the laws of physics is not so much ‘narrow’ as it is precise and accurate. It is also better aligned with what I think most people mean by the supernatural in this context.

Other moments in Peterson’s discussion with Dillahunty show where a lack of clarity about terms, or perhaps willful obscurity, runs conversations into the rocks. Consider Peterson’s insistence that Dillahunty and many other professed atheists are in fact religious, or that without religion, we would lose art, poetry, drama, and story.[5] Rather than someone who rejects theism, Peterson argues that an atheist is someone like the character of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who makes a calculated and seemingly justified decision to murder a dislikable old lady but is brought down by the pangs of his neglected conscience.[6] Moreover, we discover that for Peterson, Soviet Russia is a good example of a secular humanist society.[7] Clearly, Peterson’s definitions of these concepts are not in alignment with any common, or arguably good faith interpretations of them.

What then, for Peterson, might it mean to be religious, or to believe in God? We hear from Peterson in this discussion that:

‘[according to Jung] for all intents and purposes, God is the highest value you have’[8]

And similarly from his Twitter feed:

‘Define God. OK. God is that in which we manifest necessary faith. Necessary because interpretations have to start somewhere.’ [9]

Hence, to believe in God means that one has chosen, consciously or unconsciously, a fundamental moral principle. One needs some form of axiomatic bedrock from which to delineate the good and the bad, right from wrong action. Peterson appears to believe the best name for this axiom is God.

But is this a justifiable or even useful definition? Certainly it is useful for Peterson, as it allows him to argue that without God one can have no basis for moral action or judgment. Secular attempts to develop a morality are doomed to fail because they are either in fact religious, or amoral. According to Peterson’s definition, this holds true, but this truth is a mere tautology: without a basis for morality, there is no basis for morality.

Peterson’s more specific challenge to Sam Harris’s secular moral framework presented in The Moral Landscape seems likewise a matter of wordplay. Harris argues that science can help determine moral values. We can use reason to decide on a goal or fundamental value, and then use our knowledge of such disciplines as history, biology, psychology, and neuroscience, to determine those societal arrangements and individual actions that are most likely conducive to achieving that goal or realizing that value. In Sam’s estimation, this fundamental value ought to be the wellbeing – broadly defined – of conscious creatures.

Like Peterson, I am skeptical that an ill-defined notion of wellbeing can serve as solid foundation for moral norms. All the work is still ahead of us to choose more precisely what we mean by this term, and to deal with the possible incompatible values that we each take to be part of a life well-lived. Yet, Sam has made it clear that his notion of ‘wellbeing’ needs further specification, and providing this specification did not appear to me to be the intent of The Moral Landscape. It was rather to make the case that we can select a meaningful moral goal based on our understanding of the primacy of consciousness, and then use all the tools of science to navigate in that direction.

Also like Peterson, I question whether the initial arrival upon a fundamental value at which to aim can be deemed scientific. That we should value the wellbeing of conscious creatures is not, I believe, a scientific claim, even if it may be reasonable. This ‘should’ is a subjective preference or assertion, and cosmologist Sean Carroll has similarly pressed Harris on this issue.[10] Does that make it religious?


The world is not split into only scientific and religious claims. We can simply own the fact that we are postulating a particular moral premise without an objective basis, making neither a scientific nor a religious claim, but a moral one. We may have beliefs or values that we take ‘on faith’ – that is, without objective reason to believe – but it is disingenuous to argue that this makes them religious. And while it may be true that this axiom fulfils many of the roles people have historically ascribed to religion, as Dillahunty points out, it is also devoid of many:

“I think you’re sidelining what a lot of the roles of a deity has played throughout the entirety of human history. Because [many religious people are] advocating … for an actual thinking agent, supernatural, that is the creator and or sustainer of the universe. Nothing about my pursuit of truth or goodness or secularism fulfils that particular role, so already we are cherry-picking the aspects of God”[11]

To take concepts that partially overlap – the idea of a fundamental axiom and the idea of God or religion – and to proceed as if they are synonymous with one another is inaccurate and confusing. It can only provide a hollow victory over secular morality. Further, it is not even pragmatically useful to redefine God as meaning ‘a fundamental axiom’ devoid of supernatural claims: the term ‘fundamental axiom’ already conveys what is meant, and does not come with the metaphysical baggage associated with the concept of God. What’s more, if we are to talk of God as meaning a fundamental axiom, then are we also to develop a new term for what God has previously been understood to mean for most people – ‘unsophisticated God’, or ‘God proper’, perhaps?

When a secular morality is proposed, it is not appealing to the will of an omnipotent creator that validates its premises. Rather, it appeals to our intuition, self-interest, or benevolence for acceptance of its bedrock. Granted, this may place morality on shakier ground than God-given law. But, as a genuinely God-given law has never existed, and increasing numbers of people are coming to recognize this, we must develop such a framework within which to find meaning and from which we can derive moral principles. Peterson may or may not accept that ‘God is dead’, but he does appreciate that we must fill this void. From this perspective, I think the likes of Peterson, Harris, and Dillahunty are engaged in the same project – constructing or defending a moral system that people can live by. However, wordplay and obscurity are unlikely to be constructive.

Peterson is, of course, free to use whatever language he chooses. I would simply ask whether it is really useful to define concepts in this way. My impression is that much of what Peterson is trying to convey is lost with these definitions. The atheist or skeptic dismisses Peterson wholesale owing to the absurdity of his claim that they are in fact religious. Peterson’s followers scoff at the skeptics on account of their elementary understanding of religion. Meanwhile, the theistic believer can rest soundly in the conviction that God has been defended, with scholarly references to boot. Little ground is covered, and everyone comes out feeling just a little more cemented in their convictions.

Surely this is not what we are hoping to result from such discussions. Yet, it is the inevitable consequence of using the complexity of a concept or issue as a means of evading the necessary task of precise and explicit definition. We pack in all manner of unspoken associations and earnest but unjustifiable judgments. The result is vacuous false dichotomies and terms with such porous borders as to make mainland Europe look like Alcatraz. Religion versus nihilism. Morality versus atheism. God, but not that God. I have no doubt that Peterson’s idea of what God means is complex and nuanced, more so than just the idea of an axiomatic principle. But when we talk of things only by vague allusion, only through metaphor, or only as symbolic of something else nebulously defined, we can easily believe we’re revealing profound truths, when in fact we’re just not making much sense.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxYimeaoea0&t=121s Political Correctness Debate ft. Stephen Fry, Jordan Peterson, Michael Dyson, Michelle Goldberg. 1:24:50

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIB05YeMiW8 Am I Christian? | Timothy Lott and Jordan B Peterson

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0O8Jw6grro Jordan Peterson: Do You Believe That God Exists?

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmH7JUeVQb8&t=4762s An Evening With Matt Dillahunty & Jordan Peterson. 19:40

[5] ibid. 41:40

[6] ibid. 1:28:20

[7] ibid. 1:15:15

[8] ibid. 1:17:27

[9] https://twitter.com/jordanbpeterson/status/1009842718158118913 Jun 21st

[10] https://samharris.org/podcasts/124-search-reality/ Waking Up Podcast #124, In Search of Reality. 1:08:00

[11] An evening with Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson 1:18:50

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Jamie Elsey is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Amsterdam. Born in the UK, he received his BSc from University College London (UCL), and a MSc in Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology from UCL and the Yale Child Study Center, where he conducted research on the neurobiological impact of childhood trauma. After working as a research associate at the Yale/UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, he moved to Amsterdam to conduct research on a new treatment for anxiety disorders, based on the pharmacological manipulation of emotional memory. Besides working on this novel treatment approach, his work has covered neuroethics, psychedelic drugs, and the interplay of reason and emotion. Email: j.w.b.elsey [at] uva [dot] nl