Thousands of people are turning to the academics who make up the so-called Intellectual Dark Web with their questions about the meaning of life. As The Big Conversation from Unbelievable? relaunches, Esther O’Reilly asks whether they‘ll find the right answers.
Douglas Murray and his interviewers have been having a high old time. The British journalist and political commentator is half an hour into a conversation on the Triggernometry YouTube channel. With his signature Old Etonian panache, Murray has held forth on everything from transgenderism to ‘woke’ mobs. Now he is invited to pick the next topic: “What else? What else are we refusing to talk about honestly?”, he is asked.
This is a dangerous question, as the lads from Triggernometry are about to discover.
“Oh, wow,” Murray sighs heavily. “We don’t have any basis for our morality. How about that? It’s a biggie. Our whole metaphysical system is in serious flux, and we’re pretending it isn’t.”
“Because we no longer have God?” asks one of the slightly stunned young hosts.
Deadly serious, Murray replies: “Going from belief in God to non-belief in God as a society is one of the biggest changes that can happen. I’m a non-believer myself, but I think it’s very unwise of non-believers to pretend that it’s all just business as usual. Very unwise.”
Murray has put his finger on what Canadian cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls “the meaning crisis”. Speaking to David Fuller of the Rebel Wisdom YouTube channel, Vervaeke explained his thesis that where Christianity once offered people a framework for meaning, this has now “collapsed” under the “powerful” challenge of the scientific framework. This collapse has been many centuries in the making, but in the last 20 years, it has accelerated at an unprecedented pace. The five stages of grieving the death of God are over. But for many, the terrifying question looms: what next?
Searching for meaning
A recent UK survey revealed that among 16 to 29-year-olds (the most post-Christian generation yet) a whopping 89 per cent say their life lacks purpose or meaning. The crisis of meaning manifests differently in different places. As I write, America is still reeling from a new spate of mass shootings. Armchair political analysts are eager to blame everything from guns to video games. Far fewer are willing to address the post-religious vacuum that is causing isolated young men to find meaning in violent pseudo-religious communities – to become, literally, deadly bored. Their politics and motives are scattered across the map, but they are all united in the belief that God is not watching them.
Addressing the press after the recent killings in El Paso, Texas, Mayor Margo frankly cut to the chase: “I don’t know how we deal with evil. I don’t have a textbook for dealing with evil other than the Bible.”
It is precisely the de-authorising of this “textbook”, the collapse of this foundation, that has left the West in free fall. How now do we deal with evil? How now shall we live?
These questions and more animated four lively staged debates last summer between New Atheist horseman Sam Harris and professor turned rock-star psychologist Jordan Peterson. Douglas Murray joined them in London and Dublin, while evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein joined them in Vancouver. All four thinkers are part of the loose conglomerate of mavericks known as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW),so dubbed by Bret’s brother, Eric Weinstein.
While each in his own way has made a splash for crossing the so-called ‘PC police’, it would be a mistake to write them off as mere political provocateurs. Their three-way dialogues transcended politics to engage with universal questions: how do we find meaning in a postmodern world? What is the foundation of our morality? Is religion merely useful or true? What is truth?
The live audiences numbered in the tens of thousands, but it is via YouTube, podcasts and Twitter that the IDW reaches millions. Its audience is significantly (though not exclusively) composed of young white men – a demographic that especially seems to be searching for answers to the modern crisis of meaning, identity and truth.
3 influential thinkers in the IDW
The once-obscure Canadian psychologist has taken the world by storm with his impassioned disquisitions on myth, meaning and responsibility. Haunted by the ghosts of Auschwitz and the gulags, he has advanced his own evangelistic mission to set the world of chaos in order one individual at a time. His gospel doesn’t claim to point to heaven, but he hopes it will direct people away from hell. He doesn’t know if he believes in God, but he’s afraid he might exist.
Influences: William James, Carl Jung, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Britain’s only neo-conservative, a self-described “Christian atheist” who is chronicling the death of Western civilisation in slow motion. As a rational modern man, he believes he cannot ‘unlearn’ the hard facts of secularism. But as a humanist haunted by the sacred, he fears what a future without Christianity will hold, particularly for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. When he is not writing about immigration and Islam, he writes about euthanasia and Europe’s encroaching culture of death. When he is not writing about any of the above, he would rather be writing about poetry.
Influences: Christopher Hitchens, Roger Scruton, Richard Holloway.
Evolutionary biologist in exile, driven off the campus of Evergreen State College for the crime of teaching while white and male. A secular Jew with no specific religious affiliation, he still declines to call himself an atheist, believing atheism’s Four Horsemen and their acolytes should not dismiss religion so flippantly. As an evolutionary thinker, he out-Dawkinses Dawkins, insisting that religion is an adaptive memetic force to be seriously reckoned with. He looks forward to a more sophisticated conversation which will give people of faith no more and no less than their due.
Influences: Robert Trivers, WD Hamilton, George C Williams.
Searching for truth
For Sam Harris, the answer to the question “What is truth?” is straightforward: truth is that which corresponds to reality. Religion does not correspond to reality, therefore religion is false. Indeed, it is a cultural cancer that should be eradicated. This has been his popular spiel since 2004’s The End of Faith (Simon & Schuster), the book that launched a thousand atheist polemics.
But despite Harris’ expertise on meditation and mindfulness, his listeners’ attention has been wandering of late. Having accepted his assertions that free will is mere illusion and good and evil mere peaks and valleys on a landscape of wellbeing, they found that life was boring at best and crushing at worst.
Enter Jordan Peterson, whose bracing call to adventure and meaningful responsibility presented a far more sustaining (and sustainable) alternative. In this fiery yet vulnerable intellectual, the meaning crisis found its weeping prophet. The lost boys had found the father they never had. But he didn’t just give them twelve rules for life, he got them to read their Bibles again. Contrary to the new atheist rhetoric, he told audiences of thousands that it is not a “barbaric Bronze Age text”. Rather, it is the accumulated, time-tested wisdom of our race’s collective unconscious. And for all the ways that Steven Pinker, Harris and his ilk trumpet “Enlightenment now!”, Peterson contends they are no more able to escape the Enlightenment’s Judeo-Christian roots than any man of the West.
Bret Weinstein is no religious believer, but, as an evolutionary thinker, he understands what Peterson is on about, and he sympathises. He describes Peterson’s project as restoring a “burden of proof” to those who want to tear down the fence of religious structures: it’s on them to prove why it should go, not on religious people to prove why it should stay. New Atheists may pay lip service to Darwin, but for the true Darwinian faithful, they are not zealous enough. If none of this religious “code” is “paying its freight”, Weinstein asks, then why has it survived so long?
Searching for morality
Weinstein discusses all this and more with Alister McGrath in this year’s launch of The Big Conversation, Season Two, hosted by Premier Christian Radio’s flagship discussion show Unbelievable? Weinstein makes his case that religion is literally false but “metaphorically true”. A “metaphorical truth”, as he has coined it, is a belief that confers an adaptive advantage whether or not it corresponds to reality. Example: the Moken people, who saw the waters of the Andaman Sea receding on Boxing Day, 2004, and immediately ran uphill, escaping the tsunami. Why? They believed the deep sea-dwelling spirit of the ancestors was going to make one of his regularly scheduled appearances.
Was this belief true? It depends on what you mean by “true”.
But, Weinstein argues, there is a “bitter pill” for everyone here. There is an inconvenient truth for both the ardent atheist and the religious believer. For Sam Harris, it’s the fact that religion can be useful. For the religious and their allies, it’s the fact that some of the old “code” must still be discarded if we are to progress in a post-Enlightenment age. After all, some of the Bible’s murkier bits read more like “12 Rules for Genocide” than “12 Rules for Life”. The Good Book is also rather uninformative on distinctly modern questions, like whether or not to enrich uranium.
The disturbing truth according to Weinstein is that, like every other creature, we are robots programmed by evolution for one “very stupid” game: making more robots. If the pace of our technology outstrips our wisdom in using it, this game could end in grim fashion. So, it falls on us to “transcend” our own programming and put “our best ethical selves” in the driver’s seat instead.
But here, as McGrath rightly notes in response, the question is: how? If evolution is the only game in town when it comes to human nature, how can we break free of its influence? Who are these “best ethical selves” of which Weinstein speaks? His vision of pre-programmed man drawing himself up in the face of evil marching orders, and freely declaring “Not today!” is as inspiring as it is incoherent.
When it comes to the Bible, Weinstein’s point about the genocide passages is taken. But it isn’t news to Christians that 66 books, spanning multiple genres, with varying reliabilities of provenance, do not a self-help manual make. The Bible is not 12 Rules for Life, nor is it The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. It does not predict the atom bomb nor any of the particular dark materials future generations might wield. Rather, as McGrath points out, it offers principles not bound by time. It tells us what lies in store for the proud and lofty. It tells us to “do justly,” to “love mercy” and to “walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8) – the same God who brings the princes of the earth to nothing and makes her judges as vanity (see Isaiah 40:23).
Weinstein would beg to differ on that last point. With apologies to his Christian audience, he candidly describes “the deity” as “a hack”. Like the sceptic Voltaire, who approved of naïve faith among his servants for the sake of his silver, Weinstein acknowledges that the idea of God protects the cash register. Ideally, we’d like for people to not steal because it is wrong. “But how does it become wrong? How do we learn that it is wrong?”
Well, which is it? Does it become wrong, or do we learn that it is wrong?
Searching for God
At a key point, discussion host Justin Brierley asks the big question: could anything change Weinstein’s mind on the God hypothesis? The biologist says he has a shortlist, like any good scientist. Alien visitors greeting us in perfect English, perhaps. Or maybe a Bible verse in the genome. That one would really do the trick.
Unfortunately for Weinstein, our prospects for finding John 3:16 in the genome are rather dim at present. Fortunately for the would-be theist, we did find the genome. Weinstein would be intrigued by the mysterious arrival of an alien who spoke English. But a greater mystery is already here, encoded in the language of our DNA.
McGrath, for his part, says that while he believes God best explains the “big picture”, he can’t “prove” God. At the same time, he suggests, faith is the bitter pill that the materialistic scientist and the theologian alike must swallow. This is true, to a point. Every theory has its anomalies. Yet some require a good deal more faith than others. To quote the aforementioned Voltaire, who was hardly a staunch Christian apologist: “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented. But all nature cries aloud that he does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.”
Weinstein asks where the evidence for God is. I would ask him in return:
“How hard are you looking?”
Had he been present, perhaps Jordan Peterson would have interjected that the point is not whether God exists, but whether we act like he exists. Terrible things happen when society doesn’t. End of story. If Sam Harris had been brought along as well, he would have pushed back that terrible things happen when it does, and besides, man was not made to live by “act as if” alone.
They are both right, and both wrong.
Weinstein hits the mark more squarely than he knows in this line from his Big Conversation: “All true stories must reconcile.” Indeed, we are creatures who hunger for total truth. When the value we feel compelled to place on human life clashes profoundly with the ‘settled’ account of its origins, we seek on, unsatisfied by Darwinian fairytales. When the scientist casually informs us that itis ignorant folly to see ourselves as “stepping-stones to the Almighty”, we do not believe him. A divine image is stamped upon us, a likeness that we cannot deny.
Searching for an Absolute
“Pragmatism”, writes GK Chesterton, “is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” While the pragmatist tells a man to “never mind the Absolute”, the Absolute is “precisely one of the things that he must think”.
The refugees of the meaning crisis first fled to the New Atheists seeking absolute truth, but found a universe devoid of purpose. Now they are fleeing to New Pragmatists like Weinstein, Peterson and the IDW in the pursuit of meaning. But they will need more than any of these well-intentioned but misguided meaning-makers can offer them.
For it cannot have been pragmatism that motivated the early Church to spread the gospel. It cannot be pragmatism that drives the martyr today who, when pressed to renounce Christ’s bodily resurrection, answers: “I will not.”
Did he rise? demands Harris of Peterson. Yes or no? There is a reason why Peterson hesitates before responding.
All true stories must reconcile. The true myth must be made history. The word must be made flesh and dwell and die among us. And on the third day, the molecules must be reknit, the amino acids rekindled. This, or nothing. This, or the Church will fall.
What is it that compels Nigeria’s Christians to gather on a Sunday, after yet another raid by murderous Fulani herdsmen? What is it that they hold in their hands as they pass around the prayer books and hymnals of their fathers’ fathers? What is it that draws their gaze upwards?
What but the shadow of a tree, towering over the wrecks of time?
What but this still point of the turning world? What but this immeasurable, immovable Absolute?
ESTHER O’REILLY is a maths PhD student and freelance writer. She blogs at patheos.com/blogs/youngfogey
Watch Bret Weinstein and Alister McGrath’s Big Conversation at thebigconversation.show