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About this episode:
The West has become an increasingly post-Christian world with the rise of the ‘nones’ and the influence of new atheism.
So, where are the next generation turning to in the search for meaning and identity? Is God finally dead, as Nietzsche once declared? Or is there space for a renaissance of religious belief in the modern world?
Justin Brierley hosts a live dialogue between two leading cultural commentators – John Lennox and Dave Rubin. John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of mathematics and philosophy of science at Oxford University. A leading Christian thinker, he has debated many of the world’s leading atheist voices. His latest book is ‘Can Science Explain Everything?’
Dave Rubin hosts The Rubin Report, a talk show that reaches millions of people every week. An agnostic Jew by background, he regularly hosts conversations with the leading cultural and religious thinkers of our day.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1 | Part 1: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 1 | Part 2: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 2: The Universe: Where did it come from and why are we part of it?
- Episode 3: The story of Jesus: Can we trust the historical reliability of the Gospels?
- Episode 4 | Part 2: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 5: Did Christianity give us our human values?
- Episode 6: Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?
Justin Brierley (JB) John Lennox (JL) and Dave Rubin (DR)
JB: Welcome to tonight’s Big Conversation, filmed live here in Costa Mesa, California. The Big Conversation is produced by Premier Christian Radio in partnership with the Templeton Religion Trust. And it’s a series of video discussions between thinkers across the religious spectrum, looking at some of the biggest questions in life: who are we? What’s it all about? Looking at science, faith, philosophy, what it means to be human. I’m delighted to say that tonight we’re going to be sitting down and hearing from two people that I’ve really been looking forward to bringing into conversation together. We’re going to be looking at the question of: Is God dead? It’s a conversation on faith, culture and the modern world. Where are the next generation turning to in an increasingly post-Christian society? Is God dead – as Nietzsche once declared – or is there space for a renaissance of religious belief in the modern world?
John Lennox who is here on my left is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and The Philosophy of Science at Oxford University; he’s a leading Christian thinker, and he’s engaged many of the world’s leading atheist voices as well. His latest book is called: Can Science Explain Everything? And it is available as well after. Dave Rubin is my other guest, let’s have a round of applause. Now Dave hosts the Rubin Report; it’s an online talk show that reaches millions of people every week. Dave is going to be telling us about his religious background and where he’s at now – so I won’t sort of label him at this point; but he regularly hosts conversations with leading cultural and religious thinkers on his show, so I’m really looking forward to what he’s going to be bringing to this conversation today. He has a new book out; it’s available for pre-order: Don’t Burn This Book – is the title – Thinking for Yourself in the Age of Unreason, so I do recommend you go and get that if you can on the pre-order as well. So one more time, just please give a warm round of applause to my guests – John Lennox and Dave Rubin.
Well welcome gentleman both to tonight’s discussion; I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to be covering tonight. Because I’ve had you on the show before John, and very often I’ve put you in conversation with maybe a quite firm atheist, someone like a Dawkins or an Atkins or Michael Ruse. But I think tonight’s going to be a little bit different, because I’m really looking forward to hearing your story, Dave. We haven’t met before – in fact tonight was the first time – but I’ve watched your stuff and I’ve seen some of the people that you’ve increasingly been talking to and been influenced by yourself, and it’ll be fascinating to hear where you’re at now in terms of both the cultural and religious aspects of your world-view.
DR: Well I’ve never had anyone give me an intro and say, “we’ll label him later”! So I’m feeling really undue pressure right now. And I’m the only one here from SoCal, so let’s see what happens!
JB: Well whatever those labels may be, I’m really looking to what you’re going to bring to us tonight. Perhaps we’ll start with you first of all Dave. Tell us a little bit about who you are, growing up… I know that you came from a pretty religious family, so do you want to tell us a little bit about that and where you found yourself as you grew up, as regards faith and so on?
DR: Sure. First off, I just want to say what a pleasure it is to be here. You know, I’m usually on the other side of the interview, and the reason I’m particularly excited about tonight is that I don’t talk about this sort of thing from a personal perspective that often. You know, I’ve sat down with tons of atheists – you know, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, Peter Boghossian and that little crew, and I’ve talked to plenty of people of faith like Bishop Barron and Rabbi Wolpe, and plenty of other people that come from different political perspectives and personal perspectives. And I always find that I go into each interview with no agenda other than hearing their thoughts and seeing how that shakes out around my world-view. That being said, I’m excited to be here because I can sort of tell you a little bit more about where I come from and sort of where I’m at.
So I grew up in a conservative Jewish household in New York; we kept kosher, we did Shabbat on Friday nights, all the big holidays – but there was a strong secular belief within that. And as I was telling you backstage, there’s an interesting piece related to Judaism that I think is a little different than other religions, in that the ethnic tie to it – at least in a modern way – is for most Jews more important than the religious nature of it specifically – let’s say beliefs, specifically. Because John, as we were talking about, there are many many Jews, especially in sciences and in mathematics, that aren’t believers per say, but have a real cultural affinity. And I would say that’s sort of where I’m at – or at least where I’ve been over the last couple of years.
I actually am now in the last few years – and this has to do a lot with being on tour with Jordan Peterson for a year… Jordan and I did about 110 stops in one calendar year and about 20 countries – it was pretty amazing – and when you spend that kind of time listening to a true innovative thinker – I mean, truly the guy that I think is the world’s most important public philosopher, let’s say – talking about his Biblical lectures and talking about his perspective on life, and that there has to be a bedrock of something that is real and true, outside of us. And then how he relates that through the Biblical stories – it moved me; it moved me over the course of the year that we did this together. So I would say I’m secular basically in my life, but I definitely in the last year have found that there has to be something outside of us; the rest of this makes no sense.
I mean, very briefly the part that I’m really known for is the political part; that I was a lefty and the difference between leftism…
JB: You’ve kind of had a political conversion…
DR: Right. So I’m usually much more comfortable talking about my political conversion than a religious one! But I would say this, that consistent with me talking about sort of what’s happened with the post-modern left, with the progressives – and we see this now where there’s sort of nothing that’s empirically true, and any given day you can feel anything about any particular topic – there’s a reason for that. And the reason is they’ve disconnected everything; their whole world-view is disconnected to anything that came before them. So that can be God or a religious set of ideas or something like that. So I’m really, really fascinated by that at the moment, and it’s changing how I live my life. I just did – it was Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day in Judaism. I was at a service that was actually at a church in Pasadena in Los Angeles, hosted by Dennis Prager, that I’m sure many of you guys know about. So I would say I’m in it the way you guys are all in it; trying to find some truth in the madness.
JB: I’ll be interested to tease that out a little more in due course. I mean, one thing I did notice is I have seen just watching some of your videos, that there has definitely been a progression in your thinking on this. And probably if you go back a few years, I think you had said along the lines of you’ve probably thought of yourself as an atheist, but evidently that’s not quite the case anymore?
DR: Well I had a bunch of atheists – high profile atheists – on the show in a row, starting with Sam Harris who I admire – he’s a good friend of mine – and Michael Shermer, and Peter Boghossian. And I really love the intellectual side of that; I really, really do love it. That’s not to the exclusion of anything else actually, but what I’d found was that I’d had a series of atheists on in a row, and then people online just kept saying that I was an atheist. And then I sort of just said it one day without… it didn’t mean anything to me of sort of one way or another. It was almost it just sort of came out of my mouth one day.
And then two years ago – you know I do this off the grid August thing where I literally lock my phone in the safe and I don’t look at any news or television; I’m completely offline and I really disappear and I try to let my brain reset. And two years ago when I did it, one of the thoughts that I kept having sort of in my peace was that: I’m not an atheist. And I came back and I said it in a very casual way, and I just did this live stream where I just sort of said it very flippantly, that I just don’t like the word atheist – it doesn’t fit what I believe. I do believe in something else, even if I can’t completely articulate what it is. I think Jordan has gone a long way toward articulating the type of thing that I believe in.
And I got a lot of hate for that one, because the atheists, they don’t like a converted person either. So you know, you’ve got to watch out for that too. So we all have our own trappings. But what I’m most interested in is talking to people from all walks of life, and figuring out what the common stuff is. And what I like to frame that around is the conversation about freedom and how do we limit governments so we can all believe what we want, and believe and think what we want to think, and be part of a society that’s pluralistic and decent for all of us.
JB: John, let’s have a bit of an introduction to you, for those who aren’t familiar with you. Tell us about your own faith journey up to this point? You now obviously speak to many people all over the world about Christianity, but where did it all begin for you?
JL: It began for me… let me say as well how delighted I am to be back in Costa Mesa. And I’ve enjoyed in the past some marvellous shows; I’m just fascinated by what’s going to happen in the conversation tonight. But I grew up in Northern Ireland, which isn’t always the best start to discuss religion, because it was a divided community, and there was a lot of terrorism that was connected in a very complex way to Christianity of both versions – Protestant and Catholic. But the important thing was that my parents were very unusual for that kind of cultural context. They were Christian – convinced Christians – but they weren’t sectarian, and that was very unusual.
My father had a small business; we lived in a small town – 15,000 or so – and he tried to employ people from both sides of the community. Now why did he do that? I once asked him, I said, “dad, it’s so risky” – and he was bombed for doing this; my brother nearly lost his like. And he said, “look, I believe that every person – whatever they believe – is of infinite value, because they’re made in the image of God; going back to the Hebrew Scriptures. And therefore, I will employ across the community”. And that has stuck with me. And it’s been very important when you’re discussing, as I often do, with people that do not share my world-view; that always comes to my mind. Here’s a person in front of me – and it relates to what you were saying about freedom; I would connect with freedom value – that here’s something outside of my parents, that gave everyone human being dignity and value. That was point number one.
The second thing was that they allowed me to think. Now Northern Ireland so often is associated with religious bigotry, extreme fundamentalism, all this kind of thing. And my parents were not highly educated, but they really gave me space. So my first encounter with Christianity was not mind-closing; it was mind-expanding. And I remember when I was about 13, my father came along and he says, “here’s a book you need to read” – it was Marx’s Das Kapital. I said, “dad, have you read it?”; he said, “no”. “So why should I read it?”; “you need to know what other people think”. And I never forget that; it set a compass-bearing.
The third point is their Christianity was credible; morally credible – they actually lived what they believed. So in that sense, I had a hugely privileged background that didn’t compress me into a narrow-minded bigoted person. And it was noticeable when I went to Cambridge in 1962 – not 1862, I know I look old! But when I went to Cambridge in 1962, many of my contemporaries from Ireland, the moment they got out of the country, that was the end of any Christianity. Because they’d never made it their own; they’d never thought about it. But I’d been encouraged to think about it, and that sort of set the compass-bearing.
There’s one further point that really shaped my life. I was challenged in Cambridge very early on by a student at the table at night. And he asked, “do you believe in God?”. And then he said, “oh sorry, sorry, sorry; I shouldn’t have asked you that – you’re Irish. All you Irish believe in God, and you fight about it”. And I’d heard that many times, but somehow it was different. And I thought, “gosh, yes, you know, I’ve never really met an atheist. You know, in Ireland people were divided into Protestant atheists and Catholic atheists; they’re not really atheists. So I thought, what I’m going to do is to start today and befriend people – befriend them, that’s important – that do not share my world-view. And I’ve spent my whole life doing it. So that really sets the scene I think.
JB: Well before we launch into the conversation, I just want to remind you, if you’ve got a question at any point during the evening, feel free to text it in – I think the number is going to appear behind us again – and it will be great to hear what you would like to ask John and Dave this evening. So do make sure to make a note of that number; text it in and we’ll make some time at the end of the evening to ask as many of those questions as we possibly can.
So Nietzsche famously declared: “God is dead”. Now he may have been a bit premature in that, but maybe finally his thoughts are coming true in the 21st century West. Because we are living in an increasingly post-Christian age, people say. Increasingly the number of people who tick the census box that says “none – no religious affiliation” is going up, and so on. I mean, you’re engaging with this kind of demographic all the time on your show Dave – what’s your feeling? Do you feel like people are genuinely less religious now? To what extent are some of those friends that you made early on in your show – people like Sam Harris and other well-known atheists – responsible for people moving away from the religious bearings that they once had?
DR: So obviously I don’t want to speak for Sam or any of those guys. What I’ve found in the conversations that I’ve had with non-believers and with believers, is that at a micro-level, you can be a non-believer and be absolutely moral and decent and good and a productive member of society and all of those things, as I believe those couple of people that I mentioned are. What I think is becoming the problem – and I think this is really where Jordan Peterson hit on something – is that societies can’t organise around that. That it can sort of work for a while, and most of the things that I believe in – and I talk about the individual all the time and why I believe that classical liberalism is the best sort of framework for a political system that we should have – they almost can’t exist without that underlying bedrock.
And so your question sort of gets to what I was saying earlier, which is that the reason that the secular world feels so out of control right now – I mean, just yesterday I’m sure some of you guys saw that CNN did this equality town hall last night, and it was like you know, everyone has to mention their gender pronouns, and you have to admit that there are more than two genders and all of these things, that… We know these conversations are not being had – there are settled science debates that went on for a long time, that we know what facts are. And yet we find, because this has now become untethered to anything other than how you feel, that now everything is up for grabs. And that’s why it sort of feels that there is something sort of godless happening here, or something like that.
Now trust me, that is a hard thing for someone like me to say. You know, as someone that really my beliefs really are rooted in the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers, and this is a real debate amongst people who talk about the Enlightenment. Could they have done it; could they have formed religions and burst liberalism in a positive way forward without some religious belief behind it? I don’t know the answers to that exactly; I don’t know that we’ll ever really know the answer to that.
But I would say that the reason I first said that I’m happy to be here with you guys is that in the last year – where now I virtually only get invited to events by conservative groups or libertarian groups for sure, but groups on the right, let’s say. But I often get invited to church events; I often get invited to places of faith. Now I know we can go through a litany of political disagreements that we may or may not have. And I absolutely know that everyone in this room would be happy to do that, and there would be nobody fighting; there would be nobody screaming – we could explore those ideas as far as we can, and then we would put it down and either agree to disagree or maybe we’d move each other one way or another and that would be wonderful.
And I don’t think that’s a coincidence; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you guys here and that generally believers right now, are more tolerant. They are, it’s just a reality. I mean, that really is true. Who are the most intolerant people in society right now? It’s the people that are constantly telling you how tolerant they are; that’s the irony – it’s the people that tell you you’re a bunch of racists and bigots and homophobes and the rest of it. And that’s the real bizarre flip that we have happening in society, and I think that is linked to – however you want to phrase it – either a post-Christian world or a post-Judeo-Christian world or a post-modern world, however you want to define that.
JB: I mean, to what extent do you agree with Dave’s analysis there of what’s going on, especially I suppose at the academic level and in terms of the kind of conversations now that you are and aren’t allowed to have almost, when it comes to these things?
JL: Well I think it’s a pretty accurate analysis; that’s what I’ve experienced out there. I’m always interested in the phrase: “God is dead”, because it seems to assume he was alive once. And of course I hear Richard Dawkins kind of saying: “which god?” – and I think that’s a question worth addressing. Because the god that I believe in – that is, the God of the Bible – is eternal. And that means there are problems for the deadness, doesn’t it. There’s a sense in which Nietzsche was a very accurate prophet, and what to my mind is very important with him was that he could see what many contemporary atheists cannot see – that if you abolish God, you wipe the ground under any solidity on which you can base the morality, human dignity, freedom – all those values. He saw that connection. And he said if you get rid of God, you have no right in the end to values.
When the values are real in our society, they’re mostly values that go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I think therefore, to bring that back into the discussion. I like the idea – and I think it’s a very important start – where there’s something more; there’s something outside of us. That’s the start it seems to me of coming back to something around which society can be organised. Because otherwise, everything is subjective. And you mention post-modern, and it amazes me – but it’s sad – that so many of these people will tell you as an absolute truth, that there is no truth. That’s just sheer nonsense.
JB: Yes, because it’s a contradiction in terms. I mean, you obviously spend quite a lot of time speaking especially to actually a lot of young people at many of the events you do, John. Do you find that there’s a kind of… people are looking again for a source of meaning or something to hold onto?
JL: Absolutely. I think that… well, it’s country-specific, because there are parts of the world of course where for example Christianity is growing like wildfire. But in the UK and in the US I find that young people find the world that is presented to them by people like the old/new atheists or the naturalistic philosophies, too small to live in. It doesn’t give them any kind of solid foundations, so they’re looking again. And just last week I spoke to Central Hall Westminster – 1500 young people, starting at the age of 13 to 18. Absolutely fascinating, spending a whole day thinking about these big ideas. That I find enormously encouraging; when young folk start asking these questions. And I find a huge response around the world, but it’s self-selecting – it’s very difficult for me to give a global and fair assessment.
JB: Yes. I mean it strikes me Dave that you did this 100-city with Jordan Peterson, and it strikes me that the crowds that have flocked to hear him talk about meaning in a meaningful way, have been quite young. The kind of crowd that you might have expected more to be turning out to hear the Sam Harris’ and the Christopher Hitchens’ and Richard Dawkins’ and so on. What’s changed? Why in a sense is the conversation moved on from: “well we all know God’s dead” to, “well what’s going to happen next?”, I suppose?
DR: Well it’s really interesting, because if you were paying attention to the media around Jordan during the year, the implication somehow – or the condemnation I should say – from the media, was that somehow this was for young straight white men; that he’s only talking to straight white men – as if inherently that’s somehow an evil thing, right. So that was the idea, that somehow these really broken straight white men are showing up to his events and that somehow is inherently evil. Now of course that’s absurd. Even let’s say he was talking to all straight young white men, if he happened to have been giving them something positive that could put a little order in their life away from the chaos – as he would put it – that would actually be a wonderful thing. Of course, the irony is that that actually wasn’t even true at all, because the crowds were wonderfully diverse, and I usually thought they were about 60/40 male and female, and age range all over the place and all that.
But to answer your question specifically, I think that as politics and the media and social media and the fact that we’re all walking around with a phone in our pocket that has the world’s knowledge and you can connect with somebody that literally across the world in a split second – I think we have no idea how this information… basically, I think we have no idea how it’s affecting our brains; our ability to think clearly about things. It doing wondrous things, right; we’re all here because of this. This is a podcast; we’re disseminating this through the digital world – this is incredible. But it also has destabilised sort of basic beliefs, and I think then Jordan stepped in and said: “we have to be able to get some meaning out of this”. And that’s why he wrote 12 Rules; he thought, these are 12 rules in a modern sense – he wasn’t handing down the 10 Commandants again. But he was saying in a modern sense, these are 12 things you can do – stand up straight with your shoulders back; clean your room before you clean the world – these are basic things. Where now we have people that want to fix the world constantly that can’t fix themselves; they’re doing it backwards.
But just very briefly on the underpinning of some sort of belief that can lead to freedom – and that’s sort of what I was talking about, about the Enlightenment – think about the founding documents of this country. I think they’re the greatest man-written documents I’d say, political documents at least. And what did the founders say? They said these are God-given rights; they’re self-evident. We did not give you these rights – the right of freedom and of free speech – we can protect these things, but we didn’t give them to you, because they came from somewhere else. That is so deeply important and, in many ways, very unique to America, and that’s why there is such a bizarre assault on freedom of speech right now and on actually almost everything in the bill of rights. And it comes mostly from the secular world; that is a really sad twist that truly I would not have expected a couple of years ago. Even as someone that saw this coming, I mean, five years ago I was waving the flag going “guys, there’s something happening here on the left, this progressive thing, this is no good”. But even it’s gotten so crazy that I’m still a little surprised myself.
JB: To some extent it’s almost as though the meaning-crisis has almost created this vacuum, and people are finding all kinds of crazy things to…
DR: Yes, they’re looking anywhere. You can play video games all day, you can do whatever it is to fill up that hole, if it’s an existential hole or a hole in belief or in whatever it is. But there are a lot of ways to fill that hole. Jordan, in my opinion, has given the best set of beliefs that take from a religious tradition and blend what I would say are Enlightenment values or basically secular values, Judeo-Christian values – and he’s blended them in the most effective way.
JB: I mean, as we’re on the subject talking about Jordan Peterson, I know that you’re someone familiar with some of what he’s been doing as well John. What’s your take on what he’s put his finger on, that obviously so many people are responding to, and how does it relate in your view to the Christian faith that you hold?
JL: I think people are longing for sense. And you mention connectedness – that has almost replaced meaning, but it’s not real connectedness. And I was reading a book on artificial intelligence just recently, and it was warning that people will die if they’re not connected to the internet, because all the meaning is being placed there. And I think what Jordan Peterson is doing is putting a nuclear bomb in the middle of that and saying: “this is not good enough”. You’ve got to get outside of that and you’re right – it is rewiring brains, the psychologists tell us; it’s messing peoples’ brains up, especially if they try and use two machines at once. And therefore, I just think that there’s an underlying and from where I sit, people are looking for this – because although they often don’t believe it or even have never heard of it, they are made in the image of God; they’re beings who’ve got eternity in their hearts. And a kind of materialist universe without meaning just won’t satisfy them, because they’re actually made for something bigger. And C. S. Lewis put it years ago: “if you find a longing in you that’s not satisfied in this world, maybe there is another world in which it could be satisfied”. And you can apply that to the world of ideas. So I really think he’s hit a nerve.
JB: And interestingly if you read his book 12 Rules for Life – and he’s done a number of lectures – he’s drawing a great deal on the Bible, especially the Old Testament.
JL: Oh sure, he is; especially the Old Testament. And it has intrigued me that he has concentrated in his lectures on the Bible, on the Old Testament. That to me resonates completely, because I as a Christian have been for years trying to communicate to people that they’ve got to begin to take the Jewish Scriptures seriously, because they’ve got the foundation story. And people are looking for a story that’s big enough to fit their lives into. And there’s the start of the biggest story – creation; human beings made in the image of God, and what that means for their dignity and their freedom and everything else, if we just get that one fact…
I remember in Siberia where I used to go quite a bit, and I gave the first lecture in 75 years on these issues in the University of Novosibirsk. And I made the point, I said, “just think of the one statement ‘human beings made in the image of God’”. And I said. “if I believed that, I wouldn’t murder one of you – let alone the hundred million that Stalin did”. And it absolutely erupted the place, because they’d never heard it before; it was totally new to them. And I think our society needs to hear these truths. And Jordan Peterson is moving into that area, because he’s actually going back to the Book, and not being ashamed of it. And more power to him, I say.
DR: Yes. And just very briefly – just from being on tour with Jordan – I told you this backstage, but I never saw the guy break one of the 12 rules. I mean, try to imagine how chaotic his life was in the course of this – becoming a massive star, travelling all over the world, the book sales, the celebrity, the entire thing – and he never broke one of those 12 rules. Just twenty seconds… We were at a dinner party at Douglas Murray’s house with Maajid Nawaz and Jordan – you may know those guys. And one of the rules is that if you see a cat in the street, you should pet it. And Douglas had a cat. And we’re there for about three or four hours; we’re having dinner, we’re having a great time – and I’m looking at the cat the whole time. I’m looking at Jordan, and I’m going, “the guy hasn’t pet the cat” – like… you know, “what am I on tour with this guy for? Is he a fraud? What’s going on here!” I swear to God I was thinking that the entire time. And then as we were walking out the door, Jordan literally – and you can sort of picture Jordan, because he’s very tall and he has long limbs and he’s slender – and he basically sat down in the cat’s bed with the cat, and stroked the cat for a good five minutes. And I thought, “all right, he’s the real deal!”.
JB: We should probably talk about someone other than Jordan Peterson tonight! I mean, I’d love to key in a little bit more on your story Dave, because it sounds like you have been on something of a journey of discovery over the last year or two, and obviously very much influenced by the way Jordan has brought that alive in his lectures and so on. So I mean, you obviously now are seeing more and more the value of religion. What has that caused you personally to do in terms of maybe… is it causing you to rediscover your own Jewish roots a bit more and the religious aspect of that?
DR: Well I would say there are two things here, as I said at the beginning. There’s sort of just the cultural affinity and the understanding of the history of people that came before me, which you know unfortunately in the case of the Jews is a pretty brutal, often almost unimaginably horrific history. And you know, I grew up around Holocaust survivors, and I know that. That though – the pain of your ancestors or whatever the history of your people is – can’t be the thing that defines you going forward. I would say as I’ve sat down with believers and non-believers alike, I’ve genuinely found… well I guess sort of this would get to what you were saying John… I’ve genuinely found the believers not only more welcoming – so in a situation like this – but more open, actually happier; less dependent on things outside of themselves – more self-reliant, let’s say.
So I don’t think that means I’m going to be religious per say tomorrow. That being said, as I said I went to this Yom Kippur service that Dennis Prager hosted, and I found it incredibly moving. And you know Dennis gave a sermon that… you know, he talked all about Judeo-Christian values and sort of what’s happening in our country right now and how it all seems to be becoming untethered. And he used some religious backing to give some value there, and I thought: “well this is value, this is something – a real world way, that I could come somewhere once a week or build some community around or friends that would have value. So I can’t say I’m… you know, it’s like if ultimately I can see in your eye you want me to like, “yeah, Jesus, let’s go!” I can see it, there’s a guy back there waving a Jesus sign at me! I see you!
JB: Well if you insist…!
DR: Let’s put it this way, I have no problem with Jesus – I like the guy. You know, like the message of Jesus – all of the things that we’ve talked about here on stage and backstage – I love these ideas. I think that if my life becomes a continuing conversation about these things, and I can incorporate the best parts of that to be a better person. Well I’ll tell you this, I know for a fact, I’m a better person today than I was before I started this journey with Jordan, that those things… And that doesn’t mean I prescribe to the Church of Jordan Peterson – that is just that this guy has communicated the bedrock ideas that we’re talking about here. By me listening to that and hearing that and incorporating some of that in my life, I’m the better person. So that means something, you know what I mean.
JB: Any comments on Dave’s journey so far?
DR: I feel like ‘This Is My Life’!
JB: You’re on the psychiatrist couch tonight!
JL: Well I think what’s struck me, was your being moved by Yom Kippur. I’m not Jewish by background, but I owe everything to a Jew. And the history of the Jews has been enormously important to me. And when you mentioned the Holocaust, as you do, I’ve been in Auschwitz many times and I’ve wept every time. And I’ve many Jewish friends who lost everybody, and that raises huge, deep existential questions. And therefore, just thinking of the big picture; the big Biblical story – and I love it, because although there are all sorts of twists and turns and difficulties, I see the Jewish history – the history of Israel, the law of the prophets – as pointing towards something big. Because at the heart of Judaism – and I’ve many orthodox friends who still expect HaMashiach – the Messiah – to come. Now the difference is that I believe he has come. And Yom Kippur means a huge amount to me, because in those Jewish festivals – and I’ve been at many of them – I see… I don’t want to put it crudely… but a fault model, that has been fulfilled in what Jesus did.
And I find Yom Kippur moving, because I see in him the fulfilment of it. And here is a person who actually died – the Day of Atonement; it’s an atonement to deal with – now here comes the point… What happens when you start with the creation story and people made in the image of God? That’s wonderful, but we know that something has happened; a bomb has hit the human race and there are huge problems. And we long for a solution; we long for justice; we long for true freedom; we long for true values. And we’ve got to therefore face the problem of human rebellion against God.
Now the ‘sin’ word is not popular these days, but it seems to me that there’s a fulfilment within what Jesus did and taught – a fulfilment of everything that Judaism stood for and stands for, powerfully. And therefore, I feel a close affinity here; the whole Judeo tradition is immensely important to me, because there I find these fundamental values. But they raise a big question, and it’s the fulfilment of that – the whole history of Israel: it’s sacrifices, the institutions, the prophets looking forward to Messiah who would deal with the basic problem of human rebellion. And so that’s clearly a difference between me and Judaism, but I wouldn’t underemphasise the huge contribution that it has made through the rock on which I believe I stand today, if that makes sense.
DR: Well it does make sense, and if I could quickly add, I actually do want to answer your question a little more specifically now that I’ve had a moment to think it through. So this year I went… my parents live in New York still in the same family home that I grew up in, and I went to the temple on Rosh Hashanah. Now Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the new year and it’s about creation, and then basically you have the week or so between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where you’re supposed to think about your life, the things that you’ve done, the good things that you’ve done, the bad things – you apologise to people, whoever you may have done harm to. And I really did – so this is the real answer to your question – I really did that this year; I really did think about it. Probably didn’t fully get there on Twitter throughout the week; I probably did drop the ball a couple of times on Twitter. But I really was very aware of that and I tried…
You know, just a few days ago at that service I really was trying to be cognisant of: it doesn’t necessarily matter if I believe in all of it fully, but there is value in this. This story that has been told by my parents and my grandparents and my great-grandparents, going way back when. There must have been something that kept this thing alive, and there must have been some reason behind it. And for me to pretend that I’m so enlightened that I have figured out something that is so brilliant that I could just set all that aside, to me that strikes me as the worst sort of ego-maniacal hubris that you could have. So I would be happy to do this again next year, and we could continue the conversation. The Jesus guy is still waving at me back there!
JB: I’m finding this fascinating, because obviously there has been something of a spiritual awakening, and I think it sounds like you’re saying: “I’m not quite sure what that looks like exactly, but I want to start to investigate” – live into this kind of tradition more, that obviously your forebears have done so. I mean, there are a lot of people out there who would say: “come on, wake up, it’s the 21st century, we all know that these are just superstitions and everything else. You need to get on the bandwagon of reason. You’re about reason Dave, and if we just think straight, work things out with science and logic, then that’s the way forward. Religion is kind of the way we used to do things, not any more”.
DR: Yes. Well I think the counter to that would be that everything that Jordan has talked about – not to bring this back to Jordan – but the counter of that is that well look sort of where the secular world is at, where we can’t figure out whether you’re male or female anymore? We have to now debate that. It’s sort of like, I don’t like using that one because it’s so easy and it sounds sort of glib, and I don’t mean it to be that way, but that is where this is all leading. If there is nothing outside of ourselves – and John, as you said, everything else is subjective, and we will debate every little thing depending on how we feel about it on any given day – and that will lead…
There is a reason why right now the idea of socialism is suddenly popping up in America, which is genuinely the worst set of collectivist ideas that you could possibly ever have, that hundreds of millions of people have died in history under. And it’s popping up because if you listen to what’s happening on the left right now, politically, because they’ve outsourced God – imagine if one of those people on stage said that they were a real believer. Imagine if any of them – maybe Biden could do it. But really the rest of them can’t; they would never really say that they were a believer, and I don’t know what they are and I wouldn’t want them to say anything that’s not true to themselves – but they would be mocked by everything mainstream. Everything mainstream would mock them, the way that everything mainstream mocks any Christian that happens – because they’re usually on the right – they happen to be conservatives.
But what they’re offering us now, their answer is: ok, we’ve removed God from the equation and what do we get? We get government. And they now pray basically to government. They think that they can figure out somehow by sitting in room which a bunch of other politicians and bureaucrats – the worst sort of people that exist… I didn’t even mean that to be funny! I mean, but that’s what they think. They think that they can re-jig all of humanity in a way that will be so much better than everything that came before them. And not only can’t they, they are going to do the complete reverse. So that – if for no other reason, if for no grand revelation or something like that – that would be a reason to be respectful of people that are believers. Because they can fight that in a way that secularists can’t. The good liberals don’t have enough juice; in and of themselves, they don’t have enough juice to fight that – that’s why liberalism has collapsed, in the name of progressivism.
JL: Yes. I approach this two ways. The first one is your comment that secularism is collapsing, and one can analyse the defects of atheism, where it leads to and the millions of people that died in the last century. But coming over to the other side, what you’re saying, it’s just that you see I am a scientist. And one of the fascinating things is that science is a direct legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition. You were saying: we’re all scientists now and all this is… no it is not. And let’s start absolutely basic: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – Hebrew Bible written millennia ago, knew there was a beginning. It was in the early-60s before scientists caught up with that, and the Bible was right. And Dawkins said: “well, there was a 50/50 chance”, when I debated him; and I said, “at least the Bible got it right”.
But more seriously than that is the fact that I’m a mathematician and I’m interested in science. I just think about that – the fact that mathematics can describe what goes on in the universe is a matter of huge wonder. Einstein once said the only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible – and he saw the problem. Why does it work? Well it’s not an incomprehensible thing if you start from the idea that there is an intelligent God who made us in his image, and therefore we can do science. And that’s exactly what the early pioneers of modern science, starting with Galileo and Kepler and Newton and so on and so forth – they were all believers in God. And therefore, when I hear that kind of question, I’m not remotely ashamed of being a scientist and a Christian, because I want to argue that it is Christianity that gave me my subject. And CS Lewis put it brilliantly, he said: “men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver”.
And I think we’re getting to this stage now where serious atheist-thinkers are beginning to re-examine the kind of naturalism that produces everything to physics and chemistry. And one of them lives in New York – his name is Thomas Nagel, and he’s a brilliant philosopher. And he says: “something’s going wrong, because if everything is reducible to physics and chemistry, then so is your mind – but then why would you trust your mind?” In other words, atheism, taken to its logical conclusion, undermines the very rationality you need to trust to do science. And I’m not in for accepting a world-view that undermines the foundations of any kind of argument or discussion whatsoever. So I think that in the 21st century, we can push back on that very naïve notion: that God’s out – we do science now. No! Science actually brings God back in.
JB: It’s very interesting. I mean, all of this leads me to want to ask you at this point Dave… You’re sitting down with John here tonight, obviously a Christian believer, someone who gives evidences for God. And I know that on your show you’ve had people like Bishop Barron, and I think Ravi Zacharias is going to be featured shortly. Where does this leave you on, if you like, that God question? Because at one level I can absolutely see the way in which there’s a kind of the utility and a kind of sense in which meaning – we can gather meaning from doing the religious things, the rituals and so on. But at the end of the day – and I asked this of Jordan Peterson once and it was an interesting answer – do you believe in God? Do you feel like that’s where you’ve got to, at this point in your life?
DR: You know it’s funny, when we would do the Q&A’s at the shows with Jordan, for the first few we would let people come up to the microphone. And what usually happens is that people start telling their life story and they would want to get their therapy session in front of 3000 strangers, and it started getting very weird! So we decided a better way; we used an app to do it. And when Jordan was onstage basically I would go through the best ones, and I’d find some funny ones and some serious ones and everything else. But what always came up, no matter how many times Jordan answered it, was: do you believe in God? And as I’m sure he said to you, he finds it to be the most annoying question possible!
So I think I would answer it… I mean, I would answer it in a similar way that Jordan would. That look, I think I’ve sort of laid out a set of beliefs here that show the utility of believing in something outside of myself, and I do believe in that. So if you want to call that ‘God’ – that there is something outside of me; there is something that is connecting all of us, that has nothing to do with the material world, there is something that drives us, that is the driver of humanity, that is something good – I believe that. Yeah, I believe that.
JB: Would you put a name on that something, at this point? I told you I wanted to label you by the end of the evening!
JB: I guess, I mean, in a sense I hear what you’re saying…
DR: Do I get a cookie at least? I mean, come on people!
JB: I guess it’s kind of like what are the particulars – how is that going to make a difference, I suppose, in your life? Is there a sense in which you feel now any new obligations, given this sense that there is something beyond yourself?
DR: You know, I think we’re all sort of wired differently, right. I think some people can really flourish just sort of on their own set of ideas that they create in the world, and I think that can really work for some people. I think some people need some order outside of that; some people need more of a community; some people are real loners – all of those things. I think perhaps – but I truly mean what I said before, I’d be happy to do this every year and continue these conversations, and I’ll continue them on my show, obviously. I think for me, the adventure of discussing this and seeing what kind of people that I bring into my studio; that I interact with at events like this – what type of people I want to be around, that really is the proof. That is what makes this, right. That’s what makes this.
So again, I get the question – I respect the question, truly. And it’s the question, right – it’s like say: what’s the meaning of life? – it’s the big one. I would say I’m on the adventure to finding that out, and I’m really ok with that. You know, I hope that doesn’t sound dismissive of the question or like I’m trying to evade it – I’m really not. And maybe this is just a function also of what I do for a living. I mean, I get to sit every week with people that in most cases are smarter than me, who have spent years working through all of these issues as you have John, and that is an incredible privilege that I have. So I would like to see how far I can take that.
JB: Sounds like we’re not going to convert him tonight, John.
DR: You’re doing your best! You’re working overtime over there, I’ll tell you that much!
JL: It’s wonderful to hear an open description of a journey, and I’ve tried to think my way into this – getting around these ideas is really big stuff. I mean, coming… the way you’ve moved – from the little I’ve understood of it, just meeting you for the first time – it’s most interesting to me, the way that movement is going. Now from where I sit, there’s another element comes into it. What I mean by that is this: there are the things that we can think about existentially, as you’re doing, and that’s vastly important to me as well; the kind of people you like to be with, the evidence of that – you’re like this, if you feel there’s something outside yourself and so on and so forth. But then it comes to a couple of questions.
One is: could it be that that something is actually personal? Now, your Jewish/Hebrew Scriptures would say exactly so, because that’s how Bereshit/Genesis starts – with a God who sees, who blesses, who speaks. And one of the most interesting things to me, both as a scientist and a believer in God, is this simple description of creation: “And God said, “let there be light”. “And God said…”; “And God said…” – there’s a sequence, as you know. But the most exciting one is the one you never hear – it’s the final one: “And God said to them”. And that opens up a whole world of possibility, that what is being claimed at least, is that there’s a God that speaks to me. And that means that opens up the possibility of revelation – where it’s not simply me investigating the people I know, the things I hear, the arguments philosophically and so on. But there is another side to it, that if this is true then God is interested in me, and he is wanting me to as a discussion partner – he’s wanting to talk to me. And if one is open to that possibility, it seems to me to open a huge new dimension to this.
And the more I think about that, this is a word-based universe – scientifically and religiously, in that sense. And therefore, the idea that there is something there, that’s fantastic – there is more than the material world. But if that more is personal and can speak to us, it’s worth testing the claim at least, because it runs right through the whole of the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament; that’s the fundamental thing – he’s a speaking God, not dead.
JB: I should say, I mean we normally never on my show get to this point, because most of the time the person sitting opposite someone like John is a confirmed atheist, and it’s really God is always going to be debated in the abstract. John, you’ve kind of come to the point where we’re saying: well let’s look at whether God could be personal; whether God could speak to us? Again, I feel like we’re grilling you really tonight Dave.
DR: It’s fine, genuinely I love this, there’s nothing you could ask me I don’t think that would offend me or…
JB: I’m grateful you being an open book tonight, because I suppose my next question is simply: could it be? Do you think it’s possible that there could be a God who is personally interested in you? Who listens to your prayers; who is interested in the way you live your life; who wants the best for you? Is that something that’s on the table as a possibility of where you journey might take you I suppose?
DR: If he walks out on stage right now, I will get baptised tomorrow. Like, if this is like a Maury Povich, “and here he is everyone!” Yes, well my basic answer would be yes – why would I rule that out? Why, as you said that so eloquently, would I be like, “no”, you know! That just doesn’t stand to reason. And that again goes back to why I said I love having these conversations, and I don’t – even though this is a little different for what you do usually – I don’t take offense by it or anything like that; that’s interesting to me. And by the way, I think that this is sort of where Jews maybe have done something a little bit differently, where it always has been about this sort of battle about what God is.
You know, you talk about science and mathematics; you can go to most of the Jewish hospitals in New York city, where they have the best doctors in the entire world. Many of them are orthodox Jews who actually won’t press the elevator on Shabbat, because they don’t want to use electricity on Shabbat – so they have the elevators that go to every floor on Saturdays. Now from an outsider perspective, if you weren’t really thinking about it, you’d go: “that’s completely crazy! How are these people of science and math, doctors? Why would they possibly care in this crazy superstition, if you come from that discipline of science and math?” And yet those people don’t find it to be in conflict. So I don’t see any of this in conflict actually; if anything, I feel like this is really what it’s about. This ability to play, because I know that there are plenty of you guys out there that are at some level of where I’m at with some of this stuff. It’s not like everyone that walks in these doors is going, “this is absolutely what I believe and we believe the same thing and I want to convert everybody to believing the same thing I do” – I don’t believe that; I’m not going to poll you, don’t worry. But I know that’s true, and we’re all on this journey together.
So of course, I don’t dismiss: could God be a personal – you know, do we all have that piece of us behind us that knows what’s right when you make a bad choice in life and you have those, “I shouldn’t have that drink”, or, “I shouldn’t do this”, or whatever it is. I don’t know, is that a personal relationship with God, when you have that other thing? or some would say is that just the voice in your heart – what is that thing? I mean, philosophers have been debating this forever.
JB: I think that’s a really great place just to draw this part of the conversation to a close.
DR: Thank God! All right!
JB: Let’s give an applause to John and Dave.