Tim Keller, Jordan Peterson and a Different Approach to Engaging Atheists

Joe Henegan | July 19th 2018

As a Christian, it's tempting to observe the various strands of moral decline around us and conclude that increased secularization in the West must inevitably bring with it a devastating loss of values.

This way of thinking is present in so many apologetical conversations. They so often hurtle towards the morality riddle, that without God as our source for a moral framework and nothing to replace it we’re left with nihilistic anarchy. So if the church were to completely lose its grip on public life then society would crumble. If God is dead, as Nietzsche argues, then anything is surely permitted.  

But perhaps parts of the evangelical community are waking up to a different way of seeing this. Tim Keller, influential thought leader and author of Making Sense of God, recently gave an address at the UK Parliament's national prayer breakfast (which, in itself, is remarkable that it wasn't a member of the institutional church) that focused on the Church’s mandate to remain salty (Matthew 15 v13) and “different” to the world.

He opened by presenting the following thought experiment. Imagine encountering an old lady on a street at night. She is visibly carrying a purse, laden with valuable items. If you really wanted you could take her purse and she would be too frail to resist, and it would be too dark to identify you. What's more, for the purposes of this thought experiment, for some reason the governing laws do not prohibit your behaviour. No social or criminal ramifications. Would you take the purse? If your answer is no, then depending on what culture you're from it is either because it would A) reflect poorly on you or because B) it would be a cruel act towards the old lady. It would either be because of a high regard for yourself or for the potential victim. A show of strong character or an outward act of love.

If your reason is self-regard (A) then you come from an 'honour/shame' culture, or what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls in his New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind the 'sanctity/purity' framework. An instinctive abhorrence for disgusting things, foods or actions. If your reason for sparing the old lady is purely for her well being (B) then you probably emanate from an 'other-regarding' ethic which is ultimately grounded in love.

Keller goes on to argue that the other-regarding ethic of early Christendom (B) in what was the British isles eventually won-out against the Anglo-Saxon honour/shame culture (A) and that is why westerners are instinctively tuned to offer an altruistic reason for leaving the poor lady alone.

Cue Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at Toronto University, a growing champion of a Judeo-Christian moral framework, though he himself is not a professing Christian. Peterson is of the position that most atheists who claim to be actually aren't, primarily because they find themselves operating in a culture steeped in Christian tradition, which they live out subconsciously.

He argues that almost everyone that grew up in a western civilization is conditioned in the way they think, feel, behave and interpret the world because of their Judeo-Christian heritage. So to return to Keller’s thought experiment, whenever anyone in our context does something self-sacrificially for the preservation of someone else, they are in some way acting out our shared religious heritage whether we believe in God or not. I’m not a sociologist, but something about it that feels right.

A third way?

My point is this: could it be that there is a better way to approach our unbelieving friends and family on the moral-ethic question? That instead of constructing an abstract fight-off between an existing moral framework (Judeo-Christian) against a hypothetical one (secular), which we actually have very little reference for in the West, is it better to point people towards ways in which a Christian cultural heritage has benefited them and the society they inhabit?

Should we steer the conversation to all the schools and hospitals that were built by people with Christian convictions, or the breakthroughs in science and astronomy by men and women of faith? Should we help them see that the very law system governing their individual human rights traces its values of human dignity back to the biblical idea of the imago dei—that we’re all created in God’s image and therefore all contain inherent value.

Our cultural heritage is inescapably shaped like Christ, is it time we remind people that?

Joe Henegan

Joe is our Vice President of Marketing. He lives in South London, UK with his wife and two daughters and is a member at River Church Sutton - part of the Newfrontiers network - where he runs a small group and various outreach activities.

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