The Problem With Atheism According To A Secular Psychologist

Modern Atheism has a problem.

At least according to a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, named Jordan Peterson.

No, it’s not that Atheists are any more or less prone to psychological distress than religious people. Instead, it’s got to do with the popular view among Atheists (especially among the New Atheists) about the God-like power of human reason.

Let me explain.

Dr Jordan Peterson. Courtesy Wikimedia.

1) Many Atheists Believe That Doing Evil Is Irrational. And Doing Good Is Rational

So human reason alone can show us morality: no God required.

According to many Atheists I’ve encountered, anyone thinking rationally will know what good is, and do it. Doing evil, on the other hand – such as being selfish, and cheating on others – is irrational – it doesn’t make sense.

In which case we don’t need religion of any kind to tell us what right and wrong is – it’s just self-evident.

But there’s a problem with this logic.


2) When Selfish Behaviour is Rational

Psych Professor Jordan Peterson nails the problem with modern Atheism when he says:

What is irrational about me getting exactly what I want from every one of you whenever I want it at every possible second?…There’s nothing irrational about it. It’s pure naked self-interest.

He continues:

Why not every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost? It’s a perfectly coherent philosophy, and it’s actually one that you can institute in the world with a fair bit of material success if you want to do it.’


It’s an interesting point. And it’s relatively easy to find real life cases of this principle.

For example, is cheating on an exam the wrong thing to do? I know both Christians and Atheists would say ‘yes’. [1]

But now answer this: is it rational or irrational to cheat on a test? 

The answer is not so obvious. After all, if you can cheat on a test, and get away with it, and it means the difference between getting that great job, or that mark needed to gain entry to that prestigious university, cheating on a test may well be ‘reasonable’ (Suits, anyone?)

The same could be said for that lucrative business deal: why not bend the rules, if it means you end up with thousands more in your pocket? If you’re in an unhappy marriage, why not indulge in that marital affair, if you’re sure you can get away with it?   (Evidently millions of married people think this way: a company by the name of have made a business out of marital infidelity.)

In sum, if the benefits of doing something illegal/immoral outweigh the risks of being caught, why not do it? It’s a rational calculation.

But, there’s more.

Not only can selfishness – and other forms of evil – be rational (certainly in an Atheistic Universe); doing good can be irrational.


3) When Acts of Virtue are Irrational

A striking historical example. 

There are many possible situations where doing good can be considered irrational. Jewish social commentator Dennis Prager gives the following  historical example that makes the point:

Was it rational or irrational for a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II to risk his or her life to hide a Jew? We all know that this was moral greatness of the highest order. But was it rational?

Prager’s answer:

Not really. You can’t get much more rational than self-preservation. Moreover, in all the studies I have read of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust — and I have read many — I have never read of any rescuers who said that they did what they did because it was the reasonable or rational thing to do. Not one.

It can be rational to cheat on a test, a business deal, or a marriage, if the rewards outweigh the risk of being caught. And it was irrational of non-Jews to put their own lives at enormous risk for the sake of helping Jews during the Holocaust.

And so here, in a nutshell, is the problem for Atheism:


4) If Doing Evil Can Be Rational, and Doing Good Can Be Irrational, Then Human Reason Alone Can’t Tell Us Right From Wrong.

Reason alone can’t tell us what is right, and what is wrong. Reason leads to good only when you want it to. Just as it leads to bad when you want it to. [2]

This is because Reason is just a tool. It is no more intrinsically moral than a knife.  A knife can be used to murder or to torture people. But in the hands of a surgeon, it can be used to save lives.

And so, contrary to popular Atheist views, human reason alone won’t be able to guide individuals or society to work out what is right, and what is wrong.

So if it wasn’t reason alone that gave us the western view of human rights, human equality, and human dignity, then where did such a view of humanity come from?


5) The Western View Of Morality and Human Equality Did Not Arise Through Human Reason Alone 

But Through the Religion of Judeo-Christianity.

This is an issue I’ve written about before, but it’s refreshing to hear a secular Psychologist like Jordan Peterson make the same case: 

 [T]he proposition that underlies western culture, is that there’s a transcendent morality… the ethic that drives our culture is predicated on the idea of God’.

It’s the idea that we’re made in the image of God, with inherent worth, dignity, and equality. In the words of Atheist philosopher Luc Ferry:

Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.’

Now, I’m not saying all Atheists are egotistical and self seeking – many Atheists are noble, virtuous people (and many Christians do awful things!). I’m merely saying that Atheists are misguided in believing that reason alone is a reliable guide to morality.

Why We Need Reason + Revelation

It’s nice that a secular psychologist like Peterson understands the problem with human reason. And from the Bible’s perspective, although human beings in general have some sense of morality (due to our being made in God’s image), our moral compass is far from perfect, and easily warped by our sinful desires, our culture, and other influences (e.g. Romans 1:18-32) .

Hence we need a word from outside ourselves to show us what right and wrong is. But more than that: we need Someone to rescue us from ourselves, renew our hearts, and give us a new moral compass – one that actually functions (albeit not without effort).

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, in providing that new heart.


[1], [2] I’m indebted to Dennis Prager for the examples in this section – see his video on this issue.



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11 thoughts on “The Problem With Atheism According To A Secular Psychologist

  1. This reminds me of the difference between Old Testament Law and New Testament Love. Pharisaic egos had ‘rationalised’ the law to such an extent that there was no room left for compassion. Jesus on the other hand is the epitome of ‘irrational’ in his person and his teachings. The call to love unconditionally is just the craziest call ever but knowing that it has been done for me ( and thinking that I’ll never fully comprehend the true extent of what has been done) makes me want to do the same.

    • Indeed – dying for your enemies is about the most irrational thing we could do (at least according to secular logic).

      Thankfully, God’s logic is different to secular logic. 🙂

      God bless you Steve,


  2. This is a strawman argument. In general, atheists do not credit rationality alone with the rise of morality, nor rely on it alone as a moral compass, for exactly the reasons set out above – it is too crude a metric. Human morality does not need the mythical spur of supernatural guidance; altruistic and compassionate behaviour among the group is the norm in most social mammals. Simple human solidarity, and the practicality of the Golden Rule, unlike superstitious dogmas, are simply explicable, and well understood even by infants.

    • Hi hotrats!

      Thanks for your comment.

      A couple of things by way of response:

      1) ‘This is a strawman argument’.

      Many thoughtful Atheists I’ve encountered hold to this view. Does that make it a straw-man argument?

      I’ll concede that not all Atheists would hold to this, though. But seeing as many that I’ve encountered do, and do so quite strongly, I thought it was time to engage. .

      2) Could you tell me how you know that ‘in general, atheists do not credit rationality alone with the rise of morality’?

      3) What do atheists, in your view, credit for the rise of human morality?

      The most common answer I’m given is the enlightenment. Wasn’t that an enthronement of human reason alone, over and above ‘the mythical spur of supernatural guidance’?

      4) ‘Altruistic and compassionate behaviour among the group is the norm in most social mammals.’

      Granted. But there is also much predatory behaviour in and among social mammals. Who’s to say that such behaviour is to be unequivacally condemned?

      Moreover, my point is not that doing good is (always) irrational, but merely that it is sometimes irrational. Likewise for doing evil: sometimes it is irrational, other times it’s not.

      5) ‘Simple human solidarity, and the practicality of the Golden Rule, unlike superstitious dogmas, are simply explicable, and well understood even by infants.’

      Yes, sometimes it is.

      But other times ‘simple human solidarity’ is inexplicable, such as the example above of non-Jews putting their own lives at enormous risk for the sake of Jewish strangers.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • You seem like a nice guy, so I wanted to try and answer your inital question.

        The argument that we need the bible for morality is actually kinda scary. It’s like saying the only reason you don’t rape, murder and steal is because the book told you not to. That without an eternity in hell to fear you’d be unleashed.

        I’m willing to bet that’s not true tho. If you found yourself with a free no sins count day would you do it? Likely no, cause your not s horrible person.

        I’m an atheist and I don’t do horrible things, not because of a book, but because I choose not to ruin lives.

        Also that view of rational thought and reason is flawed. It’s looking at it like a compyer logic. Cold and no emotion. If I see someone drop a $100 it’s logical I take it. I’m richer and without risk. But I can reason that the other person needs it more, I can see the suffering that might happen if I keep it.

        • Micheal.
          You are living in LaLa land.
          Do you know Corrie Ten Boom? The family hid Jews during WW2 until they were caught. Her father and sister died as a result of their imprisonment. The Christians who hid Jews knew the consequences if caught. Do you thInk you would’ve hidden Jews? Why? Most people at that time didn’t. Why would you be different?

          You say you don’t rape or murder. But that is only because there are social and legal consequences if you are caught, and the chances of being caught are high. In many places of the world the chance of being brought to justice are very low, and so rape and murder (among other things) are very high.

          To think that morality would make you different from those around you is just naive.

        • I would trust the justice system as flawed as it is over the mythical premise that some- how santa in the sky will punish the wrong doer when they die provided they didn’t ask for forgiveness first. You guys are a con mans dream!

  3. Generalizing is a dangerous road especially when it comes to things that makes laws. Good or bad how to decide, as an atheist I base my decision upon many things, even use the paraphrase from the bible “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, does not require belief, faith or following the religion. Saying that moral from the bible is superior to all other formms is a stance you can only hold if you are deluded enough to think the religious part is somewhat true.
    Is a place you can see how humanists reason. Try to challenge your faith somewhat and you might understand,

  4. So is your god the one who commanded the destruction of Babel. The god of the old testament. keep your eyes!