Jordan Peterson, prominent Canadian psychology lecturer, author and internet phenomenon, recently went head-to-head with neuroscientist and public atheist Sam Harris, in a series of four debates held by Pangburn Philosophy. Peterson frequents public forums such as Joe Rogan’s ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ and Dave Rubin’s ‘The Rubin Report.’
Peterson has also been touring his hugely successful book tour for his novel ’12 Rules for Life.’ Harris, on the other hand has his own podcast ‘Waking up with Sam Harris,’ as well as several successful novels.
The recent debates between the two intellectual juggernauts spanned roughly eight hours, and you can read my summary of the debates here.
However, what I wish to address in this piece specifically are my issues with Peterson’s views on God and religion.
After scouring the comments sections of YouTube, it is easy to notice the litany of criticism laid upon Harris for having too simplistic a conception of God.
Conversely, Peterson receives his fair share of criticism, most of which argues that his definition of God is too vague or inconsistent. I agree with the latter, hence the title of the piece.
Harris, in the opening statements of the first debate described himself in a way which struck a chord with me. He described seeing himself as “the problem.” What Harris meant, and where I agree with him, is in seeing the wisdom of Peterson. I have listened to countless hours of Peterson lectures and have a great deal of admiration for him. On almost every topic I find myself either agreeing with him or learning from him in some way. And yet, as Harris mentions, a line is crossed where Peterson no longer maintains this ability over me.
That line is religion.
Initially I simply presumed I wasn’t fully grasping what Peterson meant about God, spirituality or his views on religion, because when Peterson spoke on such issues I honestly couldn’t really get what he was saying. Peterson has a notoriously well-loaded vernacular, making him a force in debates, but this verbal savannah can be quite difficult to wade through.
This is why the debates came at great pleasure to me. Firstly, I wanted to get a better grapple on Peterson’s beliefs, and see what merit they have, but also because I am a big fan of Sam Harris. I grew up watching Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens dismantle what I saw as religious buffoons, who were trying to perform CPR on the rotting corpse of their ideologies, while Hitchens and Harris kicked the carcasses around.
To see such heroes of mine come head-to-head in a battle of the wits was something to be relished, though it quickly became a smack-down in my view, with Harris standing atop Peterson in this debate.
Now, this is not to say I wholeheartedly agree with Harris.
While his views on morality somewhat make intuitive sense, as Peterson mentions, they aren’t necessarily self-evidently true, nor are they entirely clear.
Regardless of this, the bulk of my critique lays with Peterson, who seems to have less criticism laid upon him for reasons unknown. And now, I shall lay out why I believe his views are incorrect.
Peterson opens the debate by laying out his points of agreement with Harris. I actually agree with everything he says at this point. Peterson mentions fears of dogmatism and religious fundamentalism, and the equal potential for religious texts to be interpreted idiosyncratically. Peterson mentions that his intention is to simply “maintain the important psychological truths from the rubble.”
While I understand Peterson’s mission, it isn’t exactly clear what he sees as “rubble”.
Sam then hones in on one of his own primary concerns, which is that dogma is not a bug of religion, it is a feature.
Harris uses the example of slavery, which he mentions isn’t vilified in the Old or New Testament, nor the Koran. If one is to believe these texts are in fact the word of god, they are within reason to possess slaves. As long as religion is considered the work of God, these actions will continue, as will religious fundamentalism.
And yet, when confronted with this fact, Peterson sidesteps by suggesting that those actions may be wrong “sentence by sentence” but not when taken in context of the rest of the text. This, Peterson himself admits is a descent into the very same postmodernism he frequently fights against.
As Harris plainly puts it, Peterson wants to have his religious cake and eat it too, in that he seems to think he can reconcile the differences between science and religion.
In order for him to do so however, it seems Peterson has to do some mental maneuvering. Case in point, his definition of God:
“God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence of an action of consciousness across time; as the most real aspects of existence manifest themselves across the longest of time-frames but are not necessarily apprehensible as objects in the here and now…So God is that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth. That’s a fundamental element of the hero mythology. God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values; that’s another way of looking at it. God is what calls and what responds in the eternal call to adventure. God is the voice of conscience. God is the source of judgment, mercy, and guilt. God is the future to which we make sacrifices and something akin to the transcendental repository of reputation. Here’s a cool one if you’re an evolutionary biologist. God is that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men.”
As beautiful, poetic and articulate as Peterson’s definition is, it is exactly that, Peterson’s definition.
Again Peterson walks himself into the very postmodernist quagmire which he attempts to flag at the start of the debate, while sidestepping the qualms Harris has with mainstream religion. The above definition of God doesn’t necessitate any particular religious text, nor is it self-evidently true.
While I’m sure there are many benefits to Peterson’s worldviews, they are clearly not shared with religious extremists.
While Harris’ opinions of God can at times come off as simplistic, it is because he is catering to the lowest common denominator. People are fighting abortion, homosexuality and even killing each other as we speak in the name of religion, and this isn’t because of some skewed interpretation of the texts.
As Pew Polls reveal, half of all British Muslims believe homosexuality should be illegal. Not just immoral, but illegal.
This is not because they all prescribe to Peterson’s notion of god, but rather they are acting upon a literal interpretation of their religious text. If Mohammed owned sex slaves, why can’t adherents of the faith follow suit?
Peterson remains reluctant to admit this fact, and for some reason continues to keep religious texts perched upon their shelf at the exalted position beyond mere fiction.
At one point Peterson even admits the texts are the work of many humans across time, ostensibly oblivious to the fact that this concession unravels his whole argument. If religious texts are the work of mortals, why are they of any greater relevance than Shakespeare or Shrek?
To me, Peterson seeks desperately to hold together the rotting corpse of religion, and I just simply cannot understand why.
Peterson has his own idiosyncratic notion of God, he believes the texts are man-made, he has issues with dogma and fundamentalism and yet he for some reason attributes the texts to being our perennial, axiomatic source of morality.
These points cannot co-exist logically.
However, in an ironic sense, Peterson’s own status as bestselling author, intellectual and internet sensation means that to his fans, his views on religion are gospel even if incomprehensible.
Like myself previously, many will hear his opaque word-stew and assume that they are unable to parse sense from him simply due to their own intellectual inadequacies.
Though if you are uncertain, and you are reading this, know you aren’t alone. The reason you can’t make sense of Jordan Peterson’s religious views is because there isn’t much sense to be made.