Jordan Peterson vs Sam Harris and God
The interesting thing about Jordan Peterson’s views of God and religion is that they are not precisely theological. In other words, he doesn’t speak much about ‘belief’ in God, as such. On the other hand, Peterson claims to be a religious person. One might ask: how can you be religious and not talk about God in terms of ‘belief’? Isn’t belief in God what characterises a person as religious?
Peterson has tried to understand religious axioms from a psychological point of view rather than a metaphysical one, which allows him to make a very sneaky move: to bring the western Logos to the masses through the back door, — in other words, without the church and its dogmas. Peterson talks about God in terms of psychology—but also science, existentialism and phenomenology, rather than traditional religion per-say.
On top of this, Peterson makes the equally sneaky move using Nietzsche—the author of The Antichrist and the man who declared God is dead and the most vociferous critique of Christian hypocrisy in history—to bring back to a consideration of the Christian God. If we have killed God, as Nietzsche has claimed, then, according to Peterson (and traditional mythology) it is our job to ‘rescue the father (God) from the bottom of the ocean’.
This is a challenging point of view for both atheists and believers: many on both sides try to pin Peterson down to a view which suits their own. What does it mean to believe in God after we have killed him? This is a Zen Koan of sorts. The question is left wide open by Peterson, which may be more valuable than the traditional stance of belief or the atheist one of denial.
So what is Peterson’s deep mission exactly? It seems he is trying to re-marry the broken archetypal parents of science and religion – to mend the tear in the western psyche since Cartesian dualism tore apart the mind and the body. Furthermore, Peterson seems to be saying that Logos — or the ‘word’ which ‘makes habitable order from chaos’ — is less about belief than truth. And that logos is not a static truth but an unfolding and evolving revelation which needs to be constantly updated. The scientific revolution, humanism and the western enlightenment are nested within this ancient view of logos.
From a theological perspective Peterson’s view may not be orthodox. However, in some traditions of Judaism it is said that we must ‘save God’ rather than wait for Him to save us, which seems to be more in keeping with Peterson’s view of ‘rescuing the father from the bottom of the ocean’. Agency, free will, reason and effort—the flowerings of the scientific revolution are needed to unite us with the older revelations of religion, but they are part of a story which pre-dates them by millenia.
Peterson has argued that the God principal is essential to our very nature and operates regardless of our beliefs—that without this ‘higher view’ culture collapses like a house of cards. When the Logos disappears society loses it’s orientation and falls into endless solipsism, post-modernism, or a world without history and meaning. We only need to observe 20th Century revolutions to see how the attempt to build a utopian society, based on human reason, has, in every case, been an utter failure, and in the worst cases lead to the deaths of millions.
Peterson and deep thinkers like Carl Jung have recognised that myth does actually contain the deep codes of our culture and will endure beyond any ideology or social movement. In the words of Eric Weinstein, who is an atheist: “Only archetypes of the kind found in religion are sufficiently deep to explain why humans behave the way they do.” It’s interesting that Weinstein, who is not explicitly religious, has a different view from his friend Sam Harris and others of the new atheist movement. There is an openness to religion despite a lack of belief, which I think is a more enlightened form of atheism, paradoxically enough.
The astonishing point that Peterson brings is this: that religious myth and symbol are of value to both the atheist and the believer. Furthermore, religious stories contain much more empirical truth than your average new atheist ever dreamt of in his or her philosophy. Perhaps we could say that, in terms of our actions, that a pure atheist or a pure believer doesn’t exist or is extremely rare—for our actions betray different degrees of faith and skepticism. We cannot do without either.
When Richard Dawkins scoffs at the idea that there are fairies in his garden, he is committing to the same error as religious fundamentalists, who believe that biblical stories are to be taken literally. The new atheist mixes up categories of truth. ‘Fairy’ may be a way of seeing reality metaphorically or not; a ‘atom’ is a way of seeing things scientifically. The former may describe an ineffable quality of magic or a real spirit, the later describes the building blocks of life. Both are important and each are as real as the other. Metaphoric, symbolic truth, should not be conflated with the observation of objective facts. Moreover, the apparent objective fact may hide a hidden meaning: just as the fanciful symbol may point to a deeper, un-apprehended fact, which could only have been discovered through symbol.
Deep articulations of truth are always proceeded by wild conjecture, story or metaphor. In his biblical lectures, Peterson has brought out the depth of stories of ‘the warring brothers’, the ‘devouring mother’, ‘the tyrannical father’ the ‘quest for the holy grail’, ‘the hero’s journey’ et cetera—and shown that they are endlessly provocative and revelatory. The dragon may symbolise chaos, the fairy the capacity of the imagination. And even our apparently literal language is symbolic: the word ‘dog’ is a symbol or short form for a creature that is so complex that it would would make our brains explode if experienced in it’s totality—if such a thing were possible. Dragons, fairies, dogs are as real to us as atoms, molecules and DNA—actually more so.
In terms of the Christian story, it’s interesting to note that Peterson doesn’t speak of Christ as a ‘saviour’ much but rather as ‘hero’. Christ, in symbolic terms, is an ultimate archetype for self-sacrifice, something ‘to imitate’ rather than to wait for. The ‘divine spark’ inside of us—symbolically or not—is our potential to give our lives over to its deepest meaning. And rather than waiting for Jesus to save us, we are entreated to ‘carry our cross’ or heavy load — to aim for the highest good possible.
The kind of moral preaching that Peterson engages in — and there is a kind evangelical charisma to his lectures — takes place entirely within a secular context, using all the modern tools of science and reason. What does this signify? For traditionalists surely this is an indication of a lack of vitality within the church, a clear sign of decay and irrelevance. For secularists and atheists, does this not show that the Bible and all of those old stories actually do have some kind of meaning and power, regardless of whether one is a ‘believer’ or not?
What does God mean if we don’t consciously believe and yet we act as if we do? This could drive an atheist or a believer mad—and it is not surprising that the skeptic Matt Dillahunty reacted violently to this proposition. The Christian would like to hear a confession of faith and the atheist would like to hear a repudiation of religious mysticism. Peterson offers neither, which is an interesting and rich, if frustrating position. But tough questions should not be answered too easily.
Perhaps Richard Kearney, who coined the term anatheism has a solution. According to Chris Samuel on Quora:
Anatheism … is a road map for those who have moved intellectually away from the notion of God. It does not promise salvation or religious certainty, rather shows a way of engaging in the world. Source: Quora.
Is Jordan Peterson an anatheist, trying to recover God after God has been killed. After all, Peterson’s idea of God is more hermeneutic than theological, ‘a way of engaging in the world’. It is about embodied action and orientation, rather than certainty. God to him is the highest value which human beings can aspire to, regardless of religious belief. Furthermore, I have never heard Peterson speak of God in traditional terms such as ‘creator’.
Do we really need God?
Do we really need the God principal or are we done with God and religion? Richard Dawkins and others of his ilk are naive on this question and act out religious archetypes despite themselves. Dawkins and co have really created another theological cult, without being conscious of it, complete with summer camps for children and revival meetings. The armies of atheists are asked to believe in the selfish gene—but only because they ‘have faith’ in science and biologists, or priests in lab coats. ‘The selfish gene’ means as much to most as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but Logos … now that means something profound.
Peterson is saying is that belief is secondary to action and is less relevant. We are animated by deep archetypal forces despite attempts at rational control; however, we can align ourselves with these archetypes—and that is where we have some measure of free will. Life is not entirely mechanical, nor is it without axioms. Archetypes are symbol/stories which point to these axioms, which can be meditated on for their endless richness.
To defend Peterson against Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty, it is not so absurd to claim that an atheist who does good is operating from a higher principal that could be called God, even if such a person doesn’t believe in God. After all, God is a word, a symbol, for the highest form of intelligent consciousness. If by God we mean the highest deepest principal and consciousness of goodness, truth and beauty, then it is not absurd to say that such things emanate from from a higher source.
Where does this source come from? I wonder if Sam Harris really believes that he can escape the Judeo-Christian world so completely? I also wonder why refuses to describe himself as a buddhist, since he borrows so heavily from that imported tradition. Isn’t there something wrong with not wanting to acknowledge the masters or the lore of our deep rich past? Why does Harris think that you can extract some kind of pure rational substance from the rich mythopoetics of religious practice and not destroy the whole meaning?Meaning dies without deep poetics to embody and carry forward that meaning. And is not religious ceremony a form of collective mythopoetics, without which we are extremely impoverished.
I believe that Peterson has the deeper view here, although Harris does a good job of dancing on the surface of the lake. Perhaps Harris’s meditative experiences are profound, just as his intellect is obviously razor sharp. And perhaps he could push Peterson to delve a little into Buddhist meditation techniques—or even Christian orthodox ones, which are less developed, though no less profound. Harris needs to study religious symbolism a little more deeply, and Peterson might benefit from some training in non-dual awareness.
Who knows? Maybe they will rub off on each other a little in the upcoming debates.
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