Why Jordan Peterson has more in common with atheists than Christians
Ever since I found out about Jordan Peterson, I started watching his videos because he’s obviously a very thoughtful and intelligent guy, and I found his speeches and thoughts interesting. But the more I watched his interviews, particularly the ones where he talked about his views on religion and Christianity specifically, the more I realized he doesn’t believe in the core tenets of Christianity. That means that although he can still understand human nature and life in general much better than the average liberal can, he still has a massive God-shaped hole in his philosophy of life, since these things can’t be fully understood without accepting the divine Truth that gives everything its meaning.
A friend of mine and I began to discuss this, and I began to share my thoughts about this with her after watching several of the videos I mentioned above. The following is a collection of those thoughts, in no particular order. I’ll add more to this article if I have more thoughts on this subject.
My first thoughts are on this video:
I agree with Peterson that we should all strive to be better, but what’s the core reason behind our desire to do so? I don’t know if he’s a practicing Christian or not (I’ve since learned he’s not), but based on his interview with Dave Rubin at least, his argument is a secular one in nature. That’s why I saw some flaws in his reasoning. St Thomas Aquinas argues that we can’t know the fullness of truth by ourselves because it’s beyond our reasoning capacity, and can only be revealed to us by God. If that’s true, then the most effective way for us to become better people is by spending more time with God and thinking about Jesus and His teachings. I think that’s at odds with Jordan’s message that if we just follow the advice in his book, we can know that truth through the use of our intellects alone. His emphasis is on the individual, where he’s essentially saying we can do everything we need to to change ourselves. The practicing Christian says we can do nothing on our own and that God’s grace does everything, we just accept or reject it. Peterson’s argument revolves around “I”, but the practicing Christian’s argument revolves around God.
Jordan is using parts of the OT and NT as part of his message of self improvement, but they’re a means to an end for him, which is why he implies that the truths the Church teaches are no greater than the truths any other religion except Islam teaches. For Christians, Jesus is the means and the end. Jordan says we should try to improve ourselves because it’s good for us and society, but the Christian goes beyond that and says our goal isn’t just to become better, but to conform ourselves to Jesus. That’s also good for society, but that’s not why we do it. We do it out of love for God and obedience to Him, and because He called us to be holy from before time began. It’s not about what I can do to be a better person, it’s about what God’s doing in me.
In this video, Jordan's focus is on the self and making the self better, whereas the Christian's goal is the negation of the self and the destruction of the ego, so that there's nothing left in me but God. It's not so much improving myself as it is removing all of the barriers in me that separate me from God. Jordan wants people to become greater, whereas the Christian wants God to be greater in himself and himself to become smaller. That's why Jesus said, "For my power is made perfect in weakness".
The root of his main argument, as I understand it, is that we should become as competent and strong as possible in order to be better and make society better. I think that's the exact opposite of Jesus's message in the gospels. Jesus told His apostles that if they wanted to be great, they had to be the servant of everyone. In other words, they had to humble themselves and put others ahead of themselves.
Both Peterson and Weistein seem to be proponents of moral relativism, which is ironic, since that's what the SJWs they're fighting believe in as well. They're saying the truths the Bible teaches can only be applied to the people of those times, and that they aren't relevant to today. The Christian says there are objective truths in both the OT and the NT that are just as true today as they were back then.
This conversation made me realize Peterson’s problem is that he refuses to internalize the truths of the Bible. He just studies them and says some of them are effective character-building tools and can help us lead more moral lives and order society properly.
He says it’s good to imitate Christ, but the Christian says we have to go beyond that and conform our lives to Christ. Each one of us is called to be an “Alter Christus”, or other Christ, as the Church Fathers all taught. We don’t just imitate Him, we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into better people so that over time, we become more like Him, not by anything we do, but by the power of God working in us. That’s the big truth he’s missing.
I found it interesting that he discovered the truth behind the verse about the meek inheriting the Earth. Even with all of his education and his studying of psychology, he had to read the Bible and study that verse to finally grasp that truth, which he couldn’t understand on his own even after decades of studying human nature and life. That was very revealing to me, because it disproved his own theory that Christianity, and all religion is nothing more than a product of the collective unconscious mind of humanity. If that were true, man wouldn’t have needed Jesus to reveal truths to him that he wasn’t capable of discovering on his own for all of human history until that time. That’s why Jesus’s teachings were so radical. Nobody ever talked about living, God, and human nature the way He did, and even after His time on Earth was done, the people who heard His message were still struggling to understand it and apply it to their daily lives. That just shows how far above man’s intellect God’s wisdom is.
This is a summary of why I think Peterson is wrong about Christianity, and religion in general:
He’s willing and able to defend most of the core tenets of Christianity, but refuses to practice the faith in his own life. I think it’s a good example of someone intellectually understanding the faith, but having too much pride to let it reach their heart. If you think about it, that’s the only thing preventing him from being a devout Christian. It’s his pride. He still wants to be the master of his own destiny rather than humble himself before God and accept God’s will for his life. He’s trying to separate Jesus’s teachings from Jesus, and that’s not possible because God is the only irreducible good in the world, and thus His truth is all one essence. You can’t isolate various parts of it from each other and make them stand on their own because they all function as inseparable parts of one unified and infallible whole. That’s why it seems like Peterson’s always grasping at straws, it’s because he is. You have to accept Jesus into your heart first before you can receive the synthesis of the entire truth of the faith that’s been revealed to us, and he hasn’t done that. That’s also why he makes mistakes about certain things in the Bible. He’s relying on his own intellect, but man is fallible, so the only way he can know the full truth is by trusting God and receiving it from His Church, which is infallible. The more he struggles with these ideas, and the more he tries to understand the most complex ones, the more confused he’ll get, because he doesn’t have the divine light of faith guiding him.
Peterson says that the Logos, which is his way of saying Jesus, is nothing more than articulated truth. He talks a lot about truth, but I never hear him talk about love. And we know from the Bible that if you have truth without love, you have nothing. You don’t understand Jesus or Christianity if you don’t understand that God is love. Peterson seems to believe and understand that God is truth, and that’s true, but you can’t separate that from the fact that God is love. God with perfect love but not perfect truth isn’t God, and God with perfect truth but not perfect love also isn’t God. Peterson’s trying to separate these immutable aspects of God’s very nature, and that’s not possible. He’s creating the god he wants to believe in that fits his life philosophy and preconceived notions of life and the world, rather than accepting and trying to know and understand the One who already exists.
In this interview, Peterson admits he doesn’t believe in anything the Bible teaches in a literal sense, including the fall of man in the garden. For him, it’s all just a symbolic or visual representation of man’s search for meaning. He says Christianity is man’s attempt to depict ideas that we’re not yet smart enough to understand. But that’s the opposite of what it is. Christianity is based on God’s revelation of Himself in the form of the Eternal Word to man. It has nothing to do with man’s attempt to define anything, because the truths revealed by Jesus are truths that man clearly wasn’t able to discover with his own intellectual abilities. Here’s a good thought experiment to elucidate this point: Let’s pretend that God doesn’t exist, and therefore Jesus never existed. Let’s assume that man arose out of nothing and evolved to be what he is today. Do you think that he would’ve discovered everything that the Bible revealed to man on his own? The answer is obvious. Of course not. I would argue that it took thousands of years for man to even begin to understand Jesus’s teachings, and even now we’re still trying to understand them better. Why? Because we’re not God. If we evolved out of nothing, then by definition, our ability to discover and understand deeper truths about the meaning of life, ourselves, and the world would be limited. Something can’t arise from nothing and then evolve to know everything. That’s a logical fallacy. If it could do that, it wasn’t nothing to begin with. To believe that argument is true would require faith, since there’s no evidence to suggest it’s possible. In other words, atheists’ beliefs require faith just as much as Christians’ beliefs do, and I would argue even more so.
If you think about it, it was the core tenets of Christianity that civilized society and created everything good that we now take for granted in our advanced Western culture, such as our systems of medicine, education, government, and law. Without a belief in a higher power, specifically the kind of God that loves His creatures and is actively involved in their lives, the foundation for all of these systems falls apart, as the Founding Fathers of America well knew. Peterson’s implicit argument, whether he realizes it or not, is that mankind would’ve advanced as much as we have with religion if Jesus never existed. For him, it’s the same as if Jesus didn’t exist since he doesn’t believe that Jesus is God, and if Jesus isn’t God, then He was just another random guy who could’ve been any guy from that time. Peterson’s premise is that Christianity, or something like it, would’ve arisen from the unconscious mind of man either way. If that’s true, how come it didn’t arise until Jesus started teaching? Also, how come nobody understood or believed Jesus’s teachings initially? I think it was because the truth He spoke was beyond our intellectual capacity, and God has to help us receive it as a gift of faith before we can understand it intellectually. But for that to happen, we have to humble ourselves before God first, because God won’t reveal these truths to people whose pride and ego get in the way, since those people wanna make themselves gods.
Peterson says we aren’t fully conscious of the truths of the Bible. That’s not true. We’re fully conscious of them to the extent that they’ve been revealed to us. Some of us are closer to God, and thus have had more revealed to us than others. But since none of us are perfect, for all of us there’s a certain amount of truth that is above our consciousness because it resides in God, who is completely above our consciousness since He’s infinite and we’re finite. So we know the core tenets of Christianity because they’ve been revealed to us, not because they arose from our collective unconscious mind without us realizing it.
At one point Peterson simply explains morality as a product of natural selection. But he doesn’t follow the logic of his own conclusion. If that’s the case, why does morality matter? He’s making the same argument the atheists make about morality, only he’s saying the ideas that Christianity gave rise to are better for society than any others. But if those ideas are still nothing more than the product of evolution, then who cares if they’re better for society? Why should we care what’s best for society if life has no meaning? Peterson would argue it does, but he can’t argue that and also argue that morality is a product of natural selection, because then meaning is nothing more than a product of the neurons firing in our brains. In other words, if Peterson’s thesis about our existence is correct, then meaning is meaningless.
He tries to say that the products of natural selection, morality being the most important among them, are far more than the material world. But this doesn’t make any sense. If there is no God, then by definition there is nothing beyond the material world since only God exists outside of that world. Everything else is part of it. Peterson uses all the key words and phrases used by atheists and evolutionary biologists to explain everything in the world, such as “emergent properties”, “things that are selected for ”, “maps of being”, etc. Once I noticed this, as a Christian and a former student of evolutionary biology myself, it became obvious to me that Peterson was making the same arguments about morality and meaning that atheists make, he was just spinning them in a clever way in order to map them onto his own unique worldview. I think he’s gained such a large and devout following because he’s argued for some of the core tenets of Christianity, but from a secular perspective.
In other words, he’s trying to have it both ways. He’s trying to extract certain truths from Jesus’s teachings while still claiming that Jesus isn’t God, and therefore we don’t have to follow everything He taught, only the things we think are most beneficial to society. Of course, this is impossible from a logical point of view, but many of his followers are young and don’t realize this, and so far I haven’t seen anyone pin him down on the inherent contradiction in his argument, probably because the people he does interviews with aren’t Christian theologians. Ironically enough, I think parts of his speeches and arguments that are drawing people to his message the most are the most Christian ones. People are drawn to the truths of the Bible because we have an inherent desire to know and love God, even if those truths are presented by a secular professor of psychology.
Furthermore, the greatest teachers can explain the most complicated concepts in simple and clear ways that even the least educated person can understand. For the most part, Peterson doesn’t do this. He uses many big words and unnecessarily sophisticated phrases and ideas that leave people confused, but then he sprinkles in just enough common sense and real life applications of what he’s trying to teach that it leaves people wanting more. I think this says more about the power of Christianity and man’s inherent desire to know the truth, and thus, ultimately, to know God than it says about Peterson and his message.
If you’re watching some of Peterson’s interviews and at various points think “he’s making no sense right now”, it’s because he isn’t. He’s trying to construct a philosophy of life and meaning without a foundation of morality undergirding it. If you don’t believe in God, no matter how much you’ve studied biology, psychology, sociology, and theology, you’re doing nothing more than fumbling around in the dark looking for the truth. But you’ll never find it without God because faith is the light that illuminates the dark room you’re in, and it’s God who flips on the light. So essentially Peterson is making things up as he goes along. That’s why he goes off on tangents so often, and it’s why he almost never is able to answer a question with a short and clear answer. He claims it’s because the things he’s talking about are complicated, but that’s an excuse, because some of the greatest theologians and saints in Church history have talked about things that were even more complicated than what he’s talking about, and they were able to present their arguments in much clearer and more concise ways.
The bottom line, as I see it, is that Peterson’s just another atheist who’s trying to make sense of life and has decided that Christianity helps him in that regard more than any other system of thought or belief.
Update: He recently did an interview with Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro, and I’ve added my thoughts on what he said in it here.