On Jordan Peterson, Religion, & Atheism: Deconstructing Pseudo-Psychological Religious Propaganda
Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor and clinical psychologist, hosted a YouTube series of lectures on the psychological significance of the biblical stories, where he articulated some fascinating insights; but, on some points is he wrong, or just misunderstood?
I only watched the first two, but I got a sense from these two, and other videos listed below, to know that he has made a few errors in interpretation, and/or overlooked the underlying context. Granted, he is not a biblical scholar; though, it is clear he has done a lot of homework.
Pangburn Philosophy (PP): An Evening With Matt Dillahunty & Jordan Peterson
Jordan’s attempt to layer a current interpretation on to stories from millennia ago is perplexing given that these stories have evolved, in some cases significantly, different meanings over time. What the stories meant when they were created (irrespective of the impossibility of adequately diagnosing the psychological aspects of the author’s mindset and motivation), and how they have come to be seen over time, are vastly separate topics. Conflating these two separate issues leads to exactly the error in perspective which Jordan assigns them. Or, as it was succinctly stated in this Australian article titled, Jordan Peterson’s Psycho-religious Heresy:
“Ironically, Jordan is rightly critical of those who would superimpose the twentieth-century scientific method onto the Bible, but then he himself makes precisely the same error by imposing a modern psychological one.”
It is these revisionist interpretations that I will challenge, providing the historical backstory to counter Jordan’s viewpoints. Specifically, I will address why the psychological significance he assigns to biblical stories is flawed, to contest his beliefs that:
- the Judeo-Christian ethic is what underpins the value systems of Western civilization; and,
- atheists and “anti-religious thinkers” are abandoning this tradition to our collective peril
What I will demonstrate is that what he believes to be true, in many cases, are his personal views or that of the Christian faithful; views not necessarily held by religious scholars, or even the correct interpretations, for that matter.
What his motivations are for this series only Jordan can say. He steadfastly refuses to be pinned down and boxed in on what his beliefs are, and he has been extremely coy about affirming his Christianity: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Though, in the Adam and Eve lecture, Jordan let his mask slip for a moment when he explicitly stated:
“…The greatest event in history, which was the birth of Christ and the redemption of mankind.”
Now, was he saying this in conjunction with the metaphorical deconstruction of the Fall narrative, or was he stating what he, himself, believes? Considering the Fall narrative (in its original form, not what it was re-appropriated for) has nothing to do with Christianity, nor could the author of the Genesis 3 story have foreseen how later Christian traditions would use this story to buttress their dogmatic beliefs in the redemption of humanity through Jesus, it is unlikely that this is what Jordan is trying to imply. The logical conclusion is that Jordan is making a statement of his own belief. A belief that: one, he maintains is the greatest in history; two, that Jesus is actually the Christ; and three, that Jesus redeemed humanity.
It is no longer mere speculation of his inherent bias towards Christianity, but, indeed, this reveals the foundational basis on which he predicated the series about how the psychological truths of Judeo-Christianity will save humanity from itself. I wonder what Freud would say about Jordan’s evasive circumlocutions, what subconscious desire drives him to be a shill for Christianity, and this peculiar need to be covert about it?
“But he could not quite abandon the Christianity of his youth, and so Peterson spends a lot of time in this book purporting to tell us what Scripture really says, and does so with all the exegetical and hermeneutical skill of Ayn Rand. While Rand’s scorn for theology and Christianity was well known, warning most believers off her, Peterson’s presentation, given the lack of theological literacy of our time, contains just enough jargon and scriptural references to fool a lot of people into thinking he knows what he’s talking about. He does not. If his psychology is suspect, his theology is absolutely insidious.”
The Catholic World Report, Jordan Peterson’s Jungian best-seller is banal, superficial, and insidious
Jordan makes a series of assertions that the Judeo-Christian ethic is all that stands between Western civilization and nihilistic oblivion at the hands of the increasingly irreligious:
BS1: “…there’s something at the bottom of this amazing civilization that we’ve managed to construct, that I think is in peril for a variety of reasons. And maybe if we understand it a little bit better we won’t be so prone just to throw the damn thing away. Which I think would be a big mistake. And to throw it away because of resentment and hatred and bitterness and historical ignorance and jealously and desire for destruction, and all of that.”
PP: “We’d lose the metaphoric substrate of our ethos and we’d be lost.”
PP: “Oh, you lose art, and poetry, and drama, and narratives.”
A fellow psychologist takes him to task over this perspective:
“Peterson seems to assume that the only alternatives to religious morality are totalitarian atrocities or despondent nihilism.”
I breakdown some of Jordan’s more extraordinary claims in detailed articles (linked below), dedicated to each subject to give them the attention the topic deserves. Here, though, is a summary of where Jordan’s interpretations went off the rails.
“That’s also echoed by the intimate relationship between the snake in the Garden of Eden and Satan, because that’s a very strange association; like this snake also becomes the adversary of being.”
Deconstruction #1 — There is no association between the serpent and Satan in the original story. That’s a much later Christian interpretation that appears only after the character of Satan had morphed into an independent being in the single passage of the Hebrew Bible where he appears as such, and his continued evolution in the apocalyptic literature of the Jews in the Intertestamental Period (150 BCE to 50 CE, Daniel to Paul).
Deconstruction #2 — Jordan completely overlooked the original context of the Sumerian story, in which the serpent is not evil and the female is a goddess. Instead, he chose to offer an explanation of why predation by snakes on early humans was the choice for the serpent as metaphor, completely overlooking the positive imagery of serpents in ancient Eastern cultures.
“Whereas the level of instruction represented in the Bible story is that, pretty much, of a nursery tale of disobedience and its punishment, inculcating an attitude of dependency, fear, and respectful devotion, such as might be thought appropriate for a child in relation to a parent, the Buddhist teaching, in contrast, is for self-responsible adults.”
Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By
Deconstruction #3 — Jordan also failed to cover the reasons for the later association:
What — veiled snub at Roman paganism
When — reign of Diocletian, circa 95 CE
Why — persecuted for refusing to worship Diocletian
The context of why the author of Revelation made the association is important, as it was merely symbolic code for the in-group’s understanding, and the use of Satanic epithets was commonly used as a rhetorical weapon by first century Jews and Jewish-Christians, (see Paul’s letter: 2 Corinthians 11:3–5, 13).
“There’s an idea in Christianity of the image of God as a Trinity…That’s a very well-developed set of poetic metaphors. These are all…what would you say…glimpses of the transcendent ideal…”
Deconstruction #1 — Jordan did a very good job of explaining what the three parts of the Trinity represent (God, father figure; Jesus, eternal consciousness; Holy Spirit, voice of conscience), but he neglected to discuss the reason why the concept arose in the first place: to rationalize the beliefs of monotheism (a single god) with the belief that Jesus was also God; a belief which evolved over time in the Greek communities.
Deconstruction #2 — Following on from the reason above why the Trinity doctrine became necessary, Jordan neither covered that this belief was not universally shared (in the 1st or 21st centuries), nor that it only became established several hundred years after the death of Jesus in a number of ecumenical councils which endlessly debated his status.
Deconstruction #3 — Jordan, correctly, identified the logos concept from the Gospel of John — ‘In the beginning was the Word — a book which a multitude of biblical scholars have repeatedly pointed out is thoroughly embedded within Greek philosophy and could not be the work of an illiterate Jewish fisherman.
“How is it possible to explain and make it intelligible, that a man of these antecedents displays in his thought and speech, in fact in his whole mental attitude, a thoroughly Hellenistic stamp? …[H]ow came he to clothe his Master in this foreign garb of Hellenistic speculation, and to attribute to Him this alien manner of speech?”
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus
“…you get some sense of the principles that bring peace. One day it blasts into your consciousness, like a revelation: ‘here’s the rules that we’re already acting out…’”
Deconstruction #1 — The purpose of Jordan’s entire Biblical Series is to feed his listeners the premise that morality is based on religious ideals, a point he drives home in each lecture. Yet, he contradicts himself by pointing out that notions of morality arose in human consciousness over tens of thousands of years before becoming codified in religious texts, and is something we act out as a society. If these principles “blast into your consciousness” as something we are already doing, then what purpose does religion serve in generating said morals?
Deconstruction #2 — Jordan made a single passing reference to Deuteronomy in the entire series: “…the Deuteronomist Code. It contains the bulk of the law…” and then failed to elaborate on how Deuteronomy is the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic; which is strange, considering this ethic is something which he direly warns us to preserve.
Deconstruction #3 — Jordan talked extensively about sovereignty, and not confusing the sovereign with the principles of sovereignty, but he did not connect the dots of that ideal back to the Enlightenment, which emerged as the polar opposite of religious indoctrination.
“Crime and Punishment is the best investigation, I know, of what happens if you take the notion that there’s nothing divine about the individual seriously.”
Deconstruction #1 — Jordan repeatedly cites the character Raskolnikov as being the poster child for what happens when a person gives up a belief in the divinity of other humans; or, as he and Dostoevsky define it, an atheist. Except, and as a psychologist, he knows that someone who determines other people have no intrinsic value “is the psychopath’s viewpoint.” That he conflates atheism with psychopathy is disingenuous, intellectually dishonest, and professionally irresponsible.
Deconstruction #2 — Like Jordan, Dostoevsky was a committed Christian who viewed the abandonment of Judeo-Christian values as an ill omen, and sounded the warning. However, Jordan omitted the inconvenient truth that his literary hero was an avowed Christian socialist who proclaimed: “If everyone were actively Christian, not a single social question would come up.”
“As I said at the beginning, the atheist types act out a religious structure.”
Deconstruction #1 — As pointed out in the Deuteronomistic Paradigm, moral values preceded their codification in religious texts, and in the Dostoevsky Distraction, that Jordan has his own, unique, definition of what atheist means, it is irresponsible for Jordan to fuel the flawed perception that atheists are immoral.
Deconstruction #2 — Despite Jordan’s ominous warnings that leaving religion behind is bad for society, there is a clear correlation between countries with increasingly secular tendencies and the happiness of its citizens.
Deconstruction #3 — Again, also despite Jordan’s warning of putting the Judeo-Christian traditions out to pasture, is the idea that atheists are calling for anarchy and immoral behaviour. In conjunction with this perspective, is Jordan’s wholesale ignoring of the immoral acts listed in the Bible (drowning the planet, Abraham’s willingness to murder his child, the Passover slaughter of innocent Egyptians to make a point, Job, etc.); and the fact that most parishioners do not read these stories metaphorically, as Jordan claims religious passages should be understood — not literally, but figuratively — for the morals of the story.
It appears contradictory, to me anyway, that if the values contained within the Judeo-Christian tradition preceded the tradition (part 4), then why should Jordan be worried if people are simply abandoning the vehicle which, successfully, conveyed the values? The values are the important factor, the ones that emerged from the unconscious, not the transmission mechanism. “Adamant anti-religious thinkers” are not advocating that we abandon morality, or “our immersement in the underlying dream,” so the values themselves will remain intact. Another Canadian psychologist, Steven Pinker, makes this point in Enlightenment Now:
“If the positive contributions of religious institutions come from their role as humanistic associations in civil society, then we would expect those benefits not to be tied to theistic belief, and that is indeed the case.”
Steven, as the subtitle of the book alludes, made “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” that society is not in any danger — contrary to Jordan’s dire warnings — from increasing secularization:
“Evolution helps explain another foundation of secular morality: our capacity for sympathy (or, as the Enlightenment writers variously referred to it, benevolence, pity, imagination, or commiseration). Even if a rational agent deduces that it’s in everyone’s long-term interests to be moral, it’s hard to imagine him sticking his neck out to make a sacrifice for another’s benefit unless something gives him a nudge. The nudge needn’t come from an angel on one shoulder; evolutionary psychology explains how it comes from the emotions that make us social animals…Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings…
A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing — that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives — is just such a principle, since it’s based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity.
History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism.”
Jordan also overlooked the very contribution Enlightenment thinking had on modern moral standards, hell-bent as he was to demonize the secular shift away from religion that was spawned by these ideals in his attempt to glorify the Judeo-Christian ethic as the sole provider of Western values. As Steven continued:
“Today, of course, enlightened believers cherry-pick the human injunctions while allegorizing, spin-doctoring, or ignoring the vicious ones, and that’s just the point: they read the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment humanism.”
“Secularists don’t have to “build” anything; we can choose moral philosophies from what’s already well tested. If religious people think that their “faith” excuses them from evaluating the duties and taboos handed down to them, they are morally obtuse…
We secularists have no need for love of any imaginary being, since there is a bounty of real things in the world to love, and to motivate us: peace, justice, freedom, learning, music, art, science, nature, love and health, for instance.”
Dan further expounded on secular morality, stating:
“The idea that you can’t be moral without religion is just a complete falsehood.”
“Humanism is a general outlook based on two allied premises, which allow considerable latitude to what follows from them. The premises are, first, that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe, and second, that our individual and social ethics must be drawn from, and responsive to, facts about the nature and circumstances of human beings…
Humanism, though, is not even a philosophy, for it has no teachings beyond its two minimal premises, and obliges us to do nothing other than think for ourselves.”
As the early needs for tribal cohesion led to greater demands for social community, which gave rise to religious and political identities, group values have emerged, changed, and advanced through time. As Deuteronomy codified civil rights, and Christianity built on them, so too will universal human ideals leave behind the unhelpful dogmas, and take what Matt Dillahunty pointed out are “true and good and useful,” and build on and expand from the corpse.
“Courtesy, generosity, honesty, persistence, and kindness. If you are courteous, you will not be disrespected; if you are generous, you will gain everything. If you are honest, people will rely on you. If you are persistent you will get results. If you are kind, you can employ people.”
Confucius, Analects 17.5