Jordan Peterson is many things to many people. One thing he happens to be is a passionate opponent of atheism and defender of Christianity, claiming that atheism is destructive and that we need religion for civilization to continue. Oddly enough, he doesn’t really believe in god, at least not in any sense that the majority of theists would recognize. Peterson is attracting religious people to his audience, particularly young religious people I think, and he’s not effectively communicating to them that he doesn’t believe what they think he believes. Personally, I don’t care if you love him, or if you hate him, or if you think he’s great for self-help but nothing else — I really don’t care. More power to you. Right now, I’m speaking as an atheist about someone who is effectively a Christian apologist.
What is a Christian, exactly? Who’s a “real” Christian, and who gets to decide the criteria? Well, theology is totally a real discipline, and I’m sure if we give them enough time, they’ll eventually figure it out. But for our purposes, let’s consider a few of the most common definitions of ‘Christian’ and see if Jordan Peterson fits any of them or holds any traditionally Christian beliefs.
The version of Christianity I’m most familiar with is one based on a sort of biblical literalism. The Bible is the perfect word of god; it’s literally true and inerrant. But he accepts scientific facts and theories, which is to say that he doesn’t believe the Bible is factually and historically accurate.
That’s fine; not every Christian is a young earth creationist. However, according to poll data, roughly 40% of the overall U.S. population believes that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. Which I think is worth mentioning, since it seems like so many people act as if it’s a tiny minority of Christians who take the Bible literally.
So what about Peterson’s belief in the teachings of Christ? I think it’s fair to say he accepts Jesus’ teaching in some areas, but not others. But merely agreeing with some of the nice things Jesus said can’t be enough to be called a Christian. By that definition, many Hindus are Christians. And if polytheists can be Christians, we’ve stretched the definition to the point of being meaningless. The same goes for ‘Christian’ being a synonym for ‘kind’ or ‘good’. Under that definition, an atheist, Raelian, Muslim, or anyone who’s a nice person or agrees with a couple things Jesus taught is a Christian.
Peterson doesn’t accept everything Jesus taught by any means. Whatever the historical Jesus believed about himself, the Jesus in our Gospel accounts repeatedly preached his own bodily resurrection, and Peterson doesn’t affirm the literal resurrection of Christ. As the Apostle Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain.”
Peterson does try to say that he “believes” in the “resurrection”, and I’ll try to shed some light on what he’s saying in a moment, but he’s very careful in choosing his words. He is not saying that he believes that Jesus’ physical body ceased all biological function and the biological function was restarted after seventy-two hours.
Not only does Peterson deny the Bible’s literal truth and refuse to affirm the resurrection of Jesus (the latter being a belief that nearly every person who calls themselves a Christian would affirm), but he also doesn’t believe in god. Well, he “believes” in a “god”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. I’ll try to explain what he does believe in, but it’s a fact that he does not believe that a literal, supernatural, conscious being called god exists. He doesn’t believe that such a god consciously created the universe, or consciously created humans in their current form. He doesn’t believe that our consciousness literally continues after our death.
Peterson doesn’t hold views that most Christians would consider essential. For one, he doesn’t believe in a literal god; but he also doesn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus or the factual accuracy of the Bible. To quote Stephen Woodford, “For all intent and purposes, Peterson is an atheist who just so happens to personally find immense value in Christian myths/archetypes. He, like [Richard] Dawkins, doesn’t believe in the literal existence of a god, the literal resurrection of a humanoid called Jesus Christ, or that our consciousness will continue to exist after our literal death. If you can call such a person a Christian, then yes, Peterson is one; but arguably, so is [Bertrand] Russell.”
A lot of his fans are Christians, but they aren’t the kind of Christian Jordan Peterson is. So when they talk about god, or the resurrection, or their immortality, they often mean it literally; Peterson doesn’t, and he never bothers to clarify. Unless you are incredibly precise and specific with your language, to the point of tedium, Peterson will answer metaphorically and pretend that you meant the question metaphorically.
However, there are a couple ways to formulate the question that make it harder for him to wriggle out of it. For example, “If all humans were to cease to exist, would god still exist?”
For the kind of Christian I was, that was an extremely straightforward question. The answer would have been, “Yes, of course god would still exist whether or not we were here.” But not for Jordan (see Dillahunty / Peterson Q&A). Hopefully it’s clear that he’s not exactly being straight with us, or at least that his conception of god is far from the norm. His denial of his atheism and insistence that he’s a Christian fits into a much larger web of a worldview, a worldview that’s internally coherent for the most part, but extremely bizarre and ad hoc. I think he constructed some of this web in order to defend belief in god in a rational, scientific age. And a critical part of Peterson’s theology, one that’s necessary to understand his god, is his concept of truth.
What do you mean by true?
The only way I use the word truth is in a realist sense: something is true if it corresponds to reality. If you want to say that something is “true” in the sense that it’s beneficial to believe it, then the word I use for that is “beneficial”. But that’s essentially what Peterson means when he says that something is “true” — he means that it’s beneficial to act as if it were true, as opposed to acting as if it’s not true; or as he sometimes puts it, it’s true if it “serves life.”
Jordan Peterson’s version of truth has been dubbed metaphorical truth, as distinguished from literal truth. Literal truth is just the way things actually are, independent of the effects on life or on conscious observers — a belief is true if it corresponds to reality. A belief is metaphorically true if it benefits you to believe it or the benefits of acting as if it were true exceed the benefits of acting as if it weren’t.
I happen to think these categories are quite useful, since both literal and metaphorical truths are real and interesting in their own respects, but it’s important to be able to distinguish them and recognize their relation to one another, which Peterson doesn’t. Peterson isn’t viewing metaphorical truth as a helpful little addition to our concept of truth, as I am; he thinks this is it. This is what we all mean by true, really, or it’s what we should mean by true if we think about it enough. He claims to believe that his version of pragmatic truth is more fundamental than literal truth.
So on Jordan’s view, the fundamentals of truth are those that “serve life,” and “the objective science is nested inside that.” On the Waking Up podcast, in response to this idea, Harris said, “You can’t have a concept of truth that’s subordinate to well-being. . . I want us all to survive and I don’t want to be annihilated by true facts that were dangerous to know . . . but they will be no less true. . . Physical reality has a character whether or not there are apes around to talk about it.”
And just to be clear, “Darwinian truth,” as Jordan uses the term, is synonymous with metaphorical truth and pragmatic truth, as well as Harris’ use of “well-being” in that quote. And the flip side of that is what we’ve been calling literal truth, scientific truth, realist truth, or Newtonian truth, as Peterson sometimes calls it. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page as far as vocab is concerned. As far as I can tell, Peterson and whoever he’s engaging with uses those terms interchangeably within their respective categories. To be clear, Darwin himself didn’t have this conception of truth. I think Peterson is calling it “Darwinian” truth because it’s similar to the concept of something being adaptive. This is obviously an important, useful idea, but the notion that realism is nested inside pragmatism just doesn’t make any sense, and I would accuse anyone who contends that it does make sense of being motivated by something other than an honest inquiry into the nature of truth.
One problem with Peterson’s view of the primacy of metaphorical truth is that it leads to logical inconsistencies. If all that matters is the benefit of believing it, two logically incompatible beliefs can both be true in the same way, at the same time. Think about a belief that’s metaphorically true but literally false. For the sake of argument, assume that belief in heaven improves the lives of humans in some way, but belief in reincarnation produces a similar beneficial effect. The Christian heaven and reincarnation cannot both be true; they’re logically incompatible. A Christian could say, “Because I was a good person, when I die, my consciousness will continue uninterrupted and I’ll fly into the clouds to see my grandma again.” And then a Hindu could immediately reply, “Because I was a good person, when I die, I’ll be reincarnated into a higher caste.” Without any help from literal truth, we would have to say that it’s possible that both are true at the same time, in the same way.
And consider the opposite case of something that’s literally true but metaphorically false. Sam Harris imagined an example of this where a husband discovered his wife was cheating on him, and was so distraught by this knowledge that he committed suicide. How are we supposed to parse this out using only metaphorical truth? If we take metaphorical truth to be superior, could the affair be true for guy she’s cheating with, but false for the husband she’s cheating on? That would imply that something could be totally true for one person, from their perspective, and totally false for another person from their perspective, even though they’re talking about the same thing in reality, which at least sounds like we’re beginning to tread on post-modern terrain.
Literal truth doesn’t lead to problems like this because we’re just defining truth as whatever reality happens to be, with no value judgement and no thought about how this truth influences us. It also has the special feature of being able to explain why metaphorical truth works. If something “serves life,” you can use literal truth to understand why. There are certain things we shouldn’t be doing because they’re dangerous. But the utility or pragmatism of behaving in certain ways has to be distinguished from whether or not something is true. That’s the only way to even make the claim that there are things that are literally true, but don’t conduce to our survival or flourishing. Metaphorical truth is a fine idea, but to care about it to the exclusion of literal truth or assert that metaphorical truth is more true than literal truth leads to absurdities and logical train wrecks.
I would add that if you’re actually worried about postmodernism corrupting science and philosophy, the guy who mocks enlightenment views and wants to undermine fundamental epistemology should maybe be on your radar. The real question is why on earth anyone would bother to do this. Why would someone define truth in this particular way? The reality is that Peterson only performs these mental gymnastics when it comes to religion and god. In every other area, he talks like a normal person who understands the primacy of literal truth. But when it comes to god, religion, and most importantly, morality, he suddenly changes all the rules, and I believe he’s doing it in order to, among other things, accommodate religious belief.
He goes to all the trouble of redefining these words and avoiding sounding like a materialist because he thinks we need god and Christianity. But with all our knowledge of science and philosophy, it’s incredibly hard to believe any of that stuff. So he’s trying to find an intellectually respectable way to believe in god and hold to Christian values in the present day. He believes there’s a lot of moral value and psychological truth in Christian mythology, and in fact, he believes that western civilization was built upon a substructure of Judeo-Christian values; and if we don’t maintain these values, our society will fall apart, which is why he was featured so prominently in the western values episode.
And now we’re closer to what Peterson’s god actually is. God fits in the category of metaphorical truth that we outlined in part one. Jordan believes that it’s extremely beneficial to believe in god; he thinks that it “serves life” and that’s what truth is, by his definition. In his mind, what could be more true than something that’s preventing the destruction of western civilization? We need Christianity. So this leads to the question I alluded to earlier: how are we supposed to deal with the death of god? At this point in history, how can it be defended on any rational grounds?
Well, one way is to redefine truth. We can speak about truth in such a way to protect god and Christianity from science and reason. That way, even if we’re atheists like Jordan, we can preserve the important parts of the substructure that he believes religion created. So why is he “gerrymandering the definition of truth,” and changing it such that it entails goodness and not strictly what’s real, whether or not it’s good for us to know? The only reasonable conclusion I can see is that he thinks we need to lie to keep everything going. Religion is a useful fiction; and we need to maintain this lie at the heart of civilization to prevent it from degenerating into “nihilism and totalitarianism”. In one interview, citing Carl Jung, he said that your “highest value” is your god, because it serves the same function as a god psychologically. And on his view, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a literal god and a highest value. Again, the purpose of all of this is to preserve the function of religion (as he sees it) without running afoul of our scientific and philosophical progress. In other words, the purpose of all these games is to preserve the function of god without denying that god doesn’t literally exist. The function that god served did exist. Whether or not god literally exists, it changes people’s behavior a lot and the course of entire civilizations. The idea of god had an influence in the real world, and unlike new atheists, he sees it as an overwhelmingly positive influence. So that function is what he believes in and it’s what he’s trying to preserve in the wake of the death of god.
The utility of fiction
Peterson said on the Waking Up podcast that the Bible offers what great fiction has to offer, and added that he didn’t mean that in a derogatory manner. If everyone read the Bible like it was fiction and understood that it was to read as fiction, this podcast never would have existed. The reality is that most religious people would be appalled by the claim that the Bible is a work of fiction, including the founders of the religion. Science doesn’t come into conflict with Dostoyevski — it comes into conflict with religion because the vast majority of religious people, past and present, believe it’s literally true to some degree. If everyone understood the Bible’s “truth” to be in the same category as Dostoyevski’s fiction, that, in my view, would be a tremendous success. Our beliefs and ideas have direct consequences in the real world for our day to day lives and entire civilizations. As you can clearly see from the historical record and the present day, the more people who take religious ideas as seriously as they were intended to be taken, the more tragic the consequences.
This is a question I’ve asked before, and one I don’t really know the answer to: What is the future we should want for Christianity? I think the optimal state of affairs would be reducing it to a social club where people can meet and talk about things like meaning and wisdom, but I don’t want it to have any political power at all and I don’t want a single person to believe it literally. But how could we potentially get there, as in, what do the intermediate steps look like? And if we couldn’t reduce the power and influence of religion to the optimal levels, shouldn’t we still aim for reducing it? I don’t often invoke Ken Ham to support my arguments, but he, along with most other Biblical literalists, believe that if you doubt the literal truth of any part of the Bible, you’ve taken the first step on a path that inevitably leads to atheism. What I’m getting at here is what if Jordan Peterson looks like the future of Christianity? Is that really a bad thing? I don’t think it’s optimal, but I don’t think you can argue that it’s worse than what we have now, and it might prove to be an intermediate step to where we wanted to go anyway. If the majority of Christians became Jordan Peterson Christians, who explicitly think of the Bible as fiction and in the same category as Dostoyevski, I would find that preferable to what we have now. In fact, that’s pretty close to what I described a second ago: Christianity as a social club where some people meet to talk about things like meaning and wisdom while explicitly recognizing that it’s mythology. That actually is pretty close to what Jordan is promoting.
I mentioned in Part I that Jordan isn’t taking the time to clarify to his audience that he doesn’t believe what they think he believes. It seems to me that a lot of of them just want to be told that their religion isn’t stupid — they can accept science and reason without becoming an atheist. Personally, I don’t really see how one can do that. How can you come to grips with the extent of our scientific and philosophical progress and hold ideas that were formed in total ignorance of knowledge that we take for granted? I don’t see how you can have beliefs about the universe and human beings that don’t really grapple with the things we’ve learned about the universe and human beings that we just didn’t know thousands of years ago. A cynical person might say Peterson doesn’t want to lose money by alienating a huge segment of his audience, and he’s just pandering to the religious crowd. A more charitable view might be that he’s just unaware that a large segment of his audience is not on the same page as him. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect his Nietzschean view of the death of god as potentially devastating to western civilization has something to do with it. If he really believes that the continuation of western civilization is at stake, and that we have no reason to be moral without believing in some version of god, then he might not want to tamper with the Christian beliefs of some of his audience if he doesn’t have to. On Peterson’s view, you could almost think of god as reduced to an abstract principle that justifies objective morality and creates a foundation on which order can form.
Not a real atheist
On the Rubin Report, Peterson claimed that Sam Harris wasn’t really an atheist because he doesn’t murder, rape, or rob banks, which means that he’s “acting out a Christian metaphysics.” Harris does not believe in any gods and is therefore an atheist. But think about what Peterson is saying there — your behavior is the criterion determining what you are rather than what you consciously believe. I think this working definition of belief has obvious implications for Peterson when he call himself a “Christian”. Peterson doesn’t rob banks or murder, and by his definition, that’s living as if Christianity is true, regardless of whether or not he actually believes in a disembodied mind that created the universe. This no-true-scotsman reasoning functions as a defense against data that doesn’t fit in Jordan’s worldview. So when I show you an atheist who’s not a murderer, or large groups of atheists in certain countries that are better to live in than highly religious countries (which, by the way, is the rule and not the exception), he can just say, “Well, they’re not really atheists.” And if I show you Christian murderers? “Well, they’re not really Christians.” In a Reddit AMA, Peterson declared that “Nazism was an atheist doctrine.”
We heard him claim on the Rubin Report that refraining from murder and rape constitutes being a Christian, but it’s not as if before Jesus came along, everyone thought all those things were fine. You don’t get to claim that opposition to murder, rape, and bank robbery are exclusively Christian because those sorts of things are condemned cross-culturally and were forbidden by law prior to the advent of Judaism or Christianity. These values are not unique to Christianity and not all Christians have them. The fact that prohibitions on these sorts of activities arise independently in all cultures strongly suggests that human nature is in play to some degree. It does make sense in light of game theory and evolutionary biology that these sorts of norms would emerge naturally. As Hitchens was fond of saying, the Jews wouldn’t have gotten as far as Mt. Sinai if they were under the impression that murder and theft were okay.
Peterson tends to dislike, I think rightly, those who claim that practically everything about us is a result of cultural conditioning and resist attributing anything to human nature. But he regularly claims that the only reason we don’t rape and murder is because of the Christian culture we grew up in.
Selfish genes, non-zero sum games
If you’re truly acting selfishly and want to maximize the benefits you receive from other people, you need to cooperate with them. You can use game theory to demonstrate mathematically why cooperation ends up producing better outcomes for the individual in the long run.
So if you’re asking what’s irrational about screwing everyone over all the time and cheating them, the answer is that it depends. It depends on how long the game is. If you’re only concerned about the next ten seconds of your life, then yes, screw everyone over, abandon altruism, and behave like psychopath. But if you’re thinking farther than ten seconds in the future, you’re not going to want to do that. It’s in your interest to not have everyone hate you, which they will, if you gain a reputation as one totally unconcerned for anyone other than yourself. If you’re acting purely selfishly and rationally, you should cooperate with others and behave altruistically and show kindness. People will reciprocate, you’ll acquire a valuable reputation that will benefit you in the future, and you won’t be punished in various ways by other people. People can choose who they interact with, so always screwing them over is not in your long term self interest. I’m sure you’ve noticed, but it feels good to help people and do kind things. Your brain is rewarded for those actions, and why would that sort of behavior be incentivized unless that behavior was, in some way, adaptive?
Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, explains how selfish genes give rise to altruistic individuals. If genes are the unit of selection, or natural selection acts on the gene level, then it’s in the interest of the gene you’re carrying for you, the individual, to behave altruistically to other individuals who are also carrying a copy of that gene. The gene is acting entirely selfishly — it just wants as many copies of itself as possible. But the optimal strategy, from the gene’s perspective, is for the individual, the carrier of the gene, to help other carriers of the same gene and refrain from harming them, all things being equal. A gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism on the level of individual animals. (There’s a lot in the Selfish Gene, by the way, this is only one part of it. Dawkins also coins the word “meme” in that book, as a cultural analogue to “gene”.)
On the level of individuals, nature has created non-zero sum games. A zero-sum game is an interaction between two players in which one wins totally and the other loses totally. A non-zero sum game is one in which the benefits accrued by cooperation exceed benefits accrued by screwing over others, at least in the long run. Peterson would have a point if everything was a zero-sum game, but that’s not the situation we’re in. In any environment where non-zero sum games arise, evolution will select for cooperation. In such environments, cooperation and altruism are adaptive for the same reason anything else would be adaptive — it’s favored by natural selection. This is why I brought up iterated prisoner’s dilemmas. When you have multiple, non-zero sum interactions with the same people over and over again, those who take into account the interests of others will be favored by natural selection.
I’m not saying this is right because it’s natural; I’m only trying to explain why evolution would have crafted human nature in such a way to give rise to pro-sociality and altruism, prohibitions against murder and theft, norms that promote cooperation, etc. As long as selection is on the gene level, and the conflicts we find ourselves in as social animals are not zero-sum, these things will be selected for. You can demonstrate mathematically, using game theory, that in environments that create non-zero sum games, cooperation maximizes individual self-interest as well as collective flourishing. We’re social animals, and we all sort of understand this intuitively, even without any game theory or evolutionary biology to explain why we feel this way. And of course, Peterson is an intelligent guy; he understands everything I just said. When he’s not speaking in the context of religion, he’s completely on the same page and knows that you’d essentially have to be a math denier to believe that psychopathic selfishness is the most rational long-term strategy. And yet, he said in that clip, “It’s as if the psychopathic tendency is irrational. There’s nothing irrational about it! It’s pure, naked self-interest. How is that irrational?” Again, if you’re really acting in your self interest, you want other people to be on your side. He said that you can employ that kind of psychopathic selfishness with great material success, but again, it depends how long the game you’re playing is. It demonstrably does not work in the long term — that’s one thing the iterated prisoner dilemmas demonstrated. If the kind of immoral behavior he’s outlining were actually in our rational long term interests, natural selection would have favored a morality that took the more efficient route. And it did take the more efficient route, not just with humans, but with other social species as well, and that’s what I’ve been trying to explain.
In one interview, when he was not speaking in the context of religion, Jordan casually said that you shouldn’t act totally selfishly “because everyone will hate you,” which is essentially a 40,000 foot view of what I’m trying to say.
Breaking the Spell
For a long time, I’ve felt like Jordan Peterson has had some kind of spell over all of us. It seems like everyone is either foaming at the mouth and can’t think clearly about him because they hate him so much, or he gets a total pass and is immediately forgiven when he says objectively stupid things, like the Soviet Union was a secular humanist country, or that Nazism was an atheistic doctrine, or my personal favorite: that ancient humans, possibly through the use of psychedelics, knew about the double-helix structure of DNA thousands of years ago. Why does he suspect this to be true? Because of ancient paintings of two snakes wrapped around each other (which is how snakes mate). He said that on two occasions, at least on film; the link is in the description. He really said that ancient humans knew about the double-helix structure of DNA because he sees paintings of snakes wrapped around each other. Again, the link is in the description if you want to hear it for yourself.
Peterson fans often claim that his opponents misrepresent him. And I can tell you from doing research for these episodes, that’s absolutely true. I find this frustrating, because no one needs to attack him for beliefs he doesn’t have to cast doubt on his reliability as a philosopher or scientist. Why is anyone misrepresenting his views when his views include sympathy to alternative medicine, flirtations with climate change denial, and that ancient shamans knew about the molecular structure of DNA? Again, it’s like everyone is either foaming at the mouth and can’t think straight or they’ll give him a pass for anything. He also seems to get a pass for his Christian apologetic tropes, like ‘we would have no reason to refrain from rape and murder without god.’ At least one difference between Jordan and a YouTube creationist who would say the same thing is that Peterson redefines every other word he uses in order to make his point, which is why his speech on religion can be so irritating and confusing.
CA36 & CA37 The God of Jordan Peterson
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Read transcripts of the podcast and discuss other issues at the Counter Apologetics Blog
Listen to Magic Tricks by Whalers
Rationality Rules — Peterson’s Truth [YouTube]
Bret Weinstein on Metaphorical Truth [YouTube]
Jordan Peterson on Truth — Waking Up [YouTube]
Jordan Peterson — Gawd [YouTube]
Jordan Peterson — Waking Up [YouTube]
Matt Dillahunty / Jordan Peterson Debate [YouTube]
Game Theory — Playlist [YouTube]
Robert Wright — “Non-zero-sumness” [YouTube]
F*ck 12 — Chapo Trap House [YouTube]