“After my most recent piece on Jordan Peterson, a string of correspondents contacted me with further questions and comments about my opinions about the controversial Canadian Professor (not words one usually sees strung together).”
After my most recent piece on Jordan Peterson, a string of correspondents contacted me with further questions and comments about my opinions about the controversial Canadian Professor (not words one usually sees strung together). Perhaps the most interesting and curious queries were those who wanted to know my opinion on Peterson’s religious positions. Since Peterson shot to fame, this has been a topic of considerable discussion and dispute.
This discussion has included expert criticism of Peterson’s discussion of Biblical passages, concern about whether Peterson truly believes in God, and for that matter, concern about whether Peterson truly believes in God. Interestingly, the religious dimension to Peterson’s thought has prompted some pushback even from proponents who admire his positions. Some find his flirtation with religiosity and the language of faith too much to accept in our increasingly secular age. More religious individuals find his seemingly halfway endorsement of religion—claiming it is a source of insight into values while not really expressing any literal truths—inadequate.
Given this controversy and the correspondence I received on these issues, I decided to cap off my recent discussion of Peterson with some reflections on his religious positions. I will then contrast his viewpoints with those of other thinkers whom I believe problematize some of what he says from a religious standpoint.
Jordan Peterson on God and Faith
Peterson’s intellectual and spiritual debt to the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung is well-known. Its impact can be seen expressly in an early letter Peterson wrote to his father, later republished in Maps of Meaning. In that letter, and the book as a whole, Peterson maintains that modern people have committed a fundamental error when trying to understand the significance of ancient myths and religious symbology. In the modern era, after the so-called “death of God,” we are all too prone to interpreting the symbols and stories of mythology and religion as empirical accounts of historically-factual events. This leaves mythological and religion open to criticism by those who present contrary empirical claims.
This is the error committed by Biblical literalists and militant atheists alike. Both groups regard the Bible as little more than a chronicle of historical facts, with the former marshaling evidence to defend its account and the latter seeking to discredit it. This tendency towards literal thinking is symptomatic of the modern era. And our tendency to read everything through either a cynical lens that seeks to discredit or an ideologically dogmatic one which seeks to uphold at any cost is another symptom.
But, for Peterson, as for Jung, what mythological and religious symbols and stories are really conveying is not a chronicle of historical facts about the world. They embody our psychological attempt to define the world’s inner meaning and our relationship to that meaning. Put more plainly, myths and religions express the way we value the world and, therefore, give meaning to our lives.
This fundamentally Jungian outlook belies Peterson’s controversial claim that everyone is religious in some sense. Peterson argues that the material world we live within cannot itself be a source of meaning for us. It exists as a brute set of facts without values. To invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein, the world is merely, “everything that is the case;” that is a set of atomic facts relating to one another within space and time. All objective answers to the riddle of the world’s meaning—and by extension to what the objective meaning and value of our lives might be—exist outside of space and time. We, therefore, can have no objective access to this meaning, even if there it is to be found outside of space and time.
Here it is worth considering the philosophy of David Hume, whom I discussed at some length elsewhere. For Hume, who was not a believer, a truly uninterested and rational skeptic might ask a sequence of questions that would seem absurd to most of us. Why should I bother satisfying my hunger? Why is it better for me to live rather than to die? Why is it better for me to be happy than to be sad? And from a purely empirical standpoint, because of the irresolvable divide between facts and values, we can never really give an objective answer to this skeptic.
But despite this absence of objective answers to the meaning of our lives, human beings nevertheless carry onwards. Peterson claims this is because we define our own meaning by projecting our values onto an objective but indifferent world. For Peterson, this is at the root of all our actions. We are not compelled to act because we are rational—but because we have faith that what we have chosen to value is important. This applies to everyone. A rich person and successful person have faith that the wealth he pursues is valuable and will give his life meaning and trusts that the sacrifices made along the way will be worth it. The scientist has faith that an impartial and objective pursuit of knowledge is valuable and that discovering the secrets of the world can give their lives meaning. And so on.
This is where Peterson’s conception of God comes in. In the past, he has avoided giving a firm definition of whether or not he believes in God, and if so, what God is. This lack of consistency makes it difficult to pin down exactly what he thinks on this issue. My argument is that Peterson’s conception of God is best understood as being the individual human being’s self-conscious relationship with what they value.
To use the language of Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian and author of Dynamics of Faith, the term God doesn’t refer to a specific being, but something beyond even Being itself. For Peterson, as for Tillich, God is a term individuals apply to what is of “highest concern” to themselves. For the rich man, this is money. For the scientist, it is knowledge of the world as it truly exists. As Peterson put in his 2006 paper “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and the Constituent Elements of Experience:
“Finally, phenomenologically considered, all human beings are individual. We have a subjective domain of being, privately experienced. Its nature can only be communicated in part. Our pain is therefore frequently only our own, and so are our joys. Our births and deaths are individual births and deaths. Whatever creative realm we might inhabit exists at least in part uniquely within us. Furthermore, we are self-conscious, so our individuality is apparent to us—and the fact of that appearance colors our experience ineradicably. Individual being is our greatest gift and our most appalling curse. As a gift, self-consciousness is conceived of as the very image of God reﬂected within us. As a curse, self-consciousness is unbearable knowledge of our own ﬁnitude, inadequacy, and tendency towards wrongdoing— conceived of, equally, as never-ending labor unto death.”
For Peterson, we exist as self-conscious beings who project the values we have developed in the course of our experience onto the world. These values then become the meaning we live by, as we hope to live up to them through our individual efforts. The world then returns the favor by pushing back at our efforts to live up to our values. For some, this can be overwhelming. For others, it is an opportunity to try harder. This process of self-consciously projecting our values on the world to act upon them is what I take Peterson to be referring to when he speaks about God. God is not a physical being, which is perhaps why literal-minded critics such as Sam Harris have difficulty grasping the nuances of Peterson’s position. Rather, God is the process of continuously striving to uphold our embattled values so that our lives can have meaning.
The positive aspect of this is that these values provide the orientation and meaning to our lives. The negative aspect is that our finitude—what Heidegger would call our “being”—means that we will never be able to actually complete the tasks we set for ourselves. This has a further, moral, dimension to it. As finite beings, we lack the power to fulfill all the tasks our values set for us. This can be traumatizing when the world pushes back at our efforts. So we often fall into psychological distress, what Peterson calls Chaos, where we can either blame ourselves or the world for the situation that we find ourselves in. This Chaos can be destructive, but it can also guide us to wisdom if we have the strength and creativity to pull ourselves out of distress and develop new values to live by.
By contrast, we can also compensate for our finitude by attempting to negate the passage of time through entrenching our values forever: to bring eternal Order to Chaos. This emphasis on Order at all costs can lead us to develop an authoritarian disposition, both in our personal lives and politically. But it can also lead us to preserve traditions and practices that can help others discover meaning in their lives.
The latter point helps specify Peterson’s support for mythology and religion. As the subtitle of 12 Rules for Life indicates, Peterson believes we live in an age where Chaos has too much of an influence. Here, he draws primarily on Nietzsche’s death of God parable to maintain that our increasingly secular era no longer feels capable of drawing upon the stabilizing traditions provided by mythology and religion.
The death of God was in some senses a liberating moment because it unleashed the West’s critical and creative energies against what were then calcified religious dogmas and idolatry. Generally, Peterson seems to think this was initially a positive development. But the Chaos unleased also left many people feeling unmoored in a world without meaning. This has resulted in growing social cynicism at one pole and stultifying ideological conformism on the other. Peterson believes we need to look back at the insights of traditional religions to rediscover the wisdom necessary to construct stabilizing systems that will provide ongoing meaning to our individual and social being. This means taking seriously the values and lessons of the Bible and other great religious texts, while refusing to treat them as discreditable historical accounts of events that took place in the world.
Conclusion: The Problems With Peterson’s Religious Outlook
I opened the last section by discussing Peterson’s well-known debt to Carl Jung. What is less discussed is the influence of existential and phenomenological authors such as Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Some of these thinkers were believers. Others were not. But what united them was a common belief that we are more than scientifically interpretable animals driven to best satisfy our simple and material pleasures. To use Peterson’s preferred parlance, we are not fundamentally concerned with mere happiness. This means that however far they progress, the sciences will never independently be able to satisfy our deepest and most ambiguous longings.
By themselves, the sciences can only provide descriptive accounts of the facts of the world and enable us to develop better technique to manipulate nature to achieve our goals. As Heidegger might put it, in isolation the sciences and technical thinking can only engender a nihilistic picture of the world. Human beings long to have a sense of meaning in their lives. In the absence of one provided by tradition and religion, they will create new sources of inspiration. This can have dramatically tragic results when we turn to ideological dogmas and totalitarian practices.
Peterson discusses these issues with considerable power and psychological insight. But it is unclear to me that he resolves the deeper theological issues at hand. This is one of the main reasons he continues to receive criticism from both skeptical atheists and devout believers. He wants to chart a middle path between nihilistic scientism on the one hand and devout belief in the literalness of religious teaching on the other. In other words, we cannot have any proof that the values affiliated with religion are objectively meaningful. But we can commit ourselves to acting as though they are in order to make sense of our lives. This strikes me as problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, in many ways, it evades more substantial philosophical questions about the meta-ethical sources of our value. It may be that there is an objective source for values, or perhaps there isn’t. But Peterson wants us to act and believe that there is, regardless of the philosophical truth of the matter. This is not a very stable position to take. In effect, it exemplifies what the conservative thinker Leo Strauss warned against in his book Natural Right and History:
“A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.”
Committing ourselves to believe in values may be useful, perhaps indispensable. But that does not make those values true. And indeed, it seems to be an intellectual cop-out to simply declare that we must believe or else. I would argue that we need to spend more time and effort, as a species, moving past the traditional sources of values by trying to find a firmer ground on which to base them. As I discussed elsewhere, contemporary philosophy has made some strides in this direction. This may be more difficult, but it is also more authentic.
Secondly, Peterson seems unable to deal with the problems posed even by devout existentialists, who took seriously the problems of faith. Perhaps the most notable is the hyper-individualist Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argued that faith in God and religious values are, by definition, absurd.
Moreover, such faith is not always a source for social stability. Indeed, true faith in religious values can be massively disruptive if practiced with sincerity. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard discusses Genesis 22: God demands that Abraham, the so-called founder of monotheism, sacrifice his son Isaac to him. Abraham dutifully obeys God, who intervenes at the last minute to save Isaac. Kierkegaard observes that Abraham’s actions constituted a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”Abraham, as a “Knight of Faith,” put aside the ethical demands of his society and his personal desires to do as God seemed to command.
Kierkegaard observes that nowhere in Genesis does it recount that Abraham questioned God’s actions, or whether he was mad, or whether he was entitled to criticize God. Abraham did his duty as ordered, whatever the world and others may think. Kierkegaard observes that this radical dimension to faith problematized the kind of middle class WASPy Christianity promoted by individuals like Peterson, who see faith and religion as a source of stability in an otherwise unmoored world (interestingly, Peterson’s nemesis Jacques Derrida—another admirer of Heidegger’s—was aware of this radical dimension to faith) Faith and religion can be exceptionally powerful forces for radical change and disharmony, for good and for ill. It isn’t clear to me that Peterson fully appreciates this.
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”
St Augustine, Confessions
Matt McManus recently completed his Ph.D. in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.