Saturday, February 3, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s Just-So Story of Religion

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who has recently become famous thanks to a YouTube video that went viral, showing a standoff between him and transgender or progressive millennials who insisted he use their preferred pronouns. Peterson defended freedom of speech and pointed to the Orwellian potential of the liberal priority of tolerance. If we only tolerate others’ interests, we lose ourselves by allowing others to dictate our thoughts or our language. If Peterson is compelled to call a gay male by the female pronoun, he’s lost his freedom to speak his mind. It’s beyond rude to demand that others speak and thus think in a certain way. In true, non-decadent liberal society, the practice is to attempt to persuade others to your point of view, not bully them. Peterson stood his ground and demonstrated patience and rationality in the video, becoming a hero of the alt right. He displayed the same toughness and political incorrectness as when he regularly appeared in discussion panels on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, years ago. You could always count on Peterson to insist on making blistering pronouncements. His alt right followers now herald him for his refreshing wisdom.

Maps of Meaning

Peterson developed his worldview over a period of fifteen years during which he wrote his masterwork Maps of Meaning. In that book he combines Jung, Thomas Kuhn, and cognitive science to naturalize the world’s religions. While he doesn’t assume the existence of God, he maintains that religion is crucial to moral development and to maintaining social order. The book argues that all religions grow out of a meta-myth which in turn is based on the fundamental human experience of needing to creatively navigate between order and chaos, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, explored territory and the wilderness, society or group identification and antisocial decadence, masculinity and femininity, hyperrational totalitarianism and “emotional valence” such as the terror of bewilderment. These dichotomies are facets of the primordial, pragmatic experience of the earliest, nomadic humans, and so our very brains adapted to those categories. Religious myths thus express these “maps of meaning.”

In particular, people typically form groups and create symbolic representations or cultures, preserving their limited understanding of the world. That understanding is passed on in apprenticeships to discipline the next generation. But if the society is healthy, says Peterson, the point of enculturation isn’t to indoctrinate and enslave, but to instill self-confidence to enable the members to act heroically in handling anomalies which are bound to crop up as these heroes explore territory that lies beyond the bounds of this culture’s experience. Ideally, the hero finds a creative interpretation of this novel part of the environment, thus assimilating the unknown and enriching his or her culture. The ultimate goal, then, or the meaning of life in general, from a religious perspective is “self-mastery,” the use of foundational lessons encoded in myths to become a brave, disciplined individual whose self-interest in exploring the unknown benefits the group, albeit sometimes by revolutionizing its conventions. Thus, we ought to take religious myths seriously, according to Peterson’s analysis.

Here are a couple of passages from Peterson’s book (the italics are mine):
Discipline should therefore be regarded as a skill that may be developed through adherence to strict ritual, or by immersion within a strict belief system or hierarchy of values. Once such discipline has been attained, it may escape the bounds of its developmental precursor. It is in this manner that true freedom is attained. It is at this level of analysis that all genuine religious and cultural traditions and dogmas are equivalent, regardless of content: they are all masters whose service may culminate in the development of self-mastery, and consequent transcendence of tradition and dogma. (175)
And again:
The group is also simultaneously the concrete historical expression of Homo sapiens’ unique heroic “thesis,” as stated previously: that the nature of experience can be altered, for the better, by voluntary alteration of action and thought. This central thesis is expressed in the myth of the way. Loss of (previously extant) paradise initiates the “redemptive” activity, history; regain of paradise – in the course or as a consequence of proper behavior – is its goal. This general pattern appears characteristic of all civilizations, every philosophy, every ideology, all religions. The general idea that change may bring improvement – upon which all voluntary change is predicated – is in itself based in the ideal upon the assumption [on the (necessary) fiction] that through historical process perfection might be attained. This myth – even in its earliest ritual incarnation – therefore provides the basis for the idea of progress itself. The group, history incarnate, is the embodiment of a specific mode of being designed to attain perfection, and contains the concrete expression of the goal of a people – it is the objective and subjective realization of the mode by which they improve their tragic condition. History not only protects people from the unknown; it provides them with rules for achieving what they desire most, and, therefore, for expressing the (essentially undeclarable) meaning of their lives. (207-8)
The reason Peterson feels confident enough to generalize so unequivocally about all religions (and indeed all ideologies), even though anthropologists are loathe to attempt even to define “religion” is that as a psychologist he takes a scientific, evolutionary perspective. Instead of saying that religions derive from God or from any other supernatural source, which would be explanatorily empty by scientific standards, Peterson says religions derive from structures in the human brain which evolved to solve that basic problem of needing to reconcile the limits of our knowledge with the existence of the broader universe. Those brain structures are universal and so there must be patterns in all religions that reflect their common origin. Jung explained these patterns as archetypes buried in the collective unconscious, as images that express innate human dispositions that dictate the stages of our life cycle.

The Conservatism of Psychology

Peterson’s psychological perspective has two critical implications. First, it leads him in Chapter One to set up a flawed dichotomy between the objective and the meaningful worlds. The former is the “place of things,” the latter the “forum for action.” The objective world is the one that science discovers and explains, while the place for action is the domain of religions which uphold morality and the social order. The mythic forum, says Peterson, is “a place of value, a place where all things have meaning,” whereas the objective world is, by implication, amoral and meaningless. According to Peterson, these modes of knowledge and experience are not at odds; on the contrary, “No complete world-picture can be generated, without use of both modes of construal.” But the benefits of both become clear only if we credit their differences. One upshot, for Peterson, is that far from longing for religion’s elimination in the neo-atheistic manner, we ought to welcome the humanizing contribution of religious myths, since without them societies would slide into debauchery. Another is that scientific knowledge itself (including psychology) is protected from religious or moral concerns. To be sure, grants Peterson, religion is needed to justify the use of tools made possible by science. As Peterson says, “Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes)” (15, my emphasis). But rational explanation of the sort Peterson takes himself to be engaging in in his book isn’t part of the forum for action. He’s doing science, not religion.

This strikes me as philosophically crude. Peterson should be applauded for avoiding scientism and for taking seriously the naturalistic fallacy and the logical gap between descriptions and prescriptions. But his modernist interpretation of science as neutral in its concern with truth rather than with meaning or action warps his study of religion. Of course science is objective in a way that religion isn’t, but science and religion are both human enterprises. Both, then, should express our fundamental concerns. The Frankfurt School showed the instrumental, Baconian bias of modern science. Thus, Peterson should have said that while religion is about self-mastery, science is about the technological mastery of nature, of the world beyond the self. More importantly, because of this misunderstanding, Peterson overshoots in his definition of religion. Religion isn’t about meaning and action in general, but about the anthropocentric kinds.

That is, religions are indeed conservative in their social aim of preserving our self-confidence and our ability to function in society. Religions do this by holding those stories as sacred that provide people a central or otherwise divine role in the universe. The contents of religious statements are human-centered. By contrast, scientific theories are anti-human, which is to say cosmicist in their normative orientation. Science explains away human nature and “unweaves the rainbow” as well as all other mysteries our religions lead us to naively suppose are irreducible as symbols of the immortal human spirit. Science decenters personhood, demonstrating that we’re accidental byproducts of much larger cycles in which we’re insignificant and which threaten to humiliate us, our self-serving myths often notwithstanding. Thus, while religious meanings are pro-human, scientific truths are the opposite.

Religions are conservative in protecting the social status quo, whereas the “liberalism” and “progressivism” of scientific modernity are insidious. Science and technology are poised to transform us into something that needn’t fear inhuman nature. Religions reconcile us to the unknown by burnishing our self-image or by instilling wholesome values in the next generation of heroic explorers, equipping them to humanize the uncharted territory. Technoscience also humanizes the wilderness by transforming the latter into artificial habitats that embody our values and goals in such forms as mechanical functions and computer programs. This is largely because science and technology don’t occur in a vacuum but are guided by the predominant religions and ideologies. But science itself has a dehumanizing effect in so far as scientists turn their attention inward. Scientific objectivity thus would reconcile us to nature by naturalizing our self-conception until we no longer think of ourselves or of anything else in traditional terms. We learn to live with nature’s inhumanity by outgrowing the illusion that we have the kind of unified self that could be a real moral agent.

This misunderstanding isn’t catastrophic for Peterson, because his analysis would still apply to the socially conservative aspect of religions. The second implication of Peterson’s psychological approach, though, is more troubling. Peterson sees himself as a scientist and so as such he can’t prescribe values, not even the worth of ancient religious myths. Instead, he adopts the same strategy as that of the psychiatrists who defer to social convention in their distinctions between mental health and disorder. Society dictates the difference by holding out the occupations in which you either function or flounder. Thus, what’s wrong with a mental disorder isn’t just the feeling of pain, but the failure to fit into society because of an inability to carry out certain social functions. Likewise, religion is valuable, for Peterson, not because he personally or scientifically deems it so, but because his profession entails that he likewise defer to social norms. Thus, religion is beneficial and even essential to mental health because religions are crucial to the social order.

The assumption of this utility is short-sighted, however, because our social norms happen to be devastating to nature and are thus counter-productive for us. By deferring to society, because of his presumption that science is objective and that scientists don’t presuppose answers to any normative question about the meaning of things, such as to the question of whether we ought to use science to control natural processes, Peterson forgoes any meta-criticism of civilization. He understands that societies can degenerate, as in the case of vicious dictatorships, but he shares the religionist’s conservative assessment that human societies generally are worth protecting and that they provide the cultural resources for innocent forms of mental health and happiness. Clearly, even progressive societies pose an ecological threat to all of us, and this threat is caused not just by technoscientific power but by the religious conviction that our self-empowerment is the highest good.

To explain this more clearly, I have to point to two further problems with Peterson’s theory. First, whereas Peterson contends that religions can deal humbly with the unknown by training heroic explorers, he’s importing his presumed scientific standards into the discussion. Peterson denies that religion is proto-scientific, but this is only based on his flawed distinction between objective things and the forum for meaningful action; as he says, contra James Frazer, “Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon” (20). But the universal human experience that’s supposed to be foundational to religion, of expanding known territory is obviously protoscientific. Thus, Peterson presumes that humility is a religious ideal—not humility in the ascetic, world-denying sense of having mystical awareness that the apparent world is an illusion, but protoscientific humility, the honest admission of ignorance which turns into hostility to dogma. So Peterson ends up imposing scientific standards on religion, because of what he identifies as religion’s pragmatic origin in open-minded exploration.

Instead, of course, religious myths are typically integral to self-reinforcing delusions. Far from admitting that there’s any unknown part of the world, religious people are infamous for having defined away any such unknown. They have faith in the sufficiency of their particular revelation. They elevate their scripture into a set of dogmas that are supposed to offer a complete explanation of everything we need to know, since the scripture is supposed to come from God who is perfect. Thus, when their social practices fail, such as when the rain dance fails to bring the rain to water the crops, the religious impulse isn’t to conduct experiments to determine a more efficient approach, but to adjust to circumstances by adding the equivalent of epicycles to social expectations. This is indeed part of Thomas Kuhn’s explanation of scientific revolutions, which evidently influenced Peterson’s theory. Anomalies can be accommodated by normal explanatory procedure without the need for revolutionary change, by tinkering with the norms. Epistemic revolutions are progressive in that they’re antithetical to the conservative impulse, which is to deny that the anomalies are fundamentally at odds with the prevailing worldview. That impulse is indeed also the religious one. As Karl Popper pointed out, scientific theories tend to be falsifiable, whereas religious myths and pseudoscientific statements aren’t so. Myths are unfalsifiable because they’re deemed to be comprehensive, and the religious attitude requires trust in them, the opposite of epistemic humility.

Religions aren’t Homogeneous

But even this talk of theistic religion as self-reinforcing delusion is an oversimplification, which leads to the other problem with Peterson’s account. He treats all religions as fundamentally the same, as I showed, but there are relevant differences between (1) the prehistoric shamanic and animistic outlook of hunter-gatherers, (2) the polytheism of most Neolithic civilizations, (3) the mystical traditions which verge on being philosophical and thus atheistic, and which are strongest in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and (3) the monotheism of societies that have the greatest potential to become tyrannical.

Briefly, here’s how I see these differences. Paleolithic religion, which Frazer called belief in magic, was based on a reflexive, childlike personification of everything in nature. Far from allowing for any great unknown or chaos in the world, then, animists adapted to the world by attempting to socialize with everything, that is, by negotiating with the spirits that were assumed to be at work in natural processes. True, the animistic hunter-gatherers weren’t opposed to learning, but their religions weren’t organized in the sense that they didn’t burden themselves with doctrinal systems that rationalized social hierarchies, since their societies were egalitarian by nomadic necessity. Instead, their religion was akin to childlike wonder, to the presumption that nature must be magical because human nature is cosmically central, because we feel special. The animists saw spirits everywhere in the same way that children leap to farfetched interpretations that validate their naivety. This comparison with children isn’t just metaphorical, since the Paleolithic Age was dark, meaning that it lacked collective memory of the sort that requires some communication technology to bypass the limits of individual memory and oral transmission. Thus the animists were in the dark much as even modern children are. Of course, children explore and broaden their horizons, but they’re also dogmatic which is why they’re reduced to throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way. Peterson’s protoscientific analysis, then, isn’t so applicable to animistic religion.

Polytheistic religions are more open to Peterson’s approach, since these religions reflect and stabilize social hierarchies. Pantheons such as those of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites featured higher and lower gods to ratify the divisions between the human royalty, administrators, labourers, and slaves. These religions featured what Yuval Harari calls the “mass fictions” needed for cooperation between strangers in large societies. Polytheistic religions were thus theocratic in providing the stories that implicitly legitimated the culture’s approach to how their often imperial civilization should be run. By contrast, mystical religions are antisocial. According to the mystical perspective, God transcends systematic theology and social conventions and is known only by direct experience which requires ascetic discipline. That discipline in turn involves the renunciation of society and of nature both as egoistic illusions. To know God we must become divine, purifying ourselves by abolishing precisely the notion of heroic personal self-interest which Peterson prizes as the ideal of all religions. Mystical traditions are thus subversive, which is why Taoists conflicted with Confucians in ancient China: Confucians were conservative pragmatists who thought that our compassionate nature needed to be nurtured by the right sort of society for the sake of social harmony, whereas Taoists thought that the availability of mystical paths within nature (not society) superseded such parochial concerns.

Monotheism stands between the pragmatic conservatism of polytheistic religions and the antisocial mystical vision. Monotheistic religions grow out of polytheistic systems and indeed the latter societies can be practically monotheistic in so far as they become henotheistic, worshipping one God above all others. But monotheism is characterized by its defining of “God” as being so transcendent as to become an absurdity. This happens because the monotheist’s God absorbs the attributes of all others in this religion’s evolution from its polytheistic phase. However, instead of meditating on that absurdity, or on the limits of our cognitive faculties, in the mystic’s manner, the monotheist uses faith in absurdity for political purposes, to bludgeon everyone into submitting to some utopian scheme. Monotheistic religions—and, more broadly, secular or religious cults of personality, including Nazism, Scientology, the Kim dynasty in North Korea, and Trumpism—are thus at home in totalitarian theocracies. Whereas polytheism awards each social stratum with its portion of divinity, by literally assigning a type of god to it, the monotheist is stingy in identifying divinity with only a single principle, and in maintaining that only one human leader can speak for that principle, whether it’s the dictator, the Pope, or the Caliph.

So, then, where do self-reinforcing delusions fit into the diversity of religions? Given the comparison with childish naivety and given the tendency for absolute power to corrupt the theocratic ruler, Paleolithic and monotheistic religions must be especially dogmatic and thus resistant to Peterson’s analysis. Animism would have been unfalsifiable, because mental states are subject to multiple interpretations and so the rain god’s hidden intention could have been accommodated regardless of whether it rained, just by adjusting the social relationship with that god. This is why the Paleolithic Age lasted for over two million years! Conservatism indeed. Likewise, a monotheistic (or a henotheistic) religion geared to excusing the ravings of a despot will brook no opposition and make myriad excuses to avoid confronting any apparent anomaly. This is why Islam hasn’t reformed itself or come to grips with modernity, and it’s why Christendom demonized its reformers and naturalistic explorers even as it fertilized the soil out of which they grew. (Christianity is complicated because its absurdity lies in part in its purportedly being both monotheistic and polytheistic.)   

This problem with religion’s unfalsifiability is pertinent, because in dabbling with the interpretation of myths, Peterson’s theory inherits that unfalsifiability and the attendant triviality. Many of Peterson’s declarations in Maps of Meaning state the obvious, except that they do so in clunky academic fashion. For example, he incorporates the idea that Western religions are preoccupied with explaining death, but he has to derive this idea from his theory and so first he reinvents the wheel and points out that we evolved the capacity for mental representation: ‘The capacity to abstract – that is, to code morality in image and word – has facilitated the communication, comprehension and development of behavior and behavioral interaction. However, the capacity to abstract has also undermined the stability of moral tradition. Once a procedure has been encapsulated in image – and, particularly, in word – it becomes easier to modify, “experimentally”; but also easier to casually criticize and discard.’ Then he says, ‘The ever-expanding human capacity for abstraction – central to human “consciousness” – has enabled us to produce self-models sufficiently complex and extended to take into account the temporal boundaries of individual life. Myths of the “knowledge of good and evil” and the “fall from paradise” represent emergence of this representational capacity, in the guise of a “historical event.” The consequence of this “event” – that is, the development of “self-consciousness” – is capacity to represent death, and to understand that the possibility of death is “part” of the unknown’ (188).

Is Peterson here saying much more than that religions deal with death, because death is an important fact of life? The burden of his academic style disguises the commonplaceness of his propositions. Moreover, his meta-myth about creatively mediating between the known and the unknown is so uninformative that his theory is in danger of being unfalsifiable and thus of being not itself scientific, despite Peterson's intentions. You can find those categories in every religious myth not just because the myths are poetic and thus subject to endless reinterpretation, but because the categories are indeed foundational to human experience and so can be discerned in, or projected upon, not just religion but all human practices, including science. This resort to just-so stories or to ad hoc possibilities that Peterson mistakes for arguments is common in evolutionary psychological circles. But Peterson’s theory includes a double portion of this fallacy, one portion from that sort of psychology, the other from the free-flowing nature of theological hermeneutics.

Just-So Stories of the Devil and Christ

To see this, consider Peterson’s explanations of the Devil and Christ. He explains the Devil in terms of what he calls the “hostile brothers” theme in myths. One brother is good, the other bad, and they’re eternally at war with each other. The bad brother is the ‘“spirit of unbridled rationality,”’ who’s ‘horrified by his limited apprehension of the conditions of existence,’ and who ‘shrinks from contact with everything he does not understand. This shrinking weakens his personality, no longer nourished by the “water of life,” and makes him rigid and authoritarian, as he clings desperately to the familiar, “rational,” and stable. Every deceitful retreat increases his fear; every new “protective law” increases his frustration, boredom and contempt for life. His weakness, in combination with his neurotic suffering, engenders resentment and hatred for existence itself.’ Peterson goes on to distinguish between two types of evil adversaries: ‘The fascist sacrifices his soul, which would enable him to confront change on his own, to the group, which promises to protect him from everything unknown. The decadent, by contrast, refuses to join the social world, and clings rigidly to his own ideas – merely because he is too undisciplined to serve as an apprentice’ (244).

Thus, writes Peterson,
The Devil is the spirit who underlies development of totalitarianism; the spirit who is characterized by rigid ideological belief (by the “predominance of the rational mind”), by reliance on the lie as a mode of adaptation (by refusal to admit to the existence of error, or to appreciate the necessity of deviance), and by the inevitable development of hatred for the self and world…The Devil is willful rejection of the process that makes life bearable, out of spite for the tragic conditions of existence. This rejection is intellectually arrogant, because the “conditions” are interpreted – which is to say: development of self-consciousness tainted everything with death, but self-consciousness is contained within a global understanding that is still exceptionally limited in its scope. The present, as currently interpreted, is indeed the unbearable present: but that interpretation may change, if the possibility for change is not disallowed, as a consequence of absolutist belief, conceit and resentment…The Devil works to eliminate the world, as something whose weakness and vulnerability makes it contemptible. (247)
This interpretation of the Devil is conventional, since it presupposes the social ideal upheld by the religions that utilize the concept of the Devil. Society is good, the Devil rejects society and God’s Creation, and so the Devil must be in the wrong. Peterson supplies the devastating psychoanalytic speculations, and so the Devil is diagnosed as having sour grapes. Notice, though, that this diagnosis should apply also to religious ascetics and mystics who likewise reject the created (illusory) world. Are religious ascetics also “decadents” who are merely “too undisciplined” to serve as apprentices, that is, to succeed in exoteric, conventional terms? And how would that not be mere unfalsifiable pop psychology, the classic throw-away ad hominem attack? Certainly, Peterson could point to many data points to support his interpretation of the Devil—but only from the religious myths that demonize the Devil! The Devil evolved in Judeo-Christianity, since in Judaism the Adversary is only a skeptical angel whose job is to keep Yahweh on his toes, as in the Book of Job. Christians associated that angel with chaos beasts to justify their apocalyptic aspirations, which we’ll come to in a moment when we consider Peterson’s interpretation of Christ. For now, let the point be that although the Devil eventually becomes the evil tempter who might conceivably suffer from the weaknesses of character posited by Peterson, there’s also a more favourable interpretation of the Devil, an interpretation supported even by the very scriptures in which the Devil is taken seriously (because those scriptures are hodgepodges). The Devil who tempts Christ isn’t evil but only performs the same role as the angel who wanted to ensure that Job’s love of God was absolute. Thus, Jesus’s faith had to be tested to prove he deserved to undertake God’s mission of saving humanity. This skeptical angel was an agent of God, which is why Christians still speak of Satan as unwittingly doing God’s bidding.

Then there’s the more radical, promethean or gnostic interpretation of the Devil, according to which in rebelling against the natural order, the Devil and the religious ascetics are heroic, not evil, because the demiurge who is the lord of this corrupt world is the evil one. This interpretation is heretical but not marginal, since it’s founded on proto-Gnostic ideas such as those in the Pauline epistles which the Church fathers had to soften. So according to this view, the Devil saves humanity by presenting the model of someone who thinks for himself, and so he puts us on the course to the Scientific Revolution and to what we call modernity, at which point we no longer regard the world as good, because we—like the fallen angels—have become jaded and have outgrown the delusion that we’re children of a loving and present creator God. According to this interpretation, the serpent of Eden was the promethean hero and Yahweh was the clueless tyrant who punishes others for the blame he himself deserves for having created such an absurd scenario in the first place. The Gnostics and the Marcionites noticed that the God of Judaism wasn’t the God of Christianity, and that if anything the former seemed demonic. Thus, the Devil becomes a Christ-like figure in resisting the demiurge, who is the only deity that participates much in nature.

Peterson can’t avail himself of this radical interpretation, of course, because as a psychologist he’s beholden to social convention for his normative evaluations, and the radical interpretation is subversive. But the point is that both interpretations fit the evidence, and neither can be proven to be in any sense correct. For example, if the Devil is an angel that does become bitter, maybe that’s only because he’s up against enormous odds in realizing he ought to combat the evil Creator of the universe! Peterson wants to say the world is good along with human society, in which case the Adversary must be bad, but this only begs the question. Together with mystics across all religions, Gnostics interpret so-called mental health and contentment as delusions. Instead, we ought to be anxious and rebellious because the world is horrific. When he speaks of the “unbearable present,” Peterson seems to grant that the scientific perspective provides ample evidence of natural horrors. To wit, there’s no unified self at all in the brain, but only mental programs that compete for the limelight of conscious awareness. And values are tools, not facts, so we have to take a leap of faith in deciding what to be and how to act. Is human society good for the planet or are we glorified executioners of all life forms? Deferring to society is arbitrary in this philosophical context, and belies the kind of arguments needed to live with a leap of faith in either direction.

Peterson’s interpretation of Christ seems even more arbitrary than his view of the Devil. For Peterson, Christ is a creative and heroic explorer who stands between those two worlds of the known and the unknown. Thus, Christ came ‘to transcend the (dangerous yet necessary) limitations upon behavior imposed by adherence to the letter of the law’ (303). That is, Christ heroically left the confines of Jewish tradition to reach a transcendent revelation about himself and the world. He accomplished this, according to the Gospel narrative, by leaving society and spending a long time in the desert, after which he began preaching about a spiritual kingdom of God as opposed to the type of earthly kingdom Jews expected the Messiah to establish. ‘Christ presented the kingdom of heaven (the archetypal goal) as a spiritual kingdom, which is to say, a psychological, then interpersonal, state. This spiritual kingdom requires ‘voluntarily chosen alteration in personal attitude and outlook’ (310). Christ thus signified a ‘transition of morality from reliance on tradition to reliance on individual conscience – from rule of law to rule of spirit – from prohibition to exhortation. To love God – this means to listen to the voice of truth, and to act in accordance with its messages; to love thy neighbour, as thy self’ (308). So Jesus’s purpose was to extend Jewish morality, to reach out to the pagans and to create a universal society.

Now all of this is valid—as are a hundred contrary interpretations of the Jesus character in the New Testament. Yes, Jesus spoke of a spiritual kingdom, but he also spoke of an earthly one to come when he returns after he’s resurrected from the dead. Peterson has to ignore those passages, perhaps attributing them to early Christians who didn’t understand Jesus’s esoteric message and who thus needed to believe that despite all appearances (especially Jesus’s crucifixion), Jesus was a conventional messiah whose work was merely unfinished. In any case, Peterson must ignore also the otherworldliness of Jesus’s message. Jesus’s goal wasn’t to start a socially useful system of ethics for the long-run; otherwise, he would have written his teachings to avoid misunderstanding. Instead, the early Christians assumed the end of the world was nigh, which called for absolute morality: not just right behaviour but right thoughts, an inner transformation to be worthy of the cataclysms of Judgment Day.

Jesus, in other words, was practically an Essene, an ascetic, world-renouncing, apocalyptic Jew. That’s why Jesus surpasses John the Baptist, leaves his family and doesn’t marry. And that’s why he turns everything upside down to illustrate the folly of social conventions: the first will be last and the last will be first, Jesus says; the rich won’t likely enter the kingdom of heaven even though they rule the earth together with the evil powers and principalities, as the proto-gnostic Ephesians 6:12 says. This is also arguably why Jesus died for his beliefs, according to the New Testament, by allowing himself to be executed by the Romans, because far from mediating society and the transcendent world, Jesus was committed exclusively to the latter world, to God’s standards. Indeed, the Gospel of John supports this gnostic interpretation, by speaking of Jesus as the light in the darkness of the cosmos: Jesus’s purpose was to reveal the hidden way to escape death, and then to return swiftly to the otherworldly kingdom. The notion that God’s kingdom is entirely a state of mind conflicts with the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection and with Paul’s dualistic declaration that flesh can’t inherit that kingdom. The risen Jesus needed a spiritual body to ascend to heaven. And the point is that Jesus’s moral teachings were extreme because they were meant only for the spiritual elites, for the marginalized who shun mass society in return. So whereas Peterson holds up Christian ethics as being useful to the project of creating an advanced society, maybe instead Jesus’s point was the apocalyptic one that the world is doomed so we’d better throw our secular life away and opt for God’s antisocial, otherworldly standards, because a second spent in the world to come is worth more than a lifetime of earthly success.

Yet another interpretation of Christ is the familiar one of Western Christianity which contrasts with Peterson’s more Eastern Orthodox one. Perhaps Jesus’s ethics were meant to be utopian and impractical, because the Christian point is that we all suffer from original sin and thus can’t save ourselves, but needed a perfect saviour to sacrifice himself for us so that we can inherit God’s kingdom not by any of our works but just by faith in Christ. Thus, Catholics say that instead of trying to imitate Jesus, we should focus on wallowing in our imperfections as we confess our unworthiness to the priest. (Eastern Christians have confession, too, but for them confession is only self-help, because sins are mistakes, not stains on the soul.) Peterson’s point seems instead to belong to the other, Eastern Christian tradition, according to which we are supposed to adopt Jesus’s teachings and lifestyle, to imitate him to save ourselves, to be mentally reborn as a result of our mystical contemplation of God’s plan for us. Again, I’m not saying that one theological interpretation is more plausible than another. No, my point is that it’s all-too easy to find in Christianity whatever you want to find there—which was Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Moreover, the epistemic flavour of Peterson’s meta-myth means that scientific theories can also be interpreted as speaking to the hero’s journey from the comfort of society to the mysteries of the wilderness and back again. Perhaps scientific experiments are elaborate ways of reconciling the known with the unknown, and scientific methods are supposed to instill the virtues of objectivity and humility which are needed to tolerate the paradoxes of nature’s impersonal creativity. Of course, an article published in Nature Journal, New Journal of Chemistry, or Journal of Neuroscience won’t explicitly refer to that meta-role of science, but the article can be interpreted as presupposing that role just as religious myths can be interpreted as presupposing Peterson’s map of meaning. Peterson’s account is so elementary that it can apply to any cultural product, which he takes to be an advantage of his theory. But a theory that applies equally well to any scenario might be merely empty.

Why we’re All Religious Anyhow

None of which is to imply that I reject everything Peterson says. On the contrary, I share his Nietzschean search for some form of religion or spirituality that’s viable in the Age of Reason, and much of his account is likely valid as far as it goes. But I have other ways of showing the continuing relevance of religion. For example, religious myths seem to have served not merely sometimes as protoscientific explanations, but as eerily-prescient expressions of longing which history has attempted to fulfill. We project our ideals onto what we think of as a spirit realm or onto the mysterious heavens, bowing to the gods who represent only the type of entities we aim to be. And so we gradually become the powerful, all-knowing gods we once worshipped, and the invisible spirit world becomes the tangible noosphere of virtually miraculous artifacts that extend our mentality. Some alpha male rulers had a head-start in the business of deification, and the psychological and political means of turning a person into a psychopathic god, by way of corruption, are still with us. Moreover, the dream-like strangeness of these myths was historically facilitated by the use of entheogens, which means that mind-altering religious experience of what Rudolph Otto called the numinous is still possible. Of course, philosophy is a safer delivery mechanism of the sense of the world’s sublimity or horror. In addition, philosophical naturalism seems to imply pantheism, since a purely natural universe is somehow mindlessly self-creative, in which case we ought to be worshiping or satanically rebelling against natural forces as the supreme powers.

In general, though, and contrary to Peterson, the reason religion is still important isn’t that we should trust the content of ancient myths, which would be dubious in many contexts. No, but we all still tend to be religious as a matter of fact. To see this, we need to distinguish between religion and theism. Theism is the belief that a personal deity created and interacts with the world, whereas religion, in sociological and psychological terms, is the irrational handling of ultimate issues. Thus, religion contrasts not with atheism but with philosophy and in some cases science. Because we’re animals that evolved from creatures that had little capacity for reason, we still carry irrational faculties in our brain, and so we’re likely to think and to act religiously rather than philosophically when faced with the ultimate questions of where we are, what we are, and what we should do in reality. When we resort to superstition or to magical thinking, we’re being religious. When our habits become rituals, we’re being religious. When we fawn over celebrities, we’re being religious. When we put our faith in anything as though it were sacred, we’re being religious. When we love anything, we’re being religious.

How so? Because wanton displays of emotion are irrational, strictly speaking. Intuitions and other snap judgments can be useful in a pinch, but grasping at straws in desperation isn’t the same as subordinating our personality to the dictates of logic, which alone are supposed to mirror the universe’s structure according to the scientific faith. To think rationally, you must let reason or a daemon of creative inspiration possess your soul. We submit to reason just as theists are supposed to submit to God. We think rationally when we ignore our preferences and occupy the angst-ridden mental space which is close enough to a view from nowhere. We pretend we’re disinterested to catch a glimpse of how things really are, which is how they would be even if no person ever lived to attempt to understand them. But we’re rarely rational at all, let alone on a full-time basis. Philosophy is unpopular because it’s catastrophic to our preferred self-image. Science would share that fate if it didn’t produce useful technologies as byproducts. The easiest way of responding to ultimate questions is the preferred, irrational way, which means we’re all more or less religious. We can call our Western consumerist, materialist lifestyle “the search for happiness in the free world” or “the progression of capitalism and democracy,” but because this culture is at least partly irrational and includes ideals and other answers to ultimate questions, this way of life is functionally religious.   

Of course, this definition of “religion” is almost as unfalsifiable as Peterson’s, since both speak very broadly. But there’s a clear difference since my broad account of religion’s prevalence doesn’t assume religion is absolutely everywhere. Rationality is real too. Methodologically speaking, religion is opposed to philosophy and science, not to atheism. Therefore, the secular world has its “civic religions” as well as its cults or its grossly irrational and dangerous secret societies. Indeed, “cult” being the root of “culture,” (from “cultus,” meaning signs of habitation such as tilling, refinement, and worship), the difference between cult and culture is likely just political. Cults are irrational ways of life that are dangerous to us (to the sanctimonious middle class, for example), whereas cultures are irrational ways of life that are dangerous to others (to foreigners, including most animal species).

The prevalence of religiosity is only an observation, not an evaluation. Peterson thinks religious myths are trustworthy, because they benefit society and social conventions supply us with our values, from the psychological perspective. But these myths are useful only as poetry or as other literary works of art. Art that inspired people in the past can be obsolete today. Even art that contains universal themes such as Peterson’s meta-myth can become banal, in which case we should look for fresh art. Religious myths are fictions, after all. Even if they deal with foundational human experiences, those experiences are evaluative, which means the myths posit ideals about what should be done. Statements about what should be done occupy a kind of superposition and so are neither true nor false. They’re necessarily counterfactual, because of the gap between “is” and “ought,” although the representation of an ideal can motivate us to achieve it by pursuing the corresponding goal, making the ideal a reality, in which case the ideal may become the good of maintaining or perfecting that ideal in reality over time. Regardless, fictions are likewise counterfactual. The difference is only that we’re up-front about how fictions derive from the imagination, whereas we pretend that moral, theological, or spiritual contents correspond to invisible facts in a supernatural, reified realm. The simpler course is to brush aside that conceit and to think of the discourse of imperatives and prescriptions as a type of fiction. Normative statements are about possibilities favoured by the imagination but perhaps not (yet) actualized. In that case, religious myths should be assessed primarily on aesthetic grounds. Are those myths valuable as artworks, not as pseudoscientific statements of fact about how healthy societies work? Which way of life is artistically supreme and which casts a pall of dishonour on its enthusiasts? 


  1. Great writing. Which society/country/way of thought is most similar to the approach you wrote about above?

    1. I'm not quite sure what you're asking. If you're asking whether a society implements the sort of philosophy I espouse, I'd say I doubt it, although I don't know enough about societies all around the world to say for sure. Philosophy tends to be antisocial, though, so you wouldn't expect philosophy as opposed to propaganda, myths, and noble lies to be especially useful in organizing large populations. Philosophical ideas are for outsider individuals or for people generally to keep to themselves so they can understand why societies disappoint and why we're all afflicted with absurdities in daily life.

      This article about Jordan Peterson is just to critique his approach to looking for a viable religion in late modernity. He says all religions are viable because they speak to fundamental human experiences that resonate with our brain structures. I disagree with most of that. Contents of religions can become stale because religion is an art form. So in my view what we need is a postmodern, cynical or misanthropic perspective coupled with heaping amounts of humility, as opposed to self-righteousness. That's how we might survive the next century with our honour intact.

  2. ----
    So in my view what we need is a postmodern, cynical or misanthropic perspective coupled with heaping amounts of humility,
    apt observation, imho. but good luck finding many people in canada that would agree with that. unfortunately.
    i really admired him for standing his ground, because the whole pronouns business was imho totally insane, but then his "maps of meaning" is, sadly, just too primitive and boring imho, neither maps, nor meaning in it, just lots and lots of bombastic expressions.
    solid analysis on your part.

    1. It's funny. Something I noticed from his interviews, long before he became famous, is that he was being bold just for the sake of it even though his perspective isn't terribly original. He's an evolutionary psychologist, shocking people with his naturalistic and thus politically-incorrect reductions, but like Nietzsche he attempts to combine them with some vindication of religion and spirituality. There's a smallness to his pronouncements which strikes me as quintessentially Canadian. You can see this from the New Yorker review of his more recent book, 12 Rules for Life, which speaks of the banality of much of his advice (link below). You can see this also from the embarrassment of the grammar mistakes that aren't mere typos in Maps of Meaning. Canadian culture itself is small, so it doesn't provide much of a support structure for any Canadian artist or thinker who tries to rise up. The government provides money for social justice warriors and minorities, of course, but the Canadian ethos doesn't provide inspiration for great art.

      Technically, I'm Canadian too, but I'm an outsider, not part of the Canadian establishment like Peterson. Still, there's likely therefore a smallness to my thinking too, based perhaps on the society's inferiority complex. Russian thinking might have the opposite problem of being overly bold.

  3. Great and crucial problem about religion = reconnect to DIVINE is that

    religion is not mythology.

    Divine is not fantasy.

    Mythology = fantastic culture.

    Religion would be truly the ''culture of self-awareness/of finitude''

  4. God is a impersonalization of instinct /self god...

  5. ''Peterson says religions derive from structures in the human brain which evolved to solve that basic problem of needing to reconcile the limits of our knowledge with the existence of the broader universe. Those brain structures are universal and so there must be patterns in all religions that reflect their common origin. Jung explained these patterns as archetypes buried in the collective unconscious, as images that express innate human dispositions that dictate the stages of our life cycle''.

    He's not wrong, we can see from the most primary human societies, the presence of god is nearly constant and at the first sight it look very logical.