Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor and clinical psychologist, hosted a YouTube series of lectures on the psychological significance of the biblical stories, where he articulated some fascinating insights; but, on some points is he wrong, or just misunderstood?
I only watched the first two, but I got a sense from these two, and other videos listed below, to know that he has made a few errors in interpretation, and/or overlooked the underlying context. Granted, he is not a biblical scholar; though, it is clear he has done a lot of homework.
Biblical Series I (BS1): Introduction to the Idea of God, (transcript)
Biblical Series II (BS2): Genesis 1: Chaos & Order, (transcript)
Pangburn Philosophy (PP): An Evening With Matt Dillahunty & Jordan Peterson
Unbelievable (U): Jordan Peterson vs Susan Blackmore • Do we need God to make sense of life?
Jordan’s attempt to layer a current interpretation on to stories from millennia ago is perplexing given that these stories have evolved, in some cases significantly, different meanings over time. What the stories meant when they were created (irrespective of the impossibility of adequately diagnosing the psychological aspects of the author’s mindset and motivation), and how they have come to be seen over time, are vastly separate topics. Conflating these two separate issues leads to exactly the error in perspective which Jordan assigns them. Or, as it was succinctly stated in this Australian article titled, Jordan Peterson’s psycho-religious heresy:
“Ironically, Jordan is rightly critical of those who would superimpose the twentieth-century scientific method onto the Bible, but then he himself makes precisely the same error by imposing a modern psychological one.”
It is these revisionist interpretations that I will challenge, providing the historical backstory to counter Jordan’s viewpoints. Specifically, I will address why the psychological significance he assigns to biblical stories is flawed, to contest his beliefs that:
- the Judeo-Christian ethic is what underpins the value systems of Western civilization; and,
- atheists and “anti-religious thinkers” are abandoning this tradition to our collective peril
What I will demonstrate is that what he believes to be true, in many cases, are his personal views or that of the Christian faithful; views not necessarily held by religious scholars, or even the correct interpretations, for that matter.
What his motivations are for this series only Jordan can say. He steadfastly refuses to be pinned down and boxed in on what his beliefs are, and he has been extremely coy about affirming his Christianity: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Though, in the Adam and Eve lecture, Jordan let his mask slip for a moment when he explicitly stated:
“…The greatest event in history, which was the birth of Christ and the redemption of mankind.”
Now, was he saying this in conjunction with the metaphorical deconstruction of the Fall narrative, or was he stating what he, himself, believes? Considering the Fall narrative (in its original form, not what it was expropriated for) has nothing to do with Christianity, nor could the author of the Genesis 3 story have foreseen how later Christian traditions would use this story to buttress their dogmatic beliefs in the redemption of humanity through Jesus, it is unlikely that this is what Jordan is trying to imply. The logical conclusion is that Jordan is making a statement of his own belief. A belief that: one, he maintains is the greatest in history; two, that Jesus is actually the Christ; and three, that Jesus redeemed humanity. It is no longer mere speculation of his inherent bias towards Christianity, but, indeed, this reveals the foundational basis on which he predicated the series about how the psychological truths of Judeo-Christianity will save humanity from itself.
He’s obviously also a Jungian Gnostic (part 3), and continuously hypes Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment (part 5), written by a committed Christian desperate to demonstrate how abandoning Christianity leads to a dark path. I wonder what Freud would say about Jordan’s evasive circumlocutions, what subconscious desire drives him to be a shill for Christianity, and this peculiar need to be covert about it?
Jordan claims there is a psychological significance to the biblical stories, as they manifest the values contained in the archetypal collective unconscious. But, if it is the stories and the humanist values they contain that are important, then:
- why do we need to keep all the religious baggage that comes with them?
- why is there a need to have a supernatural deity associated with the stories?
I am also curious to know exactly which people Jordan believes are reading the Bible stories for the metaphors. Experience would indicate precious few.
“But he could not quite abandon the Christianity of his youth, and so Peterson spends a lot of time in this book purporting to tell us what Scripture really says, and does so with all the exegetical and hermeneutical skill of Ayn Rand. While Rand’s scorn for theology and Christianity was well known, warning most believers off her, Peterson’s presentation, given the lack of theological literacy of our time, contains just enough jargon and scriptural references to fool a lot of people into thinking he knows what he’s talking about. He does not. If his psychology is suspect, his theology is absolutely insidious.”
The Catholic World Report, Jordan Peterson’s Jungian best-seller is banal, superficial, and insidious
In the following series of articles, I detail in-depth where Jordan has made blatant mistakes, either through presenting evolved Christian interpretations which ignore the original contexts, or simply because he has deliberately chosen to spout Christian propaganda.
Part 2: The Serpent-Satan Synthesis
Part 3: The Logos-Trinity Ideation
Part 4: The Deuteronomistic Paradigm
Part 5: The Dostoevsky Distraction
Part 6: The Moral Atheist Mystification
In summary, Jordan makes a series of assertions that the Judeo-Christian ethic is all that stands between Western civilization and nihilistic oblivion at the hands of the increasingly irreligious:
BS1: “…there’s something at the bottom of this amazing civilization that we’ve managed to construct, that I think is in peril for a variety of reasons. And maybe if we understand it a little bit better we won’t be so prone just to throw the damn thing away. Which I think would be a big mistake. And to throw it away because of resentment and hatred and bitterness and historical ignorance and jealously and desire for destruction, and all of that.”
PP: “We’d lose the metaphoric substrate of our ethos and we’d be lost.”
PP: “Oh, you lose art, and poetry, and drama, and narratives.”
A fellow psychologist takes him to task over this perspective:
“Peterson seems to assume that the only alternatives to religious morality are totalitarian atrocities or despondent nihilism.”
Yet it appears contradictory, to me anyway, that if the values contained within the Judeo-Christian tradition preceded the tradition (part 4), then why should Jordan be worried if people are simply abandoning the vehicle which, successfully, conveyed the values? The values are the important factor, the ones that emerged from the unconscious, not the transmission mechanism. “Adamant anti-religious thinkers” are not advocating that we abandon morality, or “our immersement in the underlying dream,” so the values themselves will remain intact. Another Canadian psychologist, Steven Pinker, makes this point in Enlightenment Now:
“If the positive contributions of religious institutions come from their role as humanistic associations in civil society, then we would expect those benefits not to be tied to theistic belief, and that is indeed the case.”
Steven, as the subtitle of the book alludes, made “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” that society is not in any danger—contrary to Jordan’s dire warnings—from increasing secularization:
“Evolution helps explain another foundation of secular morality: our capacity for sympathy (or, as the Enlightenment writers variously referred to it, benevolence, pity, imagination, or commiseration). Even if a rational agent deduces that it’s in everyone’s long-term interests to be moral, it’s hard to imagine him sticking his neck out to make a sacrifice for another’s benefit unless something gives him a nudge. The nudge needn’t come from an angel on one shoulder; evolutionary psychology explains how it comes from the emotions that make us social animals…Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings…
A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing—that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives—is just such a principle, since it’s based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity.
History confirms the when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism.”
Jordan also overlooked the very contribution Enlightenment thinking had on modern moral standards, hell-bent as he was to demonize the secular shift away from religion that was spawned by these ideals in his attempt to glorify the Judeo-Christian ethic as the sole provider of Western values:
Today, of course, enlightened believers cherry-pick the human injunctions while allegorizing, spin-doctoring, or ignoring the vicious ones, and that’s just the point: they read the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment humanism.
Tufts University philosophy professor, Dan Dennett, echoed the same sentiments:
“Secularists don’t have to “build” anything; we can choose moral philosophies from what’s already well tested. If religious people think that their “faith” excuses them from evaluating the duties and taboos handed down to them, they are morally obtuse…
We secularists have no need for love of any imaginary being, since there is a bounty of real things in the world to love, and to motivate us: peace, justice, freedom, learning, music, art, science, nature, love and health, for instance.”
Dan further expounded on secular morality, stating:
“The idea that you can’t be moral without religion is just a complete falsehood.”
British philosopher, A.C. Grayling, also discussed the benefits of humanism:
“Humanism is a general outlook based on two allied premises, which allow considerable latitude to what follows from them. The premises are, first, that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe, and second, that our individual and social ethics must be drawn from, and responsive to, facts about the nature and circumstances of human beings…
Humanism, though, is not even a philosophy, for it has no teachings beyond its two minimal premises, and obliges us to do nothing other than think for ourselves.”
As the early needs for tribal cohesion led to greater demands for social community, which gave rise to religious and political identities, group values have emerged, changed, and advanced through time. As Deuteronomy codified civil rights, and Christianity built on them, so too will universal human ideals leave behind the unhelpful dogmas, and take what Matt Dillahunty pointed out are “true and good and useful,” and build on and expand from the corpse. Relax, Jordan. Stop being such a pessimist. Everything is in good hands.
“Courtesy, generosity, honesty, persistence, and kindness. If you are courteous, you will not be disrespected; if you are generous, you will gain everything. If you are honest, people will rely on you. If you are persistent you will get results. If you are kind, you can employ people.”
Confucius, Analects 17.5