Jordan Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, who is especially popular on YouTube for his incredibly interesting lectures. Those who know about Jordan B Peterson usually have a strong opinion about him. These opinions range from reverence to intense dislike, and this range does not diminish among Christians. He has criticized New Atheism in his lectures, creating a positive response from some believers; but his religious views have revealed to be moderate and vague, which created a negative response from others. (New Atheism, in this post, refers to the common beliefs and philosophies of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, especially their criticisms of Christianity, Islam, and other religions.) Peterson’s religious views are only a small portion of the substance that he presents in his lectures, speeches, debates, and other appearances. But in this article I will evaluate his religious views, attempting to separate the things he gets right from the things he gets wrong. There will be no binary verdict on whether he is a “true Christian” because it is not my place to make one. I intend to create a guide for devout Christians on Peterson’s views so that it is easier to separate his useful content from that which to be skeptical about. Peterson appeared numerous times in various settings, but most of his religious views have been revealed in his recent debates with Sam Harris. There were four debates: two in Vancouver (with Bret Weinstein moderating) and two in the British Isles (Dublin then London) with Douglas Murray moderating. Most situations where Peterson was compelled to articulate his beliefs have been during these discussion, and I will hence make frequent references to them. I will finally make note that this piece is only an opinion of a 21-year-old lay person, and not only have you every right to disagree, but my views will likely evolve as well.
It is relevant to first remark that Peterson speaks of Christianity in a framework that has been set up by his western, Protestant environment with a significant influence from the New Atheists. Peterson accepts the reduction of Christianity to Biblical “myths” presented as stories to be read. The focus on Scripture and away from sacraments and history is a product of Protestantism in the United States and Canada. But in fairness to Protestants, they usually have a deeper view of Christianity than a collection of stories, with a strong emphasis on prayer and community. The treatment of the Bible as the Quran of Christianity has been, first and foremost, perpetuated by the New Atheists. It is therefore common in most intellectual scientific circles to treat the Bible as if it were dictated by an angel from cover to cover, much like the Quran or the Book of Mormon. New Atheists and their predecessors have also pushed for an assumption in our times that religiosity is at odds with science. When a scientist reveals that he is religious, there is almost always a request for reconciliation between his religious views and his career in science. These are the realities that Peterson is presented with, whether we like it or not. From this point I will assume that the goal of Peterson’s religious interpretations is to reconcile any form of belief in Biblical stories with rationality and science.
Peterson’s attempt to reunite science and religion is a worthy one for the conditions of our times, but his ideas require clarifications and corrections. Near the beginning of the second Vancouver debate, Weinstein attempts to summarize some of Peterson’s claims from the previous discussion. He labels Peterson’s view of Biblical stories as “metaphorical truths” (hence the title of this post). Weinstein defines the idea of metaphorical truth as “the idea that there are concepts that are literally false […] but that if you behave as if they were true, you come out ahead of where you were than if you behave according to the fact that they are false.” Peterson seems to accept this characterization, even though it is self-defeating. If it is more appropriate to suggest that a certain claim is true, then why does that statement assert that it is factually wrong? It is true that many claims in Christianity, such as beliefs in the Holy Spirit, heaven, and hell, are metaphysical and are fundamentally distinct from physical facts. But we cannot escape the fact that we still make physical claims, such as the Resurrection; and these claims cannot be characterized with Weinstein’s descriptions of metaphorical truths. Peterson has it correct that even Christianity’s physical claims are fundamentally distinct from scientific claims and facts. Yet it is not a difference in the nature in which they are true, or at least their truth does not lack anything that scientific truths have. The difference is in our nature of belief in these claims and the way in which we claim to know of these truths. We do not claim that we used the scientific method to determine that Christ rose from the dead. Furthermore, our knowledge of His Resurrection is a different kind of knowledge than our awareness of various scientific facts. Complication increases with the realization that we (as individuals) almost never use science to determine whether a scientific fact is true. We almost always take it on faith from parents, teachers, and other sources. (But it is a different topic for a different time.)
What, then, is this nature of belief that characterizes our claims about Christianity? When we as young Christians describe what we believe to our secular colleagues, we often face questions of the form: “do you really believe this?” As a result, some of us may spend long periods of time thinking about what it means to believe something. A priest once told me that often the best way to deal with this kind of confusion is to focus on actions rather than abstract beliefs. Once we make clear to ourselves what we do, we get closer to articulating what we believe. Peterson takes it further, stating on multiple occasions that to believe something means “to act as if it is true.” This denotation is more helpful and productive than it may seem. Consider the conversation in the second Vancouver discussion that followed Weinstein’s statement on metaphorical truths. Sam Harris brings up the potential metaphorical truth in the idea that all guns are loaded. He admits that it is useful for our safety to assume that every gun is a loaded gun. But then Harris correctly points out that religious belief is fundamentally different from this assumption about guns. He says: “Yet if someone in the middle of this operation came up to us and pointed out [that] there is a casino that just opened across the street that will take your bets about whether or not guns are loaded, would you […] bet a million dollars? […] The only way I can understand this utility [of metaphorical truths] is in the context of distinguishing it from literal truth.” The conversation went away on a tangent, and it was not clear what Peterson thought about this specific point. He had an opportunity to tie his definition of belief to this casino example. Whether or not we believe something comes down to whether or not we would bet on it. In this case, to believe in Christianity means to bet on it being true, which is what we do when we act it out! Thus when anyone asks whether we would bet on Christianity being true, the reality is that we are already doing so by practicing it. In this way our actions define what we believe in a most literal sense.
Peterson also often mentions Biblical stories as archetypal representations of events in our daily lives. For example, he once claimed that Scripture references the end times in order to warn us that we must be prepared for catastrophe at any time. He most famously and frequently claims that “hell” represents certain states of our minds as well as the state of Being in places such as Gulags and Auschwitz. Peterson is correct that this archetypal representation is at least one function of these stories. In fact, the Passion and Resurrection (the ultimate story) can represent any dopamine-endorphin cycle, including something as simple as scoring a goal in a hockey game. Further, in Orthodox Christian tradition, these events are embodied every year with the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. The Resurrection is itself embodied on a smaller scale every Sunday with the celebration of the divine liturgy. Thus it is true that the Resurrection is an archetype that we constantly embody on different scales in our daily lives. What Peterson fails to make clear is that these archetypal events are also true on their own and are the ultimate representations of themselves. There is nothing that is stopping these events from being true in their own merit in addition to being the archetypes for various other situations in life. Peterson could not give a definite answer when confronted with belief in the literal Resurrection. He has similarly been vague and evasive during large parts of his debates with Sam Harris. While Peterson has said in the latter part of the London debate that these stories are “not just a fiction” he has repeatedly called them “myths” in other occasions. During the London debate Peterson also finally distinguishes between religious stories and philosophical texts such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. “They don’t meet every week to read Marcus Aurelius, and they don’t write music, there is no art that goes along with it, there is no architecture that goes along with it…” Twenty minutes later Peterson says that the story of Cain and Abel is a “product of a vast collection of human minds working over millennia.” Harris correctly replies, saying that “this concession … is the eradication of traditional Christianity.”
Jordan Peterson has thus served his purpose as a useful gateway for many young atheists into considering Christianity. Peterson has successfully used his discipline of psychology to show that the New Atheists are wrong in their own terms and must amend their thinking to at least fit their own standards of rationality. Yet beyond this point I see no helpful direction where he can take his less religious audience. He will continue to be an inspiration for young men to sort themselves out, to be thankful rather than resentful, to make themselves more articulate, and to advocate for free speech and truth. But in the realm of promoting Christianity to much of Peterson’s audience it is time for new forces and figures to rise. It must be made clear that belief in the literal truths of Christianity does not require “reconciliation” with scientific practice, because these truths do not ruin the outcome of any scientific theory or experiment. Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and many other outstanding scientists believed in Christianity literally (perhaps too literally when considering Genesis), and nobody demanded that they “reconcile” their beliefs. In 2016, Peterson said on Joe Rogan’s show: “I am a scientist, but I’m also […] a deeply religious person.” It is this “but” that we want to get rid of forever.