The Metaphorical Truth About Jordan Peterson

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.

About The Author

Vlad Smetanko is a patriotic American who is an Orthodox Christian from Infancy.

4 thoughts on “The Metaphorical Truth About Jordan Peterson

  1. First I’d like to say that I agreed with much of what you wrote, and appreciate your honest attempt to describe Peterson’s beliefs. It’s less common than in should be.

    You said Peterson isn’t the right one to lead new atheists to christianity, at least in a traditional sense, and I agree with it, although I fail to see how exactly christianity would ever be capable of such a feat without a petersonesque approach.

    You openly admit that science is not the tool used by christianity to legitimize its claims, which is fine, but you also say ” 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.”

    How exactly is a skeptical/rational minded person supposed to accept literal interpretations of the Bible without scientific validation, and how exactly is it that these literal interpretations can coexist with our established modes of acquiring new knowledge?

    You framed it as if the clash between science and religion stemmed from his protestant background, but your own words reveal the same conflict, only left unaddressed. Peterson at least provides an out here, a way to reconcile both, to bridge the gap between science and religion. It seems to me that if you want to claim the Bible happened literally you HAVE to reconcile it with science, you cannot place it outside of its domain and maintain its literal truth. At least, not if you want to appear consistent to those of a more skeptical nature.

    Now I’m not saying you should have ready answers to my comments, but I would like to hear what you think.

    1. Thank you, Maximilian, for commenting! These are some relevant and helpful thoughts.

      I think that wherever Peterson has lead some of the atheists thus far is a good direction. I meant to say that the journey is incomplete, and there need to be other forces and figures to bring these people from this point on. Peterson can continue doing the same thing to new people, and it will be for the good. It is the people whom he already affected that now need someone else.

      Your second point will require me to unwrap something that I decided to keep simpler in this article. I will probably write a separate article eventually about science and religion, but I will try to address your concern briefly here.

      There are two perceived “clashes” between science and religion. First, there is the idea that if you are a scientist then you cannot believe in anything at all that contradicts the laws of science, including the miracles in the New Testament. In a way it is perceived that the possibility of God’s intervention into the physical world can invalidate all of science. This is the concern that I address when I say that “these truths do not ruin the outcome of any scientific experiment.”

      The second perceived clash is separate, though I did not make it that clear in this article. This is the concern that you have when you say “how exactly is a skeptical/rational minded person supposed to accept literal interpretations of the Bible without scientific validation.” This concern is less frequent, even though it is a much stronger point. I would say that this issue is what tempts me the most to doubt my faith. That being said, I don’t see it as a science vs religion issue. You don’t have to be a scientist or some kind of designated rationalist in order to try to think as clearly as possible and believe in what you think is most likely to be factually true. This problem is tough, and I would like to address it in some other article, but it is certainly not grounds to justify a statement like “I’m a scientist BUT I’m also religious.”

      With regards to your third point, I actually did not say that Protestantism is what fostered this clash. I attributed it entirely to New Atheists “and their predecessors” by whom I meant people who lived before them who thought similarly to them. It might have been confusing because this point immediately succeeded my point about something that both New Atheists and Protestants contributed to. I am also not sure how my words offer a conflict between religion and science specifically. I said that we do not claim to use the scientific method to determine things like the Resurrection. But just because science isn’t used somewhere doesn’t mean it is opposed to that discipline.

      Thank you again, and I am just curious… how did you find this website?

      1. Hey, sorry for taking so long, I was a little busy.

        “I think that wherever Peterson has lead some of the atheists thus far is a good direction. I meant to say that the journey is incomplete, and there need to be other forces and figures to bring these people from this point on. Peterson can continue doing the same thing to new people, and it will be for the good. It is the people whom he already affected that now need someone else.”

        I definitely agree that when viewing it from the perspective of the necessity or duty of bringing people back into traditional christianity Peterson is not the answer. He’s probably a good gateway for those not entirely convinced of it in the first place, like myself, but he hasn’t shown any interest in making his message centered on christianity, or some kind of active involvement with the church.

        “This is the concern that you have when you say “how exactly is a skeptical/rational minded person supposed to accept literal interpretations of the Bible without scientific validation.” This concern is less frequent, even though it is a much stronger point. I would say that this issue is what tempts me the most to doubt my faith. That being said, I don’t see it as a science vs religion issue. You don’t have to be a scientist or some kind of designated rationalist in order to try to think as clearly as possible and believe in what you think is most likely to be factually true.”

        Right, and Peterson provides a reasonable way out, and that is that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally. I understand that this pulls it away from traditional interpretations, are you correctly point out, but by doing so it avoids the problem of trespassing into the domain of science alltogether. It’s probably not the fix that a devout christian wants, but it’s better than the “it just takes faith” alternative. I agree that one can be a scientist and a religious person, even one that takes the Bible literally, although the fundamental contradiction between both worldviews is not resolved by merely allowing them to coexist. It’s some form of cognitive dissonance, of intellectual compartmentalization that has to necessarily occur to allow both. I believe this to be true because to be a scientist isn’t just a way of working, it’s not something that applies from 9 to 5, it’s a fundamental way of construing the world and our relationship to it. A literal interpretation of the Bible, for example, makes the belief in young earth creationism a logical necessity, since that is what a literal reading entails. Things like the flood or 900 year old people have the same problem.

        And lastly, about the third point, you’re right that I probably misread you, you didn’t attribute it directly to protestanism, that’s my bad. That being said, you did write that: “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.”

        This is what I meant when I said that you left the conflict unaddressed. I agree that one can interpret the Bible literally and still be a scientist, but just because people are capable of doing that does not necessarily mean the rift doesn’t exist. Science is usually lodged within a particular metaphysical framework, it is not just the scientific method on its own. When our metaphysical presuppositions are based in a materialistic/rational/objective interpretation of reality, belief in unfounded facts or events is not sustainable.

        Of course, one does not have to be a materialist to be a scientist, since one can confine the use and implications of science to its practical application, Peterson himself is a scientist and not a materialist. My point is something like this: The issue that new atheists and people of a more skeptical nature have with literal interpretations of the Bible is that they require one change those fundamental presuppositions about reality, and that is a move most are not willing to make, given the perceived loss of internal coherence and consistency.

        You said the “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”, but that is, in a sense, to miss the point of those that claim the rift is real. The opposition stems from the fundamental incompatibility of such a belief with the materialistic paradigm.

        Maybe I am wrong about this, I am honestly not sure, but I would love to hear what you think about it.

        1. I’m sorry for the delay. This is a shorter response, but I think it focuses the issue. (Btw I might be wrong as well; I am also exploring this topic.)
          Our core disagreement may be rooted in whether one’s career as a scientist should determine his entire way of thinking. You wrote: “to be a scientist isn’t just a way of working, it’s not something that applies from 9 to 5, it’s a fundamental way of construing the world and our relationship to it.” If that is the case, there may in fact be a “rift” between being a scientist and being religious. But then there is a rift between religion and virtually any occupation, so long as one uses this occupation to determine how to think about everything.
          I would agree that if one makes the claim that science can be the governing method to determine every single belief, then such a claim clashes with religious views.

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