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Alcoholics Anonymous: the Science, Law, and Secular Alternatives by Patrick Hinsel

“12-Step recovery programs do more harm than good.”

This statement, though it can be passionately argued for or against, with emotional resolve and with anger, cannot even come close to being discredited by evidence. That is because good evidence regarding the efficacy of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous eludes us. Most estimates place it at approximately a 10% success rate, or equivalent to cold turkey.  In his recent book, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Lance Dodes, MD, a retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, measured AA’s retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement (attending meetings regularly and working the program) among AA members. Based on this research, he put AA’s actual success rate closer to 5-8 percent. By definition, AA is anonymous, so honest and reliable statistics are difficult to come by. But insurance companies pay for the 12-Steps. The medical community endorses AA, NA, and the 12-Steps.  Governments sanction AA and NA. Therefore AA is ubiquitous, to the exclusion of more reasonable alternatives.

Untold numbers of people find AA off-putting because of the religious aspect. Yet, AA enjoys a monopoly in the recovery community. Secular alternatives are not available all day, everyday, at multiple locations in every city and town in America like 12-Step meetings are. Secular meetings, even in large cities, may only meet once a week, if at all. So the overtly religious 12-Steps, unacceptable to so many, preclude countless individuals from getting the help they seek and need. They suffer for it, and their families suffer too. When we hear about a celebrity relapsing or a rock star overdosing, why should the assumption be that they failed to work their 12-Step program? It is more likely the 12-Step program failed them.

To be clear, AA is religious.

The courts say so, at least.[1] And then there is the fact that most meetings are held at Christian churches. Meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. And seven of the 12-Steps deal with God, Higher Power, Prayer, and Spiritual Awakening. Only five do not:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

These Steps are read at the beginning of every meeting, along with statements like, “There is One who has All power, that One is God. May you find Him now!” and, “Probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism…God could and would if He were sought.”[2]

The courts have returned their verdict as well. Between 1996 and 2007, five high-level US courts (three federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts) each ruled on this issue. AA is religious and therefore the State cannot force people to go. Because the cases involved the Establishment Clause, they reached the highest level of judiciary scrutiny, only one level below the US Supreme Court.

While AA and its members may deny that it is grounded in religion, these high court rulings clearly explain that when newcomers are told that they should accept the existence of God as a requirement for continued sobriety, and tell them to seek their God through prayer, confess all wrongdoings to Him, and ask Him for removal of shortcomings, and then expect the newcomer to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of meetings, the fellowship is indeed practicing “religion.”

Separation of Church and State

Bill W. and Dr. Bob are the Patriarchs of AA, dating back to the program’s Judeo-Christian roots in the 1930s. With other AA members, they were able to influence medical decision makers well into the 1950s and 60s and made presentations to Congress and Medical Societies that had clout at the time. Physiologist E. M. Jellinek collaborated with early AA member Marty Mann, and published the results of a survey mailed to 1,600 AA members. Only 158 were returned. Jellinek and Mann culled 45 that had been improperly completed and another 15 filled out by women, whose responses were so unlike the men’s that they risked confounding the results. From this small sample (98 men) Jellinek drew sweeping conclusions, and his “medical literature” became AA gospel, leading to the medical community’s eventual acceptance of the 12-Steps as the Gold Standard method of treating addiction.[3] With Medicine’s blessing, government and insurance companies began paying for 12-Step based treatment, opening the door for religion and removing the wall between church and state.

“You’re in terrible shape, you need to get yourself to an AA meeting”.

AA manipulates people when they are at their most vulnerable, desperately seeking guidance. Even agnostics and atheists go to AA looking for help in early recovery, because they cannot find any alternatives to the 12-Steps in their area. Some manage to get sober in spite of God, not because of Him. Criminals, including pedophiles and sex offenders, anonymously mix into the groups. Fragile newcomers are easy prey. The manipulation even extends to a “13th Step”, in which male AA members with some clean-time in the program will befriend a female newcomer, ostensibly to offer guidance and support. But in reality the goal is to sexually exploit, or “13th Step”, the female newcomer.[4]

Secular Alternatives to AA and 12-Step Programs

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If this is true, why would repeated returns to the 12-Steps be the solution to repeated relapses? It stands to reason that people have better treatment outcomes when they’re offered choices and not coerced to accept one thing or another. In a 2012 report on addiction treatment in the U.S. by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, researchers concluded: “Evidence clearly demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment typically is a recipe for failure.” In her book Inside Rehab, Anne M. Fletcher illustrates a science based perspective on recovery and takes a thorough look at the state of affairs of addiction treatment in the US. To be fair, she acknowledges 12-Steps can be helpful for those who willingly pursue it. But other options do exist. Unfortunately, most in the recovery community are unaware or unfamiliar with secular options due to the glaring eclipse that is the 12-Steps.

Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness based recovery program designed by Noah Levine in California. This program is becoming more popular across the US. It emphasizes meditation and Buddhist philosophy, practicing compassion and empathy in the day to day lives of members. In-person group meetings create a social community and support network. Like the other secular groups listed here, Refuge Recovery welcomes people looking to address all spectrums of addiction, including alcohol, food, sex, opioids, meth, and process addictions. There is no mention of any God or Gods as a part of Refuge Recovery. It also has a robust online community.

LifeRing Secular Recovery is an abstinence-based, worldwide network of individuals seeking to live in recovery from addiction to alcohol or to other non-medically indicated drugs.

SMART recovery is science based, and it is probably the largest 12-Step alternative today, world wide. It teaches self-help and common sense with a goal of empowerment.  Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) techniques are used to achieve positive, lasting changes in the lives of its members.

SMART Recovery evolves as scientific knowledge of addiction evolves. It welcomes change when there is an improvement. By contrast, The Big Book of AA was written in the1930s and the AA community adamantly resists changing or adapting it. The Big Book’s chapter “To Wives” reflects an overtly sexist worldview that is increasingly considered unacceptable in modern times. Chapter 4, the “Chapter to the Agnostic” is not an argument of persuasion, it is an arrogant line in the sand, “There either is a God, or there isn’t”  (the implied answer is that there is, just one).  SMART Recovery has wider popularity in Europe than in America right now. Also, an interesting difference in Europe is AA meetings traditionally do not say the Lord’s prayer, and the religious aspects are toned down in AA meetings compared to the USA.

SMART meetings are for all addictions and are facilitated by a moderator experienced with cognitive behavioral techniques and who has significant clean time. In-person meetings can be hard to find in most American cities. For the techniques involved, on-line and chat based meetings are not usually ideal.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is a nonprofit network of autonomous, non-professional local groups, dedicated solely to helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety from alcohol and drug addiction, food addiction and more.

Women for Sobriety A non-profit organization of women, for women, dedicated to helping women discover a happy New Life in recovery from Substance Use Disorders. It encourages emotional and spiritual growth and is endorsed by the American Humanist Association as a secular or religious-neutral option for recovery. WFS has certified moderators and chat leaders leading mutual support groups online and in person, as well as phone volunteers available for one-on-one support. Any woman seeking an abstinent New Life is welcome to join WFS.

Agnostic AA is a website for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers who are involved with AA but desire a non-religious, safe place to engage in fellowship. It is a great location to find recovery literature, materials, and books that are secular in nature.

Pharmacotherapy is an underutilized, evidence-based option to treat addiction. Experienced  physicians, trained in addiction medicine, help alcohol dependent patients with prescriptions like Topamax (topiramate) and Antabuse (disulfiram). Naltrexone (vivitrol) has shown efficacy in the treatment of opioid maintenance of sobriety, as well as alcohol long term sobriety. A wide spectrum of treatment options exist, depending on the individual and the substance(s) to which they are addicted. The difficulty is finding physicians who are able to handle this, and getting the treatment covered. The American Medical Association recently estimated that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identified themselves as addiction specialists.

Therapy.  Counsellors experienced in the treatment of addiction offer hope to those with the means to access this type of care. Unfortunately, in many instances, insurance does not cover mental health treatment like this, or patients find the cost beyond their means. The Secular Therapy Project arose to help secular individuals having a hard time matching with a counsellor in a faith based world. Many offer sessions via confidential Skype-type arrangements with special software. See SecularTherapy.org as an example.

All of these secular groups will help you if you are interested in starting a new group in your area. The costs of attending these groups are the same as the cost of AA:  free or donation only.

The Dalai Lama says, to paraphrase, “Listen to what I say, and keep what you want. If something I say is helpful, great. If something I say doesn’t fit with your experience, disregard it.” The secular recovery programs listed above are all in keeping with this line of reasoning. They don’t require faith. AA has a motto, “Take what you want, and leave the rest.” Many people in AA do modify their program to their personalities and it works for them. But AA and the Big Book’s statements about God are unequivocal. Some nonbelievers may be able to overlook this for a while and get sober. Countless others are not comfortable with this. They cannot square the fabrication of a “God” in which they don’t believe with a “program of rigorous honesty,” so they either never attend AA, or they cut their losses. They end up aborting the misadventure of AA, and go on suffering while they search for that elusive secular alternative.

Progress 

Just in the past couple of years, the American Board of Family Medicine began making changes to its board exam questions, phrasing them to better reflect secular options in recovery. Instead of the answer being simply “AA,” a broader option was given, to the effect of “a recovery meeting,” or “an AA or secular recovery meeting.”  The label “Person in long term recovery from alcohol” is emerging to replace “Alcoholic.”  It’s slow progress, beginning in academic medicine. Physicians practicing in the real world lag behind. Insurance and politicians will eventually begin to follow. It is a step in the right direction.

But still, religion permeates. Can you imagine a world in which a doctor says,“You have a primary brain disorder. It’s called Parkinson’s. You need to get on your knees and pray to God. That’ll be $200.” We wouldn’t accept this for Parkinson’s. Why on Earth do we accept this for the most common primary brain disorder, addiction?[5]

No doubt there is benefit to be found in group solidarity, working through a common struggle. It is hard to dispute the upside of support from like-minded individuals who have been through similar circumstances and can offer general advice and guidance. It is comforting to have a place to go where others believe the same as you do and want the best for you. It is helpful to have an old, well established book to refer to in times of doubt. It is reassuring to hear familiar sayings and chants at every gathering. What does this sound like? It sounds like a church. It reflects a religion because that’s what it is. And like religion, it is comforting and reassuring for its adherents. But that does not mean its faith claims are true, and it doesn’t make the claims of AA/12-Steps superior “efficacy” true either. In the words of the late Stephen Hawking, “It is not necessary to invoke God.” He was speaking on other things, but the words ring true in addiction treatment as well. Bringing God into it just complicates things and slows progress. Bill W. was right about one thing, though, when he said, “We are engaged upon a life-and-death errand.” The recovery community deserves better than faith healing.

 


 

[1] See Griffin v. Coughlin (1996); Kerr v. Farrey (1996); Arnold & Evans v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997); Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation (1999); and Inouye v. Kemna (2007).

[2] https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-10_howitworks.pdf

[3] http://www.a-1associates.com/aa/testimony.htm

[4] http://www.the13thstepfilm.com

[5] https://www.asam.org/resources/definition-of-addiction

This episode, Justin spoke with author and activist Hypatia Alexandria. They talked about her Catholic upbringing, her path to atheism and humanism, issues within the Latino community and their relationship to religion, and how political activism and secular humanism can resolve some of these issues. A special thanks to Karen Garst for making this conversation happen.

Contact Hypatia: hypatia@arauco.com

Get her book: https://amzn.to/2KIXYRF

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Theme: “Jon’s on Fire” by Silent Partner

 

Recently I wrote on how I was disappointed by the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson dialogue produced by Pangburn Philosophy. Although I still remain fundamentally disappointed by it, a few things have been clarified for me by Matt Dillahunty’s reflections on the discussion.

The thing that made the discussion so interesting was that Matt Dillahunty was not interested in debating or strawmanning Peterson. His goal, and I take him at his word, was to have a good conversation, be open and honest, seek clarification, and see where they agree and disagree. He wasn’t even the slightest bit disappointed in the dialogue, thinking he succeeded on many fronts. Maybe so. I just want to clarify a few open questions Dillahunty has concerning Peterson’s positions. Although it is quite odd Dillahunty did so little research on Peterson before the discussion, not even aware, in this recent video, of Peterson’s decades-long work as a clinician, the interchange seemed to have happened in good faith, and I have faith that this conversation can now move forward.

Language Use, the True, and the Real

One issue Dillahunty has with Peterson is he thinks people who no longer believe in God but still find religious language useful need to say they’re using religious language idiosyncratically, because they’re not talking about the God people believe in, but the human condition, and the kinds of Gods people invent to cope with that. This point on the face of it appears to be about simply being clear. In Peterson’s view, this is is actually indicative of Dillahunty’s primarily Enlightenment over Darwinian influences.[1] For Peterson, you can’t be a post-Enlightenment rationalist thinker and a Darwinian at the same time because what the latter explicitly conceptualizes the former ignores; that is, you can structure your world according to different presuppositions, and different systems of thought have different purposes. Furthermore, from his Darwinism, Peterson concludes that what is “real” subjectively and objectively, though they may be distinguished for analytical purposes, cannot be ultimately separated in reality. They have amorphous and porous borders, and this point seems lost on the post-Enlightenment thinkers.

Peterson thinks American pragmatists figured this out. The pragmatic concept of truth articulates the meaning of truth as that which works. As a result, the only kind of knowledge we can have about our environment is knowledge that is sufficient: knowledge that allows us to survive. To abstract ideas from survival value and assume that facts as they pertain to belief about morality, the world, and ourselves exist in and of themselves, separate from how they serve or diminish life, is suspect for Peterson. The assumption of post-Enlightenment thinkers is that the knowledge gained by this reduction doesn’t diminish the possibility for genuine human flourishing. Peterson says, “I think it’s dangerous to consider truth independent of its effect upon us.”[2]

This brings us to the question of the real and the true. Peterson takes what he calls a Darwinian position on the question of the real. The real is that which is consistent and endures across time. This is why Peterson is so fixated on religious myths. Dominance and competence hierarchies are some of the oldest evolutionary structures: over 300 million years old, older than trees. The patterns that constituted the competence hierarchy is the place from which ethics derives. What religious myth does is distill the grammar of competence hierarchies. Therefore to know the meaning of religious belief is to understand the millenia long solution to the problem of suffering and chaos, and this, Peterson believes, grounds our ethics.[3]

The question of what is real is actually connected to the question of the true because what is true is what is real, and what is real serves life. This is Peterson’s basic Darwinian position. Some things are only true for one thing, some things are true for ten things. Some are true for thousands of things. And that truth which is more pervasive and most enduring is the most true. Because the true and the real are connected in the notion of that which serves life, and in Peterson’s estimation, when we try to reduce the truth to just facts we have left out the thing that connects truth to reality. It’s not correspondence, and it’s not coherence. It’s life.

Are True Atheists Murderers?

One idea that got online atheist communities in an uproar is a comment Peterson made about nobody being a true atheist. Dillahunty seemed to have taken great offense at this, and perhaps rightfully so, for Dillahunty certainly doesn’t believe in a supernatural being, and he can ground morality in self-interest, of all things. Why do we need a god to be good?

The problem is Peterson isn’t actually taking the typical Christian apologist position on this issue. He’s rather concerned about the consequences of what would happen if the   of our culture is lost.[4] For Peterson, the person who lives after this event is the true atheist. People in the west who call themselves “atheists” do not in fact live after this event, for atheists of the west still live within the metaphysical substrate established by the Christian  myth. Atheists of the west today are different, for instance, from atheists in Athens. Lack of belief is where their commonalities begin and end, for atheists before the west without the Christian mythical substructure did not have a belief in the inherent dignity of individuals, the value of self-interest, natural law (which grounded the first human rights language), and the like. Although, for instance, somebody like Socrates could have argued for natural law, and so it would seem the philosophers of Athens were in effect taking a modern stance on morality, they still believed that the ordering of nature, with its natural inequality, made women and slaves naturally inferior to citizens who could participate in the polity.[5]

Another way to conceptualize Peterson’s idea is in the way Joseph Campbell did in the popular Myths To Live By. In chapter four, “The Separation of East and West,” he begins

“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet—and here is my second point—they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”[6]

He goes on to trace the history of cultures, to show that archaic civilizations operated according to a belief in a great cosmic law which left no room for the individual, and where one’s birth determined who one is, what one is to be, and what one can think. Indeed, strikingly Campbell points out that the “Sanskrit verb ‘to be’ is sati…and refers to the character of the devout Hindu wife immolating herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.”

But the west (what he calls the “occident”) is different from the orient, and it is because of the myths it told. The God who judged an entire world for their sins and sent a flood to destroy them as a consequence implies that humans are not just cogs in a predestined universal machine. Especially in the Old Testament, as we see in Job,

“the focus of concern is the individual, who is born but once, lives but once, and is distinct in his willing, his thinking, and his doing from every other; in the whole great Orient of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan the living entity is [rather] understood to be an immaterial transmigrant that puts on bodies and puts them off. You are not your body. You are not your ego. You are to think of these as delusory.”[7]

So what does this have to do with atheism in the west and, particularly, Dillahunty’s argument that from self interest he can establish a moral system that isn’t contingent on religion? Well, rationality is a recent invention, and Peterson thinks our concepts are abstractions from the myths we’ve told for millenia. This is why, for instance, the west is individualistic, democratic, tending to understanding justice in terms of liberty, whereas the east is susceptible to collectivism, communism, tending to understand justice in terms of social expectations. Our very sense that self interest is a viable candidate for moral belief in the first place is an outgrowth of the Christian myth.

This leads us back to the previous section: as Peterson said in the discussion, it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is real and what is useful. When you strip subjectivity from the world at the beginning of the analysis of the human condition or the world, Peterson thinks it creates two possible pathologies: totalitarianism and nihilism; neither of which fundamentally value life because they’ve separated vitality from mechanism, breath from logic.

The strange thing about Dillahunty’s reflections is that he’s actually much closer to Peterson than it appears in Pangburn’s video. As I have written, Peterson thinks religion has evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, religious myths provide for us the grammar of stories, and, because they rely on competence hierarchies, these stories set the background evolutionary setting to which we’ve adapted as a species, and the conceptual grounds from which our concepts of the individual derived. There is nothing supernaturalist about this position and, in fact, it’s a denial of special revelation, miracles, and divine inspiration altogether, at least, if these concepts are employed at all, they’re stripped of their traditional content. I would like to see Dillahunty and Peterson discuss these issues more fully, and I think for this to happen we have to get beyond, as I’ve said, the full stop question as to the existence of God. With or without God, how does religion affect our modern landscape? With or without God, what does the language of myth provide that, say, pure-hard logic can’t (if anything at all)? I’m hopeful the conversation might turn more interesting on these points, given that it appears both Dillahunty and Peterson had a good faith dialogue last time. Next time we might be in for something special.

 


 

[1] See Peterson’s discussion on this difference in “04 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] See much more in “Why Tell the Truth: On the Curious Notions of Jordan B. Peterson.”

[4] See much more in the article above. The logic of “mythical substrate” is basically that our ideas and rationalities derive from our behaviors which are abstracted into myths which are further abstracted into concepts. The loss of the mythical substrate is essentially the loss of the behaviors that give rise to it.

[5] See Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism for a much fuller picture of what the claim that the west was founded on both Jerusalem and Athens (i.e., Christianity) means. Note that this is not a normative judgment, entailing that now all our values must revert back to some Christian theology to be grounded. It’s simply a description of history, and the acceptance of value derived from Christian thought doesn’t entail the acceptance of Christianity to be intelligible today.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By, 61.

[7] Ibid., 69.

 

The Congressional Freethought Caucus

Something truly momentous  happened this week. On April 30, California representatives Jared Huffman and Jerry McNerney along with Maryland’s Jamie Raskin and Michigan’s Dan Kildee officially announced the creation of a Congressional Freethought Caucus. Spearheaded by the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality, the Congressional Freethought Caucus will “promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, and nonreligious persons; champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.” This couldn’t have come at a better time. With around a quarter of Americans now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 7% openly identifying as atheist, secular and humanistic perspectives will now get a larger voice in Congress.

Congressman Jared Huffman, who recently came out as a secular humanist, noted his excitement about the caucus and hopes it will “spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.” Congressman Jamie Raskin, another open humanist, highlighted the “historic” nature of this event and its ties to the founders:

Two-and-a-half centuries after the Founders of our country separated church and state and guaranteed the individual freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and worship, it is a high honor to be a co-founder and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which is organizing to defend these principles and values against continuing attack. We face a constant undertow in Congress of dangerous efforts to stifle science and promote official religious dogma and orthodoxy. Our job is to remind Congress of the kind of Enlightenment Republic that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were fighting for and to seek a democracy that protects both the rights of individual conscience and worship and the central role of reason, science and morality in the making of public policy.

Representative Jerry McNerney, who is also a scientist and mathematician, reiterated the Caucus’s philosophy and goals. “As co-founder of the Freethought Caucus, I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and as a scientist, I understand clearly the need to bring rational decision-making to Congress for the good of our nation,” said Rep. McNerney. Huffman and Raskin will serve as the co-chairs for the caucus.

This step also pushes non-theist and humanistic perspectives more to the forefront of our politics. As Ron Millar of the Center for Freethought Equality put it, “this caucus will help end discrimination against nontheist candidates and elected officials, allow candidates and elected officials to be authentic about their religious beliefs, and encourage atheist, agnostic, and humanists to run for political office.” With the ever-growing creep of theocracy into our federal government after the election of Donald Trump, the Freethought Caucus is exactly the kind of move we should take as a nation. Huffman reiterated this in his statements on Monday: “There currently is no forum focused on these important issues, and with this Administration and certain members of Congress constantly working to erode the separation of church and state, this new caucus is both important and timely.”

Secular leaders all across the country also celebrated this formation. “We are delighted at the formation of a freethought caucus in Congress,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement, “Finally, the significant portion of Americans who are not religious will have representation in Congress.” Harvard cognitive psychologist and FFRF honorary President Steven Pinker also praised the move, calling it a “historic achievement” on Twitter. Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, agrees. “The very existence of this Congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and non-religious leaders work to better the nation,” he said in a press release.

As for myself, I’m so excited about this event. The Freethought Caucus can become such an effective advocacy forum for secular and humanistic perspectives. I also appreciate their willingness to represent others who may not be as secular as them. Their dedication to the separation of church and state, as well as freedom of conscience, speaks to how they want to build bridges with other demographic groups while fighting for reason and science-based public policy. I think most people, non-religious and religious, can get behind that. Nearly 130 years since the founding of the nation’s first freethought organizations, the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union, and less than a century removed from the creation of the American Humanist Association, we now have a Caucus who will represent us in Congress. That’s definitely an achievement for the history books.

My Dissapointment with the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson Discussion

Since writing this article, Matt Dillahunty has released his reflections on the discussion. I’ve revisited the dialogue here in light of his comments.

I recently listened to the Matt Dillahunty and Jordan Peterson’s Pangburn Philosophy sponsored discussion and was extremely disappointed by it. The discussion represented something that has become commonplace in the secular movement when prominent thinkers attempt to discuss religion: there is a full stop at the question of the existence of God. This is unbelievably stifling and, frankly, uninteresting for (at least a few) reasons I will outline below. After a brief interchange with Dillahunty himself about this, I am still rather unsatisfied by his responses to my questions. He welcomed an email from me, and I will update you all when I hear his response.

As a precursor for my exposition below, I just want to give a brief description of my history with religion and religious people, specifically Christianity and Christians, to show that my ideas are not, indeed, foreign either to the study of this religion or these religious people themselves. Dillahunty had charged that I sounded like a person who has never talked with a fundamentalist or Evangelical Christian. In fact the truth is the opposite: these are the people I have known my whole life, and many friends of mine still live within both traditions. I grew up in a small town of 2,000 people in northwestern Indiana: a rural, mostly farmland community where 90% of the population was conservative, Christian, and Republican. I still attend a church there sometimes, although I live near Indianapolis now, and consider myself a secular humanist. I also attended a small, private Christian University (Anderson University in Indiana) to study philosophy and theology (although they cut their philosophy program my fourth year there and I dropped out). I attend seminary courses at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in my free time and anticipate enrolling in their MTS program in the coming months. I like to, as Christopher Hitchens used to say, keep two sets of books. Though I’m a secular humanist, I am fascinated by belief in God and have a deep desire to understand it.

This is where the recent discussion comes in. It seems like the secular humanist movement really needs to get beyond the question of whether God exists, mainly because this question assumes it understands what religious people mean when they talk about the “existence” of God. I just want to briefly suggest here how difficult it is to understand what is meant by the “existence of God,” or the meaning of faith by referring to the ideas of a few prominent theologians.

The theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote on the difference between talking about God and talking from the existential reality of God, effectively claiming that the person of faith can never talk about God (positing God as an object outside herself to be comprehended), but that for religious people God is something like the “Wholly Other” that exceeds all language and thought. Consequently, for him faith means “the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God.” This is a far cry away from the notion that religious people have some kind of rational grounding for believing in God, or that the average religious person strives to do so. The language Bultmann uses suggests an entirely different grammar from the logic of rationality.

Similarly, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” As JBH commentates, “While faith may certainly involve rationality and emotion, for Tillich it transcends them both without destroying either, thereby overcoming the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.” Continuing, for Tillich, “God functions as the most fundamental symbol for ultimate concern. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects ‘God,’ the symbol of God is always affirmed insofar God is a type of shorthand for what concerns humanity ultimately.” Here again, we find a robust definition of faith and belief which goes beyond the understanding that belief is merely the acceptance of a proposition without evidence. It is an open question, given Tillich’s understanding, whether faith can be obtained through reason, or whether faith itself provides a logic of its own for interpreting the world and its events.

Indeed, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, writes in his book to “Religion’s Cultured Despisers” that faith is different from physics, ethics, and art. This Christian thinker understands religious doctrines and dogmas as contemplations of a feeling of ultimate dependence on the universe. Schleiermacher recognizes that this exposition of religious language, as an expression of a certain feeling, puts it in a distinct discourse: “Religion, however loudly it may demand back all those well abused conceptions, leaves your physics untouched, and please God, also your psychology.” He goes on, in this light, to describe the uses of religious terms. A “miracle” is “simply the religious name for an event.” A “revelation” is every “original and new communication of the Universe to man.” I take this to mean that when language gives perspective to life, then it is revelatory language. He also makes a distinction between true belief and false belief: “Not every person has religion who believes in a sacred writing, but only the man who has a lively and immediate understanding of it, and who, therefore, so far as he himself is concerned, could most easily do without it.” Although Schleiermacher calls “God” and “immortality” ideas as opposed to feelings, he points to “God” as a unifying concept “in whom alone the particular thing is one and all.” “Is not God the highest, the only unity?” “And if you see the world as a Whole, a Universe, can you do it otherwise than in God?” With this kind of talk, we secular humanists are certainly standing on a strange continent. Yet we should not turn around, now, and give over thinking to cliches about what “God” or “faith” or “religion” must mean, but we should explore the jungles of religious thought in hopes to find what is worthwhile and intelligible, for in either case we learn about the common humanity that connects us all, whether secular or religious.

With a few questions, let’s further free our minds from the prejudices derived from overly simplistic understandings of religious belief and think for a second about what it would mean for religious people to understand God as a being like other beings. It would mean that fundamentalists themselves would say that we can get closer to God depending on where we stand on the earth, that we could see God if we had better qualities of perception, that we could hear God if our auditory system was more powerful. But this isn’t what even fundamentalists claim. They’ll say God is everywhere. And we have to take that seriously. God isn’t a being like other beings (see the debates surrounding the analogia entis).

You might ask why listen to the major thinkers of theology when we can ask everyday believers what their belief means. This is an important question and bears more attention than it has received. This is a question the philosopher of religion D. Z. Phillips took up in The Concept of Prayer. Just because someone knows how to paint, it doesn’t follow that they have anything to say about art theory. Just because a religious person prays, it doesn’t follow that they have some kind of robust understanding of prayer or can articulate it with symbols other than those passed onto them. Daniel Dennett makes this wonderful distinction between having competence in a game and comprehending the game (many pragmatist philosophers of language do as well, such as Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit). I can be competent at playing guitar, for instance, but it doesn’t follow that I comprehend what I’m doing when I play guitar: that I know what the chord names are or I know how to place musical symbols on a scale and write a song with notation. In the same way, not all religious people comprehend the meaning of their beliefs, although they are competent actors within the rituals and systems of discourse in their communities. So a discussion with the actors who are competent religious actors and comprehend religion’s history is paramount for understanding it. This, I think, is the import of Peterson’s point that Sam Harris doesn’t reference Eliade (virtually the founder of religious studies) once in his works.

Another point that D. Z. Phillips made over and over in his career is that distinct discourses (or “language games”) can infect each other, and this infection can either undermine discourses or revolutionize them. The undermining process occurs when the logic of one discourse (say science) is used to interpret the surface grammar[1] of another discourse (say religion), so that even religious believers begin to use scientific logic to think about their beliefs, despite this logic being foreign to their beliefs. So the problem with being a competent actor who does not also comprehend the discourse she participates in is that she is susceptible to this undermining. It creates cognitive dissonance. I think this happens a lot to religious people. And examples of this undermining can be seen when faith is reduced to the shallow understanding of belief (the acceptance of propositions without evidence), when God is reduced to a being (existing somewhere), and religious practices are reduced to their social benefits.

The secular humanist movement would be better off, especially in its relation to religious people and its understanding of religion and religious belief, if it sidestepped the question of the existence of God and asked what it means to say that God exists and what it means to believe or have faith in God. It seems to me that this change of emphasis must be granted purely out of the principles of charity and skepticism; the principle of charity because to arrive at a position about religion and religious belief, we have to engage with the best religious thinkers who do ask these questions; and from the principles of skepticism because we have to be skeptical of our own assumptions and ideas about what religion and religious belief are.

As we have seen, the father of modern liberal theology Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote on the relation between religion and the sciences and arts. And I think his answers still have pertinence  today. Is faith a feeling of ultimate dependence? Is “miracle” the religious word for any event, and the more religious you are the more miracles you see? Do religious beliefs, in fact, have nothing to do with ethics and physics, as he claims? These are open questions, I think, and can’t be answered just by taking a small sample size, as Dillahunty seems to do, of a small movement, of a relatively new branch of Christianity at its word (fundamentalist Southern Baptists, for instance). A certain sect’s view of theology isn’t necessarily the majority Christian view, nor is it the most traditionally representative. For instance, the Americas only house about a third of the world’s Christians, and at least half of the world’s Christians are Catholic. Why not engage with the thoughts of someone like the Catholic thinkers Karl Rahner or Thomas Aquinas?

As the theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern,” a disposition toward reality as a whole shaped by an ultimate concern (for instance, maybe that being is good despite suffering), and another important theologian said that beliefs are the “thoughts of faith,” we can begin to see how the question of “what do you believe” is a little misleading and unhelpful for us who want to understand religion. The beliefs of religious people seem to be expressions of a disposition toward life as a whole, and aren’t themselves what is worthy of worship (the Reformers for instance distinguished between the letter of the Bible and the Spirit of the Word). Let’s therefore draw a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is an expression of faith and does not ground it. Our questions should be directed toward the lived reality and experiences indicative of faith rather than the propositions of belief. Wittgenstein once said that the concept “God” is something like the concept “object,” in that it is a basic concept for a way of conceiving the basic things in reality. I think it would be fascinating to explore the ways in which the word “God” is similar to that of “object,” for in answering that we might actually articulate an authentic abstraction of religious belief and, perhaps, distill the meaning of faith.

Why fixate on the question of the existence of God when even in theological circles it is a cliche that people do not come to faith through rational argument and, in philosophical theology, there is a distinction made between the God of the philosophers (something like the first mover, the idea greater than that which can be conceived, etc.) and the God of religion (who is worthy of worship, the God of love and hope and freedom, etc.)? Why argue against a God not worth believing in, even by religious standards (and quite likely nobody believes in), and not try to articulate the God who religious people put their faith in? It seems like the major thinkers in the secular humanist movement have done next to no homework on the variety of religious experiences and the different conceptions of religious belief and ritual (as these have been explored extensively in religious studies), and the secular humanist movement suffers for it. If indeed it is possible that the grammar of religious language differs from the logic of rationality, it seems absurd to dismiss it out of hand as not worthy of discussion or serious thought. It seems we have a long way to go before we can actually mount a criticism of religion, because we have yet to understand it. And I’m not advocating here for a distinction between the facts of religion and the values of religion, for us to see the social or psychological benefits or ill effects of religious belief, but an investigation into the phenomenology of religious experiences, and the kinds of experiences and the kinds of thinking that religious belief expresses.

I hope this makes some sense and that I have presented my question sufficiently enough (though of course not comprehensively) so that where I’m coming from might be at least basically understood. Is my concern here unfounded? Does the secular humanist movement have no more work to do in the realm of understanding religion, and the only work before it is to deny and refute it at every turn? Might there be a possibility for building bridges, to recognize the possibility that our common humanity might allow for different dispositions toward the world, and that understanding these differences might allow us all to work together better?

 


 

[1]  Some Wittgensteinians draw a distinction between “surface” and “depth” grammar. The surface grammar is the way the grammar of a statement appears to a person. So the surface grammar of “God is in heaven” appears for many nonreligious people as the same as the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen.” Depth grammar is the intended logic that underlies a statement and motivates inferences and conclusions from that statement. So the depth grammar of “Mom is in the kitchen” could be something like “Dinner will be ready soon” or “Mom is not in the living room, basement, upstairs, etc.” The question I am raising here is something like: The surface grammar of the statement “God is in heaven” misleads us to think religious people are making an empirical claim when the depth grammar might mean something like “Come what may, existence is good.”

Introduction to Jordan B. PetersonIntroduction to Jordan B. Peterson

“It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structures, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable.

Formulation and understanding of this terrible paradox devastated me. I had always been convinced that sufficient understanding of a problem—any problem—would lead to its resolution. Here I was, however, possessed of understanding that seemed not only sufficient but complete, caught nonetheless between the devil and the deep blue sea. I could not see how there could be any alternative to either having a belief system or to not having a belief system—and could see little but the disadvantage of both positions. This truly shook my faith.”
Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning[1]

 

“To the extent that the Academe remembers its ancient origins, it must know that it was founded by the polis’s most determined and most influential opponent.”
Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”[2]

 

The consequences of Neil Postman’s 1986 prophecy-turned-truth has caused more chaos than he could have imagined: “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”[3] Although it was television that was the target of this particular criticism—fearing the growing ubiquity of images, the constant 2-second camera angle flashes of the television screen—what would he have thought of Twitter culture which, more dangerously, makes no pretense of trading with linguistic complexity for imagistic simplicity, and has, as a result, flattened our words and our ability to make sense of ourselves and the world? As the online culture selects for bombast over nuance, transactions of epigrams over meaningful discourse, this may just be the logical extreme Postman envisioned over three decades ago: “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”[4] We are amusing ourselves to death, which makes the appearance and pursuit of truth a threat to be neutralized.

Creators of our major communication tools are only now beginning to understand the pernicious consequences of these powerful platforms. Just as greed is a great instigator of the profit motive, compulsive entertainment propels social media engagement. This is true not only with the images and videos on our televisions and newsfeeds, but it has become true for the use of words. Channel 4 recently tried to capitalize on this,[5] using a gotcha-journalism tactic to confer intentions to and put words in the mouth of a thinker not bound to our age. There is an anomaly in our midst, holding a mirror to us in the form of questions. Why, indeed, tell the truth, in our age of fake news?

The famous pragmatist philosopher Donald Davidson suggested we approach interpretive dilemmas by following what has been called the principle of charity. Back in 1974 he wrote, “We make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimizes agreement (this includes room, as we said, for explicable error, i.e. differences of opinion).”[6] This in part means that we assume, at least at the outset, that every person seeks truth and not error, and this truth is concerned with good and not evil, making the world more beautiful rather than unpleasant. As a student of philosophy, this notion has been invaluable. As a member of society at large, this principle could not, at this moment, be more unavailable to everyday discourse.

Articles abound on the University of Toronto’s clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. Most attempt to construct a myth of the man, a compelling simplification that deems him either a savior or a demon. Others recently are more overt reflections on the failure of traditional media to report his views coherently or accurately. It is no accident that a person like Donald Trump became president in our time: a distiller of white nationalist cliches and an expert of misdirection, he enthralled, energized, and disheartened disparate segments of the American population simply by riding the wave of unparalleled media coverage during the election season. Compare Trump, arguably the embodiment of the dangers of our time de jure, to the general outrage over Peterson, a man coming to public consciousness first by releasing a somewhat philosophical series of YouTube videos reflecting on the imminent passing of bill C-16, then exploding in popularity after a 3 hour long interview on The Joe Rogan Experience back in 2016. Many who rely on traditional media, and from it receive most of the information with which they orient themselves toward the world, are repelled by Peterson, believing he is some kind of self-help guru,[7] popular only because he is an alt-right prophet and a popularizer of dubious positive-thinking psychology. They have only heard of him because of his recent book, 12 Rules for Life, and believe they know all there is to know about his work simply because they read a few hit pieces that intentionally misquote, misinterpret, and generally misrepresent the views of a man that cannot be contained in a five-minute video clip or 500-word article.

I discovered Peterson through his initial interview with Rogan, and I was immediately captured by his application of Darwinian mechanisms of selection to religious myths and his fascinating take on everything from politics to philosophy, from psychology to religion. Now that perhaps the man has been properly situated in our cultural moment, defending him against common misconceptions, by others more interested in that narrative than myself, I would like to outline the basic concepts that ground Peterson’s thought, manifesting themselves in one way or another in any particular interview or lecture. Having more than 300 hours worth of lectures online makes Peterson’s work a mountain so large that the climb seems impossible, if not, at least, only for the fervent. Why listen to a man many have already labelled a charlatan, a self-help guru, or worse, an alt-right prophet? One reason is because most have not placed his ideas in the context of his own work. My goal is to introduce his ideas to the average person without requiring that they spend a few months of their life figuring out his basic premises. What judgment they may pass on him is no concern of mine; I simply aim to provide an introduction that allow these judgments to be informed.

Our Maps of Meaning: Myth, Science, and Hierarchy

“Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique—is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable—remarkable, miraculous.”[8]

How we map meaning onto the world and ourselves is not entirely self-evident, Peterson says. He refers us, here, to a problem Daniel Dennett has written eloquently about: The Frame Problem in AI. In short, the problem is that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret everything. How do we go about perceiving any thing as a thing? What constraints constitute the structures by which perception itself becomes possible?

Peterson posits that one way we do this is our bodies: we do not primarily view the world as a field of objects, but rather as a forum for action. And what is primary in our conception of the world is not things or objects, but rather tools and obstacles. To know the meaning of a thing is to know how it relates to us and our aims: to know its functional significance. Consequently, the ways in which things affect us tend to be identified with the things themselves. Consider how nonsensical it is to feel fear about encountering a wolf in nature and not also identify the wolf as a thing to be feared. The function of the wolf, here, is predator. One reason for the framing problem is that AI (at this point) is something like a brain in a vat (though this is changing): it is disembodied. Precisely the ostensible strength of common conceptions of AI—its lack of physical limitation—is perhaps its undermining weakness at this point. Peterson wants to bring us back to the relevance of our physical circumstances as embodied persons and how our ideas and ideals evolved from this fact.

And, yet, the great feat of science is that it has stripped affect from objects.[9] Since the Enlightenment, as it dispensed with religious doctrine as necessary for understanding the world of objects, western civilization amassed commodities and propelled innovation to previously unimaginable heights. This also has had some unintended consequences. Whereas the unconscious is about the nervous system that connects everything together, the conscious deals with separation and surface qualities of the external,[10] and the scientism that pervades secular critiques of religion has resurfaced a perennial problem in a particularly intense way: when consciousness looks upon itself as an object of experience, it is susceptible to separating itself from the unconscious. When this occurs, we fall prey to lurking pathologies. Archetypes are conceived of by Jung as something like “patterns of instinctual behavior;”[11] and repressing or suppressing these drives leads to rationalizing behavior that, on a deep level, are motivated by these unknown, instinctual forces. “There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to.”[12] This leads to one of Peterson’s central notions: “Ideas are embodied before they’re abstract, and abstracted as a drama first.”[13] We cannot be directly led by the concept of good to a good world, however good the world is conceived, because we are motivated by more than merely rational forces.

The automatic attribution of meaning to things is codified in myth and narrative, which are instantiated in religion, integrating the functional significance of things in the world with cultural hierarchies. The structures of religious myth is the grammar of this world and these hierarchies: “A religion is a set of stories that comes very close to the grammar of stories. They aren’t stories you can dispense with.”[14]

Carl Jung thought that myths did not aim to explain the world, as in how the rain falls or how the position of the stars relate to the earth, but rather operated within the affective identification of objects with the self: myths are projections of the “inner unconscious drama.”[15] This, on the face of it, draws a line between the world of myth and the world of science.

The problem of the relation between myth and science is unbelievably complex, and, as indicated by Peterson when he recognized it, seemingly inescapable. Science and religion appear to be in conflict, and as science increases its knowledge, the mythic structures of religion must be necessarily left behind. Yet, “If the religious realm and the scientific realm exist, they have to be unifiable at some point.”[16] For Peterson, this connection consists in the grounding of the archetypes of the collective unconscious in Darwinian evolution.

If it is true that the world is conceived best as primarily a forum for action, then what counts as our environment, in terms of Darwinian structures of adaptation, does not entirely, or even necessarily, associate adaptive traits to the objects of the world, but at least also to the tools that enable us to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple groups of people. Our environment, in evolutionary terms, is not only natural, adhering to processes of cause and effect in nature, but also social, providing aims that achieve sustainable social relations with other people.

Grounding these social aims is a non-negotiable motivator of action: one very important thing that separates us from chimps is that the females of our species select for sexual reproduction and are not consistently obtained by the brute dominance of males.[17] The selective mechanisms of females qualify what counts as good aims and bad aims, and therefore the beliefs and character traits that are functionally relevant or good and increase the probability of reproduction and functionally useless or bad that decrease the probability of reproduction. These aims and traits form into hierarchies of competence,[18] which act as “a distributive computational device,”[19] allowing females to “externalize the cognitive problem [of deciding male worth for reproduction] to the structure itself.”[20] Dominance hierarchies, which are a more basic form of this, have been around for over 300 million years, dating back to at least lobsters.[21] In other words, the competence hierarchy is established by the pressures of sexual selection to sort-out whose genes are “worthy” of reproduction by valuing some character traits over others, and rewarding the attainment of the good traits over the bad. This selective mechanism creates a multilayered instability to our environment. Indeed, because we are not just reactive beings, and operant conditioners merely make certain actions more or less probable, group size is correlated to brain size. We must stand within multiple frames to act in and understand the world. What makes a man evolutionarily fit, as a result, is not merely physical strength, but, as we will see presently, moral strength.

The competence hierarchy is optimized for two functions: (1) scalability, it must be possible to make it to the top; and (2) status payoff, climbing the hierarchy improves social status and falling diminishes it. Men, adapting to the hierarchy, have become better at climbing it, thereby improving the probability of leaving behind genetic material. One way men have done this is by paying attention to men who have risen to the top and by telling stories about them. These men who scale the hierarchies are the heroes of our stories and myths. The competence hierarchy selects for heroes and breeds them: men imitate the heroes of myths, and this enables them to climb competence hierarchies.

That the hero has reached the top means he is admirable, and has noble principles, which introduces the possibility of reprehensible or disgraceful principles: those traits of men at the bottom of the competence hierarchy. Daniel Dennett has briefly articulated a similar evolutionary grounding of our notions of right or wrong, so this direction of thought is not entirely foreign to Darwinism, as novel and suggestive as it may seem, whether Peterson beat Dennett to this conclusion (and has taken it further) or not. From the traits of nobility and reprehensibility we ground the ideas of good and evil, and we can abstract from ten heroes a metahero: the saviors or enlightened ones of the major religious traditions across the world. Imitating the savior produces skills that give one the greatest probability of climbing the set of all competence hierarchies. This is why Jordan Peterson believes we cannot get rid of myth: it distills not just information about sexual selection, but has developed to such a complexity that it grounds our conceptions of what it is to be good and, consequently, how to live a meaningful life.

Peterson sets the religious symbols of myth within Darwinian evolution, thereby laying the groundwork for a unifying theory of science and religion. The main contribution of this theory is that it enables us to abstract the functional significance of religious myths, and, thereby, provides a way in which to understand how religion has given rise to the modern world. To extrapolate more specifically how this is so, we turn presently to an explication of the good and meaningful life in Peterson’s demythologization of religious symbols of myth.

The Life that Justifies Suffering

“There is something irreducible about suffering.”[22]

“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look.”[23]

The world is best conceived as a forum for action, where its basic constituents are tools or obstacles, kin or predator: when we encounter strangers, our predator circuitry processes their appearance, and when we hear familiar words or see friends and family, a completely different physiological process frames the world and our situation in it.[24] Two fundamental categories, then, delineate our basic situation in the world. The fight, flight, or freeze response, abstracted, situates us in the category of chaos, whereas the world of order and family, where our intentions cause expected consequences, brings us to the category of order. Chaos and order phenomenologically structure our worlds (this, perhaps, first discovered by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane).

Chaos is not the place you want to be. It is where you are when all the skills you’ve learned from tradition or competence hierarchies, where everything you believed to be good and true, and where all that has worked well in the past, no longer work or make sense of where you find yourself. In chaos, your brain stops thinking about the future, initiates emergency preparation mode, shifts cortisol levels, activates left and right cortices, disinhibits limbic and motivational systems, causing you to sweat and lose sleep.[25] Chaos is the underworld of mythology: the dragon’s lair, or the belly of the whale.

Order is the place you are when everything works exactly as you expect, within the ordering of the competence hierarchy, and in turn your beliefs about what is true and good provide sufficient aims for action. You can glide in this place, as your amygdala rests and your pattern recognition takes over. People will protect their competence hierarchies, even as they don’t benefit, because it’s better to be a slave and know what is going on than it is to be thrown naked into the jungle in the middle of the night.[26]

These fundamental categories set the stage for our bodily, intuitive understanding of the world (which Peterson believes is primary to all thought); our brains are adapted to these metarealities—hierarchies and archetypes—as opposed to simple realities of objects and things. What sets our environment, at any given time, is not necessarily the objects or beings that surround us, but whether we are positioned in chaos or order.

These metarealities introduce an irresolvable tension at the center of human experience. Chaos is a terrible place to be, and order, by simplifying the complexity of the world, can also render us vulnerable to the shock of novelty. The constant back and forth between order and chaos is the bedrock of the problem of evil: is existence worth the suffering? Peterson, here, distinguishes between tragedies, like natural disasters of nature, and suffering, caused both by our disposition toward the world as a whole and the reality of malevolence (the fact that sometimes people pursue the suffering of others for no reason). Responses to tragedy are not necessitated by the tragic events themselves, despair is not compulsory, for sometimes we face tragedies heroically. The true problem of evil is the problem of suffering.

The possibility of suffering presents itself in different forms in both order and chaos. When in order, it’s archetypally represented symbolically as the tyrant father. Sometimes what is true today isn’t true enough to serve life: to allow for genuine human flourishing as the potentialities of the future are actualized, changing the present. When this is the case, the realm of order is tyrannical. Another problem with order is it tends to simplify the world into shallow categories that don’t adequately account for the reality that confronts us. This simplifying relates to the evil figure in myth as the one who is hyperrational, like Lucifer, or the snake in the garden, who falls in love with his own creations and pushes out the possibility of the transcendent. Here, Peterson places the origins of ideology. The very idea of the transcendent is operative in our everyday lives when we act in the world as if it’s full of potentials rather than final realities; and when these realities are reduced and simplified into basic, unchanging objects, the possibility of change, and therefore growth, development, and progress, is excluded at the outset. Opposed to this, a correct conception of order is more like the Garden of Eden: no matter how perfectly society is set up, there will be something you don’t want that comes in—the serpent. As an agent of chaos, the serpent essentially undermines lasting stability. Order can become chaos in an instant.

Mythology has figured out, especially Christianity, that the worst snake isn’t a real snake, but rather the internal “snake” of malevolence: the snake inside a person. And this, he thinks, partially explains the origin of our idea of evil: First the snake was external, then internal to people, then the snake inside person A and B became identical, then we had the idea of Lucifer, and finally the concept of evil. When we are confronted with chaos, there’s a way of acting that is better or worse: simply imagine the worst possible thing, then act so that will not happen, and you are acting to create a better world. Yet people who find themselves in chaos, if they have gotten there by choosing what is expedient over what is worthwhile, by lying to themselves and projecting their inadequacies onto the world and others rather than being honest with themselves and paying attention to how their beliefs might not account for reality or how their actions might be making things worse, will despair in times of suffering.[27]

We are inclined to cling to order, or close our eyes in chaos: we all know of men who never grew up, who have the emotional intelligence of a twelve-year-old but the musculature of a brute in its prime. Clinging to order makes us resentful, for who we thought we were, and the values that grounded our perception of reality, no longer provide anything to orient ourselves with. We do all the “right” things but we never reach the promised land: the land of achieved aims. It remains convenient for people to divide the world into the righteous and the damned so that whatever resentment and bitterness and hatred is in their hearts can be ignored, and so too can every way in which they participate in the problem they’re trying to overcome. Despair says: “It is better if it never existed at all.” People who act out this belief make suffering worse: despair ignites the flames of revenge, to strike back at being for the crime of existence. This disposition is an embodiment of Lucifer who says all that I know is all that is necessary to know, a counterfactual to the exploratory world-creating hero of myth.

Caught within the contradiction of believing one knows everything there is to know and a dawning chaos, we act to project this inner battle onto the world: to turn against being all around us and seek to destroy it. When we suffer, we delight in the suffering of others; the origin of suffering is the awareness of our own vulnerabilities, where malevolence is the intentional exploitation of the vulnerabilities of others. “Evil is the production of suffering for its own sake.”[28] Chaos is an ocean of darkness, and the deeper we descend, the more primal the monsters we discover.

When in chaos, Peterson calls us to pay attention, because sometimes the thing that we most value is the problem, because the world is systematized and viewed by reference to our values. Under these circumstances, to sacrifice the thing most valuable to us, as a religious principle, is the idea that a complete conversion is sometimes what it takes to live well, to be a good person. In this way, life demands the best of us, which sometimes means sacrificing who we are for who we may become.[29] Is nothing better than something: would it have been better had being never existed at all? The God of myth says no, which is another way of saying our myths have answered this question of suffering for us, and shows us the kind of life that overcomes suffering. This is the meta-hero archetype, or the notion of the savior.[30] The battle between good and evil isn’t between states or between individuals but it’s an internal and moral battle: between malevolence and benevolence.

The idea of the sacred itself is functionally, for Peterson, about the essential nature of existence. What we believe about the divine throughout the centuries has been a projection of what we take the meaning of existence to be. One of the conclusions of Christianity is that if we act towards the divine as if it’s nothing but good, then it is more likely to be true in the world. This takes both courage and faith: courage because it is not self-evident that suffering is ever overcome, and faith because it is possible that suffering may never, indeed, be overcome. But the idea of faith is that you make the case that being is good by acting that way, and to act as if being is good and play that out until the end.

This inner battle of the psyche, borne out in myth, provides the profound problem of life with a profound language. Peterson believes that we can’t create our own values because values have evolved with us, implicit in competence hierarchies, then articulated in our myths and, now, abstract concepts. He finds Plato’s idea that all knowledge is remembrance true in a deep, even Darwinian, sense. We weren’t born just thirty years ago, but we’re also the product of human language and history, and over 12 billion years of evolution. We are descendents of the great heroes of the past. So Jung’s idea is we have to go back to the myths and extract the archetypes. Peterson’s claims essentially boil down to making Jung’s ideas more rational and articulate: “I’m trying to resurrect the dormant logos.”

What is this logos? It’s one of the oldest ideas and Peterson thinks its use in Christianity is particularly significant today. Though his characterization of logos is somewhat idiosyncratic, he has good reasons for believing the logos should be articulated this way: speaking the truth, ordering the world by the manifestation of truth in speech.[31] When you enter a dark, familiar room, with no light, what do you do? You grope in the dark until you find an object by which to orient yourself. Kant thought that this notion of orientation could be abstracted to thinking in general,[32] that thinking was an orientation. Peterson thinks telling the truth is how we orient ourselves in the world when we are confronted by chaos, or “the unknown,” the domain where the consequences of our actions are not self-evident and the situation in which we find ourselves has no obvious cause. Telling the truth situates us. “Chaos is transformed into order by the word…. If you want chaos to be turned into hell, then lie. If you want chaos to be transformed into heaven, then tell the truth.”[33]

The role of truth is, in terms of value, fundamental for overcoming the problem of suffering. We have noted, already, that Peterson tells us to pay attention, because the very things we value the most might be the very things that cause us suffering (this, indeed, is the notion of idolatry in Christianity). “The truth is something that burns. It burns off deadwood, and people don’t like having their deadwood burnt off; often because they’re like 95% deadwood. Believe me, I’m not being snide about that. It’s no joke. When you start to realize how much of what you’ve constructed of yourself is based on deception and lies, that is a horrifying realization, and it can easily be 95% of you.”[34]

On another note, truth, Peterson believes, is the progenitor of the good. “The reality you bring out of potentiality with truth is good. That’s one of the most profound discoveries of humanity.[35] How can this be so? Peterson believes he derived his understanding of truth from Nietzsche: “Truth is that which serves life.”[36] The things that are most true are those which, over the years, have produced, sustained, and amplified life. This makes sense, as well, of Peterson’s position that there is nothing truer than these archetypal ideas of religion: they’re some of the oldest ideas we have. Peterson’s question of truth is not merely whether a thing or proposition corresponds to reality, but whether the thing or proposition is true enough to serve life. We speak the truth in words, and thereby actualize potentiality by the truth, and it is necessarily good, because it will serve life rather than death, good over evil.

Words are very important to Peterson, for we’ve evolved so that our ideas can die rather than ourselves or other people. We had to act out killing as will of God for millennia before we could abstractly derive this idea. “Myths of the fall and redemption portray the emergence of human dissatisfaction with present conditions—no matter how comfortable—and the tendency or desire for movement toward ‘a better future.’”[37] Rather than being merely a tyrannical father, the realm of order, and the prevalence of tradition, can also be something like a wise king. You can bargain with being (with reality) because what you encounter is partly the world and partly the abstract social system (when you make a promise, sacrifice, exchange money). This idea is a rational articulation of the deeper concept that the sacred is personal. One of the best comportments we can have toward tradition is therefore to view it as something to be negotiated with, rather than as something that predetermines the future. “Through fire all things are renewed. And one of the deepest ideas of Christianity is that you should burn everything off that’s part of you that isn’t part of that thing that can die and be reborn.”

The message of Jordan B. Peterson is no mere self-help guide: he does not think that life is simply good, nor does he think the journey to the good entails avoiding all which is evil or destroying something outside ourselves called “evil.” Rather, the path to completion is the embodiment of the monster, which means to recognize your capacity for evil and control it. “If you understand who you are, then you understand Nazis. And who wants to understand nazis?“ It’s a dreadful thing to realize that you’re human, which comes with it the tremendous potential to be good and a soul-snatching capacity to be evil.

One way out of the burden of consciousness it to return to unconsciousness (anesthetize, refuse to grow up). Another way to go is to become more conscious. Heighten your consciousness so that everything becomes integrated enough so that this integration is its own medication.[38] You have to get people to stop avoiding the terrible things, this is the goal of psychotherapy: “Voluntary confrontation with what you’re afraid of.”[39] Pay attention, and it’ll lead you to places you don’t want to go, but they will be places that make you better and wiser.[40]

Wisdom allows us to deal honorably with the tragedy of life. A good aim is to look back and see if there’s less suffering because you existed. “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell from studying mythology and from studying psychology for decades, is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant; or maybe that it’s even acceptable. I would say as well that people know when they’re doing that. You know when you’re doing that in part because you’re no longer resentful. You say, ‘Geez, I could do this forever.’ There’s a timelessness that’s associated with that state of being. From a mythological perspective, that’s equivalent to brief habitation of the Kingdom of God. It’s the place so meaningful that it enables you to bear the harsh preconditions of life without becoming resentful, bitter, or cruel. And there’s nothing that you can pursue in your life that will be half as useful as that.[41]

Humanity is torn between order and chaos, between the known and unknown, between the past and future. This is the basic situation to which we have adapted. And the fundamental framework for thinking about what it means to be human and for overcoming the basic problems of human existence is to look at how we have acted these meanings and solutions out and articulate them as lucidly and truthfully as we can. Peterson’s call to do so by situating religion and myth within a Darwinian framework is as novel as it is important. You can ask what perspective toward religion is the most scientific, and Peterson answers that it is the Darwinian rather than the post-Enlightenment: whereas the Darwinian views religion as another systematic means of contending with our own subjectivity (as serving life), the post-Enlightenment, Peterson thinks, merely looks to taxonomize facts about religion.[42] This exploration of the subjectivizing influences on our systems of thought has shed some new light on the meaning of religious symbols and their bearing on our day-to-day lives. In fact, the conclusions Jordan Peterson derives from the explication of myth amount to something like the ultimate balancing of subjective meaning with objective truth, selfishness and selflessness, facts and norms. “Personal interest – subjective meaning – reveals itself at the juncture of explored and unexplored territory, healthy individual and societal adaptation.”[43] “Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero.”[44] The hero always has one foot in chaos and one foot in order.

“Telling the truth is a gamble on the benevolence of being. So the idea is you tell the truth, you don’t manipulate the world to make it give you what you want, you try to articulate yourself—and articulate the manner of your being, as clearly and as comprehensively as possible—and then you see what happens.

And you decide—this is the act of faith—you decide that no matter what happens, if you tell the truth, that that’s the best possible outcome.”[45]

Situating the Controversies of Peterson: Postmodernism, Marxism, and Speech Laws

“There is something else going on. If there wasn’t something else going on a relatively obscure professor’s amateurish youtube videos, on a relatively obscure piece of canadian legislation, wouldn’t have had any effect. It would have just disappeared. But it didn’t. And that’s because there’s more going on than the straightforward issue surrounding the pronoun use.”[46]

Lastly, I want to turn to Peterson’s political positions. Now that liberals (a group I have, until recent years, felt at home within) who have never read Peterson yet feel compelled to take a disparaging public stance against him, and academics who, with an air of elitism (and perhaps jealousy), ridicule and dismiss him for his success as a New York Times Bestseller, have both come out of the woodwork, it is time to place Peterson’s politics within the development of his own thought, rather than a pseudo-contextualizing purgatory that places him in company he has never considered and within a conception of history to which he stands diametrically opposed.

In his fourth podcast episode, “Religion, Myth, Science, Truth,” Peterson walks us through the development of his political perspective. His first degree was in political science because the causes of social conflict interested him. Every explanation for social conflict was grounded in some kind of economic theory, placing resources (whether resource scarcity, resource production, etc.) as the central motivator for conflict. Peterson found these theories dubious, because they didn’t take into account the relation between belief and the individual.

Around this time (the second peak of the Cold War), he was obsessed with and terrified about the possibility of nuclear destruction. It all had just seemed gratuitous: that groups of people would inch closer to the potential annihilation of the human race for no apparent reason.[47] Peterson believed the cause of this had to, as a result, be deeper than the empirical level: it had to be metaphysical. To make people as miserable as possible and to be counterproductive concerning your own ends, individually and politically, is just inconceivable without some kind of malevolent or irrational intent.

One of Peterson’s heroes, the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, made a connection between the lies individuals tell and the pathologies of the state.[48] Psychologist Sigmund Freud, another hero, theorized that pathologies in individuals were caused by repressions, which are, for Peterson, forms of lying. It’s not just rational elements that drive people to war, as a result. There is something deeper, and perhaps irrational.

One of Peterson’s diagnosis of the social ills of society is that they derive from stripping subjectivity from the world. This erasure causes us to lie about what we’re actually doing, what we’re actually aiming at, and the repression (and absence) of truthful speech which orders our intentions is replaced with a hiding of intentions, and a grabbing-onto objective group goods that confer hierarchy status and ostensible intentionality. What follows from this, which is our present situation, is either nihilism or totalitarianism. All meaning is objective. In a “perfect” society, to acquire the social status desired and all material goods that are good to have is to live a good life. But then to suffer is to be illegitimate. Is there a suffering that goes beyond material possession and social group identity? Yes, and we repress it, lie to ourselves about it, in our pursuit of social aims and material possessions. This is the problem Peterson confronts and aims to, if not cure, provide an antidote that might help some.

Peterson’s fame came with his criticism of Bill C-16, in a series of protracted YouTube videos. His main contentions circled around (1) the idea that the law required the recognition of nonscientific positions as factual truth, effectively legislating truth by political power, and (2) compelled speech.[49][50] On the first issue, Peterson has said the bill rests on the claim that there is no biological basis for gender identity, gender expression, and sex: that they vary independently, though these three are correlated upwards of .95.[51] The second issue of compelled speech is important to Peterson for a few reasons: (1) he’s not “willing to cede linguistic territory to postmodern radicals;” (2) he doesn’t accept that those who have spoken on behalf of LGBTQI people politically represent them, since there have been no elections; and (3) he doesn’t believe legislating compelled speech is democratic. None of this means, however, that he’s unwilling to accept the reality that some people are in fact LGBTQI, or that he’d refuse to use the proper pronoun for these people.[52] Ultimately, because Peterson’s reservations and critiques follow from his understanding of postmodernity, and its connection to Marxism, it will be instructive to briefly explore this relationship presently.

Although Peterson receives a lot of flack for his use of the term “postmodernism,” what he means by it actually coheres with the definition in Encyclopedia Britannica: “a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” This is what he means by postmodernism, and he has said as much.[53] Many friends I have, and many commentators I see online, disparage Peterson for not adequately engaging with Postmodern thinkers in writing such as Derrida or Foucault. Whereas I agree with their basic point, and think Peterson is not as far away from these thinkers as he believes he is, the fact still remains that people he engages with, who show up to protest his speeches and events, hold the positions he calls “postmodern,” and this fact perhaps outweighs, though does not exonerate, Peterson’s lack of academic critique of serious postmodern thinkers. He doesn’t need to be a scholar of Derrida or Foucault or Deleuze to use “postmodernism” descriptively and to say something meaningful about it.

But he has not kept silent on thinkers like Foucault, although his most in-depth exposition of postmodernism comes by way of Derrida in his discussion with Joe Rogan.[54] The basic narrative Peterson tells is this: Jacques Derrida is the central villain of postmodernism. A Marxist to begin with, as Marxism fell out of favor in the 1970s, when no intellectual could deny its evil deeds, he shifted his Marxism and began playing identity politics, grounding the Marxist oppressor/oppressed conflict on identity rather than on economic grounds. The way Derrida did this was to focus his philosophical project on the framing problem: the recognition that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a finite set of objects, which means there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a text, which means the world is subject to an infinite number of interpretations as well. What follows is the claim that there is no right or correct way to interpret the world. From this claim, Derrida (as the paragon postmodernist) derives that those who have interpreted the world do so in a way that facilitates acquisition of power. Thus, we get identity politics: All people do is play power games based on their identities.

As we can see, Peterson’s equation for marrying postmodernism with Marxism is relatively simple. On the empirical level, people who show up at protests against him carry the clean, commodified hammer and sickle flag.[55] On the theoretical level, Peterson believes people who make claims of group identity do so under the influence of a latent, ideological Marxism. He cannot be faulted for this kind of conclusion, given the role of ideology in protests against him.[56] According to Peterson, those who have fallen prey to the postmodern ethos do not believe in dialogue with those they oppose because dialogue, like all else, is grounded in power. Claims of truth are, as a result, claims to power: to control the narrative about what truth is.

Peterson thinks they’re wrong because what you extract from the world is a game you can play. From the things we encounter in the world and the values we contend with in the social sphere we extract a set of tools so that we we don’t suffer too much and people will cooperate with us in a sustainable and reciprocal way. The best functional aim is to live and thrive in multiple environments among multiple people. And Peterson thinks these are actual constraints on interpretations.

The major issue Peterson has with postmodernism, then, is that it aims to destroy what he believes we have gained from millenia of trial and error: the ethical substructure that grounds our social values that derived from myths. Whereas the ethical substructure based on myth aims at, for the most part, solving the problem of suffering by presenting a turning inward as its solution,[57] political ideologies that interpret every ethic as a power game relegate the problem of suffering, and therefore its solution, to an outward phenomenon: the state. If we lose the concept of truth to its reduction by power, or discussion to its reduction by identity, then we lose what we gained from the distillation of the Enlightenment: rationality, empiricism, science, clarity of mind, dialogue, and the individual. Why speak the truth if it might offend: why not proceed by a lie and construct the perfect state with ends that will justify the means? Why tell the truth if a lie will make the masses feel better momentarily while we work on the perfect organization of society? Hannah Arendt’s answer is very close to Peterson’s:

“The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion. (It is this capacity for an ‘enlarged mentality’ that enables [hu]man[s] to judge…. The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.”[58]

The only way to obtain this “impartiality,” which means the liberation from one’s private interests alone, is to tell the truth, to be honest with oneself: “truth and truthfulness have always constituted the highest criterion of speech and endeavor.”[59] Lying, on the other hand, simplifies the world into basic images, as in political propaganda which says there is one simple solution and one simple problem and if you don’t stand on the side of the good you are evil. This inhibits us from both empathy and thinking. This is precisely Peterson’s point, and, he believes, the rejection of science and myth amounts to the victory of the lie and of the state over the truth and the individual.

If you think this is too far, Peterson has debated with a professor of Transgender Studies who claimed “it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.”[60] Many think Peterson uses hyperbole to heighten the stakes of his claims unrealistically. But for those who have followed a least a small percentage of his interactions with his critics, what’s at stake does indeed appear to be the values of the Enlightenment itself.[61]

Peterson is infamous for his love-affair with the Christian myth. One reason for this is that he thinks the story on which western civilization is founded in the Christian myth. This claim bears some explanation, as its importance is not entirely apparent today. Jacques Ellul has noted[62] that Christianity differs from religions that came before it because it did not rise with a culture, but came to fruition within well developed cultures (Roman and Jewish). Christianity was used in turn to explicitly shape and order the empires that followed it. It was a reversal of the historical marrying of culture and religion, placing the latter before the former chronologically.

So what does it mean, other than the chronological note we have made, that Christianity is the story on which western civilization is founded? This is a primary claim of Peterson’s, following in part from his conception of the origin of religion and his awareness of history. He means this quite literally. The story of the Old Testament, he thinks, which he gets from Northrop Frye, is that the solution to suffering is the construction of the perfect state. But the New Testament answers differently, placing the individual as the site of salvation: the individual that tells the truth, the incarnation of the Logos. And it is this Christian insight on which the west stands.

This is, in effect, the summation of Peterson’s politics: How are you going to change the world when you can’t even keep your room clean? Fundamentally, his challenge is to not perpetuate your pathologies socially by participating in politics as a means to overcome your suffering, but first get yourself in order. He believes with Jung that “…if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.”[63] And he doesn’t think postmodernism allows for this kind of ordering and, rather, subjects the individual to the tyranny of ideology. Why tell the truth, anyway, if by the truth we offend another, or discover physical limitations to idealized harmonies we aim for in our utopian visions of the state? Why tell the truth when truthful speech can be violent?

I recommend everyone who wants a basic understanding of the thrust of Peterson’s politics to read C. G. Jung’s very accessible and very brief work The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society. There one will find the beating heart of Peterson’s political faith and the monsters he hopes to fend against:

“In order to free the fiction of the sovereign state—in other words, the whims of those who manipulate it—from every wholesome restriction, all socio-political movements tending in this direction invariably try to cut the ground from under the religions. For, in order to turn the individual into a function of the State, his dependence on anything beside the State must be taken from him. But religion means dependence on and submission to the irrational facts of experience. These do not refer directly to social and physical conditions; they concern far more the individual’s psychic attitude.”[64]

We can immediately see the parallel in this indictment with Peterson’s. Religion for Jung does not mean institutionalized rituals or holy sites, but it means the individual’s relationship to a superordinate principle that sits outside everyday contingencies and orders life and its circumstances by its compelling force. This is the same for Peterson, especially the notion of “God.” Whereas if when religion (in this technical sense) wanes, political fanaticism intensifies, it follows that a regrounding in religion protects against the onslaught of totalitarianism or nihilism which institutes the state as the superordinate principle. Many more people than Peterson have arrived at this conclusion, and it bears some serious reflection. It is not a stretch to think that when he spoke out against Bill C-16, effectively standing up for “free speech,” Peterson understood himself to be in the circumstances Jung described some half-century ago:

“The State has taken the place of God….But the religious function cannot be dislocated and falsified in this way without giving rise to secret doubts, which are immediately repressed so as to avoid conflict with the prevailing trends towards mass-mindedness. The result, as always in such cases, is overcompensation in the form of fanaticism, which in its turn is used as a weapon for stamping out the least flicker of opposition. Free opinion is stifled and moral decision ruthlessly suppressed, on the plea that the end justifies the means, even the vilest. The policy of the State is exalted to a creed, the leader or party boss becomes a demigod beyond good and evil, and his votaries are honored as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries. There is only one truth and beside it no other. It is sacrosanct and above criticism. Anyone who thinks differently is a heretic, who, as we know from history, is threatened with all manner of unpleasant things. Only the party boss, who holds the political power in his hands, can interpret the State doctrine authentically, and he does so just as suits him.”

Final Remarks and an Attempt at Responding to Peterson’s Detractors

Jordan Peterson is now somewhat infamous, regarded from an elitist (and ignorant) point-of-view as “the stupid man’s smart person,” and from a political stance as an alt-right prophet. To begin with, I think to get beyond most criticisms of Peterson (which for the most part have nothing to do with the substance of his ideas but rather with a conferral of intentions onto him based on either his audience or, at times, deliberate misinterpretations of his words), one just has to simply accept this proposition: If Peterson says something true, it doesn’t follow that Peterson has said it in the best way, nor that Peterson is the only authorized person to make that point. Accepting this proposition has improved my appreciation for his ideas, despite my disagreement with the ways in which he frames things and, at times, the way he behaves.

On another level of analysis, there is a large swath of detractors who level criticisms at Peterson based on some kind of constructed history, placing him in a narrative of masculinity promulgation.[65] More specifically, these commentators don’t make a distinction between dominance and competence. In turn they interpret Peterson’s influence on men to be fundamentally pernicious as opposed to edifying.[66] They simply ignore his work, I claim, and the way in which the ideas he promotes today fit into the context of his work as a whole, especially Maps of Meaning. I hope to have answered some of these concerns in this brief essay and provide a somewhat (though bare) adequate schema to understand Peterson’s claims.

Yet another common criticism is that Peterson is some kind of self-help guru, unplaceable in any strict academic discipline. If compared to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or C. G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols, one would find in Peterson a similar line of argumentation: the diagnosis of social ills by personal pathologies and meaning-making behavior. This is where Peterson’s work fits.

And so, we end where we began. The technologies that diminish our capacities to think can be manipulated for other ends: Jordan Peterson’s popularity has skyrocketed, and his videos and interviews are noticed by more and more people. Indeed, we might call this “The Jordan Peterson Moment.” As a thinker, he sits firmly within the philosophical traditions spurred by Nietzsche, William James, and Jung. And as an influence, he’s a cultural force that we will not soon forget. Why tell the truth in our age of group-think and Twitter epigrams? Well, it’s our only hope for survival, and the only way for the hero, who speaks a freeing word that organizes chaos into novel order, to emerge. As Peterson concludes in Maps of Meaning:

“The point of our limitations is not suffering; it is existence itself. We have been granted the capacity to voluntarily bear the terrible weight of our mortality. We turn from that capacity and degrade ourselves because we are afraid of responsibility. In this manner, the necessarily tragic preconditions of existence are made intolerable.

It seems to me that it is not the earthquake, the flood or the cancer that makes life unbearable, horrible as those events appear. We seem capable of withstanding natural disaster, even of responding to that disaster in an honorable and decent manner. It is rather the pointless suffering that we inflict upon each other—our evil—that makes life appear corrupt beyond acceptability; that undermines our ability to manifest faith in our central natures. So why should the capacity for evil exist?. . . But how can we put an end to our errors? What path can we follow to eliminate our blindness and stupidity, to bring us closer to the light? Christ said, Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. But how? We seem stymied, as always, by Pontius Pilate’s ironic query: What is truth? (John 18:38)

Well, even if we don’t know precisely what the truth is, we can certainly tell, each of us, what it isn’t. It isn’t greed, and the desire, above all else, for constant material gain; it isn’t denial of experience we know full well to be real, and the infliction of suffering for the purpose of suffering. Perhaps it is possible to stop doing those things which we know, beyond doubt, to be wrong—to become self-disciplined and honest—and to therefore become ever more able to perceive the nature of the positive good.

The truth seems painfully simple—so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can ever be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself—not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates you above him, but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.

It is said that it is more difficult to rule oneself than a city, and this is no metaphor. This is the truth, as literal as it can be made. It is precisely for this reason that we keep trying to rule the city.”[67]

 


 

[1] Maps of Meaning, 460.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics.”

[3] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

[4] Ibid., 92.

[5] See commentary here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/putting-monsterpaint-onjordan-peterson/550859/

[6] Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” 19: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3129898.

[7] This is true but not in the way normally intended. See Christian Chensvold’s article for more: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/jordan-p-peterson-self-help-guru-father-figure/

[8] Maps of Meaning, 467.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” 19.

[11] Jung,”The Concept of the Collective Unconscious,” 44.

[12] Ibid., 48.

[13] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[14] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[15] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.”

[16] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[17] Yet even in chimps, it’s not the brute that gets sexual dominance, Peterson has said, because if the brute has an off day, then two beta males will tear him from limb to limb: it is better, at least, even in chimp communities, to be tolerant and cooperative than to merely be a brute.

[18] Recently Peterson has been using this phraseology instead of “dominance hierarchy,” which you will hear in most of his lectures and interviews. He means the same thing by these, but he no longer uses the word “dominance” (at least not consistently) because what he wants to indicate by these hierarchies is that you climb them with skill rather than with force.

[19] 04 – Religion, Science, Myth, Truth

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peterson’s fixation on lobsters is famously idiosyncratic, and this claim is everywhere in his work.

[22]   Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[23] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[24] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson. Peterson repeats this claim and similar ones, with different examples, in nearly every presentation I’ve heard. For an extensive, academic treatment, see Maps of Meaning.

[25] #1. Reality and the Sacred

[26] Dragons, Divine Parents, Heroes and Adversaries: A complete cosmology of being

[27] Of course, there are older conceptions of evil than what Christianity presents, however Peterson thinks Christianity has the most robust conception of evil because it combines older conceptions with the notion that the solution to evil is to confront it, as an individual, and choose against it: to not simply recognize its objective reality in events or groups or others, but its subjective reality within the self, and then to choose whatever leads us away from suffering and evil.

[28] Jordan Peterson on what matters.

[29] #13 – Maps of Meaning 10 – 13

[30] See below for further exposition.

[31] Peterson traces a genealogy of the logos in his biblical lectures.

[32] What Does It Mean To Orient Oneself In Thinking?

[33] The Productivity of War | The Forum | Stratford Festival 2014

[34] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[35] Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson – Kindness VS Power | Under The Skin #46

[36] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[37] Maps of Meaning, 465.

[38] #1. Reality and the Sacred

[39] Ibid.

[40] One difference between this heightened consciousness and, for instance, the kind of consciousness Buddhism advocates is that this kind of heightened consciousness isn’t to show how everything is illusory, but to show that everything is in fact really real: the most basic reality is suffering, and to overcome suffering isn’t to show how to become detached from everything, but to become really attached to them, and choose them, and say that no matter what happens this is good. It’s more of a Albert Camus thing than a Sam Harris thing.

[41] Jordan Peterson on the purpose of life.

[42] #4 – Religion, Myth, Science, Truth

[43] Maps of Meaning, 447.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Jordan Peterson, on what he learned from Kierkegaard

[46] Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson

[47] There was a public demonstration of this phenomenon in the political science literature. It was described as “Mutually-Assured Destruction.” The concept itself developed out of classical, realist foreign policy ideas. The basic concept was that if two countries had the capacity to destroy themselves and the world, and that capacity continued to grow, that the two countries wouldn’t actually do it, for fear of destroying the human race. This is exactly what happened between the United States and the Soviet Union. While it seems irrational on the surface, there was deeply logical reasoning behind doing this, for if each country made the use of nuclear weapons impossible, the potential for peace was inevitable. Peterson’s point would, I think, be that what is questionable is not, then, a realist-stand-off about the possibility of launching the nukes, but the creation of the nukes in the first place. What kind of drive would cause humans to create a weapon that could destroy everything, if even by accident? He has, in some places, pointed to our loss of the notion of truth as that which serves life to be part of the problem.

[48] “We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Nobel Prize Speech 1970

[49] See Peterson’s Senate hearing regarding these issues here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnIAAkSNtqo.

[50] See https://torontoist.com/2016/12/are-jordan-petersons-claims-about-bill-c-16-correct/ for a commentary on Peterson’s views of C-16 in particular. My aim here is to simply outline how these views are simply instantiations of his overall philosophical project about the problem of suffering and its solution.

[51] He makes this claim in Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson.

[52] Although he has said this many times over, he has said it recently on the Rubin Report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRPDGEgaATU

[53] See Joe Rogan Experience #958 – Jordan Peterson in particular.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] See my article on this issue: https://reasonrevolution.org/rise-identity-politics-indicates-decline-religion/.

[57] See Kierkegaard, who presents the very same solution, in The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion.

[58] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” from The Portable Hannah Arendt, 556.

[59]Ibid., 571.

[60] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kasiov0ytEc

[61] See the case of Evergreen College for an example. Jonathan Haidt has written on this topic as well.

[62] Jacques Ellul, The New Demons.

[63] C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society, 56.

[64] Ibid.,19.

[65] For one of the best representatives of this tactic, see: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/

[66] This is a fairly good article drawing the distinction: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/jordan-petersons-gospel-of-masculinity

[67] Maps of Meaning, 454-455

 

Reason Revolution Podcast Episode 29 Luke King Interview

This week, Justin chatted with ex-pastor and podcaster Luke King (“Your Atheist Pastor”). We discussed Luke’s upbringing, his immersion into Pentecostalism, becoming a pastor, leaving the church and becoming an atheist, and his podcasting projects. We also talked about Trump, the good and bad of identity politics, a lack of a shared civic community, problems within the atheist movement, and other topics.

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Episode 26: The Statement and the Maze

This week, Justin sat down with friend and co-founder of Reason Revolution, Tylor Lovins, to discuss a wide variety of topics, including: the Reformation and its relevance to Secular Humanism, the “truths” of theological statements, Christianity’s relationship to American identity, the discussion on free will between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, Objectivism’s merits and drawbacks, and the role of luck in moral decision making.

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This episode, Justin sat down with Kevin Davis, founder of the SecularVoices blog and author of, Understanding an Atheist: A Practical Guide to Relating to Nonbelievers.

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Rationalism as a Humanism: Grounding the Secular by Tylor Lovins

What is the defining quality of the secular movement, if there is a center at all? Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” This aspect is self-evident to everyone in the movement. Many prominent secularists have at one point or another declared war on religion, typically by reducing all religious traditions to their fundamentalist, literalist manifestations. Motivated by the theory that religion was a primitive form of science, the mystifying beliefs of divine inspiration, holy-book-inerrancy, and divine-human relations have been shown for what they truly are: linguistic and ritualistic artifacts of a world now left behind by the progress of science.

The movement of secularism isn’t itself contained within this definition of secularism, however. The definition for humanism, which stands today as a largely non-negotiable feature for many in the secular movement, describes the contexture more precisely: “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason and science, coupled with anti-supernaturalism and displacing religion, appear to be the primary drivers of secularism. This warrants some critical reflection. Although reason can be understood as an intellectual endeavor that utilizes principles of logic, it’s not self-evident whose reason, and which rationality, should undergird the secularist movement. The de facto rationality motivating the secularist movement at present is rationalism.

The rationalist tradition for our purposes can be understood as the tradition of thought that makes truth the outcome of an equation: it proceeds from premises to conclusions that are warranted by logic. This is, in Aristotle’s term, “dialectic.” More broadly, a compelling yet underdeveloped strain of rationalism that creates the framework for secularism subsumes empiricism. Here, the premises of thought do not rely entirely on abstract, a priori conditions but take into account scientific findings and experiential knowledge. Another strain has developed, unfortunately, deducing that our motivated action is grounded by the rationalist equation. Let’s call this “naive rationalism.” The naive rationalist asserts we’re basically rational animals and with our handy reason, we are guided by rationalist equations. The yield of these equations are the truth in the realm of thought, and the good in the realm of action. Proposed as the successor to religious traditions that make claims based on authority, the rationalist tradition appears poised to further the cause of humanism and the advancement of knowledge by the force of reason, in a way that is historically unrivaled and unparalleled.

This ambiguity in the rationalist tradition should be interrogated. For centralizing the naive rationalist tradition in the secularism project devalues the fundamental, constitutive role valence frameworks play in any kind of rationality in the first place. Reasons, as modern philosophy and psychology have shown, do not originate from value-neutral systems, but rather are products of systems of value. The point can be made more explicitly: this rationalist tradition favors facts and reason as the highest goods, virtually diminishing the explicit roles of fitness, creativity, virtue, and meaning in the scheme of human motivations. Secularism could benefit from reintroducing these roles back into the pantheon of humanism.

Situating Rationalism

What I am suggesting is not entirely novel, but it remains sufficiently foreign to many projects sympathetic to secularism that it bears repeating and amplifying here. I am not, after all, calling for a devaluation of reason. Reason is a grand achievement of humankind, and rightfully remains as the symbol of not only progress but of a future world without mass population manipulation by appeal to fantastical claims. I simply want to bring reason back from the clouds of the Enlightenment to the real world,  where values, emotions, and unconscious biological mechanisms propel us to action and thought.

In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist explains that rage is the psyche’s way of creating a massive distraction, enabling one to not account for potentially punishing or threatening stimuli (whether in memory or experience), but rather displace them, so as to shut one’s eyes to these stimuli as meaningful or real. The picture of rage here is like the child who hides her head under blankets after seeing a scene from a horror film. The way in which we use arguments to reduce others’ positions to ludicrous strawmen is precisely a type of security blanket, but in linguistic form. Let’s remove this blanket, and confront the ambiguity in the function of rational beliefs that emerges when we ground them in the creaturely realm.  Our beliefs themselves, whether true or not (in the sense that they adequately take into account our place in the world in the present), may be what obstructs us from ascertaining truth in the future. Truth, in this way, returns to the motivational level, and doesn’t remain in the realm of articulate conscious thought. Our knowledge of the present may not be true enough to enable us to thrive or acquire truth in the future. Whether reason itself is (1) a method for finding truth or (2) a claim about the authority of an assertion is a tension for many int he secular movement. Just take a look at all the anti-religious memes and rhetoric flourishing in online secular communities to see just how much reason has been misunderstood as a position or claim and not as a method.

Truth as motivational, as operating in the realm of meaning, is important when the secularism project encounters religious thought, and especially as it invokes science. Humanism’s anti-supernaturalist bent is understandable and significant. With Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s final cause, the method of science was significantly brought into focus and under these conditions prospered without religious conceptions of the world. We don’t need to know the metaphysical constitution or nature of a thing to determine its efficient or material causes. That there may have been a being that created the material world does not weigh in on the question of why the sky is blue or how bacteria cause disease, or even, now, where humans came from. With Bacon, the weight of supernaturalism no longer grounded science, and it could finally fly freely toward the light of truth.

This is not where the story ends, however. Science appears positioned as Icarus. Important modern figures of secularism and champions of science like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken their cue from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, claiming religion is a primitive form of science, and that with the progress of science, it will be left behind. Although Frazer rightly positions the basis of myth and religion in psychology, the view was unfortunately colored by a naive rationalism. Frazer, among others even today, do not account for the importance religion has for the inward life and the psychological mechanisms that motivate religion in the first place. Seen as an institution that delivers a guide to right action and right thinking based on authority, religion becomes cosmology + ethics, undermined by its supernaturalism.

One reason the rationalism of science fails to adequately give an account of religion is because the tradition of rationality itself hasn’t taken into account the creature that uses rationality, but rather has reduced this creature to something like a more-or-less competent logic-guided robot. This oversight is a significant one. The public and communal nature of the scientific enterprise meshed with the philosophical underpinnings of secularism’s rationalism and empiricism make for a formidable force not unlike that of Christendom’s mix of magisteria and religion in the life-world of Medieval Europe. Still, the potential has yet to be unlocked. At this point in history, especially in the post-industrial, Christian-inspired nations of Europe and North America, secularism is like the potential energy of two tectonic plates producing some seismic activity in the last two or three centuries but overdue for a massive earthquake.

Motivation and Articulation

The religious wars that gave impetus to a non-religiously grounded framework for truth and political institutions birthed our modern secularism in more and less obvious ways. As deism rose to prominence during this time, true religious beliefs were no longer associated with the authority of church institutions, which had enforced the status of these truths by political force. Rather, truth became an inward reality, an “inner light.”[1] The public became private, the communal individualized. The stakes of this reformation, owing much to the ideas of the Reformers who ignited growing ideas of nationalism and equality already in place, couldn’t be much higher at the time. The political leaders who were endowed with authority by the Church weren’t just making sure, as in our day, the beliefs of one person didn’t intrude on the liberty of another, but were charged with the task of safeguarding the souls of their people.

As human history moved to favor the death of ideas over the death of people, the importance of symbols and narratives as the spaces where truth showed itself were lost within the development of rationalism. The separation of church and state has reversed the roles of what fundamentally grounds us. This is easily seen in populations of both religious and secular stripes, with people in both groups claiming that the minimal requirement a valid belief must meet to be legitimate (or, at least, not disallowable) is that it won’t infringe on the liberty of others. With rationalism sectioning individuals into types and tokens, our beliefs have become hyper-individualist, and what motivates us on the pre-conceptual level has been lost as a category for thinking, in the demand to typify everything for the calculus of our secular rationality.

For the kinetic energy of secularism to support life rather than diminish it, it’ll have to not only capture the minds of the masses, but also the hearts, and not just in the equivocal, ambiguous way by assuming and sublating the good, or motivational truth, with the method of rationality. The disparity between the proselytizers of religion and the advocates of secularism might just be measured by the forms made available to religious people in symbols and rituals that haven’t found a functionally equivalent home in secular movements. These forms enable the appearance of content framed as statements of belief, which illuminate, inspire, and unify the mind and heart. And the reasons are somewhat obvious, for those with eyes to see. Image processing and pattern recognition, as forms of thinking that are innate and unconscious, are more primary to and pervasive in consciousness than articulate thought.[2] That the myths of religion are saturated by images and narratives is, as a result, no accident. Stories grab us on a pre-conceptual level and even appear to ground our conceptual frameworks in the first place. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow depicts this secondary role of articulate thought in consciousness even more acutely: our “fast” system, what in common parlance we name “intuition,” this pattern recognition mechanism that I mentioned before, “makes” choices for us on most occasions. It is only when something unexpected or unknown is encountered that our secondary, “slow” system becomes operative: articulate thought.

If the strictly rationalist perspective of the human were true,[3] whereby the givenness of thought were provided completely in the mediation of sense data from the world, through the eyes, to the vassal of our minds, waiting to be formed by our concepts, then the world would, in a significant way, be value-neutral to our biological systems: there would not be a primitive reaction of fight, flight, or freeze, but an immediate compulsion of reason—articulate thought would be more pervasive than non-linguistic thought. This is, in fact, not what we find and doesn’t account for everyday experience.

A now prevailing theory of perception supports the valence-laden notion of the world. Scientists formerly believed that when we look out at the world and perceive the “givenness” of it, those objects with the most salience attract our attention. The consensus is moving in a different direction. We are, rather, attracted to valence: the most meaningful aspects of our perceptual field. And, on a more general level of analysis, when we don’t know what’s going on, when we find ourselves in situations that are new or unexpected, our amygdala goes to work, and in some degree produces the fight/flight/freeze response.[4] This is true not only for situations in the world when we encounter strangers, animals, natural disasters, or darkness in a foreign place, but also for situations in the mind, when we encounter new ideas and beliefs.

To be fair, the disparity I am outlining, between truth as fact and truth as valence, isn’t irreconcilable. The difference rests merely on two images of humankind conceived in “natural” or “normal” states of affairs. The naive rationalism that grounds some strains of secularism would have us believe it is natural for humans to encounter the world in a value-neutral way, although the methods of science itself, and its empiricism, contradicts this claim. On the other hand, religion, as it encourages literalist interpretations of its mythical symbols, would have us think the world is populated by gods and demons, and that it is natural for humans to encounter a world for or against them. These claims are literaly false, but perhaps metaphorically true. The issues arising from naive rationalism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other are not inherent to the secular enterprise itself, but are simply artifacts of the pre-Darwinian philosophy of Descartes. It is my belief that becoming more Darwinian will galvanize secularism to a more synthetic and all-encompassing view of ethics, politics, and especially religion.

Religion and Rationalism

If we take Kahneman’s research and conclusions seriously, rationality appears to be a mechanism motivated by the negation of itself. We can put it conceptually this way, using Hegel as our guide, contrasting the understanding from conceptual thinking: (1) the understanding is an immediate (meaning unmediated) interaction with the environment, bellying most of our thinking most of the time; (2) dialectic, or conceptual thinking, is a mediated form of the immediate, and its goal is to synthesize the mediated with the immediate experience to adapt understanding and return to the world, forgive the religious image, as a new creation, better fit to overcome whatever obstacles stand in one’s way. Rationality, as the conceptual aspect of thinking, arises when we encounter a problem or an unknown in our environment, when our unmediated understanding, our immediate experience of the world, becomes questionable. When the issue appears, we mediate the world, so that we don’t have to die to learn, but can predict, contradict, examine, and evaluate new courses of action to map on our environments. Our mental life returns to immediacy until a new problem or a novelty is encountered again.

This cycle of immediacy and mediation seems to account for a significant difference between rationalism and religion. And I think rationalism could gain from learning about this difference.

A piece of a Darwinian understanding of religion will reside in this framework, I believe,  not limiting religion to either a scheme of morality only or a cosmology only, or simply both together in varying intensities. Wittgenstein once wrote “God” is a term like “object,” and with it, you get an entire conception of the world. The first commandment given to the Jews, that they should have no other god before God, can now be interpreted in the way the Father of Modern Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, once spoke of miracles: “Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant….The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[5] Religion makes a move that rationalism doesn’t necessitate but could, and should, incorporate.[6] The moment of mediation, for religion, is not a moment to figure something out about the objective world, whether that be the causal relations of objects or the laws of nature, and to the extent that these are figured out by religious people, it’s an accidental and not an essential feature of the religious disposition. The moment of mediation is undertaken to correct disposition: mediation is a form of meditation, a reception or correction of behavioral patterns. Immediacy becomes transformed into miracle the very moment God is sought in all things. Consider the words of Deanna A. Thompson, explicating the centrality of faith for the Christian life in light of Martin Luther’s theology:

“…having faith means that your whole life is redirected toward ‘trusting [God] with your whole heart’ and looking to God ‘for all good, grace, and favor,’ honoring God through the orientation of your inner life.”

Rationalism, on the other hand, utilizes mediation in a fundamentally different way, and this is what separates the objectivity of rationalism from the existentiality of religion. The point of mediation for rationality is to understand the causal connections and physical makeup of the world. Yet it doesn’t end there. Mediation becomes saturated with facts, more so than the religious disposition strives to attain, and in such a way sets the mediated move of reason as the primary driver of thought, rather than a certain disposition toward the world as it relates to oneself immediately.

This is a significant difference. It doesn’t mean that religion only operates within the realm of value and rationalism in the realm of truth, but it does indicate a different kind of navigation of the world as it presents itself to human beings, as creatures who not only think and plan but also suffer and love. The platitudes, deriving from metaphors, narratives, and images, used to communicate religion by religious people themselves, inspire a depth of life for many that appears simply, at least in this point in history, inaccessible by other existing avenues. Taken seriously, with a more fully Darwinian conception of religion we may acquire a wisdom and appreciation for not just life itself but the lived experience of life that has been hidden in the cliches of the sages of the past. The fact that so many religious people use platitudes or canonical beliefs, grounded in metaphor and imagery, to communicate deep inward experiences tells us conclusively that these inward experiences need forms to carry them to the public eye, and these forms are patterned and universal. It seems otherwise a miracle, for instance, that the myths of the world have global structures and archetypes, which when abstracted from any individual myth fits within a universal framework common to all myths. To go further, an experience that I can’t mediate to myself doesn’t have meaning, and the way I mediate these to myself is the same way they’re mediated to communities I find myself in: by language and images. There is some sense in which, as a result, the meaning and shape of experiences arise within communal constraints and traditions. And these constraints and traditions, undergirded by patterns of categories seemingly inherited, testify to something all too human.

Rationalism as a Humanism

Rudolf Otto introduced the notion of “awe” as central to the encounter with the divine, as the most salient characteristic of a religious experience. And we might say this “awe” is essential to the propensity to live by inward disposition and motivation rather than external manipulation and control. Joseph Campbell asks in Myths to Live By “what the proper source of awe might be”[7] for us who no longer live in a world of gods and demons? What are the sources and symbols of mystery and inspiration that evoke “the impulse to imitative identification?”[8] He traces these sources in history as beginning with animals and their mystical agency, then to the vegetable world where death changes into life, and then to the cosmos and the seven moving cosmic lights that affected the ordering of societies. He finds in our time the individual stands as the source: “as a Thou, one’s neighbor; not as ‘I’ might wish him to be, or may imagine that I know and relate to him, but in himself, thus come, as a being of mystery and wonder.”[9] Every human is a new beginning, a singularity in the history of humankind, and to diminish this novelty is a kind of blasphemy.

Like Nietzsche, Campbell finds the first explication of the human as a source of awe in the Greek tragedies, already in the period of Homer. From the two classically recognized tragic emotions as indicated by Aristotle, pity and terror, we discover a conceptual framework in which to turn the traditionally religious movements into a humanist project. Campbell uses James Joyce’s exposition to spell these out: “Pity is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”[10]

In tragedy, we are compelled to relate to the individual by the shared grave and constant reality between us, and we are inspired by the secret source of this grave and constant which unites us. In our case, it is death which is the grave and constant specter that haunts us, and it is life which is the secret source of death, but also of things greater than these: family, creativity, and meaning. In this recognition, we may return to the Father of Modern Theology but without God: life is received as a gift, that which we share with all our brothers and sisters, which we did not ask for or could not acquire by our own actions, but by the happenstance of evolutionary history, are gifted immeasurably.

For rationalism to motivate secularism properly, it must catch up with the times, and not deliver to us an image of humanity dreamed by the ghost in the machine of Descartes, or in the tabula rasa nothingness of Locke’s children. Being clear about the nature of the creatures who use rationality is one thing. We must also understand the motivations of these creatures. Reducing, disregarding, or criticizing religious beliefs by a way of thinking foreign to it, without first taking genuine steps toward understanding it on its own terms, doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable response to a phenomenon that has enamored most people for most of history. Rationalism, itself, is a tradition, a human tradition. It is imperative that secularism recaptures the human element in the heart of rationalism. The best secularism, in my estimation, is the one that takes into account and integrates the best of all human thought, no matter where it may be found. What images of the human we use in this process will be crucial, for it is our metaphors that “mediate between our procedural wisdom and our explicit knowledge; they constitute the imagistic declarative point of transition between the act and the word.”[11]

The West celebrated the God incarnate for millennia. It’s time we celebrate the fact that life became human, and that now, with the gift of consciousness, we may understand, revere, defend, and serve it. We need not pray that God bless us, for life has. Nor should we pray for God to return, for life is here. No more prayers for miracles of God, for the secret source that connects us all, life, demands of us that we act. The only question is whether we will become worthy of this demand. “The old imagery now carried a new song–of the unique, the unprecedented and induplicable human sufferer; yet equally a sense of the ‘grave and constant’ in our human suffering, as well as a holy intimation of the ungainsayable ‘secret cause,’ without which the rite would have lacked its depth dimension and healing force.”[12]

 


 

[1] See Christopher Hill’s wonderful book where he tracks this in England from 1400-1580 in The World Turned Upside Down.

[2] This is Freud’s insight and it has turned out to be true in an interesting way: our “fast system” heuristics are such that we have systematically predictable errors that we make in our thinking.

[3] I find this especially in the Objectivist ethic, but this idea has advocates from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant as well as Ayn Rand.

[4] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning.

[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

[6] And already does to some extent. Listen to lectures and presentations by Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll hear a very similar view.

[7] Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 58.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Peterson, 94. We should note, here, a prime example of our danger. The fact that the trolley problem has been posed as a moral problem, in the sense that it awakens our intuitions enough to perceive it as a moral problem in the first place, is disconcerting, as it assumes the moral choice can be perfectly moral while making life expendable.

[12] Campbell, 59.

 

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