One of the most fascinating and excruciating things one can do in the current political climate is to watch celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson debate famed atheist Sam Harris in Vancouver and Dublin. Spread over four separate nights, Peterson and Harris, along with Evergreen State professor Eric Weinstein and European immigration critic Douglas Murray, challenged one another on their respective positions regarding religion—whether it’s true or false, and if so, whether it’s useful or harmful to humanity as a whole.
You’d think that the collision of two giants in the contemporary debate over religion would prove once and for all which side—atheism or theism—is superior. We expect the opposition of two sides to yield a clear winner precisely because we live in a country that prides itself on its virulently adversarial system of law. But in the case of Peterson and Harris, this simply wasn’t the case.
Peterson is at his most compelling when he is rigorously logical and dismantling the naked ad hominems and irrational propositions of feminists. He is at his worst when speaking about his passion, namely, religion, because he is unwilling to admit the assumptions behind his Jungian interpretation of religious stories and their truth-values. Peterson makes the mistake of taking all religious stories and dogma as metaphors or “noble lies,” that is, as expressing figurative truths or useful lies.
Yet no great theologian has ever held this position, not even St. Augustine of Hippo. Not every event in Scripture is a symbol for something else; an interpretive framework clearly indicated in the Book of Revelation the Epistles of the Apostle Paul provide guidance as to how the Old Testament is to be interpreted in light of the New Testament, which is itself to be read literally as far as Jesus’ life is concerned. Theologians, against Nietzsche’s claim that untruth allows man to survive, have always held that truth alone is good for man, never lies.
But whereas Peterson is afraid to admit that he considers all religion only symbolically, and that these religious symbols confer collective and individual advantage in a purely material or psychological sense, Harris, to his credit, is all too ready to admit the premises of his moral theory: materialism, naturalism, evolutionism, physicalism. His fault lies in the ad hominem attacks he frequently lobs against religion, built on ridiculous analogies which are really disanalogies.
Contrary to Harris’ claims, no one could get the same guidance from Spider-Man or Batgirl as they do Christ–why? Because a rational person can come to believe Christ existed and continues to exist, but will never believe a comic book hero did and does. Models for behavior are effective only if they are thought to be real and reputable, not fictional and facetious.
We see, then, that the two men are arguing past each other on non-essential points, because they both agree at the level of their fundamental assumptions: the truth of the theory of evolution, and its value as an explanatory tool for human belief. Both Peterson and Harris deny the real existence of the supernatural and transcendent. Therefore all questions become that single inquiry–Does this belief contribute to the individual’s fitness, and hence the survival of the species?
As if that idea ever made its way into the minds of men and women dying for their faith! Peterson and Harris do not understand that belief in religion is a belief in the truth of the religion, not just its practical utility in our everyday lives.
Darwinian evolution, even more so than Newtonian physics, brought the death of God because it is the operating assumption of all men of learning, and everyone who wants to be taken seriously in academia. Deny evolution and naturalism, and affirm creationism and supernaturalism, and you have the religious life and the religious view of life. Only by pitting the real scientific and religious points of view against one another will you have a real debate—and if not a debate, then at least the clearest possible distinction between the two fundamentally different worldviews in question. A debate between two secular evolutionists is not a debate but an intellectual game of nitpicking and henpecking between the false friend of religion, Jungian symbolism, and religion’s honest enemy, atheism.