Five million subscribers on Youtube, a highly publicized Twitter ban, tens of thousands of people for his book tour, and millions of books sold made Jordan Peterson “the most important intellectual in the West” (according to the NYT).
The problem with JP today is that his popularity made him untouchable.
And, similar to Sam Harris, he has built some sort of intellectual bubble where he enjoys a monopoly on truth because his voice isn’t challenged by anyone.
This leads to him making a few mistakes.
JP has an encyclopedic knowledge of psychology. He knows philosophy rather well too. But he seemingly never studied ancient history, which is incomprehensible in regard to his topics of predilection.
I am highlighting a few of his mistakes below.
#1 The Nature of the Bible
There was only one thing that came out of the Peterson/Harris debate from a few years ago: JP looks at the Bible as a metaphorical book whose stories can guide us in our daily life when they’re interpreted.
Sam Harris reads the Bible literally.
In effect, both of them are right and wrong. Let me explain.
The Bible contains a lot of correct facts (the entire history of the Jewish people for example). It also contains a lot of nonsense (the sea definitely didn’t split in half to let them escape Egypt).
The difficulty is in separating the facts from the stories (something that Werner Keller did in his book “The Bible as History”).
When you look at the Bible the way JP does it, all of it is stories, myths, and metaphors helping you orientate yourself in life.
When the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert, JP interprets it in the sense that when you leave tyranny, you go through a period during which you’re lost because the meaning you had in your life came from serving a tyrant.
Now that you’ve left the tyrant, you’ve lost the meaning. It takes some time (40 years) before finding it back.
Nothing bad in this interpretation because it’s true.
But this isn’t the right event to interpret.
The Jews did escape Egypt, and did spend a long time in the desert.
Imagine for a moment that they had not? Imagine they’d found Canaan right away?
How would JP have interpreted it then? “When you leave tyranny, you find the Promised Land right away”?
That would have been annoying as it would not have fitted reality.
This is only one of the many examples. When JP interprets the encounter of Jesus and the Devil, that definitely is a metaphor. When he speaks about Eden, it’s definitely a metaphor too.
Conclusion: not everything in the Bible should be interpreted because not everything is a metaphor…but not everything is true either.
#2 The Impact of Christianity in/on the West
In 12 Rules for Life, JP admits that Christianity unleashed a wave of religious dogmatism, scientific ignorance, and power abuse commonly referred to as “the Dark Ages”.
He also argues that even though “these things were bad”, Christianity has made Europe better off overall.
The main argument he uses concerns equality.
JP argues that the inherent value of a human being changed under Christianity. In Rome, slavery was common practice. Society was violent. Romans enjoyed watching gladiators being torn apart by bears, lions, or soldiers.
When Christianity arrived, it made owning slaves “less moral” than it was, because the idea that a slave was less equal to a master became, let’s say, unpolitically correct.
It’s true and not true.
First, a note: slavery in the Roman Empire isn’t as simple as I make it seem below, but this is an article, not a book, so let’s focus on overarching principles and not on the details. Obviously I am not condoning slavery in any way.
Let’s take the example of the Greeks. When Rome conquered Greece, a bunch of Greeks became slaves…but were sent to Rome to teach Roman kids.
The Romans knew that the Greeks were more educated than they were. Roman families preferred a Greek teacher that was a slave to a Roman teacher that wasn’t.
Not all slaves were Greeks, and not all Greeks were slaves.
Rome had a system where slaves could earn money and buy their own freedom for a price previously agreed with the master.
Slavery in the English-speaking world is often seen through the prism of US slavery (that is, racial).
Roman slavery was nothing like it.
Think of it as a social class. The higher the social class, the more benefits you had and the other way around. The slaves did not own their freedom. But they could buy it back. They could, like in Babylon, earn their own money.
Even if we did consider that slavery became less of a good thing in the Roman Empire due to Christianism, Christian Europe eventually came out with serfdom to provide for agricultural labor.
Serfs could not buy their freedom back, and were “harshly treated”.
This lasted until the French revolution in 1789 in Western Europe, but until 1861 in Russia, more than 1500 years after the Christian conversion!
The barbarities of the Roman Empire weren’t worse than the barbarities of the Dark Ages — far from it.
While Christians may have stopped gladiator games, they also banned, burnt, and destroyed a wealth of knowledge they deemed anticlerical, but that was perfectly tolerated under Roman rule (Epicurus, for example, whose work was burnt by the early Christians according to Michel Onfray).
The Belgian historian David Engels highlighted how one of the things that made Rome the success it was was the open-mindedness.
Nassim Taleb further explained that it was their tolerance that eventually lost the Romans. When they became confronted with an “intolerant minority” — the new Christians — , they didn’t “fight back”. They let it be.
Romans tolerated pretty much any other faith and ideas in general. Rome was the most cosmopolitan city in the world.
When they conquered Gaul, they didn’t force the Gauls to adopt their practices. They let them be. But since the Roman lifestyle was nicer, the Gauls naturally became “Gaul-Romans”.
So Rome was open-minded, particularly after the Edict of Milan.
They became the most powerful empire because they had no complex in taking the best from each people they had conquered to integrate it into their own culture (like the Dutch today).
While most traveled to preach their religion, Romans adopted the religion of others if they deemed it better.
The Roman Empire (and Athens) produced far more valuable and long-lasting philosophy, science, and art than Europe did between 476 and 1755 (the year of the earthquake in Lisbon, one of the main events that will start the Enlightenment).
So much in fact that Europe emerged out of the Dark Ages in a period called the Renaissance during which Roman culture, art, and architecture were unearthed from the mental and cultural Index it had been put into.
Catholicism, whatever Jordan Peterson’s opinion, did not make people more moral.
When we see what the Christians subsequently did, one could argue that it was time, not religion, that helped instilled a sense of equality and justice in the culture.
The Emperor Julian fought for several years to reestablish Greek religion after Constantin had converted the Empire.
Unfortunately for him — and for us — he failed.
#3 “Everyone Is Religious, if Not in Their Beliefs, at Least in Their Actions”
Not everything we do is thought-through. Not everything we do is dogmatic. Not everything we do is motivated by religious (or otherwise Natural) principles.
When I get drunk in a bar and start talking to everyone, I am pretty confident that I am not acting in a religious way.
I am acting in an emotional way, a “natural way”, almost in a subconscious way. I am acting in an animalistic way.
My self-consciousness is relinquished in the back of my mind and the mammal part of me takes control.
It’s highly instinctive. It’s like sex. It’s what we call “barbaric”, but animalistic is more accurate as there is a lower level of consciousness.
Religion is an interesting tool to use for guidance in the spiritual dimension of our lives.
But our lives are made out of different dimensions — understand: situations.
The way you think and behave at an uptight opening night for an art gallery is different than the way you behave with your lover in the privacy of the bedroom.
The latter isn’t religious, but stems from a deep animalistic desire.
Which leads us to the point of this section: JP doesn’t say that we’re behaving religiously all the time. But he says that everyone does, and this is where he’s wrong.
In 12 Rules for Life, he explains that he used to hang out with people that weren’t a good influence on him. These people didn’t act in a nice, noble way. They acted in a highly emotional, animalistic way.
Their self-consciousness was really low. They were driven by their emotional needs.
Religion is one thing, but it’s used differently by everyone.
People from lower classes may use religion because it provides them with both spiritual and temporal rules for living. People at the top of the social classes use religion often for strictly spiritual, self-actualizing purposes.
And then the king uses religion as means of power to rule over everybody else (Capet dynasty in France, Saudi Arabia nowadays).
Most people live proper lives and seek transcendence with the help of religion. But many also live lives motivated by materialistic gains, sadism, mere power, or constant quenching of emotional and physical desires.
There is an inherent need underlying their motives that isn’t religious, not at least in the sense JP means it.
These needs are emotional, biological. One could argue they’re on a lower level of (self-)consciousness.
For these people, the spiritual dimension of religion does not exist.
And there are a lot of them.