Jordan Peterson is one of the most well-known academics in the world today. He rose to prominence after publicly opposing a bill in Canada that required citizens to use the desired pronouns of the transgender community. Political conservatives and moderate liberals have come to see Peterson as a valuable ally in the ongoing culture war. Christians have expressed their desire to see Peterson convert to Christianity. Muslims have done the same. But when asked about the existence of God, Peterson repeatedly said that he does not like the question. This makes it difficult to assess where he is at regarding the God question. In this article, I want to focus on this question.
Does Jordan Peterson believe in God?
Doesn’t Like The Question
When people ask Jordan Peterson if he believes in God, he often responds by saying that he does not like the question. This video is a good example. In this video, he says he is unsure why he doesn’t like the question but elaborates on three possible reasons.
- He doesn’t think it’s anyone else’s business. (33 seconds into the video)
- What you believe is more about what you act out than what you say. (52 seconds into the video)
- He is afraid that God might exist. (2:00 minutes into the video)
His first reason looks like a cop-out as far as I am concerned. Peterson has given us a fair bit of personal information about his life through his videos. Answering a question regarding his belief in God is not more personal than many of the other personal details he freely gives.
Regarding the third reason, Peterson says it is the most comical and accurate answer. However, he doesn’t say anything else about it in this video. He spends most of his time on the second reason and it is here that we can begin unpacking his view of God.
What Do You Mean By Believe?
The question “Do you believe in God?” is a rather straightforward question for most people. The question can be restated along the following lines: Do you think the proposition “God exists” expresses a true proposition? For most, answering “yes” to this question doesn’t entail any particular sort of moral character on the part of the person answering the question. However, for Peterson, saying that you believe in God is the rough equivalent of saying that you are “the best person you can be”.
Really believing in God, for Peterson, just is to say that you have arrived at a state of goodness akin to human perfection. Since God is “the highest unity” or the “highest good” the integrated self would have to be nearly perfected in order to truly believe in God. Why is this so? Because Peterson believes that what you truly believe is what you act out. Stated from a different point of view, your actions are better indicators than your words of what you really believe. The integrated self is one whose words and actions are aligned (or isomorphic as he says). Since Peterson doesn’t think that he has attained this level of human perfection, he thinks it is disingenuous to say that he believes in God.
A consequence of this way of caching out the question is that no one should say that they believe in God. Who could say that they consistently live up to the highest human ideals in a consistent manner? The number of people on that list is likely zero. Peterson even quotes Friedrich Nietzsche saying that “There was only one Christian and He died on the cross.”
Does God Exist and What Is God
For this reason, I think it would be better to ask Peterson whether or not God exists. To the best of my knowledge, Peterson would answer this in the affirmative. He does seem to think that something exists that fits the description of “God”. The natural follow-up question to this would be: What do you mean by God?
Peterson gave the following answer on the Lex Fridman Podcast: “God in the highest sense is the spirit that you must emulate in order to thrive”. By “spirit” here he means “a pattern” or “animating principle”. At first glance “animating principle” sounds close to what we might traditionally think of as a “spirit”. However, when Peterson elaborates on this point, he talks about abstracting all of the admirable qualities from human beings until you arrive at the purest pattern. It is this pattern that he says is as good as you are going to get in terms of a representation of God.
Dr. Peterson uses a lot of terms that religious people use. But he does not use them in the same way. Spirit here does not refer to the real immaterial aspect of a human person. Nor does it refer to some unembodied personality existing in some non-spatiotemporal arena. These terms act more as metaphors that reference different aspects of the human person, individually or collectively.
God is not a tri-personal being that is “out there” holding all of space and time into existence by means of His efficient causal relation to the world. Rather God is something like the highest unity in humanity’s collective or universal unconscious. God is real. But rather than being the ground of being, God is an abstracted pattern embedded deep within the human psyche. This pattern (Peterson’s God) emerges out of our deep collective or universal unconscious and expresses itself best through narrative, especially narratives that stretch over long periods of time. It is this narrative that he is attempting to uncover in his study of the Bible.
Peterson’s Moral Interpretation of Religion
During an interview with Sam Harris, Peterson offers his view of what religious systems are. He says that religious systems are “descriptions of how people ought to act.” These descriptions arose, not by special revelation from a Divine or angelic being, but by means of a “quasi-evolutionary” process of figuring out what traits and behaviors tend towards social stability.
Peterson’s view of religion is largely an evolutionary account of the development of the human psyche. “God”, “spirit”, “heaven”, “hell”, and the like are metaphors that are better or worse approximations of some deep non-propositional psychological principle. This way of viewing religion gives lip service to the value of religion but is fundamentally a patronizing outlook.
This approach is not new. In many ways, Jordan Peterson’s view of religion is not that far from Ludwig Feuerbach’s. Feuerbach himself contended that the God of Christianity is an illusion. According to Peter Byrne’s book “The Moral Interpretation of Religion,” Feuerbach’s interpretation of religion goes something like this:
Feuerbach’s account of the latent but ‘true’ meaning of claims about God tells us that statements such as ‘God is love’ can be transposed into statements about the human essence. ‘God is love’ is really a statement about the human attribute of love and its importance and value in the realization of human perfection.
When they are reinterpreted thus, religious claims are still propositional in content, and many of them are indeed true; but they are not claims about a transcendent reality.
Peterson would likely modify this and interpret deeply religious claims as non-propositional, but still true. But he would likely agree with Feuerbach’s removal of traditional conceptions of God as some transcendent reality “out there” in the objective world.
Jordan Peterson’s broad influence on our culture is undeniable. His influence extends into the Christian community. While I do value many of his insights, we should be wary of adopting his theological outlook. He uses the words we use, but with different meanings and referents. This makes it easy for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to think that his outlook is very close to their own. But the more I look into Peterson’s influences, the more I see a view of religion that is not compatible with Christianity.