[Update, 7/30: Wow, that escalated quickly! If you enjoy this, see my follow-up piece here, in which I start answering some of Sam Harris’s questions. Thanks for reading!]
[Update, 9/15: Both Harris and Peterson have now released all the debates on their official channels. Click here for Night One and here for Night Two. See also unofficial links to Dublin here and London here.]
To say Jordan Peterson has had a busy summer would be an understatement. His book tour has taken him around the country and the world, peppered throughout with multiple interviews and other appearances. Those of us who have stuck with him since his initial viral rise have been all too happy to gobble up the new content, though we do wonder when the man has found time to sleep. Among these numerous appearances, perhaps his most anticipated have been a series of debates with Sam Harris.
Sam Harris is a name some Christian readers may feel they haven’t heard in a while. He burst onto the scene in 2004 as the youngest of the infamous “Four Horsemen” (together with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens). Books like The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation were hailed glowingly as “a sustained nuclear assault” and “a breath of fresh fire” against the plague of religion, including Judeo-Christian religion.
But if the Four Horsemen were a band, we’d say they broke up a long time ago. Hitchens is dead, Dennett is old, and Dawkins was last seen wondering whether maybe we should de-stigmatize cannibalism. Harris, on the other hand, has launched a successful solo career, including but not limited to developing his own theory of morality, networking with free speech and anti-Islam activists, and offering meditation workshops. For the most part, these enterprises have run on parallel tracks to the critique of Judeo-Christian ideas in particular.
However, with the rise of Jordan Peterson, Judeo-Christian ideas are getting a new lease on life, if not in an orthodox sense, at least in a sense that still makes Sam Harris uncomfortable. It bothers Sam intensely that Peterson could sell out a theater multiple nights in a row for an in-depth lecture series on the book of Genesis. It bothers him that Peterson doesn’t dismiss Christianity as primitive Stone Age thinking. It bothers him, because it shows that for all the Horsemen’s yeomanly efforts, the Bible still hasn’t been relegated to the dustbin of history. And the effects are making themselves felt within his very own fan base, causing one YouTuber to ask in so many words “Is Sam Harris Losing his Audience to Jordan Peterson?”
But Harris is a fairly equable conversation partner, and the fact that he and Peterson have recently been thrown together in the strange conglomerate known as “The Intellectual Dark Web” has made it inevitable that they would meet formally to hash these questions out. Harris and Peterson met in four debates total this month, including two held in Vancouver and two held in the British isles. Diverging from the opening statement/cross-examination/rebuttal format of a typical debate, they functioned more as free-wheeling dialogues, occasionally punctuated by contributions from a moderator (in Vancouver, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein did the honors, while in Dublin and London they were joined by British journalist Douglas Murray, on whom more anon).
All four were sold out and professionally filmed, but to the ire of many fans (and the openly expressed disapproval of Bret Weinstein himself), producer Travis Pangburn has chosen to delay their release until August. Fortunately, bootleg audio of the debates has surfaced on YouTube. They might not be there for long, but meanwhile, I’ve listened to all four and found them to be a rich vein of discussion material. For Harris to have emerged as a challenger to Peterson is not something I would have predicted. But their live fencing matches have fascinatingly and tellingly exposed the fault lines in both men’s thinking. They are a must-hear for any Christian who wants to understand our culture’s spiritual zeitgeist, not only for what Harris and Peterson are bringing to the table, but for how the crowd is reacting to them.
So, while Pangburn dawdles, let’s discuss.
First of all, in case any confusion still remains (and in some circles apparently it does), it should be emphasized that while Peterson functions as the avatar of religion in these debates, the jury is still out for him on the truth claims of Christianity proper. He is a thoroughgoing pragmatist in the technical sense that if you’ve found an idea that seems to work in your everyday life, the mere fact that the idea works makes it true. Thus, when he observes that he cannot help resorting to religious language when dealing with his clinical patients, or that Christianity seems to be the engine that has historically kept Western civilization from descending into nihilism, as far as he is concerned this makes Christianity true. Or at least, true enough.
If that strikes you as a rather alien definition of “truth,” Sam Harris agrees with you, and I agree with Sam Harris. To speak truthfully, in the classical understanding, is to say of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. In modern parlance, we would call this the “correspondence theory” of truth. It’s the only logically sustainable theory.
But Peterson is not so much concerned with logical sustainability. He’s concerned with sustainability, period. And he believes we have already seen what happens when atheists behave in consistently logical fashion. For him, the path of truth is synonymous with the path that takes Western civilization as far away from the gas chambers and the gulags as possible.
Here is where Harris raises his hand to protest that this is rather insulting, considering he’s written a whole book developing an atheistic framework for morality. If only enough people would just be reasonable and buy it (pun intended), we could have our cake and eat it too. Imagine no gas chambers, no gulags, and no God. It’s easy if you try. Needless to say, Peterson is unconvinced.
But now here’s the question of the hour: What are we talking about when we talk about God?
Sam Harris has had his answer since 2004: God is a personal entity, outside space-time yet able to intervene in human affairs. God is a Being to whom one could pray, and from whom one could expect to receive an answer. Sam Harris, of course, does not believe in such a God. But he knows whom he has not believed.
There was a time not so long ago when Jordan Peterson’s answer was more or less equally clear. As recently as half a year ago, when a reporter asked “Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God?” he answered, “I think the proper response to that is no, but I’m afraid He might exist.” This is the voice of Jordan Peterson, the modern man, articulating if not a properly atheistic response, at least a recognizably agnostic one.
But lately, he has been less forthcoming, asking what the questioner means by “God” and “belief.” At times he has appeared downright testy. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Sam Harris, who wonders why Peterson can’t just unequivocally say “No,” like every other sophisticated person in Sam’s world. All right then, he asks Peterson in Vancouver, night one, what do you mean by God?
Jordan obliges, with a volley of definitions: “God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence of an action of consciousness across time.” “God is that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.” “God is the highest value in the hierarchy of values.” “God is the voice of conscience.” “God is the source of judgment, mercy, and guilt.” “God is the future to which we make sacrifices.”
An intriguing volley, to be sure. But not quite what Sam Harris is talking about when he talks about God. It’s all very well to talk about the utility of a God-concept. The problem for Harris is that civilized people in the 21st century still believe in a magical man in the sky. And they still believe in a magical man who performed miracles and rose from the dead. To kick off the London debate, Harris takes a straw poll of people in the audience (about 10,000 strong), to see what percentage believes in a personal, prayer-answering, living and active god. He then points at the ones who cheered affirmatively and turns to Peterson: “This is my concern.”
In Vancouver, night one, Harris zeroes in on the resurrection. Surely, as a man of science, Peterson can at least acknowledge that the resurrection probably didn’t happen? Surely this is the lowest of all possible bars for a modern man to clear? The ensuing exchange is fascinating:
Harris: “Let’s put this probabilistically. Anything is possible. I’ll tell you that it’s possible that he was physically resurrected.”
Peterson: “Well wait a second, I didn’t say that he was. I said it would take me 40 hours to answer the question. I didn’t say that he was.”
Harris: “Well how’s this for an answer: Almost certainly not.”[loud applause]
Harris again: “What’s wrong with that?”[more applause and some laughter as Peterson pauses]
Peterson [testily]: “It’s a fine answer, and people have been giving that answer for a very long period of time. But the idea doesn’t seem to go away.”
Harris: “And that’s evidence of what, exactly?”
Peterson: “I don’t know.”
Aye, there’s the rub. Peterson is a man in two minds. He is two men in one man: There’s Jordan Peterson, the man who feels in every fiber of his being that we are more than merely material, that we have souls (whatever this means), that we are made in the image of God (whatever this means), and that the only way through life is to imitate Christ (whatever this means). And then there’s Jordan Peterson, the man of science, the man of hard data and experimentation and evidence, who told a journalist he left the church in his teens for “the reasons that everyone’s leaving.” This is the Jordan Peterson who finally does say in so many words to Sam, “I mean, I’m perfectly aware that making a deistic case or a case for religion in the face of the rationalist atheists is…well, it’s a very, very difficult thing to manage.”
It is telling that when Harris mockingly compares belief in God to a belief in Batgirl or astrology in these debates, Jordan’s immediate reaction is not to protest that this is a category error, but to say Batgirl and astrology aren’t as silly as all that. Indeed, the make-believe games of children and the make-believe games of adults are all equally fascinating, provided you view them all as manifestations of the same unfathomably deep psycho-evolutionary phenomena.
But, Harris protests, we are children no more. We must become men and put away childish things. We must, to the best of our ability, live as integrated beings. And we must respect the man in the crowd enough to tell him he’s wrong, instead of implying that “stupid people still need their myths.” This is the part where Peterson interjects, “We’re all stupid.” “We’re not that stupid,” Sam fires back. We’ve kept up this charade of Santa Claus in the sky long enough. It’s time to break the spell. It’s time to wake up.
Here, a third player enters the stage: the aforementioned Douglas Murray, who sits literally and figuratively between Harris and Peterson in the British debates. Harris tells the audience that they would be gravely mistaken to view Murray as a mere third wheel for the main event. He’s right. A verbal wunderkind, Murray wrote a biography in his teens, wrote a book-length defense of neo-conservatism in his 20s, and has established himself as a world-class authority on international politics, with particular emphasis on Islam and immigration. For a sample of his formidable oratory talents, look no further than this blistering speech on the prospect of a nuclear Iran, delivered when he looks to have been roughly my age. Murray is still only 39 years old.
If you examine Murray’s work, you will see that in his genteel British way, he has been saying many of the same things Peterson is saying. On his side of the pond, he sees how Islam has rushed into the hollowed-out corpse of European Christendom. He sees that nature abhors a vacuum, and for a continent to lose its faith has been to lose everything. So when European parents reflect that maybe church and Christian school would be “good for the kids,” Murray isn’t inclined to argue with them. Indeed, he is inclined to think that even a watered-down, cultural Christianity may be the last bulwark between Europe and its death, be it death by Islam or death by assisted suicide.
So yes, Sam Harris is welcome to trot out his moral landscape and assure us, like the meme, “This is fine.” But as Murray puts it in one of the UK debates, “We’d love for it to be Sam Harrises all the way down. The problem is that underneath Sam Harris, it’s hell.”
Yet, if you ask Murray what he personally believes, he will tell you that of course, a perfectly rational man can’t really be a Christian any more. That spell broke for him long ago, when he discovered how German higher criticism had (he thought) decisively disqualified the Bible as a source of reliable truth claims. In the article where he first “came out” atheist, he recalls how his younger, painfully devout Anglican self tried to wade through this scholarship and put it aside with a shudder. He never looked back. Once you’ve learned Santa Claus isn’t real, you can’t unlearn it.
Now ten years on from that article, Murray speaks with the voice of an older and wiser man, a man who’s simply too tired to muster his old callow insouciance about religion. The glibness of the New Atheists is cold comfort to him. It’s all very well for Richard Dawkins to announce that science has “solved” everything. But as Murray devastatingly writes in his book The Strange Death of Europe, “…[M]ost of us still do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our existence as solved beings.” (p. 267) The pat evolutionary narrative tells us one thing. Intuition tells us another thing. It tells us we are more than mere animals, mere cogs in the wheel. “We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.”
And right there in a nutshell, Murray captures why Sam Harris is losing his audience to Jordan Peterson: People are tiring of glib. They have a need that is unmet, a void that is unfilled. And, as Peterson bluntly informs Harris on stage in London, watered-down Buddhism isn’t going to fill it.
But I would like to give Sam Harris his due. Setting aside the fact that no materialist truly practices what he preaches, at least his sermon has a point: We were not made to be split beings. We were not made to stake ourselves on blind faith. Our hearts and minds, our instincts and our knowledge, are meant to be aligned.
Jordan Peterson cannot offer such an alignment. But Christians can. More specifically, Christians prepared to give a rational answer for the hope that is in them. Christians prepared to stand up and politely demur that the ship of rational faith did not sail with the H. M. S. Beagle, that David Hume and David Strauss were beaten at their own game by their own contemporaries, and that you are quite welcome to approach the Bible as you would approach any historical document, because it is more than equal to the scrutiny.
This is not a sexy thing to say. It’s not a popular thing to say. It requires patience and time. It requires that we go back to the stack of books that the anguished young Douglas Murray shoved aside for another day. It requires that we take a hard look at the explanatory power of the Darwinian model. It requires that we ask the heirs of Hume just what exactly they mean by “extraordinary evidence.” It requires that we give Sam Harris what he wants when he asks us to put the resurrection probabilistically, which requires that we learn something about probability theory.
Now I say “we,” but I recognize that for many of my Christian readers, this sort of thing is just not your bag. I don’t wish to bind burdens on anyone’s backs. But let me make this appeal, at least: If you are a pastor, or a youth leader, or anyone with any kind of status in your church community, don’t hush people when they come to you with intellectual doubts.
Don’t hush the high-schooler who slides his Bible across your desk and says, “Explain to me why I should believe this book.”
Don’t brush aside the 13-year-old Jordan Peterson in your pew who walks into your office and says, “I’ve read Darwin you know. What’s up?”
You can say they’re being cocky. You can say they’re just making excuses. And maybe you’re right. But maybe you’re wrong—fatally, spectacularly wrong.
And if you can’t answer their questions, seek help from those who can. Say yes when they offer to speak at your church. Say yes when they offer you resources. Don’t shrug them off with a “Thanks, but we’re okay,” because I can assure you that some significant percentage of your young people are not okay. And if you don’t anticipate and repair what cracks are forming now, they may never be whole again.
Sam Harris is right to be worried. He’s right to be nervous. But he’s also right to sense that at the end of the day, Jordan Peterson can’t answer the questions he’s asking. This is not because Jordan Peterson is a con man. He’s simply a man who still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
As Christians, we have an opportunity to complete the work Peterson has begun, whether he realizes it or not. We have an opportunity to show how the mind’s understanding might meet the heart’s longing. We have an opportunity to point people to the God who gave us faith and reason, and pronounced them both good.
Jordan Peterson has set the ball. It’s up to the Church to spike it.