Opiate of the People: Jordan Peterson on Religion Pt. 2

As we explored in my last post, Peterson is notoriously reluctant to discuss the metaphysical reality of Christian concepts, but always seems eager to draw upon them for moral and life lessons. But as one reads his book and views the lecture clips of him on YouTube, it becomes clear that Peterson does not talk about the Bible, about Jesus and God as having metaphysical truth. He sees religious concepts and stories as archetypal and manifestations of the collective unconscious as Jung or Joseph Smith might have seen them. Therefore, these stories contain something of the “wisdom of the ages” and have deep psychological insight. But the stories themselves are not real in the sense that they really happened, only “true” in the sense that they show moral and existential insight. The reality of the people in the stories, and of God himself becomes irrelevant, apart from their contribution to these insights. This is why I identified Peterson with liberal theology, which constantly seeks to reduce Christianity to a series of moral and existential principles. I should again note that there is a lot that I agree with Peterson on and that I don’t regard him as an enemy, nor would I want to encourage other orthodox Christians to regard him as an enemy, only to reject the falsehood in what he says about Christianity.

The Problems of Christianity?

Peterson begins the section “Christianity and its problems” on p. 185 of 12 Rules for Life with a look at everything that Christianity has achieved. He contends that Christianity created the foundation for seeing every human being as equally valuable, in a world and in a human past, where this is a rare and unheard of idea.[1] Christianity created a more moral civilization than the “classical” civilization of the Greeks and the Romans. However, he contends that in the modern era, Christianity’s solved problems became part of the social background and new problems emerged that Christianity had created. In describing these problems, Peterson draws on Nietzsche. “Nietzsche claimed first, that it was precisely the sense of truth developed in the highest sense by Christianity itself that ultimately came to question and then to undermine the fundamental presupposition of the faith.”[2] This is part of Peterson’s idea that rationality has defeated Christianity, which I’ll get to later. He contends “The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals.”[3] Peterson contends that Nietzsche believed that Paul and the Protestants de-emphasized the idea of the imitation of Christ. “This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere ( or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life…”

Nietzsche’s ‘Wisdom’

I’m no Nietzsche scholar, but I’ve taken a course focusing exclusively on Nietzsche’s writing. Suffice it to say that it seems like a very selective interpretation of Nietzsche on Christianity ( as interpretations of Nietzsche usually are). An in depth reading of the man shows that he had little love for Christianity, whether the teachings of Jesus themselves or a later “corrupted” version of them. This is so even if he is occasionally complimentary toward some biblical figures. In fact, just a light reading of The Antichrist shows Nietzsche to be a nihilist and a proto-Nazi, which is probably why I didn’t find any readings from The Antichrist in the classes I took on continental philosophy, even in the class that focused only on Nietzsche. Yet Nietzsche is still popular among today’s academics and in society at large. This is so even given his rather disturbing views, which are swept under the carpet or explained away in various implausible ways. Nietzsche frequently expressed his disdain for compassion as a slave morality, and The Antichrist brings this to the fore vividly. For example, this is what he writes very near the beginning of The Antichrist:

What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.

 What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.

Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtu, virtue free of moral acid).

The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.

What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity….

He is not the type of person you should go to for life wisdom in any circumstance. I’m sure there is some wisdom to be found in Nietzsche’s works: you know that saying about the broken clock…

Three Problems with Christian Doctrine

Peterson continues, “Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity ( that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life ( a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden ( outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ) because the Son of God had already done all the important work.”

Physician, Heal Thyself

Let’s deal with the first two alleged consequences of Christian doctrine. If you want to accuse Christianity of not being sufficiently concerned with the here and now, you must first answer the question, clearly and rationally, of what is a sufficient concern with the here and now? Peterson, and other people who raise this objection, never seem to answer this question. Any condemnation of Christianity for elevating the hereafter can be countered with a challenge: why make the present world paramount? If it is true that there is an eternity of paradise or damnation awaiting us, then it is rational to be very concerned, not exclusively, but strongly, with the hereafter. It is hedonism and materialism which makes the alleviation of suffering in the present the most important concern, the one that defeats all others. People like Marx who believe the here and now are all there is, are troubled with Christianity because it does not regard the here and now as important as he does. But that is precisely appropriate, because if we regarded the here and now as important as Marx did, then we would be atheists who didn’t believe in a hereafter. So this is a clash of metaphysical ideologies, not a matter of shirking responsibility. If there is an eternity, then it is true that in some ways, this life is not as important in light of it. If there is no eternity, then this life is all there is. Let’s not pretend it’s a moral dispute, when it is a metaphysical one. But who says we must regard the life here and now as most important? The problem is not with Christianity’s shirking of responsibility, it is with the fact that Christians are not materialists and hedonists, who believe that putting people in better circumstances materially is the most important concern, as Marx, and others like him, did.

Peterson, and other critics who use this objection, needs to show why the Christian approach is wrong and the Marxist-inspired objection is correct. Regarding people’s material comfort in the here and now as of primary importance, will naturally lead people to believe that their material comfort here and now is paramount. What are the consequences of that? Hedonists tend to be miserable, because there are some material circumstances that you cannot change and bashing your head against them is only going to destroy your head. Focusing on providing people with right character is more important than giving them happiness, because to be a happy evil person is worse than being a good unhappy person. In addition, if you make the priority right character, then this will make it more likely that people will be good to each other and therefore create better material circumstances as well.

From Here to Eternity

Secondly, this objection to Christian doctrine assumes that being concerned for the hereafter and being concerned for the here and now are mutually exclusive. But Christianity has always taught that the present and eternity are interconnected – that how we act here, whether we repent or harden our hearts, affects and determines our eternal destiny. When Christians say that we are justified by faith, we mean that if we believe in Jesus, that he died for our sins and is the Son of God, and sincerely repent (sincerely repenting means sincerely determining to do better) then we are saved. But we are not saved by the actions themselves that we do after sincerely repenting, but by a state of heart that, empowered by God through Jesus, means to do good. The many injunctions in Christianity to care for the poor, and to take care of their material needs shows that the ethics of Christianity is very much focused on increasing material comfort. However, unlike Marxism and hedonistic materialism more generally, it doesn’t reduce people to their material needs and their emotional state. Christianity does concern itself with the alleviation of suffering but it has always understood that there are more important things than our present state of happiness, and it rather maximizes our service to God and others.

Christians Neglected Doing Good Here and Now? Evidence please.

Thirdly, the assertion that Christianity results in the shirking of responsibility and in passive acceptance of the status quo are made completely without evidence. What is the evidence for saying that Christianity made people less concerned with acting well in the world? Do we have some vast database of good deeds performed over the centuries that  shows the overriding trend of the actions of all or most Christians? This is a very sweeping judgment made without evidence and with merely the believed implications of carefully selected doctrines of Christianity, without paying attention to the moral commandments of Christianity. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that these were really the social consequences of Christianity. Even if Peterson is right in this, can he prove or give evidence for the idea that things would have been different if some other ideology had reigned? No. That would require knowing the social consequences of that particular ideology in the conditions of the past, which he cannot claim to know. If Christianity shirked its duties, if it was passively accepting of injustice, the question we can ask is “compared to who or what?” Who or what ideology would have done better? Name that ideology and then give concrete evidence that this would have worked better. If you want to say that fallen human nature bettered by the gospel didn’t lead to goodness that could otherwise have been achieved and more, then please name the avenue or the ideology which will lead to this goodness. Give good evidence that this will result in better social consequences.

Let’s summarize: the idea that Christianity is not concerned with the here and now is based on the isolated consideration of one doctrine of Christianity completely separated from the moral commandments of Christianity which contain copious references to helping the poor, giving to those in need, defending the widow and the orphan, loving your neighbour as yourself etc. Not only is this conclusion made based on a very selective consideration of Christian doctrines, considering only those parts of Christianity which help to make the point and ignoring those parts which do not make the point, it also gives no sociological evidence for what is a sociological conclusion – that Christianity has produced masses of people who are not sufficiently concerned with the here and now and who passively accept the status quo. In other words, this idea is irrational on more than one front.

Moral Good is the Same as Political Good?

Let’s turn more fully to the second consequence that Peterson believes Christian doctrine had. Namely, he said that Christian doctrine resulted in a “passive acceptance of the status quo”, echoing the Marxist critique that religion is the “opiate of the people.” Given that Peterson often derides Marxism, it is strange that he apparently resonates with one of the foundational building blocks of communist hell: materialism.

Some of what has already been said applies to this second contention which is similar to the first. What evidence can be offered for this? While Peterson provides no defence, I’ve heard the inflexible inequality of feudalism being used in support of this type of argument. Most societies had inflexible hierarchical structures justified through various rationalizations. You can say that God created peasants to be peasants and royals to be royals, but you will be hard-pressed to defend this idea from the Bible. This does not indict Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity does empower those at the bottom to live with meaning in the face of realities they cannot change. What is the alternative? To make those peasants believe that the only way to make their lives better is to rebel? To live a life of violence against their oppressors, and probably be tortured and killed for their trouble? What is the alternative? Or are these critics anachronistically imagining the presence of some sort of modern political lobbyist showing up and shouting about equality in a completely undemocratic society with absolute monarchy and with no freedom of speech? What could any ordinary Christian hope to accomplish with this sort of behavior in those societies? Probably nothing.

Perhaps the contention is that because the authorities were often Christian, it represents a failure of Christianity that these few Christians in authority did not immediately create a democracy and human rights as soon as they took up the reigns from a fallen Roman Empire. Put that way one realizes how implausible this notion is, but let us entertain it for the sake of argument. It is not clear how the actions of the Christian political authorities, during a time when the whole world was brutal and hierarchical, is supposed to indict Christianity. This assumes that the locus of moral character of a society is in politics, its political leaders and political system, not in the actions of ordinary people. This might be (a little) more true in a democracy, where the leaders are selected by popular vote, although even here it is disputable, since the choice of candidates is greatly constrained by various factors. And one chooses a political leader for his political ideas, not as much for his moral character. However, in societies where hereditary monarchy was the form of political governance, the actions of political leaders most definitely do not define the moral character of all the people or of Christianity. Christian organizations during this time did improve the lives of the poor and downtrodden, and serve as havens for lepers. Monasteries were sanctuaries for the poor, vulnerable foreigners and sojourners. The mere fact that select people in positions of authority didn’t legislate political equality is very far from implying that the people in these societies did no, or little, good. Also, these critics are tricked by their ease of hindsight, because they demand that these societies enact a political system which did not exist anywhere in the world at that time. Sure, there were democracies. But that is not the crucial factor. The most important part is human rights and the inherent equality in value of every human being. And models of democracy in that time didn’t include universal enfranchisement or a belief in human rights, and the equality of human value. It is very easy to condemn people from the clarity that hindsight affords when you did not have to do what they did. This type of objection also supposes that the most important things, the things which identifies our societies as morally good is our political system. Is it really? I don’t think so.

So, call it “passive acceptance” if you will, but I will call it peace. Also, we did emerge from that sort of society long before Christianity ceased its influence on culture. This objection, especially in its Marxist clothing, reveals the politicization of morality that Marx embodied and that is now very common in our society. This is the idea that being a good person means politically agitating for a cause, or that the moral goodness of a society is found in the efficiency of it’s political system in producing material prosperity and human happiness,  or becoming some wide-eyed political lobbyist screeching in righteous indignation at all the ills in society. This is not moral character. Moral character is shown in actions, not in impassioned speeches, through behaving well in your personal life with your acquaintances, family and friends, and doing well to those strangers who cross your path, especially where no one is looking. Your moral character does not lie in political opinions, or at least not primarily. Why? Opinions are cheap. They come with easy glory and rewards and require no actual virtue. You only need some position of prominence and then a sound-off or righteous indignation against some social ill, and you will be cheered. Unfortunately, this is what moral character has been reduced to by today’s neo-Marxists and celebrity culture. They seem to see the locus of moral goodness as political and therefore moral character means having strongly held opinions about public policy. And people who don’t hold those opinions can be thought of as bad people merely for having the wrong political opinions. This is inevitable in a more secular society, where they don’t believe in a God who “sees in secret” and will reward you ( Matthew 6:4). Their only promise of reward comes from being “seen of men.” (Matthew 23:5) So making your goodness very evident to others is the only avenue left for “treasures in heaven”, which means that the best way to make sure your goodness is seen by others is through great dramatic  declarations of your support for some noble cause.

The Offense of the Cross

The third alleged consequence of Christian doctrine, and in this case more specifically the Atonement, is “the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden ( outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ) because the Son of God had already done all the important work.”[4] Elsewhere, Peterson, citing Nietzsche as support, contends that the doctrine of the Atonement “did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals.” This is basically the same idea as the third alleged consequences of Christian doctrine that Peterson outlines. Let’s not mince words: this is a severe misrepresentation of the Atonement and of (Protestant) Christianity, and probably the worst thing I’ve heard Peterson say on theology. But it is not surprising that it is the Atonement which is again the central point of controversy as much as it is the point of gravity and power in Christian faith. This is the “offense of the cross” that Paul speaks about in Galatians 5:11. Different cultures have different reasons to dislike it, but everywhere it seems to strike a nerve. It always provokes something in the hearts of a fallen human race.

But let’s get on with why Peterson’s offense at the cross is unreasonable. It only looks at one Christian doctrine without considering other parts of Christianity. Even if we consider only the doctrine that Peterson irrationally isolates from the other doctrines of Christianity, we can still see that Peterson’s reasoning is wrong. Just because you don’t have to act to redeem yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have to act. Clearly the one does not imply the other. Not having to do anything to redeem yourself is definitely not the same as not having to do anything at all. In addition, still only considering the Atonement, when the New Testament emphasizes the fact that Jesus came to die for our sins, they always couple this with a call to repentance. In other words, the only way for the benefits of the Atonement to accrue to you, is through repentance, which is taking responsibility for your sins and sincerely determining to do better, to become like the one you have now recognized as Lord. Now going to the other parts of Christian doctrine, Christianity emphasizes that not having good deeds means that your so-called faith is dead (James 2:26). And Christianity is replete with moral commandments, the penalties for not adhering to them are severe, even if they may not necessarily involve damnation. Anyone who reads the New Testament should be able to see this with perfect clarity, perhaps except when they’re reading it through certain ideological lenses that notices some things and not others.

Christianity Defeated by the Rational Faculty?

Peterson states, “Dostoevsky knew and admitted that Christianity had been defeated by the rational faculty – by intellect even – but ( and that is of primary importance) he did not hide from that fact.”[5] But here Peterson reveals that he himself believes that Christianity has been defeated by the rational faculty. How so? He had just quoted the famous passage from Dostoevsky where Ivan makes an argument from evil against the existence of God. There is a copious amount of literature written by Christian philosophers responding to this problem, and successfully. Peterson doesn’t address any of these responses and yet he implies that this problem ( and apparently others he does not specifically address) have defeated Christianity. Let’s cover briefly why the problem of evil is not a problem. For a more in-depth treatment, you can take a look at my article on the problem of evil on this site. Suffering is only an intellectual problem for a benevolent God if you suppose that God’s primary concern must be to have happy human beings, not good human beings. Secondly, free will is an overriding good so that removing our free will and our capacity do good and evil, would be worse than the evil we do to each other. For if our free will were removed we would join the creatures of instinct, and our capacity to do good and to love God would vanish along with our capacity to do evil. Think of the transformation of a human being, even an evil human being, into an bipedal animal incapable of freely made decisions, determined by instincts programmed in by God, and you have a notion of what you are asking God to do to the entire human race to wipe out evil.

Thirdly, the existence of evil allows the opportunity to practice and express virtue. Selflessness, courage, compassion and other virtues are not possible in a world without suffering and their beauty and worth are increased by the fact that they are done in spite of suffering. It is easy to be good to others when you have everything you need or your heart desires. It is more difficult, and therefore more honourable and noble, more beautiful an act of virtue, to do good when you are suffering as well. Fourthly, everyone agrees that there can be sufficient reasons for suffering. You agree that it is good for your doctor to subject you to the pain of surgery in order to wipe out a greater evil, possibly your death or more pain. So how can anyone claim to know, with any degree of certainty or any sort of probability judgment, that God does not have such sufficient reason for the suffering in the world? In order to make such a judgment, you would need to know all sorts of things about the world that you do not know and could not know. This includes the consequences of every event of suffering indefinitely into the future and the full range of moral values, and exactly how each moral value outweighs the other. You would also have to know which universes are logically possible or feasible given a particular set of values and parameters that have to be held fixed. Some of these parameters might be having many beings  in existence that have free will. There are other responses to the problem of evil. This is just a small sampling of some responses that have been made. So why would Peterson be so confident that Christianity has not been rationally capable of responding to the problem of evil?

[1] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Random House Canada, 2018) p. 186 – 187

[2] Ibid., 188

[3] Ibid., 189

[4] Ibid., 189

[5] Ibid., 191

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