Updated: Sep 5, 2022
I started watching Jordan Peterson’s lectures on YouTube in 2015—three years before Tyler Cowen and David Brooks crowned him “the most influential [living] public intellectual in the Western world.” The arc of his career has been fascinating to watch.
Since being bullied into the role of international icon, Peterson has developed—or at least changed—his intellectual emphases, his physical appearance and personal style, his mannerisms, and even his family life. In 2015, I am not sure I knew whether Peterson had children. In 2019, Peterson’s daughter/manager Mikhaila is a public figure herself, though she remains best known for reading five minutes of advertising at the beginning of her father’s podcast episodes—a feature shared with no other podcast except Joe Rogan’s.
As Peterson has changed, so, too, has the following that exploded around him in 2016. Yesterday's Peterson fanatic is today's critic of Peterson. After the 2012 presidential election, a similar thing happened around Ron Paul, as people who Paul brought into libertarianism sought to demonstrate their independence and maturity by criticizing him. Cults of personality—I use the term in a value-neutral way—seem subject to the same kinds of patterned life-cycles as individuals, communities, and civilizations.
But Peterson’s ubiquity makes it easy to forget what he did to earn it. Though the stance that made him famous might seem unimpressive to laypeople—he refused to use artificial pronouns like “xhe”—it was apocalyptic in the suffocating Orwellian world of Western academia. Before Peterson was well-known, I had assumed that any anti-Marxist academic had to choose between cowering in permanent terror or fleeing to a handful of dissident enclaves. Peterson has permanently, if minutely, left a crack in the Overton window.
Peterson’s peculiar views on love, then, should seem out of character. At a talk at the Prager Summit in Santa Barbara, Peterson said that he likes to talk to audiences about “what I believe to be incontrovertible facts.” Yet the talk—nominally on the topic of love—lacked the boldness that must have put him on Prager’s radar.
As Peterson explained at a January lecture, also on the subject of love, he is sometimes asked whether he “loves his wife.” This is not a question Peterson likes. Peterson says he has three answers to it. The first is “None of your damn business”: marital love is personal and should be kept secret. His second response is to ask a question: “What do you mean by ‘love’?” He sometimes adds that “I act as if I love my wife”—though, he notes, “people don’t like that.” Finally, if Peterson is feeling particularly romantic, he occasionally admits that “I am afraid that I might be married.”
I must admit now that none of these statements were really about Peterson’s wife. The question Peterson hates being asked is not about his marriage, but about whether he “believes in God.” And, as I hope my analogy shows, his answers would seem transparently bizarre and shallow if they concerned anyone except the Creator of the universe.
There are two senses in which someone might use the phrase “belief in God”: first, a purely intellectual conviction that God exists and, secondly, a commitment to personally obeying Him. Peterson equivocates between which definition he is using, adopting whichever one makes his answer seem more sensible. Either way, Peterson’s responses—and his criticisms of those who do affirm theistic belief—are absurd.
The first of Peterson’s answers—that religion is "private"—is suspiciously arbitrary. As his Prager Summer talk shows, Peterson does not shy away from complete emotional vulnerability with his audiences. His talks weave in personal anecdotes and concern deeply-held values. And, while there are facts about a marriage which one should not disclose, no married man considers the mere fact that he is married, let alone that his wife exists, to be a secret. On the contrary, we can assume Peterson’s wife would be concerned if he refused to publicly affirm that she exists.
Simone Weil observed that modern people believe religion should be kept private, not because of its cosmic importance, but because it is merely “a matter of choice, opinion, taste, almost of caprice, something like… that of a tie.” Considering Peterson’s apologia for agnosticism in its entirety, it’s hard not to conclude that this is what Peterson actually means when he invokes the alleged “private” nature of religion. If so, this attitude is strangely at odds with Peterson’s usual commitment to boldly searching for transcendent truth, social convenience be damned.
The marriage analogy becomes most comical when Peterson asks for a definition of “believe.” Peterson protests that asking for clarification should not be taken as an attempt to avoid the question. Yet—at least in some contexts—it surely is. A husband who said “It depends on what you mean by ‘love’” would either be engaging in Clintonesque hairsplitting or else be revealing a cold inability to engage in human relationships in an ordinary and healthy way. A marriage is not the only analogy that demonstrates this point. Suppose someone asked you whether you were “Ian’s friend,” and you responded: “It depends on what you mean by ‘friend.’” I, at least, would then have no doubt about whether you and I were friends.
One way to make sense of this hairsplitting might be to say that Peterson simply feels there is insufficient evidence that a personal God exists. If this is the case, however, Peterson could simply say so. Outing himself as yet another secular public intellectual would certainly entail no social costs to him. Peterson’s sizeable Christian audience already knows he is not a believer, and his secular audience would not mind his being openly secular.
Instead, for reasons we can only guess at here, Peterson creatively leapfrogs over the question with theatrical gymnastics. At any rate, whatever one means by “belief,” Peterson’s answer to the question is clear: he will not affirm theism—either as a relational commitment or an intellectual proposition. He does not say merely that he is afraid of facing God, but that he is afraid God “might exist.”
This third answer—fear of the possible existence of God—may well be part of his agnosticism, but it is not the whole story. Peterson knows this fear secondhand, through writers like Dostoyevsky, but it is unclear that he knows it in the way that only a sincere seeker can.
Peterson has much to say about wrestling with God, but before he can even begin to grapple with the consequences of committing to God's service, he must confront the first and most important question: whether there is, in reality, a person upon whom all the vastness of the universe is suspended.
Peterson’s central argument for agnosticism is also his most bizarre: the association he draws between agnosticism and moral humility. Peterson says he does not believe in God because “I can’t see how you can make a higher claim to moral virtue than saying you believe in God.” This is because, to him, claiming to believe in God is tantamount to claiming that you, the theist, are “the best person you could possibly imagine being on an ongoing basis.” Peterson is not going to identify as a theist because “I’m not like that [the best person I can possibly be] 100% of the time.” Moreover, says Peterson, you have no right to identify as a theist. If you are not the best person you can possibly be, then “I don’t see why you have the right to say you believe in God.”
Peterson even claims to have some biblical support for his peculiar view—namely, the following interaction in Mark 10:17-18:
And as he [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’
Peterson suggests that this verse should instill moral humility in the reader—and he is right. Yet Peterson assumes an unspoken premise: that humility somehow entails agnosticism about God’s existence. Peterson’s maneuver here is similar to that of progressives who cite verses about compassion as support for socialism, but never pause to explain why socialism is compassionate—which is, after all, the whole crux of the debate about socialism. In Peterson’s case, the problem is even steeper, for Jesus’ premise in this verse is a positive assertion that God exists—an assertion that Peterson says we have “no right” to make. Jesus is either an example for us to emulate or he isn’t.
The idea that moral perfection is a prerequisite to being a theist is a transparent piece of ad hoc self-deception, and it is remarkable that it should earn applause from even an honest atheist. Peterson knows perfectly well that all Christians believe that mankind is inherently predisposed to sin, as Paul wrote—“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Peterson's utopian understanding of theism renders Christianity conveniently impossible. Peterson seems to understand this, quoting Nietzsche’s famous deepity about the only true Christian dying on the Cross.
It is notable that this argument, Peterson’s primary objection to theism, is not actually an accusation that the evidence for God is insufficient. If we are to take Peterson’s words at face value, then—it seems—Peterson would make the same objection even if Christ appeared to him bodily, took his hand, and walked with him across the Sea of Galilee. The physical action of walking on water with Jesus, after all, would not somehow make Peterson morally perfect “100% of the time.”
What, then, is the relevant difference between Christianity and other interpersonal relationships? If Peterson is not “the best [father he can] possibly imagine being on an ongoing basis,” then he apparently has no right to claim that he loves his daughter Mikhaila—nor that Mikhaila even exists. He would thus have a difficult time explaining why his podcast generates such substantial advertising revenue.
As if arguing against himself, Peterson says elsewhere—in the very same talk, in fact—that “there’s this idea you can’t hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. That idea was formulated by someone who’s never met a human being, as you know whenever you argue with someone you love.”
On moral humility, Peterson can neither eat his cake nor have it. When Peterson charges that all theists believe they are morally perfect, the idea seems to be that a perfectly rational agent—perhaps some sort of robot—would respond to God’s existence with morally perfect behavior. Yet Peterson also claims to “act as if I believe in God.” According to Peterson’s own standards, it is precisely this statement—not the mere observation that God exists—which most embodies the hubris he decries. If the statement “I believe X” requires behavioral perfection, why doesn’t the statement “I act as if X”? The only possible explanation is that Peterson—whether because of the unconscious influence of modernity or a genuine subjective fear—does not want to contend with whether God’s existence is an objective reality.
Peterson himself does not portray his position as an avoidance of contention. Contending with the structure of reality is like a marriage, he says—not realizing the implications of his own analogy. You wouldn’t want to be married to someone with whom you never struggled, he rightly observes: you want someone to contend with. He argues that it is actually his agnosticism which embodies this kind of “contending with God.” It is incredible that Peterson does not see the conclusion that he all but draws himself. He uses marriage to demonstrate the value of struggle and then argues for struggling with God. Yet he does not think struggling with his own wife means he must deny that his wife exists. Nor, apparently, does he think marriage requires a mathematically perfect commitment to one’s spouse.
Peterson thinks that, if one acknowledges God’s existence, then one’s struggle with God has ended. Exactly the opposite is true. A solipsist who does not believe that women exist cannot genuinely marry one. A bachelor cannot remain in a state of agnostic neutrality, or he will never have a wife to contend with. Solipsists and bachelors can contend with the idea of a wife, but an idea only exists in one’s own mind. A married man has a real wife to contend with because he has seen her for what she is and married her.
Peterson, a married man and a father, knows these principles of common human experience. Why does he not apply them to God? The answer seems to be that he does not see theism as a relationship between two persons, but merely as a kind of bloodless abstraction. If anyone besides Peterson expressed this view, we would think he had never opened a single one of the world’s great religious texts. Peterson certainly has opened them—he has delivered a whole series of lectures on Genesis—but he has only read them as a symbologist and not as a man. He has read them as if he were a floating brain rather than a soul embodied in flesh.
“Wrestle with God: don’t say you believe in him,” Peterson urges. To use a personal anecdote, I find it easier to spar with a boxing partner who exists than with one who is in a state of quantum superposition. Schoedinger’s boxer, after all, is trapped in a box, and I cannot get in there and punch him until I open it. Peterson’s solution is to loiter around the box inertly, never looking inside, until you die—ignorant and unfulfilled—like the protagonist of a Kafka parable.
The story of Jacob wrestling with God is magnetic to Peterson: “What’s so cool about the story,” he says, “is the chosen people of God are those who wrestle with God.” Peterson finds this message “hopeful” because “everyone does that to some degree.” But this is not true: most Americans have never wrestled with God because they have not critically thought about His existence, or any other transcendent question, for five continuous minutes of their adult lives. Is this nebulous apathy the way to fix the crisis of meaning that Peterson recognizes? And how does one "wrestle" with someone whose existence he doesn't acknowledge?
To his credit, Peterson does have an inkling that there might be some need for God. He relates that, while appearing on a panel, a questioner asked the panelists whether there could be any basis for affirming human dignity except on theism. Peterson relates with annoyance that an agnostic panelist responded by proclaiming that “people are inherently valuable because they’re people.” Peterson rightly recognizes that this was a cowardly way to avoid the question using a meaningless combination of pleasing words. Yet his response reveals that he does not appreciate the meaning of the question.
Peterson points out that some academics have concluded that humans are “a cancer on planet,” and argues that it is therefore not self-evident that human beings are inherently valuable. People do terrible things, he notes, and it therefore “isn’t so obvious [that]…you can make a straightforward case” for inherent human value. On the contrary, he says, you can make a case that people are “inherently destructive.”
This response misses the essential point. It is true that human beings are inherently destructive: all Christians affirm that humans are “by nature children of wrath.” As Peterson himself says elsewhere, to think that people are fundamentally good “is not childlike, it’s childish.” But the questioner was not asking about whether human beings are inherently beneficial in their effects. He was asking, in effect, whether we have objective moral duties to other human beings. Peterson does not answer that question.
While I am happy to see the moral argument used to interest others in theism, I personally do not find it compelling. If I were convinced of naturalism, then I would be convinced of nihilism, as many naturalists are. It seems to me that the moral argument often works because, when a naturalist is asked, “Is it objectively wrong to [horrible crime]?” they are under tremendous social pressure to answer “yes,” perhaps by quietly redefining “objectively wrong” to mean “subjectively distasteful to me.” While the premise that objective duties exist does lead validly to theism, I am rarely convinced that it is being granted sincerely.
Peterson, however, does not seem to have directly confronted the question of whether objective duties exist—let alone what might explain their existence. These are questions that eventually confront every intellectual who manages to view existence through his own first-person perspective. By approaching all stories as purely narrative structures rather than claims about actual reality, Peterson has managed to avoid them thus far. My prayer for Peterson, then, is that God would wrestle him, and would force Peterson to stare his own existence in the face.
It is not my intention that anything in this column be taken as a personal attack on Peterson. As a Catholic writer has commented, on cultural questions, Peterson “is accomplishing more than many Christian preachers [and] Catholic Church officials including the Bishop of Rome”—not that this last part is saying much. After appearing at a dialogue with Peterson, William Lane Craig observed that “A number of people have remarked on how amazing it was when [Peterson] began to narrate this dream that he had of Christ who arose and conquered all the tyrannical kings of the Earth and subdued them. I thought to myself, ‘Why do I need to say anything more? Just let him go on!’ He was sharing the Gospel.”
But this is my criticism: Peterson was only sharing the Gospel in the same way that he shares the story of Pinocchio; he recognizes that it is a compelling narrative with a kind of therapeutic utility. What Peterson is missing is the possibility that some symbols and stories represent more than a psychological hero’s journey—and that sometimes dreams reflect reality. Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him at @IanHuyett.