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‘We’re living on the corpse of our ancestors’: Jordan Peterson is right about the secular West

This is my review of a fascinating conversation between Jordan Peterson and Susan Blackmore.  It is a important conversation, showing many things about our culture and the need for the Gospel.  You can get the original article and comments (feel free to add your own!) here…


‘We’re living on the corpse of our ancestors’: Jordan Peterson is right about the secular West

Jordan Peterson’s latest debate is one of his most important, says David Robertson.

In a new series the Unbelievable? programme from Premier has begun a series of ‘Big Conversations’. And you don’t get much bigger than Jordan Peterson – the Canadian psychology professor and author of the bestselling book 12 Rules for Life. He is regularly interviewed all over the world. As a Peterson fan, I have watched many of them myself.

But this one is up there with the best. Peterson and Susan Blackmore, a charming and thought provoking atheist psychologist, shared a conversation chaired with his usual expertise by Justin Brierley, host of the weekly Unbelievable? show.

Peterson is fascinating and brilliant at helping people think through difficult questions. I found his 12 Rules a stimulating and provocative read.

He is also excellent at seeing what lies behind the questions. However at times he can be frustrating – none more so than his continual avoidance of the God question! In this interview he states that he cannot answer the question because he doesn’t know what people mean by ‘believe’!

But aside from avoiding questions about his personal beliefs the conversation really got going when they discussed the impact of religion in general and Christianity in particular upon society.

God is dead…or is he?

Peterson pointed out that when Nietzsche declared “God is dead”, he was not celebrating, but rather warning that the rejection of Europe’s Christian foundations, would lead to something worse. Peterson argues that in essence Nietzsche predicted the rise of communism and fascism.

‘Memes’ were also a concept debated in the show, and Blackmore had plenty of her own to throw in.

She countered Peterson with the oft-repeated meme that the most dysfunctional societies today are the most religious. She cited research that showed that in many US states the higher the proclaimed belief in God, the more murders, suicide and marital breakdown there are. But there are enormous problems with her oft-repeated mantra.

Firstly, there is the question of whether correlation means causation. If research showed that thinner people were more likely to commit murder does that mean that slimming is a cause of murder?! Life is usually much more complex than that.

Another issue, which Blackmore does not tackle, is the fact that class and wealth may be greater factors here. Perhaps those who are middle class and well off have less reason both to believe in God (being rather more assured of their own power and goodness) or to commit the obvious kinds of crime that appear most in crime statistics (these statistics do not usually cover the more respectable sins, or the corporate exploitation of the poor).

In fact, it’s conceivable that the situation would be much worse if it were not for the selfless work that so many churches do in the areas that the rest of society have left behind?

Yet another problem is that (as Peterson countered) we are very early on in the experiment of the rejection of Christianity by the Western nations. A convincing case can be argued that it was the rejection and decline of Christianity in Germany and Russia which allowed both fascism and communism to arise – Nietzsche was prophetic and correct in that. Who knows what will yet happen in other nations?

Is secular Europe really atheist?

But what about that other classic meme, brought up by Blackmore – that Scandinavian countries are some of the most secular and atheistic in the world, and they have not degenerated into moral anarchy? I remember this same argument being brought up in my debate with sceptic Michael Shermer on Unbelievable?back in 2010. The only thing that has changed since then is that the view of Sweden as paradise has become less tenable.

There are two major problems with the Scandinavia-as-a-secular-paradise argument. Firstly, the correlation and causation argument, again. Is it because the Scandinavian countries are more atheist that they are functioning well, or in spite of it? The fact that they are largely homogenous countries and that they are small and wealthy are probably more important factors.

Plus, the same problem applies in terms of Peterson’s argument about the shortness of time. All of these countries were Christian countries with established churches – for example the Church in Sweden was only dis-established in 2010. Six million Swedes are still baptized members of the Swedish Lutheran church – that is around 60% of the population. It’s hardly an atheist country founded on atheist principles! What if the prosperity and relative stability was due to being established on Christian foundations as well as being relatively small and homogenous?

An atheist once gave me a list of ten countries in the world that he would want to live in – because of the values and freedoms they hold. What I found ironic was that not one of these countries had an atheist foundation, but every single one – apart from Singapore – had experienced a Protestant Reformation and renewal. Coincidence?

The Big Conversation

Roots and fruits

The other issue is that after the root has gone – it takes some time for the fruit to disappear. This is the argument of Peterson and indeed atheists like Douglas Murray, who argues that Europe is in trouble because although we value the fruit of Christianity (tolerance, diversity, equality, the rule of law, social welfare), having got rid of the root, we are also likely to lose the fruit.

There is increasing evidence that the supposed secular paradise of Sweden is seeing that begin to happen. There are now race riots and gang warfare in Sweden. An ultra right party is currently at 20% in the opinion polls. It seems that it has not taken long for trouble to come to paradise.

Peterson again gets this far more realistically than Blackmore. He argues that increasingly secular countries in the West are still acting out a “Judaeo-Christian ethic”, saying, “They’re stable to the degree that they’re not secular. We’re living on the corpse of our ancestors. But that stops being nourishing and starts to become rotten unless you replenish it. And I don’t think we are replenishing it. We’re living on borrowed time and are in danger of running out of it.”

For her part, Blackmore seems to be living in a fantasy world where we are progressing to some kind of secular Nirvana. “We have not descended into being a terrible country”. That is debatable. The trouble is that we are regressing into a Greco/Roman/Pagan world – by the time it really affects the elites it will be too late to do anything about it.

The problem of meaninglessness

Blackmore admits that “under the sun”, as Solomon would say, everything is meaningless. In a chilling section of the conversation, after arguing that we are just evolved bodies who have no free will, she says; “Nothing matters it’s all empty and meaningless…get on with it girl….accept the meaningless of everything….”  Peterson rightly points out that she does not act like this.

Blackmore can afford to live a life with a philosophy that says everything is meaningless and nothing matters – she is well off, middle class and privileged. But what about the poor? What about those who can’t avoid the bigger questions and drown out the meaninglessness just by being comfortable and hiding behind the prosperity of the now?

This conversation is incredibly valuable in understanding some of the deeper issues facing our society today. Although it left me wanting a whole lot more! Blackmore is someone who wants the fruits of Christianity in society, without the roots. Peterson wants Christianity – but without Christ. He too wants the fruits in both society and his personal life – but is he prepared to believe in and accept The Root?

My problem with this whole discussion is that Peterson is like a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind! He sees the problem – but he can’t grasp the solution – at least not personally. Blackmore on the other hand is like one of the wealthy diners on the Titanic, meditating that all is well as they down their champagne and caviar, all the while heading for the iceberg. We need a Saviour and (as smart and nice as he is) it’s not Jordan Peterson.

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Is Jordan Peterson the New Messiah?

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  1. Great write up of this conversation David. I enjoyed listening to it on friday and had been hoping to find a good summary of the main points – Peterson isn’t always the easiest to follow!

  2. I find Peterson a fascinating person and very nuanced. All-too-often, these kinds of debates are reduced to ‘We owe everything to Christianity’ or ‘We owe nothing to Christianity.’ When I studied for my PhD in history, lots of factors were taken into account to explain universal human rights, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, etc including political, social, economic, geographical, cultural (including religion) and other factors. Christianity was only one of the causes of these developments. For instance if Christianity was the reason for the abolition of slavery why did it take 1800 years of Christian history for it to be achieved (Revolutionary France had abolished slavery and the slave trade in 1794, so was the Enlightenment context more important?). If Christianity was the origin of democracy why did democracy never emerge in Tsarist Russia? Why did democracy fail in Catholic countries like Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy? (I am suggesting that Russia not being a Protestant country may have been a major factor). These are complex issues and cannot be answered by sticky-plaster solutions like Christianity or Atheism.

    1. Steve – as you have a PhD in history you should be aware that France did not ban slave trading until 1826 and slavery until 1848! Is that where the Enlightenment led. And Christianity is not a sticking plaster solution!

  3. Is it accurate to conclude that Peterson can’t grasp the solution. He keeps his personal, position guarded, that is true but is the “avoidance of the God question” an indication of such? Could it be that he is doing that which is not unlike what Jesus did with parables, his talk of the lobster for example in his book? It seems that much of what he advocates is grounded in Christianity in his book.

    Happy to agree to disagree on that.

    On the issue of secularism yes there is what I think is a great quote from Nietzsche in Jordan’s book. Of course Nietzsche being a pastors son losing his faith and spending the rest of his life trying to fill the vacuum with God being absent saying “God is dead” indeed and “what’s to become of us murderers of murderers, are we not to become gods ourselves”. Sadly with him spending the last years of his life in torment with going insane.

    In his book, Peterson quote Nietzsche as talking of a tyranny masquerading s equality and likening it to a taranchlar and being caught in its web with his intention to poke holes in the web.

    It this not what we are finding with “equality” and individualism in the west, becoming the “me” culture where everyone is their own “god”. Is it not reality that identity politics the politics of the insane asylum?

    I don’ t know what Peterson wants or doesn’t want apart from what he has explicitly expressed. But yes of course Christianity without Christ is the branch without the vine. And what better antidote to insanity than the Spirit of power, love and sound mind in the will of the Father?

  4. “This conversation is incredibly valuable in understanding some of the deeper issues facing our society today. Although it left me wanting a whole lot more! Blackmore is someone who wants the fruits of Christianity in society, without the roots. ”

    There is actually NO proof that we are living with the “fruits of Christianity”. I’m assuming from fruits of Christianity, you mean our moral code. There is no reason to believe that we have received our moral code from Christianity or Judeo-christian values as Peterson puts it. The fundamental value of equality that modern Western Civilization thrives on is value that was embedded in cultures and Civilizations that predated Christianity by thousands of years. Moreover, there is evidence that rationality which gave rise to the age of enlightenment was foundation of the way we analyze age old beliefs. One can write volumes about this with empirical and historical evidence for this as has been published many times by many thinkers on the past but this Judeo-christian euro-centric myth doesn’t go away even if it’s debunked hundreds of times.

    Sorry you like Peterson’s word salads. He barely makes sense when it comes to philosophy and he keeps using Carl Jung’s hypotheses which have been rejected and debunked many times by psychologists around the world. The biggest joke of the conversation was the way Peterson described atheist characters in Dostoevsky’s books as if they were true. Does he not know that a writer can give characteristics to just about any character and make you feel good or bad about them with their writing? Jesus Christ! Face palm!

    1. I’m afraid that your statement that “The fundamental value of equality that modern Western Civilization thrives on is value that was embedded in cultures and Civilizations that predated Christianity by thousands of years” is historical (and hysterical) nonsense. As a historian I have studied this for decades. I would suggest that instead of adopting a Google approach to the study of history you do some actual study – start with Larry Siedentop’s ‘Inventing the Individual – the origins of Western liberalism’. Whilst you are at it I would also take a course in logic and listening – Peterson did not describe the characters in Dostoevsky’s books as real – he talked about the challenges presented by the ideas expressed in them. I would suggest you read any of his novels to help enlighten you. And their is no need to blaspheme…but you are right about the face palm…yours is one of the most cringeworthy and ignorant comments I have ever allowed on this blog – and there is some competition!

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