Peterson has continued to repeat the way in which he finds the ‘Judeochristian story’ to be relevant or useful, even if he hasn’t yet found a way to justify that it is ‘true’. In the general context of this blog, it’s interesting that Peterson hasn’t tasked himself with defending the claim that any religion is materially true; he’s often cited as a good thinker on the question of whether Christianity is true. To that end, it’s probably worth giving this a bit more of a discussion.
Based on Maps of Meaning so far, and the podcast he did with Sam Harris, it is worth noting that Peterson’s idea of ‘true’ is not the same definition we traditionally use. Peterson isn’t so bothered about whether a thing literally happened; a story about an exodus of thousands of people over generations and hundreds of miles doesn’t have to leave any archaeological evidence, as that’s not what he means. Instead, the story has to be ‘useful’ in some Darwinnian sense.
The idea of being Darwinnianally useful is nuanced and so needs a little unpacking. It doesn’t relate directly to surviving a fight, getting food or fornicating. Instead, it is played out through the fact we are biologically a social species (which is to say, the need to socialise appears built into the functioning of our brains), and so things are useful if they help us to work as a group or community. And so, things that modulate an agreed moral behaviour as ‘useful’, and so ― according to Peterson’s definition ― ‘true’.
Note that, under this definition, lies can be true. Accounts of things that never happened can be true. So long as something is an allegory or story or myth, Peterson wouldn’t see it as dishonest to present them as ‘true’, even though they don’t reflect any aspect of history. Peterson tends not to use this kind of language, but we can call this a “spiritual truth”, insofar as it might mean anything at all.
The fact that Peterson’s spiritual truth is nuanced and somehow incorporates things that we would consider the antithesis of truth aren’t the end of its flaws: it’s also so flexible as to be meaningless. There was a study released recently that argued ― being a surprise to no one ― the Brexit campaign worked to turn the concept of Brexit into a religion . And when I say it was a surprise to no one, here is one of my posts making a similar claim years ago . The point being that Brexit (the religion) was useful, and yet it wasn’t true in any coherent sense. Peterson might rebut claiming that the Brexit Religion is unsustainable and will die out ― and so it was not true, even in his sense. But other lies have survived: homeopathy, flat earth, anti-vaccine beliefs. So, are they ‘true’? It seems absurd to call that true.
Reflect on a Catholic, Protestant and Baptist. They all have an identity nested broadly in Christianity, and so that entire tradition is taken for granted. But, one level up their sense of identity separates and they may well bicker. And yet, faced with something they consider a threat to their Christian Culture ― say, a politically powerful Islamic or Jewish group ― they will find this higher-level disagreement irrelevant and become a ‘Christian’ group. But, those Catholics and Protestants and Baptists may well also be investment bankers and parents. Peterson argues that such personal details ― employment and parenthood ― are nested in the religious identity, which is to say they are a higher-level again. And the religious myth is a foundational level: there is no level deeper to work with in the face of threat.
Peterson argues that the British Common Law ‘tradition’ (i.e. the law) is nested inside the Christian myth, because it assumes that “the individual is sacred”, and we learned that from Christianity. Thus, a secular system might claim the rights of the individual as if it were a rational claim, and yet it is borrowed from a tradition that is simultaneously rejecting. I invite anyone with knowledge of current or historical British society to tear this assumption apart, because it is nonsense.
The idea that the individual is seen as sacred, or historically was, doesn’t stand up to any level of historical awareness. To illustrate this, I am going to use the example of the UK ‘Right to Roam’, not because it is the most egregious but quite the opposite; because it is taken for granted now, I can’t see that it is controversial enough to be partisan.
It is the right to walk across parts of land, and in 2000 was expanded further to include leaving designated footpaths. But, that right was won, not assumed. Originally, land was fenced off and owned. We should unpick this a little. The idea that an individual is a sacred unit is the same as saying all individuals are equal. (American readers may already be having flashes of Article 1, section 2 of their Constitution, which claims a slave is worth three-fifths of a free man. That is explicitly repealed in the 14th Amendment ― but that’s further evidence of a human-won value and not something nested in a cultural personality. And the three-fifths clause was, itself a compromise from a yet worse situation. Now that I write this, I see the American example is better. But Peterson explicitly mentioned British Common Law.) If the individual is a unit, one person is not more equal than another. And yet, the default position of the British Common Law was to protect land owners, the wealthy and those who inherit titles like “Viscount” (say: vye-count).
The fight for a right to roam started around the same time as the Industrial Revolution, at a time when factory owners very much thought it okay to exploit a working class. And so, the idea of a sacred individual seemed pretty absent in the culture as well as the common law.
The poor and the middle class had to organise and campaign for a slow and incremental access to “common land”, as it was assumed to belong to private “Lords”. It’s obviously a sort-of success story, as the Right to Roam has been created and expanded through many Acts of Parliament and amendments, but every non-land-owning individual was not assumed to be sacred, but had to campaign. And the progress was not linear, a now-repealed Act (Access to Mountains Act) made rambling a criminal offence in many places.
This isn’t a classist diatribe. It’s just to point out that it simply is not the case that the individual is sacred in Britain. Individual rights ― and perhaps they could be called ‘class rights’, in that they are for access to what the wealthy hoard ― have to be argued for and fought for. The UK actually makes land ownership, titles and inheritance “sacred”. The irony and contradiction goes on: you could more easily argue that the Christian myth encourages a culture that makes the factory owners (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear” Ephesians 6:5) and wealthy landowners (“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Proverbs 13:22) sacred.
Being outright wrong isn’t the only issue I take. Peterson also makes a claim that is, by definition, impossible to know: that the values hidden in the myth and culture and rituals associated with it are inarticulable; they cannot be stated. In a broadly monoculture society, where an individual might be a socially conservative businessperson and parent, all of those ― the political identity, the occupation, the personal identity ― will be nested inside the Christian myth, and go unstated because everyone is broadly within that myth. But the values don’t just go without saying, they are always unsaid and unsayable.
This appeal to undefined larger force might be used to excuse the outright error Peterson makes in assuming British law only works because it is nested inside a Christian myth, but it is just that: an excuse, and one that doesn’t cut the intellectual mustard given that it’s a vague statement about something which can and will always bend to meet the needs of a failing explanatory model.
But, it is good that Peterson is so wrong in this area; it reveals something that is perhaps even more devastating to Peterson’s thesis: the antithetical claim. Where Peterson says cultures require myths to understand their values, the truth is myths come with enough text to let us mould the myths to our values. The culture valued freedom, and so did not care for the serfdom the British state intended for them ― no matter how well that narrative would fit inside Christianity. The culture had values, completely regardless of underlying myths.
I can imagine Peterson being able to point at a section of the book to show that he’s already explained this: when an old myth is no longer fit for purpose, the authorities that enforce it and the values and rituals that embody it go from being a structured and guiding Father to a tyrannical Father ― and so an Exploratory Hero (in this case, the campaigners) need to re-embrace the Chaos and the Mother, to conquer the Father and build a new culture. And, sure, Peterson does say that. But, what’s the point in the myth, then? If revolution is always possible and periodically necessary ― and people can identify that fact ― what is the myth actually offering?
Why are you a Christian? Because Christianity values the individual. Okay. Which way round did that happen? Did you already value the individual and pin your identity to the first myth to agree? Or did you pin your identity to the first myth that came about and absorb its values? It might be fair to say I’m Christian because that is my culture. But, it has only survived as a culture because it is useful. Buddhism and Sikhism have survived much longer and are still around. Are they more useful? Maybe, in their cultures. But the religion is a defining part of the culture. That is akin to saying it is useful to itself; nothing more than a meme. And, as early Christianity had a habit of killing non-believers, the reason why Christianity is useful to itself is by force, not moral value. This is a Christian country! Why do you hate this country?
It is worth pointing out that Peterson has shifted from talking about the “Christian myth” or the broad cultural “myth” ― and as many of us know, Christianity is already flexible enough to mean whatever you and your ends might want it to mean ― to the even more vague “Christian personality” or “mythic personality”. And as the ideas get more slippery, they become less worthy of proper engagement.