It was in 2016, when I saw what I regard as the best 30 seconds of the Internet.
A blonde Brit with a perm and purple dress was – most accurately – haranguing a Canadian psychologist with the voice of Kermit The Frog and the face of Professor Oak from Pokémon for about half an hour. She was doing what atheists know well as Gish Galloping, in which an interviewer or debater throws a whole lot of complicated questions in quick succession without giving nearly enough time for the interviewee to respond with an adequate answer. Also, she kept weaving straw men out of every thing the guy said. I call it The Modern Journalist Drinking Game: Take a drink every time you hear “So what you’re saying is …” You will be plastered within five minutes of watching this interview.
Then the curly cur inquired curtly, “Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a transgender person’s right not to be offended?”
A nanosecond of evident thought (or, what I would argue, restrained jubilation) on Professor Oak’s face, the not-Pokémon character said, “Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. Look at what the conversation we’ve been having. You’ve got no problem offending me in your pursuit of truth. Why should you be able to do that? It’s been very uncomfortable!”
The lady shut her mouth.
It was the most wonderful 30 seconds of YouTube! I call it, Gotcha!
Now, this was not Professor Oak. It was Jordan Peterson. But can you blame me for the comparison?
I went to see him in Sydney the other night. I really wish I could have gotten a VIP ticket, but couldn’t get there in time. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take anything from it. So here, I’m going to talk about one of the things I learned.
Peterson has tended to dodge the question of whether he believes in God. Or, at the very least he’s been accused of dodging it.
For a while, I figured he was stating some variant of Pascal’s Wager, which, simply put, goes as: If you believe in God and it turns out he doesn’t exist, you’ve got no problem; if you don’t believe in God and it turns out he does exist, you’re screwed!
One of the problems I’ve always had with this position is that you don’t know which God is the actual correct one (and I don’t buy the copout that Krishna, Yahweh, Allah, Jupiter, Odin, and Sajuuk are all the same). You’re also making the assumption that God only judges based on whether you believe in him or not. There might be many other criteria aside from just belief.
Another, and far more important, is that the argument is based on fear. You bet based on an aversion from eternal suffering in the afterlife. But this is a stupid reason in my view, because your religious beliefs, having become a large portion of your life, are rooted in fear. As a result, fear becomes a large portion of your life … seems to me to be a sure fire way to develop an anxiety disorder. And those aren’t fun to deal with. Plus, I’d imagine most fundamentalists who whip their kids for having sexual feelings suffer from those kinds of anxiety issues. Since you’re constantly afraid of this omnipresent, omnipotent being and the judgement thereof, your amygdala and hippocampus are constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Your leg muscles get all the blood in anticipation of running away from a threat your brain insists you can’t outrun, leading to lots of health complications later on in life (such as irritable bowel syndrome and weakened heart). And you lose the ability to distinguish thoughts from fact in your head, which makes it all the more easy to justify horrible actions like abusing your children or hijacking a fully-loaded jetliner and ploughing it into a pair of office buildings.
Believe in God if you want to, by all means. But make sure that belief is not based on fear. It’s not a path to grace.
When Peterson said, “I’m afraid he might exist,” I immediately thought he was invoking Pascal’s Wager.
At his Sydney show, he tried to clarify it, and he actually raised a really interesting point. In a sense, he is still invoking a variant of the wager, but in almost a reverse way. Or a second-tier way … if that makes the remotest sense.
His explanation was a bit sketchy, indicating it was adlibbed. I suppose that’s one of the charms of his appearances is that he’s almost info-dumping a stream of consciousness. I’ll attempt to unpack a little of what he said, because it’s a really interesting idea.
He starts with the supposition that, when faced with the wager, he takes the position of believing. But then, what is he actually saying when he says “I believe in God?” That’s the question he proposed. When you say you believe in God, you are actually saying you believe in an omnipotent power that is going to judge you in the afterlife. How sure are you that you’ve been good enough to pass that judgement?
In a sense, instead of simply making a binary wager on the existence of God, you’re making a wager that your bad deeds outweigh your good ones. That’s not always a sure bet, is it? You might be a nice person now, but might have been a complete arsehole at another point in your life. You might think you’re kind, but may have been cruel to people without even realising it. Your attempts at kind deeds might have been purely selfish, or might have only been to advantage a person at the intentional cost of someone else. Or you might have just been horrible in your past, and you don’t even remember it, while an omniscient being would definitely remember it and judge you for it.
In light of that, you’d need some serious courage to make the statement that you believe in the existence of a omnipotent, omniscient being that will judge you for your deeds. Rather than making a wager of cosmic proportions, you’ll be making a bet on the level of your inner cosmos. In a sense, it’s a much bigger level, if you consider your own soul more important than all other souls in the cosmos, which most people do any way.
That’s why Jordan Peterson is so hesitant to say he believes. He doesn’t have the courage to make that wager. I suspect it’s because he has some regrets in his own life. Much of his philosophy may in fact be his way of trying to divert people from going down a path he almost went down … not that that’s any of my business or anyone else’s for that matter. But it does give a little insight into the mind of someone seen as the Western World’s foremost intellectual.
Now, he is making an assumption about God that I don’t think is tenable. In fact, he’s making multiple assumptions. Then again, all assumptions about God are untenable in my view. I’ll unpack them now.
Firstly, he’s assuming that there is an afterlife. God might exist, sure. But does that necessarily mean there’s an afterlife? Maybe there isn’t. If there’s no afterlife, then why worry about judgement in that non-existent afterlife.
Secondly, he’s assuming that Christians are wrong about the meaning of the crucifixion. Jesus was supposed to have died on the cross and taken all of humanity’s sins with him. So, if that’s true, then not only does Pascal’s Wager not matter, but neither does Peterson’s concerns about affirmation of belief.
Thirdly, he’s assuming that adherents to Abrahamic religions in general are wrong about God in relation to the concept of forgiveness. Much of the Bible is based around this notion of God’s infinite forgiveness. So, why should we be concerned about God’s judgement on sins we can’t remember committing, if he forgives all?
Finally, Peterson is assuming that God is concerned with the interactions of humans. In the grand scheme of things, human interaction isn’t really relevant, considering the bigness and vastness of the universe. Now, once again, that’s making an assumption that God is smaller than the universe, when an omniscient omnipresent omnipotent being would be everywhere and … blah, blah, blah! This is one of the reasons I don’t bother with religious apologetics! You end up twisting yourself into mental knots and you end up getting nowhere. My point is, the interactions between humans on the grant scale seems a little insignificant, that is if God has his priorities in order.
Ultimately, Peterson’s position on belief is interesting, even if it doesn’t really bring me much knowledge or truth. If I wanted truth about the cosmos, I’d much rather look through a telescope. But if I wanted truth about the inner workings of human interactions and thought, religion – and Peterson’s perspectives on it – are an interesting insight on how the human mind processes the reality the senses show. Unfortunately, as with all religious discussion (by atheists and believers alike), what we end up with is just more assumptions. Those assumptions have assumptions, and several assumptions may conflict with each other. As we try to peel back the layers, we just get more and more untenable assumptions.
It’s almost like a case of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. This theorem of mathematics (in a nutshell) states that it is not possible to develop a descriptive framework of a system that is both complete and consistent, because that framework will always make an assertion that cannot be proven or disproven within the framework. God is, in a sense, an attempt to generate a descriptive framework of the system that is reality – or at least our conscious perception thereof. But we keep encountering inconsistencies in those definitions as we investigate the assumptions we make, and often we just add more assumptions to the list.
Maybe that’s why we have such an endless parade of different gods. The Christians have the concept of the crucifixion taking on our sins; the Muslims regard Mohammed as the final prophet; the Hindus have hundreds of gods and detailed mythologies; the Sikhs have the five Ks; and the Neo-Pagans worship a character played by Anthony Hopkins. Each of these gods is, essentially, a collection of different assumptions. People pick the assumptions that work best for them at the time, and those assumptions, like DNA, mutate over the ages. People facing different adversities and circumstances select for those morphed assumptions that allow their societies to function.
Thus, gods evolve. And we breed them.
All this being said, I like one of Peterson’s other responses: “None of your business.” I think this is the best response, to be honest. Religious belief is a personal, private thing, and not something to be scrutinised by others – especially those hoping to make a career out of you by standing on your neck. So I’d say Peterson should stick with that response. Like I said earlier, it’s none of my business, and nobody else’s really.
I’ll be discussing other things I learned over the next few days. Make sure you subscribe for more.