(Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns about Jordan Peterson and YouTube religion debates.)
The YouTube seekers are out there, hundreds of thousands of them, clicking on links to philosophical and even theological debates that would shock those who believe cyberspace is about Donald Trump, cat videos and that’s it.
These videos feature real people — some famous and some only internet-famous. The superstars can sell out civic auditoriums while discussing theism and atheism, the search for absolute truth and what it means to be a mature person living in a world awash in information, opinion, beauty and noise.
At the center of lots of these debates sits University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose career — built on hundreds of academic papers — has veered into the digital marketplace of ideas. That happens when a professor’s latest book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” sells 2 million copies, and when he has 922,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
Critics are sure to ask faith questions when a professor constantly discusses how troubled souls — especially millennial men — can make decisions that change their lives, noted Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and a popular online Catholic apologist.
Peterson is a “depth psychologist,” not a theologian, stressed Barron, and he has sent complex, mixed signals about the Bible and Christianity.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to avoid the moral content of his work. Consider this pithy Peterson advice: “Start to stop doing, right now, what you know to be wrong.”
“He is, somewhat, assuming the mantle of spiritual father and he’s speaking, especially, to younger people about — you know — rules. Life is not just a matter of self-expression and ‘I make it up as I go along,’” said Barron in an online video commentary about Peterson’s work. “There are these rules that are grounded in our psychological and physical structure that you can see, up and down the centuries of tradition. Peterson kind of moves boldly into that space of spiritual teacher.”
Peterson is saying, stressed Barron: “If you want to change the world, look at yourself and say, ‘OK, I’m doing certain things wrong. STOP IT.’ And that little movement can be extraordinarily powerful.”
But is it possible for secular and religious people to agree on how to tell right from wrong? That was the big question looming over a series of dialogues that Peterson held with Sam Harris, the bestselling author of “The End of Faith” and other books, who was once known as one of the “four horsemen” of atheist apologetics.
At the end of one of their Toronto encounters, which reached YouTube late this summer, Peterson said he agreed with Harris on many issues in life.
Then the psychologist offered the following remarks, a perfect example of the dense statements that his followers and critics love to dissect.
“The devil’s in the details, of course,” said Peterson. “I don’t believe that you can derive a value structure from your experience of the observable facts. There are too many facts, you need a structure to interpret them and there isn’t very much of YOU. … Part of the way that’s addressed, neurologically, is that you have an inbuilt structure. It’s deep. It’s partly biological. It’s partly an emerging consequence of your socialization. And you view the world of fact through that structure and it’s a structure of value. Now that structure of value may be derived from the world of fact over the evolutionary timeframe, but it’s not derived from the world of fact over the timeframe that you inhabit. And it can’t be.”
Thus, he added, people may agree that there are logical differences between “the hellish life and the heavenly life — say, the life that everyone would agree is absolutely not worth living and the life that we can imagine as good. And I do believe that we should be moving from one to another. The question is, exactly, how is it that we make the decisions that will guide us along that way. I don’t believe that we can make them without that a priori structure. In fact, I think that the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that we can’t, and I mean, also, the scientific evidence.
“I would like to go further into the devil that is in those details. So that’s my situation at the moment.”
Next week: Why does Jordan Peterson intrigue believers and unbelievers?
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.