The Jordan Peterson vs Sam Harris Debate

In 2018, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris had an 8-hour-long debate about the value of religion. Millions of people watched it.

Peterson and Harris agree on many things. They both oppose nihilism, post-modernism, moral relativism and religious fundamentalism. They are both pro free speech and pro good where “good” is what a reasonable person would think of as “good”. They both agree that religion has value. Both of them agree that religious texts should not be taken literally.

They are both familiar with the Western intellectual tradition. They are both familiar with 20th century Western history. Both of them are primarily concerned with People of the Book (especially Christians and Muslims). They argue from a Western point of view. You won’t be encountering references to Taiwanese ancestor worship or Zen Buddhism in this debate. This isn’t really a big deal for Jordan Peterson when he’s arguing in support of Christian narrative but it is a point against Harris when he opposes religion globally. It feels to me like many of Harris’ attacks against religion are actually attacks against monotheism.

Peterson and Harris both agree that Western philosophy is in an era of intellectual crisis. They both agree that parts of religion have value. They agree that interpreting religious texts as literally true is bad, but they disagree with what to do about religious texts that contain literal falsehoods.

  • Peterson believes religious texts should be interpreted as a source of narrative[1] truth.

  • Harris believes interpreting religious texts as a source of priviledged truth creates a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism.

Narrative Truth

I don’t know any religious fundamentalists. The religious people in my social circle include a Protestant Christian, a Pure Land Buddhist, an atheist Jew, a Zen Buddhist and a Taiwanese polytheist. None of these people treat religious texts as a source of literal truth. The polytheist believes in reincarnation but not because it’s a dangerous religious dogma. He believes it because he grew up on a primitive rice paddy in the middle of nowhere and never got the complete material reductionist memeplex.

The Jew tells Jewish jokes but I’ve never heard him quote the Torah. He follows kosher dietary laws because that’s what Jews do. He treats it like being vegetarian. His attitude toward religion reminds me of an old Jewish story.

There once was a Jewish congregation. One member believed the congregation was doing something wrong. They were violating God’s wishes. The congregation disagreed. The dissenter looked up the rule in the Torah. He found a quote clearly backing his position. The congregation said they don’t care. The dissenter asked God for a verdict. God appeared with thunder and lightening and angels and told the congregation that they were wrong and the dissenter was right. The congregation told God they didn’t care. God conceded defeat.

This isn’t to say that religion can’t be bad. My ex-Mormon nonbinary poly friend assures me that the Latter-Day Saints are awful—especially to nonbinary poly people. I believe zem. My point is we should be careful about how much we generalize. Statistically, religious people who attend church have better life outcomes. My personal life experience corroborates the sociological data: religious belief correlates with good life outcomes.

Only two kinds of people take religious texts seriously: atheists and fundamentalists.

And the hare, because he cheweth the cud[2]

―Leviticus 11:6 King James Bible

If you decide the text is wrong and reality is right then you become an atheist. If you decide the text is right and reality is wrong then you become a religious fundamentalist. Since I’m not friends with any religious fundamentalists (the people I know tend to be highly-educated, which anti-correlates with religious fundamentalism), the only people I know who take religious texts literally are the atheists.

Sam Harris claims religion is dangerous because you can get religious people to do anything by promising them whatever they want in the afterlife. While this definitely can happen, it doesn’t always. Any definition of “religious person” which does not include Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (MLKJ) is an overly-narrow definition of religion.

It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.

―Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

MLKJ is not an epistemic saint. He never got the material reductionist memeplex.

[A]s a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality—a power that cannot be explained in materialistic terms. History is ultimately guided by spirit, not matter.

―Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

I don’t think the denial of material metaphysics is unique to religious adherents. Most people in general don’t grok material reductionism. I don’t think religion is what keeps modern people from learning physics (except indirectly, by denying education (especially to girls)). Material reduction is just hard. It involves too much physics.

So if religion isn’t about literal truth then what is it about? Peterson thinks about religion through the framework of timeless Yungian archetypes. Learning a religion is like learning a language. Languages don’t just help you communicate with other people. Learning a language is necessary to how human beings think. (Deaf children who don’t learn sign language at the right age end up mentally crippled.) Similarly, religion is a big cultural package that bootstraps its adherents’ minds.

If I were to steelman Peterson, I’d say that he says religion is a constantly-evolving package of cultural technology that has stood the test of time. The Lindy Effect has packed it full of Chesterton’s Fences.

Tempting Fundamentalism

No one denies that religious texts are full of instructions that produce horrific outcomes when taken literally.

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

―Deuteronomy 13:6-9 King James Version

Harris believes that such passages are a recipe for irrational thought for two reasons.

  1. Sacred texts cannot be changed. Dogma is a virtue. There is no error correction mechanism. Error correction is forbidden.

  2. Religions are forever vulnerable to fundamentalism because the obvious way to interpret a sacred text is literally.

I think that #1 falls into the No True Scotsman fallacy. Religions do have error correction mechanisms. American southerners used Christianity to sanction slavery. But American northerners used Christian virtues to abolish slavery. Civil war is not a good error correction mechanism. War is an awful error correction mechanism. But it is an error correction mechanism.

I think Harris sees science as a halogen lamp beating back the darkness of religion. I agree that much of modern progress toward good is due to rational scientific thought. However, I don’t see a world where the Enlightenment was caused by atheists arguing with Christians. My model of history is that the Enlightenment happened when secularish Christians argued with fundamentalistish Christians.

Harris observes the atrocities of ISIS and points his finger at religion. Peterson sees the atrocities of ISIS and points his finger at Hitler, Stalin and chimpanzees. Peterson thinks religion is used post-hoc to rationalize primate violence. Harris thinks religion causes violence that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. While I must concede that Harris’ claim is technically true, I think it is misleading. Yes, religious fundamentalist groups cause ordinary people to commit atrocious evil. However, evil secular groups do so too. Violent religious extremism should not be compared against acceptable secular society. It should be compared against violent secular extremism. (20th-century Communism is the most salient example.)

Religions do have an update mechanism. Their update mechanism is not rationality but rather evolution. In the thrive/​survive theory of the political spectrum, Harris is a liberal and Peterson is a conservative. I am temperamentally conservative on the thrive/​survive spectrum too, which might explain why I empathize better with Peterson’s perspective than Harris’.

Peterson has a conservative epistemology. He likes ideas that have endured for thousands of years. He is wary of abandoning old ideas. Harris has a liberal epistemology. His philosophy is optimized to adopt new ideas quickly. The conservative approach adopts new ideas so slowly that, to Harris, it doesn’t appear as if new ideas are being adopted at all. Peterson trusts evolution. Harris’ trusts rationality. Peterson fears overconfidence in one’s individual judgment. Harris fears underconfidence in one’s individual judgment.

Harris’ point #2 claims that the simplest way of interpreting religious texts is literally and that interpreting religious texts literally produces horrific results. Peterson claims that the obvious interpretation of religious texts is often wrong and that the right interpretation of religious texts is often non-obvious.

I think Harris is correct that having religions around at all creates the conditions for religious extremism. He thinks that if the only religions around are moderate ones which interpret their texts liberally then someone will go “hey, you should be interpreting these texts literally” and start a fundamentalist sect. I think Harris’ model of religious equilibrium is correct[3]. Liberal religions do create the conditions for the formation of fundamentalist restoration movements. But even though this is how causality works, I do not think the moral culpability should be placed on the moderate religions. If a group (whether religious or not) is acting reasonably then I do not believe that group is morally responsible for splinter sects which act unreasonably. After all, there are rationalist-adjacent cults whose actions we are not culpable for.

But just because someone lacks moral responsibility does not mean they do not cause harm. In this way, I diverge from a pure utilitarian calculus. Though I do not personally subscribe to Harris’ consequentialist moral stance, I do agree that it is factually correct, internally consistent and perfectly reasonable.

  1. ↩︎

    Peterson is cagey about what he means by “narrative truth”. I think this is because he is an anthropologist and not a machine learning engineer. If I were to present his argument, I would say “stories provide useful tools for thinking about the world”. Telling the story of Moses or tales about Loki to a child is useful in the same way pre-training a neural network with English is useful even if your ultimate goal is for the network to sort documents in French.

  2. ↩︎

    Rabbits are not ruminants. They have no cud to chew.

  3. ↩︎

    While I believe that religions create the conditions for religious extremism, I do not believe that religions are a prerequisite for irrationality or horrific outcomes. I predict much of the irrationality harnessed by religious extremism would direct itself to other manifestations of irrationality.