Ethics & Religion

Jordan Peterson, Greg Sheridan and the Christian myth

In November last year, Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian – a newspaper for which I regularly write feature essays, opinion pieces and reviews – had a long feature in its ‘Inquirer’ section about Jordan Peterson’s Association for Responsible Citizenship (ARC). This is my response to Sheridan, whose robust, literalistic Catholicism continues to puzzle me.

Sheridan related that, at an ARC conference in London last year, in conversation with Peterson, he asked him:

“Do you yourself believe that Christianity is true, not just true in the sense that it gives us a helpful framework to understand how we function, but true that Christ is the son of God?”

Peterson, he informed us, answered: 

“I’m certain that it’s true. I wouldn’t claim to be able to explain what that means because I don’t know what it means.”

My immediate reaction was: how can an educated person responsibly state that he is certain of something being true, but doesn’t know what it means? Let’s imagine the question had been, “Do you believe that quantum physics provides an accurate account of how the physical universe functions?” 

A person who understands physics might say that s/he understands it to be the best explanation we have. A person ignorant of physics might say that they actually don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. But how much sense would it make for an educated person to say, “I’m certain it does, but I don’t know what it means.” Quantum physics being about irreducible indeterminacy and uncertainty, such an expression of certainty would, in any case, be slightly comical.

But as their conversation proceeded, by Sheridan’s account, it became clear that Peterson, with a deep understanding of mythology and psychology, regards the myths of biblical religion as having an existential meaning of universal significance. Sheridan, on the other hand, is certain that Jesus literally was ‘the Son of God’, came to ‘save us from sin’, rose up off the ground into ‘Heaven’ after his resurrection and will literally ‘come again’ to usher in the millennium.

These are two very different positions. At the ARC conference, they appear to have overlapped, for Peterson and Sheridan and many others because the gathering shared a sense that, as Sheridan wrote, quoting Peterson: 

“Five centuries of ascendant reductionist Enlightenment rationality have revealed that this starkly objective world lacks all intrinsic meaning. A century and a half or more of corrosive cultural criticism has undermined our understanding of and faith in the traditions necessary to unite and guide us.”

Truly? Five centuries ago takes us back to 1524. Martin Luther had just nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral and ignited the Protestant Reformation. Over the following century and a half, Europe (or ‘Christendom’ as believers called it and still call it) would be torn apart by religious wars and persecutions, by the Inquisition and hunts for witches by both Protestants and Catholics, by the burning at the stake of heretics and schismatics.

Is that the Golden Age to which Peterson or Sheridan would have us revert? Peterson, in both his books – Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life – argues that what we need is “a self-confident, well-informed, engaged and responsible citizenry”. Sheridan appears convinced that the only way this can be achieved is by all of us becoming Catholics.

To be fair to Sheridan, he communicates Peterson’s articulate position that “underlying all human meaning are the basic stories that people intuit, or understand, or tell themselves, or are told”. But he then adds, “underlying everything in our civilisation…are the stories of the Bible”. Everything? I hardly think so.

There is a great deal more to Western civilisation and, indeed, civilisation at large, than Christianity or religion of any kind. Not to see or acknowledge this is simply ridiculous. And if it is responsible citizenship one seeks to inculcate, there are resources both before and after the era of Christendom which can be of the greatest value and efficacy.

But I share some of the concerns of Peterson and am fascinated by the wide appeal of his 12 Rules for Life (2018). It belongs in much the same category, I think, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (also first published in 2018).

What rationalist would argue that everything is just fine, and we have no need for stocktaking and better guides to responsible citizenship? Would Sam Harris make such a claim? Would Steven Pinker, author The Better Angels of Our Nature and other very enlightened books? Did Bertrand Russell ever make such a claim?

If we grant Peterson’s primary premise (that human beings derive their value orientations from stories about heroes) and even his secondary one (that the Jesus story of sacrifice and redemption has had such an impact because it is a paradigmatic hero myth), we can at least engage in an intelligent conversation about Christianity, myth and human character.

But for that conversation to get anywhere worth going, it has to be agreed that the myth – like all myths, however edifying – is empirically and historically not true. The Catholic Church is founded upon dogmatic interpretations of that myth. Sheridan is deeply committed to those dogmas. He will have to forgive the rest of us if we politely decline to join him in his beliefs.

Peterson is another matter, I think. There is some risk of him becoming a cult figure and a guru, which is undesirable. But the kind of conversation he conducts about myths, stories, principles, responsibility, citizenship and transcending banality is certainly worth participating in.

Let it be said here, finally, that I was raised a Catholic, gave prolonged thought to its tenets and reached what I regard as well-founded conclusions about its place in Western civilisation. That place should be more widely understood, but the dogmas serve us all poorly.

Published 31 March 2024.

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Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr (CC)


About Paul Monk

Dr Paul Monk is a public intellectual, poet, former senior intelligence analyst and consultant in applied cognitive science. He is the author of a dozen books, including 'The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures' (2009), 'Dictators and Dangerous Ideas' (2018), his breakout book of poetry 'The Three Graces: Companionship, Discretion, Passion' (2022) and 'Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China' (2nd updated edition 2023). He is a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York) and a fellow of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

3 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson, Greg Sheridan and the Christian myth

  1. Simon Mundy says:

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the good article that voices some of my thoughts on Sheridan. I do have some reservations, however. You say:

    “But for that conversation to get anywhere worth going, it has to be agreed that the myth – like all myths, however edifying – is empirically and historically not true. The Catholic Church is founded upon dogmatic interpretations of that myth. Sheridan is deeply committed to those dogmas. He will have to forgive the rest of us if we politely decline to join him in his beliefs.”

    I’ve never been at all religious having luckily avoided being explicitly inculcated with the requisite beliefs, so I strongly agree with your use of the word “myth”. However, if a coherent centre-right political voice is to emerge to challenge the madness of the other DEI-ists, then we rationalists are also going to have to forgive the religieux of that centre-right (e.g. Abbott, Sheridan,…) if they *politely* decline to join us in our disbelief.

    I suspect that the Rationalist Society might be a tad irrational in not allowing the probable beneficial effects of Judaeo-Christian practice and philosophy on Western society. That we reject the myths of religion and the inhumane practices that often accompany them, does not mean that we must deny the effect on the development of our society’s strengths of those myths, or at least of the practices and philosophies arising from them. David Sloan Wilson and other evolutionary biologists make a strong case, alongside the historical case of Tom Holland, for the helpful effect of religions on social stability in human groups.

    Modernity, or the close facsimile of it that we are living in, did not arise from nothing. Neither did humans’ current physical, social and psycho-emotional capacities. To deny the effects of our physical evolution would be madness and correctly seen as such by rationalists or, indeed, Rationalists. This does not mean that we must accept, for example, chimp behaviour as acceptable.

    Understanding the genesis of our more cherished ideals and practices of individual worth, equality before the law and an understandable universe does not mean that we endorse continued adherence to the mythical constructs that accompanied them or, pace Daniel Sharp, that we advocate that religion is an unconditional “good for society”.

    1. Avatar photo Paul Monk says:

      Hi Simon. That’s a very intelligent comment and a good contribution to the discussion. In short, I agree with you – politically and pragmatically. However, it seems to me that we need to establish a basis for dialogue with the religions that is both honest and sustainable. I have suggested to the editor that I write a column on this subject in a couple of weeks’ time. But I would love to have people read and discuss my 2014 book CREDO AND TWELVE POEMS, or my 2017 book THE SECRET GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK as the basis for a discussion about religion, ideology and the 21st century. My parents and many other Catholics I grew up with were and are good people, by any meaningful measure, but I concluded at eighteen years of age that I simply did not believe what they professed to believe and would be out of integrity to pretend that I did. As for Biblical literalism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism etc there has never been any possibility of my embracing them. So I remain a secular liberal attempting to lobby for rational views and sound education in a world seemingly goign haywire. Paul

  2. Simon Mundy says:

    OK, I’m in. “Credo” is available as an eBook (pdf) which I now have, but “Secret Gospel” needs physical delivery.

    I enjoyed Mike Alder’s article around this theme in Quadrant back in 2011. It’s a bit verbose and self-indulgent and I’d have organised it differently, but the second half is pertinent.

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