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On God and Politics: Comparing Žižek and Peterson

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?

~Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long played an important role in framing our sense of both who we are and the societies to which we belong. This has had a tremendous impact on world politics, for better and for worse at various times. But since the inauguration of what is loosely called modernity, many have expected the private importance of religion and its political influence to gradually diminish. In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously dismissed appealing to the “thin spirits” of religion as a support for various political positions. Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophes ridiculed the mythologies and privileges associated with the Catholic Church and its traditionalist hierarchies. Immanuel Kant famously claimed that pure reason can never provide concrete proof of the existence of God. Karl Marx infamously waved religion away as the “opiate of the masses” which would disappear with the rise of a communist society. These myriad developments infamously led Friedrich Nietzsche—following in the footsteps of the atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—to declare that God was dead, and that we had entered into a new and uncertain secular age.

Nietzsche predicted that this age would see the emergence of new and potentially radical ideologies, many of which would shake the foundations of the global order. But since then, many have argued that secularism, far from leading to great turmoil, will gradually lead to a more peaceful and interconnected globe. New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris claimed that religion had always been a divisive force, and that its inevitable decline would abet the emergence of a more humanistic world. In his recently published posthumous book, Stephen Hawking claimed one final time that there is no God, and that science and reason will and must take the place of faith in our examinations of the world. But in a strange twist God continuously seems to (appropriately enough) resurrect himself. While there is indeed declining levels of support for traditional religions, the world as a whole does not appear to be moving in a more atheistic direction. As a consequence, religion continues to play an important role in the private life of billions and in their political sensibilities.

In this brief essay, I do not intend to evaluate this phenomena in any significant depth. I am adopting a stance of methodological agnosticism on both the ontological question of God’s existence, and the meta-ethical question about what God’s existence or non-existence might imply for our normative beliefs. I have in the past addressed this meta-ethical question from a secular standpoint in some detail, and the interested reader may turn there. This essay will also not evaluate the more social and political questions about the impact of religion in domestic and global politics. While fascinating and worthwhile, there is no space to develop such an analysis here. Instead, I will focus on the way God plays a role in framing the moral and political outlooks of two well-known thinkers: Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek.

My choice of comparators was determined by three factors. The first is that Peterson and Žižek are both well-known public intellectuals. Much might be gained by critically comparing their work, since their positions are likely to be known to a relatively wide literate audience. Sadly, we may never get to see the debate between the two that was promised, which might have gone a long way to informing this article’s observations. The second is that Peterson and Žižek, despite stark disagreements, actually have more in common philosophically and politically than one might suspect at a glance. Both draw philosophically on a broadly psychoanalytic framework; with Peterson leaning heavily on Carl Jung and Žižek claiming to be an occasionally heretical follower of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Moreover, both Peterson and Žižek are politically highly critical of postmodern philosophy and identity politics; albeit for very different reasons.

But, thirdly, both Peterson and Žižek have shown a consistent interest in religious issues and, in particular, the revitalizing aspects of Christian theology and politics. This interest is present in both of Peterson’s major books, and certainly came through in his interesting series of debates with the atheist Sam Harris. In Žižek’s case, his engagement with Christian thinking comes through most prominently in works such as The Monstrosity of Christ and The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For.

These factors make a comparison between their respective positions potentially fruitful and edifying. While naturally Peterson and Žižek understand God and the Christian legacy in profoundly different ways, I will conclude this essay with some thoughts as to why both have taken a considerable interest in it. This in turn might help us examine the broader question of why religion remains such a potent force in the world today, despite the predictions and efforts of many.

Jordan Peterson, God, and Politics

Jordan Peterson has been both widely praised and criticized for his analysis of Christian teaching and his appeals to God. The criticisms come both from those who have strong religious beliefs and argue that Peterson is insufficiently faithful and from those who believe a serious minded intellectual should not entertain fanciful religious notions:

The source of many of these critiques lies in the fact that Peterson himself has been curiously ambiguous about many religious questions, as has been pointed out in these very pages. For instance, at various points Peterson has claimed he does not think God exists, that he needs time to ponder the question, or that there are too many dimensions to his belief to fully discuss. Perhaps the most concrete answer he has given to date appeared in a brief tweet in June 2018, in which he claimed that “God is that in which you manifest necessary faith…” and that this is a “mode of being, which is to say, a personality.”

This conception of God is echoed in Peterson’s 2006 paper “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and the Constituent Elements of Experience”:

Finally, phenomenologically considered, all human beings are individual. We have a subjective domain of being, privately experienced. Its nature can only be communicated in part. Our pain is therefore frequently only our own, and so are our joys. Our births and deaths are individual births and deaths. Whatever creative realm we might inhabit exists at least in part uniquely within us. Furthermore, we are self-conscious, so our individuality is apparent to us—and the fact of that appearance colors our experience ineradicably. Individual being is our greatest gift and our most appalling curse. As a gift, self-consciousness is conceived of as the very image of God reflected within us. As a curse, self-consciousness is unbearable knowledge of our own finitude, inadequacy, and tendency towards wrongdoing—conceived of, equally, as never-ending labor unto death.1

Peterson’s conception of the divine is rather hard to discern, but seems to me very close to that of German thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Paul Tillich. For Peterson, as for these earlier figures, God is not necessarily a being in itself, let alone one whose existence can be proven through the powers of human reason. God is instead what Kant might call a “postulate of practical reason.” The term “God” is a metaphor for what it is that we choose to value most highly. To put it in the terms of Paul Tillich in his Dynamics of Faith, God is a term for whatever a person takes to be of “highest concern.”

This also has a dynamic quality for Peterson, since what is of “highest concern” is also what we choose to dedicate our lives to. We are always in danger of losing our connection to God by ceasing to value what is worthwhile, and falling into the individual and social “chaos” defined by rabid cynicism or ideological fundamentalism at either pole. The wise person seeks a balance in their life between these latter two concerns by remaining committed to what is of “highest concern”; the God who brings order to our lives by clarifying what it is we value and by extension how we act in the world.

For Peterson, this is fundamentally related to his arguments for both classical liberalism and traditionalism; what is sometimes called “ordered liberty” by political theorists. He believes that individuals must be free to determine what their values should be, but remains concerned that the collapsing political and religious traditions may lead some to turn down a very dark path. Peterson agrees with Nietzsche that the “death of God”—understood as a literal being—was a liberating moment; a therapeutic rupture with the reactionary conservatism of traditional religious beliefs. But the “death of God” also left people unmoored from these same traditions, many of which had given their life a sense of meaning by framing the values which they associate with the sacred—what is of “highest concern.”

This development has been exceptionally dangerous, since it can incline many people to lapse into the chaos of cynicism and ideological fundamentalism. This is why Peterson often expresses concern that the apparent anti-traditionalism of postmodern thinkers has gone too far, since it contributes to the rootlessness many people feel in the contemporary world. Peterson is worried this rootlessness will lead to nihilistic cynicism at best, and the return of ideological fundamentalism like Nazism and Stalinism as worst.

Slavoj Žižek, God, and Politics

While Peterson seems to locate himself squarely on the political center-Right with his support of “ordered liberty” (as I understand it), Žižek is firmly on the far-Left. At various times he has expressed support for the rebirth of communist movements, was active in promoting the efforts of Occupy Wall Street protestors, and has tirelessly claimed that the only true utopian thinking is the belief that the current liberal capitalist system can go on forever.

Yet, at the same time, Žižek has never embraced the philosophical atheism and political secularism of many of his left-wing peers. He has consistently called himself a “faithful Christian,” a “materialist Christian,” and so on. Moreover, these claims are not entirely in jest as he has written and spoken at length in praise of many aspects of Christian doctrine:

And Žižek is not alone on the far-Left in this resurgence of interest. Alain Badiou has written at length about St. Paul. The anarchist Simon Critchley has readily invoked the religious thinking of Emmanuel Levinas. How to explain this?

Like Peterson, Žižek is quite open that his support for Christian doctrine does not extend to a belief that God himself exists as an actual entity. His philosophical outlook holds that reality is never ontologically complete, but always in a state of dialectical dissolution and temporary stability. This precludes believing in a transcendent God who, in effect, holds reality itself together, whether by will or through his mere being as Spinoza hypothesized. But, as Žižek argued in an essay entitled “Only a Suffering God Can Save Us,” he does not believe that Christian doctrine, properly understood, ever supported such a transcendent conception of God.

This brings us to the third position above and beyond the first two (the sovereign God, the finite God), that of a suffering God: not a triumphalist God who always wins at the end, although “his ways are mysterious,” since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who—like the suffering Christ on the Cross—is agonized, assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with the human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. /…/ Without the concept of a humanly suffering God /…/ all of history remains incomprehensible.” Why? Because God’s suffering implies that He is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of the real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided.

God’s chosen fate, as Žižek’s version of Christian doctrine teaches it, was to die in order to liberate the world. The insight of Christian doctrine was to recognize that God himself had died, and to stage that death as the mythological account of Jesus’s crucifixion and ascension into heaven. Moreover, by sacrificing himself, God deliberately abandoned his role as being the true eternal father of order. Instead, he created a world of chaos, but also of the possibility of full freedom.

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, one might say God refused to any longer play the role of the Holy Father, deciding it was time for his creation to mature and live on without him. Žižek believes the deep lesson of this parable is that God sacrificed himself to the world so that people could be truly free; that it was now up to each individual to decide what to do with their life without moralizing interference from beyond. A true Christian community is one that takes this lesson seriously, and works to further God’s project of emancipation across the globe for all individuals. For Žižek, this of course means engaging in left-wing advocacy to free all from the oppression of capitalist ideology. It also means moving away from the substitute idols of identity politics, which offer false hope of a new transcendent horizon of meaning in lieu of the divine.

Conclusion

Peterson and Žižek reach radically different conclusions about God in their respective works. But the similarities are more interesting than the differences. Both claim to not believe in some God who literally exists as an independent being. Both believe that a proper conception of God engenders support for the individual and personal freedom. And both Peterson and Žižek regard identity politics as a false solution to the threat of nihilism; an attempt to find false ideological security in a world where we must learn to act as individuals without a transcendent source of meaning.

Where they differ most prominently are on the political consequences of their arguments. Peterson believes his conception of religion leads to support for classical liberalism and traditionalism, what many call “ordered liberty.” Žižek believes that a more consistent interpretation of religious thinking leads to radical left-wing politics and demands for liberation. I will not weigh in here on which of these arguments seems more plausible. I will simply observe that it is clear that God and the politics of the divine are not going away anytime soon. Thinking through the consequences of this is an important task for our troubled times.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

Reference:

1Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience” Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspychologie 28(1):135-180, December 2006 DOI: 10.1163/008467206777832580

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83 Comments

  1. Stoic Realist says

    The introduction promised an interesting piece but the body of the article failed to deliver. When you take more time and verbiage on the introduction than the meat of the work you have gone the wrong way. It’s also a good idea to avoid using excessively long quotations as it winds up feeling more like an undergrad attempting to cheat on a word count requirement. There may be something to be gained from this comparison, I am not sure, but it seems it will take another try or another author to find out.

    • Sorry to hear you say that. There are word limits to these articles and I thought it advisable to let the authors speak in their own words, given the topic is so controversial. If you would like elaboration I am happy to discuss.

      • I would agree the meat of the article is a little bit light-weight, but as someone who is familiar with Peterson but not with Žižek, this was a very valuable piece.

        Stoic Realist’s comment is a bit ironic given that he/she used nearly 100 words to say “I’d have liked more substance to the piece.”

        • Thetus Bumberger says

          I would love to hear Peterson and Žižek debate and discuss.

          Peterson is so often put up against people who are intellectual pygmies on TV shows and debates (Michael Eric Dyson, Cathy Newman, Michelle Goldberg), and he spends most of his time correcting their simplistic reductions of his ideas or dodging their ad hominem garbage.

          Would be fun to hear a constructive meeting of minds.

          • Quillette says

            Peterson recently debated Harris in a two day affair. I believe VODs are on YouTube..

      • Matt I disagree with your criticizer here. I thought the article was useful and the points well made. As someone more familiar with Peterson than Zizek, I thought your characterisations of the formers thoughts were spot on and your discussion of them clarifying.

    • Scroto Baggins says

      “Stephen Hawking claimed one final time that there is no God, and that science and reason will and must take the place of faith in our examinations of the world…”

      “God claimed in his newest book that there is no Stephen Hawking. At the protestations of Richard Dawkins and other scientists that Stephen Hawking was real, God responded, ‘Yeah? Produce him.’ Dawkins was in the end unable to do so….”

      • George Theodoridis says

        If a ‘like’ button existed, I would press it. I would implore God or Stephen Hawking to produce it, but they don’t exist either.

  2. If you want to see and have God as a supernatural allmighty, creator and suffering being, you cannot avoid splitting him up in different personalities, or entities, the heavenly Father, the earthly Son, and the Ghostly Spirit ( though that last one I actually don’t think so important ,is that Father not already sufficient??) In Islam, Allah is one, and though he is seen in the Koran as rather human like (with a notebook, hands, eyes, a will and so on), it is not allowed to personify and materialize him too much, (and certainly not seeing him figuratively suffering in a very peculiar position somewhere) . The human features as hands and eyes just only serve to be able to imagine a super power an sich. These differences (compare also Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions), I think, are determining culture and etiquette also, where it is not clear what comes first, the culture as defining God, or the God idea (from a holy book) as defining culture.

  3. Poor analysis of Zizek’s position. Zizek is explicit in being atheist. As does Badiou. Even while he will also radically reject the position of someone like Sam Harris – yet, not because Zizek rejects atheism, he just considers that kind of position some sort of crackpot-atheism. Zizek is well aware that most atheists are essentially still Catholic or Evangelical etc. even while they deny it.

    • I did highlight quite clearly that Zizek doesnt actually believe in God. He is referring to religion and God as operative concepts at the socio-symbolic level.

      • UndrState says

        Zizek even goes further and says that in some way you can’t really be a true atheist without going through Christianity ( I don’t think he’s saying you’d have to convert ) , and that the seeds of atheism start with the death of Christ and concept of the holy spirit as the communal divine.

    • “not because Zizek rejects atheism, he just considers that kind of position some sort of crackpot-atheism”

      So … would a rejection of atheism be “aatheism”?

      • Lol sure. It is a funny enough term it warrants approval.

    • In France, Voltaire mostly attacked the ridiculousness of the literal view of the Bible (that was considered literal truth). In “L’ingénu”, he mostly says that a foreigner (Huron) coming would find it unbelievable. He didn’t attack the morality of it.

      Then, the fight was anticlerical and anti-monarchist (Bible as legitimation of monarchy).

      And then there was the fight against using the old testament as an historical document. It’s still continuing today.

  4. I was under the impression that Peterson considers the Logos to be God, so although that isn’t a personal deity it is still a thing in itself.

    • Logos = creationalism. The Spirit over the Waters (before being separated from the land). Thus, opposite of Darwinism and natural evolution.

  5. Aylwin says

    Oh dear. More noise. More bizarre contorting of contortions. More shading of the shadows of ideas. More clouding of cloudy thought. More references to references, more redefinitions of redefinitions.

    “Religion has long played an important role in framing our sense of both who we are and the societies to which we belong.” And the sooner it stops, the better.

    • Matthew B says

      @Aylwin I was going to read the column until I saw it was written my McManus. I find all his columns exactly as you’ve described.

    • That strikes me as rather harsh. As I indicated, I am not trying to evaluate their ideas, but largely to describe them and situate them historically and intellectually. You may be more of an empirical realist than they are, and dismiss such claims. But outright dismissal wont enable us to understand why they think the way they do.

      • Matt, in all honesty, your stuff needs more of an edge. People are reacting to the book report quality of your writing. Yes, you seem to honestly and fairly expostulate what your author’s say, but your pieces lack much in the way of a critical edge.

        Is great that Peterson and Zizek talk about Christianity, but is it bullshit? If its bullshit, why. If its not bullshit, then why should we care *unless we are so taken up with these thinkers that feelings of adoration carries us*. The last kind of reader is going to read your stuff no matter what, because its about St. Jordan or St. Zizek.

        • Most of my critical work appears in my pieces on conservatism, particularly its postmodern dimensions. To be honest I get exhausted dealing with some of the vitriol about that I tend to use these pieces to more soberly examine ideas.

          • Also I wrote five pieces criticizing every aspect of Peterson’s work for Merion West. You are certainly free to look at them if you wish. They’re online somewhere.

          • Bernard Hill says

            ….and do please keep it up Matt. The restrained tone you scrupulously deploy, is of itself a valuable contribution to the restoration of civilized philosophical and political debate.

          • cacambo says

            Matt–I really enjoy your writing. It seems as if some here do not find you polemical enough. I disagree. There is no shortage of polemic at Quillette. Especially in the comments section.

      • Aylwin says

        Let me help doing some intellectual and historical “situating”. Definitions such as “God is that in which you manifest necessary faith. Necessary because you have to start somewhere. And this necessary axiom is not a fact but a way or mode of being, which is to say a personality” is, like the myriad of other ways Peterson wants to redefine God, a fatuous pseudo-intellectual exercise, the kind that originates from religious apologists in the face of the complete absence of evidence for a God and the relentless march of real understanding that leaves no room for such a being. If God is not dead, it is either because of ignorance or human folly, including the folly of trying to understand WTF Peterson is on about, and giving credence and airtime to the deepities by trying to “situate” them. (And I say this as someone who values the metaphors, allegories, symbolism etc. in both explicit story telling and within our wonderful psyches that are only tantalisingly revealed to us. But Peterson doesn’t state that he’s trying to e.g. explain an emergence of a psychological feature that ends up e.g. being projected onto some external concept of a God that then gets erroneously believed in, or some other supportable hypothesis he might try to make. He just smuggles in God via deepities)

        I’m sorry if you find my comments harsh. Yes, social media can be a magnet for vitriol and uncivil discourse. But it might also be an antidote to the self referential, self bootstrapping, and self supporting nonsense of a certain slice of intellectual thought. I feel compelled to do my bit, and in a certain way.

        • That is fine. Personally I do not hold to a great deal of psychoanalytic theory, especially it’s more elaborate and ambitious iterations. But one cannot concisely criticize these positions unless one understands the rationale behind them, and more importantly, the social and psychological reasons why people might hold to such seemingly irrational theoretical beliefs.

    • Indeed. When we’re told religion gives us meaning, gives us a purpose, etc. by using a fiction as a sort of “good mind control,” you realize that humans remain simple animals even though we often pretend to be so smart, rational and can apply logic.
      A fiction like a nation or money, while a fiction, have every day real consequences we can see and measure. Not so with God or gods. Morality can easily be taught as civics, etiquette and ethics without resorting to a pure fiction.

    • Markus Lee (@LeeMark) says

      @Aylwin

      “’Religion has long played an important role in framing our sense of both who we are and the societies to which we belong.’ And the sooner it stops, the better.”

      I have good news. While I don’t see religion ever “stopping,” you will be dead in a relatively few years, so it will most assuredly stop for you.

      And problem solved. Reframing can make even the darkest situation brighter, hm?

      • Aylwin says

        @Markus,

        Indeed. I really do find it a comfort to reflect on my insignificance and extremely small period of existence, when confronted with what I see human folly.

    • Giselle P. says

      “And the sooner it stops, the better.”

      Just finished David Buss’s book “The Murderer Next Door” (highly recommend). His conclusion is that men almost always kill other men over women.

      Or over land, money, etc. … so they can get women. Always have. Wars correlate with shortages of women quite ominously.

      Religion seems to serve as a restraint against these impulses (god-given tenets against murder, stealing; for monogamy, etc.)

      Getting rid of religion seems like it might be uncaging the beast.

      So I guess I need to know more about what you mean by “better.” Maybe you’re an alpha who will be doing the killing and getting the women rather than catching the killing and losing your women?

      • Something I realised only since a few years, after so many years of living without a religion. Religion has been with us, humanity, for about 100.000 yrs, and this was something universal, among all races and tribes. Science and enlightenment, on the other hand, some few generations, in only some regions worldwide. Quantitatively, humanwide and historywide: 99% religion, 1% science and enlightenment.

      • Aylwin says

        @Giselle,

        In my more facetious moments I will happily advocate that “there is a little bit of penis at the bottom of everything”. This is a useful aphorism. But trying to buttress religion as some kind of defence against the baser motivations of our psychology is just trying to use a product of our flawed psychology to correct our flawed psychology. The only guide to real progress is truth. Each religion might, in some obscure way, hold a few nuggets of truth that might serve the purpose you wish for. But their morass of entwined threads of myth piled upon myth borne of our credulous and ignorant past does not constitute a way forward. We need buttress ourselves against our wishful thinking. Claiming that religion is a buttress against whatever part of human nature freaks you out (religion does seem to have a tendency towards prissiness) is putting the cart before the horse and trying to claim that there is a god because otherwise we’d be immoral. I cannot believe lubricous claims no matter how efficacious those beliefs might be (and religion is just so obviously poisonous to rational claims to morality anyway).

        • @Aylwin: religion is not about truth,also not about grains of truth, it’s about meaning and moral. For truth, look at science and jurisdiction.

          • Aylwin says

            @Dirk,

            You say religion is about meaning and morals. But there morals have to be based upon truth. e.g. does x do more harm than alternative y? Such truth might be obscure, but it doesn’t mean it’s not still about that truth. Some folk want to claim that religions have moral truths encoded into them (which, presumably, couldn’t be got at via some other, more reliable, means). But it’s patently obvious that religions only converge on some supportable morality when relentlessly chipped away at by secular moral philosophy and progress. Religions become tolerably moral despite their foundations, not because of them. Not only that, they will always have the gravitational pull towards their foundational documents against which a more objective morality is struggling.

            The question of meaning is more interesting. It’s not so obvious where meaning should come from (whereas the precepts of morality are just so damn obvious in comparison). Certain configurations of life have meaning thrust upon you. A well-adjusted woman, with a lucky configuration of innate traits and potentials, finding herself giving birth to new life, can find herself with a heart overflowing with meaning – and it’s not just a short horizon. That love, empathy, and joy in the delights of caring and vicarious delight at their child’s wellbeing and progress reaches into the world and to the wellbeing of others. This is peak meaning. The rest of us struggle with the inevitable machinations of our psychologies given less than ideal configurations of inner and outer life. This could be where religion might step in and do some good. But there are (at least) two fundamental problems with them. 1) They’re based upon false premises (and there’s just no getting away from that), and 2) they are a mish-mash of dubious, contradictory, obscure, dull, and agonisingly all-too-human contorted “thinking” of ignorant, parochial, contingent, historical aggregations. Many people do get meaning out of allowing themselves to be swallowed by these swamps. Better, some people get meaning out of studying them as historical and sociological artifacts. But whatever truly (there’s that word again) valuable qualities religions might contain (e.g. community, inspired art, architecture, music, etc) they can be achieved without the divisive, regressive gravity, and downright repulsive “morality” of a large swathe of their foundational documents (and not to mention the deranging ideas of things like celibate male hierarchies and joy-poisoning ideas about sexuality). Even if current attempts at inspirational secular institutions don’t float your boat, an attempt at creating such things would provide meaning itself.

            One other aspect of meaning and morality that should be mentioned in respect of religion would be its ability to control. It really might be the case that a well designed religion could ensnare adherents and lock them into a way of being that would get them to behave in a manner that is conducive to collective wellbeing. Personally, I find the idea soul destroying. And it would still be based upon falsehoods.

            The truth is out there. There’s meaning in finding it and using it well.

          • @Aylwin: The foundations of all religions are revelations of prophets, or, said in another way, their imagination (and those of their disciples giving a proper form of that imagination). Read Kant about this epistemological question.

  6. Religion, at least religion in the old time, patriarchical sense correlates with two phenomenon: i.) high tfr’s, and ii.) lower rates of substance abuse.

    Secularism correlates to: i.) low–below replacement–tfr’s, and ii.) higher substance abuse rates.

    Correlation is not cause, but its pretty suspicious, as its born out across different cultures, languages and peoples.

    Anyways, a population with below replacement tfr will go extinct, and drinking and drugging does not improve child welfare or national productivity.

    Thus, the problem for the modern secular state is that it latches itself to a form of life that in the long-term is suicidal, in the short term, destructive, and which can only in the long-term get co-opted by some kind of old time religion or replaced by a different political order.

    Its not my problem, but secularism can only be viable if secular populations can get their populations stable or growing, and they can find something beyond buggery and heroin to fill the void (which seems to eliminate most of the attraction of the secular lifestyle as applied–is Zizek bipolar or has he just snorted an 8-ball in all his videos).

    • Houellebecq is not religious, but he is hip to the way demographics are destiny, and how religion and culture shape demographics. In contrast, the absence of curiosity concerning demographics and the cultural transmission of values in the secular community is astounding. They remind me of Christians who believe that Christianity took over the ancient world through their superior preachers, not their superior numbers by way of prohibitions against infanticide, abortion, and contraception, not to mention sodomy.

      In addition, the complete inability of people debating in good faith to reach a consensus on an agreed upon ultimate good suggests perhaps the need for society to construct a consensus on the ultimate good by fiat, and then impose it on the populace, while suppressing dissenters from the consensus. Whether we call it “religion” or “political correctness” or “rationality”, it seems like an important tool in the toolbox of state.

      • One hypothesis to consider is that the major religions of the world emerge as an evolutionary adaptation to urbanization, to counter-act the anti-natalist effects of urban living. Urbanizing civilizations without one of these religions either adopted one from afar, made one up domestically (or did both in the case of Rome), or died out .

    • In reading my comment, it almost suggests that there is not a dark side to an excess of religious zeal. Of course there is. Religious societies have a danger of reaching stasis and an inability to innovate and change. There is the problem of religious pluralism and sectarian violence.

      There has to be a golden mean, but its definitely not the laicite.

  7. Zizek, coming from Hegel, is stuck with a complete immanentization of God. The End of History has to be that point. If God is not wholly immanent in the world, then history does not end, as the “point” of absolute value never coincides with a differentiated, material and measurable point. Classical Marxism is stuck in the same bind, the world has to move the stateless utopian future despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Peterson, as far as I can tell, is just a muddled person trying to sound profound. Perhaps he has a theology in there somewhere, or maybe I just need to clean my room. Also, he is a psychologist, so its all about behavioral modification, so it sounds like God for Peterson is crap you tell yourself so you can constructively modify your behavior.

    You can’t have a meaningful concept of God without a transcendent dimension, and therefore materialism (entailing that “God” can only be immanent in the world, and therefore, differentiated, material and contingent) can never be consistent with belief in God, despite word games to the contrary.

    • Yes personally I tend to find Whitehead a more intriguing modern theologian for exactly these reasons. But that is another essay, since I did not want to muddle this with an evaluative analysis.

    • More wars, death and destruction have resulted from having a God than from when we had lots of gods. Monotheism, like monoculture, monopoly and monotony, is worse than when many competing ideas are present.

      • I’m not sure. The Bronze Age was a pretty nasty time with a serious Y-chromosome bottleneck, but much more polytheistic than medieval Europe. The ancient way was to sack the city, kill all the adult men, sell the women and children off into slavery (or keep them as concubines). The Vikings did not exactly embody human rights norms in their raping and pillaging.

        I don’t know that there is a whole lot of evidence that monotheism is more warlike, other than that monotheism (or Axial Age religions more broadly) tends to correlate with imperial social structures with a higher level of complexity than “pagan” societies.

      • ga gamba says

        OK, but to what end? Numerically you may be correct. High explosives, machine guns, and aerial bombardment tend to be far deadlier than arrows and spears. Yet, the Manchus proved skilled at killing an estimated 800,000 Han in Yanzhou in the course of 10 days with arrows, swords, and trampled under horses’ hooves; it took that long because the invaders spent much of their time looting and raping. Further, people long ago were much less urban; a nuclear warhead detonated in South Dakota will likely kill many fewer people than the same warhead dropped on Los Angeles.

        And what of the murders of believers, both monotheists and polytheists, by the atheistic Communists? Many wars have been conducted in the pursuit of profits or power, or waged for territory or tribal supremacy, even if religion has been caught up in those pursuits.

        Why not examine the percentage of population killed? The Roman conquest of the Gaul resulted in the death of one-third and the enslavement of another third. That’s a catastrophic tally. To compare, the USSR lost about fifteen per cent of its population and Poland twenty in WW2. These too are catastrophes, though I wouldn’t call either the Roman-Gallic Wars or WW2 religious wars.

      • In agriculture, monoculture means: enough food and fibre for the billions, instead of for the millions under polyculture. But monotonous it is, that’s the price! Thus, it looks like, monoculture and monotheism have both their price!

    • X. Citoyen says

      KD,

      I’m not sure anyone knows what Zizek thinks, including Zizek.

  8. Thinking about Hegel and Marx and the End Times, the Christian End Times commences with the Resurrection of the Dead into Spiritual Bodies, e.g. the transcendentalization of the immanent. The world is transformed.

    In contrast, in the Marxist/Hegelian philosophy, the end times commences with the immanentization of God, God goes from a Spiritual Body to a fleshly body, God is transformed at the immanentization of the eschaton. It sounds similar, but its actually an inversion.

  9. McFly says

    Matt,

    I understand where some of the criticism you’re getting comes from. I’ve not wanted to engage you on your [misguided] views concerning “postmodern” conservatism or what you see [incorrectly] as a more or less hypocritical admiration of “originalism,” but I am intrigued by this short essay.

    Clearly, it marks the starting point of a line of inquiry, and I hope you develop it further. I’m interested in where it may take you.

    My own inclinations tend to be in alignment with Peterson insofar as I perceive something deeply valuable embedded within the central tenants of Christianity in particular that is especially difficult to pinpoint and communicate in language that people like Sam Harris would prefer to restrict themselves (and us, for that matter).

    I will look forward to more from you on this subject. Thanks for taking the time and for not letting the vitriol push you away from this forum.

    (P.S. Sorry about the jabs above, but it’s all in good fun… Not venomous)

  10. Oh it’s not a problem. To be honest sometimes I prefer to read pieces that are exploratory rather than critical. There is such an inclination these days to engage in highly binary approaches to any issue; aka something is right or wrong, you agree or disagree. This is highlighted in some of the reactions I occasionally see, where people just leap to defend their presuppositions and preferences. On occasion I miss the days when people would just reflect on interesting ideas and arguments, regardless of where they come from. This piece was designed as an effort in that direction.

    • McFly says

      “On occasion I miss the days when people would just reflect on interesting ideas and arguments, regardless of where they come from.”

      Indeed.

      It is also the case, as you point out in comments below, that we get a little too attached to avatars in the form of personalities. Jordan Peterson is the anti-Leftist, or whatever. Who he is becomes less important than what he is. You are a cog in the “alt-Left” identity-obssessed smear machine. What he or you have to say is contextualized in relation to what you are, not who you are.

      And we tend to spring into action in defense of or to destroy the avatars we’ve invested so meaning into as personified ideals. Our presuppositions and preferences are in turn reliant to an unhealthy degree on the “what” is being reflected in the whom.

      Jordan Peterson said what? Hmmm… Perhaps I should think about how I can change my mind to agree with his otherwise consistently anti-Leftist rhetoric.

      Matt McManus said that? Clearly, he’s an idiot and I needn’t waste my time even entertaining his rabidly Leftist rubbish.

      We are all guilty of it to some extent. Which wouldn’t have to be a terrible thing in small doses as episodic departures from the normal course. But it seems like we’re trending towards the opposite being the case.

      In fact, what seems to be missing is precisely the [quiet] time and some space for people to just reflect on interesting ideas and arguments. On top of that, we’ve come to a place where its not so easy to evaluate ideas divorced from “where” they come from.

      Forgive the sidebar.

  11. “In the ‘Leviathan’, Thomas Hobbes. . .”

    A mistake like this isn’t trivial: it proclaims a lack of engagement with what you’re writing about, and casts fatal doubt on the rest of what might follow.

    Already sceptical because of the banality of the Nietzsche quotation, I’m afraid I stopped reading.

    Quillette is better than this, and I’m sure you are too.

    • I am very confused. Hobbes did write Leviathan, and was not fond of traditional religious arguments. And calling a Nietzsche quote banal seems like posturing rather than serious engagement. What exactly is your real point?

  12. Morgan says

    Place aside the alleged (non)existence of god and ponder instead, is god possible?

    • Bub Marlow says

      “Place aside the alleged (non)existence of god and ponder instead, is god possible?”

      Okay, I MUST have the name of your dealer.

      After that, we can continue this discussion.

  13. Matt, your pieces on Peterson are absolute rubbish. I’m not even going to waste my time reading the above article.

    I’ve posted on nearly all of your Peterson articles on Merion West. I won’t rehash my arguments here, but I don’t trust a single thing you write about Peterson.

    Merion West attempted to link Peterson to the alt-right in their latest disaster piece against Peterson. We’re tired of this rubbish, Matt. You’re nothing but a better educated Cathy Newman.

  14. I did say he was at times as acute an analyst of human nature as Dostoeyevsky. So if I am attacking him unfairly it is an odd way to go about it.

  15. Also I’ve noted you have only ever posted on one, not “most”, of my articles. In that one you accused me of not providing a sufficient argument for my position and called me alt-left. This was all while ignoring that there were hyperlinks to the other articles and it was clearly a summarize piece. I think you’re talking about other articles by Merion West, where you contributed analogous vitriol.

    • Keith Pointdexter (@pointythingy) says

      @Matt

      I’m afraid you are lost.

      This is the Children’s Comments Section.

      The Adult Section is elsewhere. We make it unobvious, because The Obvious tend to miss it. See you there.

  16. Lol indeed Keith. There are some people who have this weird sense that any criticism of Peterson is some partisan hit. I disagree with him about a lot, but try to treat him like any other academic; a knowledge good points when made, offer criticism, and then move on.

  17. No Sharia says

    Didn’t ready the entire article because having first listed the video clip about Sam Harris, I could not believe how how flimsy McManus’ defense of Christianity is. In particular, his contention that Christianity is what makes Americans (like the ones who invaded Irak) a self-sacrificing bunch, unlike the selfish Muslim natives. If self-sacrifice were a true barometer of truth, we all would be waging jihad under the ISIS flag. After all, what could be more sacrificial than blowing yourself up???

    As for self-sacrifice, Christianity holds no candle for Buddhism.And yet, that doesn’t make Buddhist doctrine any more truer than Christianity’s. Self-sacrifice or ANY other behavior doens’t prove a religion’s doctrine is true. It only proves the believers think it is, and act accordingly so.

    I’m astounded Quillette has published this drivel. No $ support from me.

    • What do you mean by true?

      Since all morality involves behavior, including self-sacrifice, then you rule out moral truths.

      Since law concerns itself with behavior, you rule out legal truths.

      Since politics concerns itself with law and morality, you rule out political truths.

      Last, since a concern with truth over falsehood is itself a moral attitude, you rule out truth altogether.

      [Its as if any representation to be meaningful necessitates a pre-existing system of representation which itself depends upon intersubjective norms, which cannot themselves serve as the subject matter of representation.]

  18. Nearly Normal Frederick says

    At last and inevitably, the ancient “religious” rulerships have failed, and “official” institutional christian-ISM, along with all the other “great world-religions” of merely institutional “religion”-power, is now reduced to all the impenetrable illusions and decadent exercises that everywhere characterize previously privileged aristocracies in their decline from political power. “Official” christian-ISM is now nothing more to a chaos of corporate cults and Barnumesque propagandists that “rule” nothing more than chaotic herds of self-deluded consumers of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religiosity.

    P T Barnum was of course wrong – there are thousands of suckers born every minute. Evidence of that are the huge stadiums where such “religion” is promoted.

    Therefore, the myth/lie of the “cultural superiority” of “official christianism has come full circle. The “religious” mythologies of the “great-world-religions” are not only now waging global wars with one another, but the public masses of “religion-bound” people – who, all over the Earth, for even thousands of years, have been controlled in body and mind by ancient institutions of “religiously”-propagandized political power – are now in a globalized state of grossly-bound self-possession “religious” delusion and social psychosis.

    Five prophetic books on how that “religious” psychosis is now manifested in the USA.
    American Fascists by Chris Hedges
    American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips
    Kingdom Come by Michelle Goldberg
    The End of America by Naomi Wolf
    Between Jesus And The Market : The EMOTIONS That Matter in Right-Wing America by Linda Kintz

    Also look at the huge popularity of the very dark Left Behind books

  19. One thing is quite sure for me: for Zizek, as well as for Peterson, religion is something completely different, more social, human, less supernatural, as it was for me in my youth! In my youth: objective certainty, rituals, beyond ordinary, material, individual life, a sense of seasons (Christmas, Eastern), place, hierarchy (though, for Peterson still important, maybe).

    • A C Harper says

      You could make the argument that to both Peterson and Zizek ‘God’ is not of the ‘highest concern’ but a stepping off place for their ‘highest concern’ of an imagined social utopia. Although the imagined social utopias differ.

      Other people simply jump straight into Politics being the ‘highest concern’, with ‘God’ used as a campaign element along the way.

      Which is perhaps why to people who earnestly believe that ‘God’ is the ‘highest concern’ are upset at the demotion of ‘God’ to a tool in the toolbox.

  20. X. Citoyen says

    I’m no expert on Peterson, but from what I’ve seen and you’ve quoted, his idea of God owes nothing to Kant and more to the historian and philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade (and the tradition he works in) than to the theologian Paul Tillich (though the former did influence the latter). In this tradition, how each of us understands our relation to the cosmos and, thus, to God—or, more generally, the transcendent—is the most important determinant in how we orient ourselves in the world. (Side note: Eliade lifted his conceptual framework from Plato’s Timeaus, so if you read that dialogue, you’ll understand Eliade.)

    This is why Peterson’s answers about whether he believes in God are ambiguous. If you subscribe to this view of things, the do-you-believe-in-God question is either naive or loaded. It is loaded because, obviously, it’s also a way to dismiss people as unenlightened and to “expose” them as underhanded proselytizers. It is naive because every self-conscious being has some relation to the transcendent, including those who deny it exists.

    True, you can deny the transcendent in word, but no one can in action because we have to go on living in a world with others, and, on top of this, no one ever does in practice. The assertion that God does not exist is invariably followed with some ersatz god. For Nietzsche, who understood and embraced this truth, it was the ancient Greeks’ eternal return and the tragic sense of life. For most such people nowadays it’s Progress, the Cycle of Life, or some other supernatural narrative they’ve persuaded themselves is “scientific.” This is just human nature’s response to the human condition.

    Peterson goes a step further than Eliade in drawing conclusions about how a person’s orientation in the world will affect their and their fellow citizens’ well-being and offers prescriptions for (here I borrow that sometime translation of the Greek word eudemonia) “human flourishing.” A lot of people call it mere common sense, presumably because they’ve had the right experiences and the right mentors. I think N. N. Taleb’s frequent remarks about the wisdom of grandmothers and Fat Tony fall into the same knowledge category and have been squeezed out of him by the same cultural trends driving Peterson’s more psychologized common sense.

    Now for Matt’s browbeating. As your substitute Grandma, I’m telling you would’ve known this about Peterson if you hadn’t wasted your time reading the hothouse philophasters of postmodernity and playing videogames. For the same reason, you missed the connection between Peterson, Taleb, and others writing stronger and weaker reactions to the same nexus of scientism, liberal technocracy, and the other movements spawned or enabled by members of the increasingly erratic and destructive Cult of Progress who have and continue to show themselves unfit to run the institutions they’ve taken over.

    But I have faith in you, Matty! I know you can recognize that you’ve been looking at the world upside down and sideways. You’re not seeing postmodernity “give rise” to nationalism, tribalism, and other “anti-Enlightenment/anti-liberal forces,” but the death-spiral of the Cult of Progress caused by its internal contradictions. You don’t see it that way, though, because you’re looking at it through the eyes of the cult members.

    • “. . . the do-you-believe-in-God question is naive . . . because every self conscious being has some relationship to the transcendent, including those who deny it exists.” – X. Citoyen

      To think of a religion as a silly set of superstitions or as a capacity evolved to insure survival reveals a poor awareness of the nature and origins of religions. A religion is an articulation of how forces greater than ourselves work and how we humans fit into the whole process. Religions do indeed become sclerotic and priest ridden over time but so do all systematic ways of thinking (e.g. ” . . . the death-spiral of the Cult of Progress).

      Religions begin as poetic events which is why Nietzsche categorized “homines religiousi” as among “the highest rank” of artists. Unlike modern man who believes he can understand reality by taking it apart, Nietzsche always presumed reality functions as a whole (this, it seems to me, is the significance of Peterson’s reintroduction of the Logos). And to understand ourselves as part of this whole and to articulate a relationship to the whole is what makes humans simultaneously noble and tragic. We are noble when we embrace all of reality and live by faith in our interpretations, yet we are tragic because reality always transcends our interpretations.

      Nietzsche was clearly ambivalent about the “death of God” – the Christian interpretation of reality had become unbelievable, but what Nietzsche observed was the emergence of “modern” human beings who were now “educated for unbelief” which he called our own particular form of “divine naivete”. If, as seems to becoming increasingly apparent, reality does indeed function as a whole, then modern man’s unwillingness or incapacity to acknowledge the whole is not simply one more case of human hubris, but, as Nietzsche argues, a perpetuation of historical Christianity’s resentment of nature.

      • What Nietzsche did was more or less what a rebellious teenager does confronting his (severe) father: rebel with a cause.
        Nietzsche never said God does not exist (as Dawkin and other atheists do). Nietzsche said: God is dead.
        An interesting discussion would have been between Nietzsche and Dostojefski, that other hero of Peterson. Dostojefski thought that without God, all ground for moral and meaning would vanish.

    • On one level, God is the idealization of a particular community. God is the Father, and we are his children. The community symbolizes God, and God symbolizes the sense of authority that permeates the community.

      Because a community is on one level, a gene pool, the question of God cannot be disconnected from evolution. Because a community is on one level a territorial space, the question of God cannot be disconnected from politics and war, either.

      These are partial, but essential, aspects of the question.

      To say that God does not exist is in many ways a declaration of homelessness, and a rejection of traditional authority. You have no community, you have no authority, you have nothing you look up to for meaning and value outside of yourself.

      To say God is dead is a declaration of the collapse of a community. In many ways, traditional Europe seemed on top of the world in the late 19th Century, yet Nietzsche was correct, the Old Order collapsed, to be followed by a new order. Europe is a geopolitical nothing today, European culture is in tatters, and is rapidly being replaced with a different culture order, and the territory peopled with a different people. Perhaps you could say that the Christian God, the God of Mercy and Charity is dead, but Allah seems to be doing quite well.

      The irony of secularism is that rather than being a superior “replacement” of Christianity, it is merely the echo of Christianity, or a ripple from the prow of the ship going under water, soon to disappear and be forgotten. Is it not more and more night coming on all the time?

      • The Christian Church evolved organically in the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The seven “Orthodox” creeds became universally accepted due to the power and authority of the Emperor. That is to say, in its evolution, the conciliar function, the unity of faith, was supplied by the Emperor.

        The back side of this is that in a significant sense, Christianity died when Constantinople fell. Perhaps it survived in some form under the Tzars, but when the Tzar fell, the Christian Imperium ended, and what survives may call itself Christian, but what power remains in the world to insure the unity of faith? All that remains are groups of schismatics, with no true head, and no power to enforce Orthodoxy.

        • That sounds of Aleksandr Dugin, the orthodox, good fascist, KD.

          • Which part?

            The point I am trying to make is that religion is an attitude, and it is fundamentally an attitude towards one’s ancestors and one’s homeland.

            Religion can be neither true nor false, nor can non-religion. It can only be judged by functional or pragmatic criterion. [Or, if we want to talk of “truth”, we have to change the standards for what we judge to be “true religion”, just as we can’t reach an agreement on a standardization of measurement based solely on how we might go about measuring something in a lab.]

  21. Which part? I don’t see any mention of the lost race of Atlantis. . .

    • Just look under Google for his message, about ancestors and homeland and orthodoxy, and at my comment, answer to Aylwin, halfway these comments. I think, I can pretty much agree with your stance.

      • The Third Rome ideology is pre-Dugin. But if we take it seriously, God died circa 1917-1918 when the Tzar was shot, and the Eagles fell.

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