Jordan Peterson on Religion, Science, and Revolution

Part 3 of 6: The Utility of Jordan Peterson's Digressions

When one reads Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life,1 the rules in isolation come across as eminently sensible; however, many of the digressions in Peterson’s book strike one as bombastic. It does not require special consideration to recognize the bombast.

Religion vs Science

Take, for instance, what Peterson states about religion and science: “Religion concerns itself with domain of value, ultimate value. That is not the scientific domain.” (loc 2046)

What is meant by value? There are many definitions, of which two seem particularly apropos to what Peterson writes:

10. values, Sociology. the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, or education, or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy.

11. Ethics. any object or quality desirable as a means or as an end in itself.

Sociology is a social science, and sociologists investigate using the scientific method. Ergo, science is not logically or lexicographically excluded from the values expressed in definition 10. Definition 11 is quite nebulous for a dictionary entry, but the investigation into what best explains human’s understanding of natural phenomenon would seem to be captured by science as well. Karl Popper wrote, “The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles; while in fact the search for truth presupposes ethics.”2

So how does Peterson arrive at the determination that values are not in the scientific domain? A dictionary definition of “science” reads,

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

Therefore, insofar as values are subject to facts, truths, observation, and experimentation, then values fall, by definition, within the purview of science. Furthermore, although science depends on exact data, the fact is value is a crucial tool in the hands of scientists to ascertain validity of an event. Value, therefore, while latent in the declaration of a scientific fact, is a motor that moves the scientist to understand her objective. Consequently, value while perhaps not in the forefront is a palpable vector in a given analysis.

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, proposed a system, a modus tolens, of what constitutes scientific theorizing. Popper considered the debate over “simplicity and its value for science.”3 Popper saw simplicity as best conceived in relation to the testability of a theory.4 For Popper, a theory must produce testable hypotheses whose results can not verify a theory; a theory can only be rejected.

Religions, on the other hand, are by and large, faith-based, so facts and truths need not be based on observations, experimentation, and evidence. All that is required is to believe that the words attributed to prophets, scribes, god(s), angels, demons, spirits, or extraterrestrial entities are of unquestionable verisimilitude. This brings up the question as to which values position doctrine beyond testable hypotheses and evidence and beyond epistemological skepticism?

Peterson writes, “Religion is instead about proper behavior.” (loc 2049)

Peterson treats religion, in some sense, as a monolithic entity; hence, he refers to it in the singular. Here Peterson seemingly refines “value” as being about “proper behavior.” However, was the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan by the Taliban “proper behavior”? Was the destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindu fanatics in Ayodhya, India “proper behavior”? Are the outrages against Rohingya by the predominantly Buddhist Myanmarese “proper behavior”? How about the Catholic Church’s sympathy to “fascism as an idea”? “Not only did the church regard communism as a lethal foe, but it also saw its old Jewish enemy in the most senior ranks of Lenin’s party.”5 The Inquisition? The church-run Indian Residential Schools on Turtle Island? The Jewish State’s sniping of unarmed Palestinians on their side of the border?

One could construct a enormous list of evils under the influence, or in the name, of religion.

Confining oneself just to literal interpretations of the Bible (a book filled with rules), behavioral stipulations from Yahweh call for death by stoning for blaspheming god, cursing one’s parents, committing adultery, or being a non-virgin bride on one’s wedding day. Slavery, genocide, misogyny, and racism are condoned, but the seven deadly sins, masturbation, and homosexuality are condemned. What is particularly remarkable is that many of these so-called sins can be confined to oneself and not impinge upon another human. Hence even though the Golden Rule would be unviolated, in the realm of the Old Testament that person would be harshly judged.

Therefore, given the foregoing discussion, one wonders what proper behavior in the scope of religion actually is. Love your neighbor, love your enemy are fine bromides — great actually. But such appealing biblical rules for self-conduct are undermined by the heinous acts also carried out in the name of a religion.

Wikipedia as Accepted Wisdom?

Peterson writes, “I cite Wikipedia because it is collectively written and edited and, therefore, the perfect place to find accepted wisdom.” (loc 2224)

ON CONTACT: Wikipedia – A Tool Of The Ruling Elite

Perfect? Accepted wisdom? Since when does something collectively written become accepted wisdom? What would happen if 10 Zionists worked on a piece on Palestine?

I demur greatly from Peterson regarding Wikipedia. While Wikipedia may be fine for general knowledge, on subjects where various narratives compete, it can be highly problematic, and it should be regarded with skepticism. Current events, history, and geo-politics require utmost skepticism and scrutiny. The editing at Wikipedia is susceptible to great bias.6 The complaints against Wikipedia and its editing are many.7

If one is interested in information, it is widely accepted that one tries to get as close to the source of information as possible. Thus primary and secondary sources are prioritized over tertiary sources. Wikipedia is not a primary source. It bills itself as an online encyclopedia, but its partiality is deeply in question.

Revolutions as Causes of Suffering

Peterson warns of “altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.” (loc 2229)

First, one notes that Peterson is hedging his admonition by using the word “carelessly.” Carelessness is, after all, something best avoided in all circumstances. Second, the term “ideological shibboleth” strikes this reader as a pleonasm. Third, religion is a specific form of ideology. Fourth, diversity is not a shibboleth. How is it that the state of being different is considered a shibboleth? Fifth, Peterson is patronizing in how resolutions should be conceived. He lives in a place and time (Canada, 21st century) where revolutions in the classical sense are unlikely to happen because the conditions for them (excepting First Nations) are currently held in check by socialism: employment insurance, welfare, schooling for all, universal health insurance. But had Peterson lived in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, he might change his mind. Regarding his comments, Peterson seems ready to condemn the French Revolution (yes it was messy, but it ended a system that was corrupt from its roots).

Peterson seems to have a problem with diversity. Diversity is an expression of entropy, which, even in a social sense, signals a natural drift toward increasing randomness. It is hypothesized that evolution which has shaped our current cerebral wiring favoring entropy also gave rise to our consciousness as an after effect.8 Physicsworld explains, “Perez Velazquez and colleagues argue that consciousness could simply be an ’emergent property’ of a system – the brain – that seeks to maximize information exchange and therefore entropy, since doing so aids the survival of the brain’s bearer by allowing them to better model their environment.”

Peterson’s reasoning seemingly points to a static state. This militates against evolution and social thermodynamics. This is emphasized by his argument against “the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.” Peterson hedges by using the word “generally,” and such hedging is reasonable given that absolutes are rare.

Mark Twain — who Peterson quotes once in 12 Rules (loc 649) but without adequate sourcing — stated that he was “a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute…”9 In other words, revolutions arise from a natural resistance to oppression – and the suffering caused by oppression. Peterson has it backwards, as he points to the revolutions as the source of suffering.

Revoluting against the injustices of a power structure requires courage because centers-of-power are usually loath to relinquish power and the privileges that accompany power, and those people in centers-of-power will use lethal violence to deter any challenges to their grip on power. Centers-of-power control the mechanisms for protecting and projecting their power, thus challenges to power, however justified and morally based, will be defied with violence by the power structure. Those who revolute will have suffering inflicted on them. Revolutionaries understand this. They do not expect to be gifted — what most morally centered people would consider to be a human right — an equitable input into society, its decision-making, and its wealth. Revolutionaries expect the power structure, represented by the State, to try and crush them. Witness the Canadian authorities’ recent heavy-handed police actions against the Wet’suwet’en on their unceded territory and the French state’s draconian measures against the Gilets Jaunes movements in France. The scenario, that seems to elude Peterson, is that revolutionaries make a decision to resist the current state of suffering and indignities to overthrow those who oppress them and establish a fair(er) society knowing fully well that violence against will follow.

  • Read Part 1 and Part 2.
  • Part 4 looks at Peterson’s shallow rejection of communism.
  1. Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: The Antidote for Chaos (Penguin Random House UK, 2018). []
  2. Karl Popper, “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind,” Delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge, November 8, 1977. Popper’s Darwin Lecture is cited by Peterson in his 12 Rules for Life. []
  3. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Routledge Classics, 2005): 131. []
  4. Karl Popper, 132. []
  5. Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Boston: Twelve, 2007): 235. []
  6. See, e.g., “Caught in the Cross Hairs: Media Lens and the Mystery of the Wikipedia Editor” []
  7. For example, “Wikipedia Is Shockingly Biased: 5 Lessons From An Admin,” “The Covert World of People Trying to Edit Wikipedia—for Pay,” “Wikipedia’s dark side: Censorship, revenge editing & bribes a significant issue,” “What Wikipedia’s Daily Mail ‘Ban’ Tells Us About The Future Of Online Censorship,” and “Revenge, ego and the corruption of Wikipedia.” []
  8. R. Guevara Erra, D. M. Mateos, R. Wennberg, and J.L. Perez Velazquez, “Towards a statistical mechanics of consciousness: maximization of number of connections is associated with conscious awareness.” []
  9. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (2015) Edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith: 451. []
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.