On Monday night I attended a debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, moderated by Douglas Murray, at the O2 arena in Greenwich. The topic was religion, with a strong focus on Christianity.
Sam Harris is one of the ‘four horsemen of atheism’ with Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.
Jordan Peterson has a more ambivalent view of Christianity, talking about its wisdom and the necessary meaning it provides. However, he adopts a Jungian, metaphorical view and seems to believe there is truth, but not that it is the Truth.
Douglas Murray holds a similar view, concluding that Christianity is the best bulwark against Islamism and the progressive madness. Murray made a similar comment to the one I made here, that new religions are being formed by the day as we enter a new era of paganism and what will come may be worse than what was.
Heartening as it is to hear brilliant minds speak highly of Christianity, such an instrumental view of the faith will not survive. We cannot have Christianity without Christ, a religion founded on our (justifiable) hatred and fear of some things – nihilism, Islamism and progressivism – rather than our love of God.
There were some fascinating exchanges, and although my bias is clearly in favour of Peterson, I genuinely believe him the more interesting thinker. Sam Harris is a rationalist, whilst Peterson’s background in psychology gives him a more holistic view of humanity, and his thoughts are richer. Harris views things through the prism of reason yet anyone who has met a human being knows we are not purely rational, and it is this truth that Peterson speaks to more successfully.
At one point Peterson talked about a spirit of fatherhood, saying that when a young boy pretends to be a father it is not his own father that he is imitating but a certain spirit which has been passed along the ages. He seemed to be asking: from where does this originally derive?
At times Harris grew frustrated with Peterson and I can understand why. His views on religion are difficult to pin down. He at no point came out and said ‘I believe in God’ but spent the whole debate defending Christianity against Harris’s attacks.
He argued that the story of Cain and Abel is full of unbelievable wisdom, but instead of saying it was the result of divine revelation he said it was revealed by someone tapping into human consciousness, the aggregation of human wisdom learned over hundreds of thousands of years.
Harris, I felt, needed to spend more time justifying his assumptions. He began comparing Christianity to astrology but didn’t explain why that is fair. What about the historical evidence for Jesus’s existence? Miracles such as the sun in Fatima? That it was a Catholic priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory?
Peterson ended by saying the thing he hated most was that there was a part of him that could have been a Nazi prison camp guard, and been happy with it. This, I believe, draws a line between him and Edmund Burke, both believers in humanity’s good, but fallen, nature. Harris bemoaned the unnecessary suffering in the world, and both agreed that this type of wide-ranging, civil discourse was what the West needed in light of the attacks on freedom of speech.
It was an excellent evening’s entertainment, and the intelligent and open discussions I overheard on the Tube home gave me great hope. There are still many in society who want to talk about the big topics in an honest way, free of smears and no-platforming. To the three men who provided me with such stimulation: thank you very much. Please keep it up.