If Professor Jordan B. Peterson said he believed in God, would you?
For months now, I have been watching Professor Peterson’s followers ask themselves on social media whether they think Jordan believes in God, and I have been struggling to figure out why.
If Milo Yiannopoulos said he believed in God (he has), would you?
If I said I believed in God (I have), would you?
I’m thinking not—but why exactly?
Milo is easily as famous as Jordan, so it can’t be fame as such. I am easily as well-educated (Ph.D., Columbia University, 1994) as Jordan (Ph.D., McGill University, 1991), so it can’t be education as such. Jordan and I both talk about the importance of the Western tradition and the role of mythology in giving us scripts for how to behave (he says archetypes, I say patterns or models), so it can’t be the arguments he is making as such. It could be that he is a man, and I am not...but I don’t think that that is quite it either.
I think it is because he insists that—whatever mode he is speaking in—he is a scientist. And what people want is for a scientist to say he believes in God.
As I hear him, Professor Peterson is speaking in a theological mode that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, specifically the arguments that Ludwig Feuerbach made in The Essence of Christianity, first published in 1841 in German and translated into English in 1854 by the novelist George Eliot.
I thought about Feuerbach immediately when I read Professor Peterson’s recent tweets about God.
Peterson: God is the mode of being you value the most as demonstrated or manifested in your presumption, perception and action.
Feuerbach: Every man...must place before himself a God, i.e., an aim, a purpose. The aim is the conscious, voluntary, essential impulse of life, the glance of genius, the focus of self-knowledge,—the unity of the material and spiritual in the individual man. He who has an aim has a law over him; he does not merely guide himself; he is guided. He who has no aim, has no home, no sanctuary; aimlessness is the greatest unhappiness. Even he who has only common aims gets on better, though he may not be better, than he who has no aim. An aim sets limits; but limits are the mentors of virtue. He who has an aim, an aim which is in itself true and essential, has, eo ipso, a religion, if not in the narrow sense of common pietism, yet—and this is the only point to be considered—in the sense of reason, in the sense of the universal, the only true love.Perhaps my favorite of Professor Peterson’s course lectures is the one in which he talks about the importance of having an aim, a goal, a star to wish upon. God, from this perspective, is the goal towards which you aim, the mode in which you manifest your being through your presumption, perception, and action.
But what does this definition say about the existence of God? Does having a goal towards which you direct your presumption, perception, and action mean that you believe in God? As Professor Peterson would put it, it depends on what you mean by “believe.”
Peterson: 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 of mode of being, which is to say: a personality.
Feuerbach: To predicate personality of God is nothing else than to declare personality as the absolute essence; but personality is only conceived in distinction, in abstraction from Nature.... In the personality of God man consecrates the supernaturalness, immortality, independence, unlimitedness of his own personality.... God is the idea of personality as itself a person, subjectivity existing in itself apart from the world, existing for self alone, without wants, posited as absolute existence, the me without a thee.... Speculate as much as you will, you will never derive your personality from God, if you have not beforehand introduced it, if God himself be not already the idea of your personality, your own subjective nature.But if God is “your own subjective nature” in which “you manifest necessary faith,” what would it mean to be an atheist? Answer: to have no goals, values, or ideals.
Peterson (12 Rules for Life): If you pay attention, when you are seeking something, you will move towards your goal. More importantly, however, you will acquire the information that allows your goal itself to transform. A totalitarian never asks, “What if my current ambition is in error?” He treats it, instead, as the Absolute. It becomes his God, for all intents and purposes. It constitutes his highest value. It regulates his emotions and motivational states, and determines his thoughts. All people serve their ambition. In that matter, there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve.
Feuerbach: To the ancient Germans the highest virtues were those of the warrior; therefore their supreme god was the god of war, Odin,—war, “the original or oldest law.” Not the attribute of the divinity, but the divineness or deity of the attribute, is the first true Divine Being. Thus what theology and philosophy have held to be God, the Absolute, the Infinite, is not God; but that which they have held not to be God is God: namely, the attribute, the quality, whatever has reality. Hence he alone is the true atheist to whom the predicates of the Divine Being,—for example, love, wisdom, justice,—are nothing; not he to whom merely the subject of these predicates is nothing.It is in this sense, as both Professor Peterson and Herr Feuerbach insist, that speech—the Logos—is divine: because it is through words that we express the abstractions of our personality, our values, and our goals.
Peterson (Q&A February 27, 2017): Don’t underestimate the power of your speech! Now, Western culture is phallogocentric. Let’s say it... It is predicated on the idea of the Logos. The Logos is the sacred element of Western culture. What does that mean? It means that your capacity for speech is divine. It is the thing that generates order from chaos. And then sometimes turns pathological order into chaos when it has to.
Don’t underestimate the power of truth. There is nothing more powerful [than the truth]. Now in order to speak what you might regard as the truth, you have to let go of the outcome. You have to think, alright, I’m going to say what I think. Stupid as I am. Biased as I am. Ignorant as I am. I am going to state what I think as clearly as I can, and I am going to live with the consequences no matter what they are.
Now the reason that you think that, that’s an element of faith. The idea is that nothing brings a better world into being than the stated truth. You might have to pay a price for that. But that’s fine. You’re going to pay a price for every bloody thing you do. And everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it. So if you’re going to stand up for something, stand up for your truth.
Feuerbach: A word is an abstract image, the imaginary thing, or, in so far as everything is ultimately an object of the thinking power, it is the imagined thought: hence men, when they know the word, the name for a thing, fancy that they know they thing also. Words are a result of the imagination.... The power of speech is a poetic talent.... Thought expresses itself only by images; the power by which thought expresses itself is the imagination; the imagination expressing itself is speech. He who speaks, lays under a spell, fascinates those to whom he speaks; but the power of words is the power of the imagination....
The word is the imagined, revealed, radiating, lustrous, enlightening thought. The word is the light of the world. The word guides to all truth, unfolds all mysteries, reveals the unseen, makes present the past and the future, defines the infinite, perpetuates the transient.... The word is the gospel, the paraclete [i.e. comforter] of mankind. To convince thyself of the divine nature of speech, imagine thyself alone and forsaken, yet acquainted with language; and imagine thyself further hearing for the first time the word of a human being; would not this word seem to thee angelic? would it not sound like the voice of God himself, like heavenly music?....
The word has power to redeem, to reconcile, to bless, to make free.... The word makes man free. He who cannot express himself is a slave. Hence, excessive passion, excessive joy, excessive grief, are speechless. To speak is an act of freedom; the word is freedom.... Religion must therefore be conscious of the power of the word as a divine power. The Word of God is the divinity of the word, as it becomes an object to man within the sphere of religion,—the true nature of the human word.Okay, but so what? Both Professor Peterson and Herr Feuerbach talk about God as a projection of the human personality. Both describe God as the expression of one’s highest values or ideals. Both point to the power of speech as the manifestation of divinity in human beings. Both insist that there are, in fact, no such thing as atheists, only those who do not acknowledge their own highest values, goals, or aims.
What more would Professor Peterson’s followers like him to say?
I think I found it here, where Feuerbach is talking about “the Christian heaven, or personal immortality.” Feuerbach’s argument is that there is no such thing as God independent of man. In his understanding, “the beginning, middle and end of religion is MAN,” whereas God is properly speaking a projection of man’s species consciousness—of humanity’s consciousness of itself as a species. Faith in God is faith in humanity, but if God is a projection of our species consciousness, what does that say about our souls? Hint: They don’t exist.
The belief in the immortality of man is the belief in the divinity of man, and the belief in God is the belief in pure personality, released from all limits, and consequently eo ipso immortal.... The interest I have in knowing that God is, is one with the interest I have in knowing that I am, that I am immortal. God is my hidden, my assured existence; he is the subjectivity of subjects, the personality of persons.... In God I make my future into a present, or rather a verb into a substantive; how should I separate the one from the other? God is the existence corresponding to my wishes and feelings: he is the just one, the good, who fulfills my wishes. Nature, this world, is an existence which contradicts my wishes, my feelings. Here it is not as it ought to be; this world passes away; but God is existence as it ought to be. God fulfils my wishes;—this is only a popular personification of the position: God is the fulfiller, i.e., the reality, the fulfilment of my wishes.... God is the power by which man realises his eternal happiness; God is the absolute personality in which all individual persons have the certainty of their blessedness and immortality; God is to subjectivity the highest, last certainty of its absolute truth and essentiality.God in his subjectivity gives us the assurance of blessedness and personal immortality through the continuation of our species, ourselves abstracted into God as the highest ideals of man. But of course it is all a lie, because Nature does not care what God thinks—what humanity thinks—and the heathen, that is, the scientists know it.
It is not Christianity, not religious enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm of the understanding that we have to thank for botany, mineralogy, zoology, physics, and astronomy. The understanding is universal, pantheistic, the love of the universe; but the grand characteristic of religion, and of the Christian religion especially, is that it is thoroughly anthropotheistic, the exclusive love of man for himself, the exclusive self-affirmation of the human nature, that is, of subjective human nature....
In general, the need of a personal God has its foundation in this, that only in the attribute of personality does the personal man meet with himself, find himself. Substance, pure spirit, mere reason, does not satisfy him, is too abstract for him, i.e., does not express himself, does not lead him back to himself. And man is content, happy, only when he is with himself, with his own nature. Hence, the more personal a man is, the stronger is his need of a personal God. The free, abstract thinker knows nothing higher than freedom; he does not need to attach it to a personal being; for him freedom in itself, as such, is a real positive thing. A mathematical, astronomical mind, a man of pure understanding, an objective man, who is not shut up in himself, who feels free and happy only in the contemplation of objective rational relations, in the reason which lies in things in themselves—such a man will regard the substance of Spinoza, or some similar idea, as his highest being, and be full of antipathy towards a personal, i.e., subjective God.It is easy to guess on whose side Feuerbach’s sympathies lie. What about Professor Peterson’s? What about yours?
See The Lady and the Logos for my continuing account of what I have learned from listening to Professor Peterson’s lectures and reading his books.