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Review: “Winning the War of Ideas: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray.” London O2 Arena.

Image: O2 Arena

The popularity of music concerts is undeniable as crowds continuously flock to see music stars of the current age. However, the growth in popularity of public debates is telling of increasing public interest in intellectual rigour and debate. Given a public setting, this creates accessibility to the often hidden world of academia. On 16th July 2018, intellectuals Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray hosted a public debate at the O2 Arena in London which was attended by nearly 8,000 members of the public. The debate touched on differential meanings of religion amongst society and the individual – an ongoing issue throughout history and the present.

“Winning the War of Ideas – an Evening with Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray” pulled in crowds from London and beyond, with not a shred of pop music to sweeten the academic pill! The event consisted of men on stage, simply talking. Arguably, its simplicity raised a few eyebrows in the O2 planning department! As Sam Harris himself quipped, “It is especially flattering to us that Justin Bieber isn’t coming out to perform in the middle of this.” This highlights potential implications about the current music industry, as it is undeniable that “public discussion” events are lighting a fire for substantial amounts of people that no one (not even the speakers) expected.

A couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the O2 would host an event bearing more similarity to a lecture than a rock concert. It would be a further leap of implausibility, then, to imagine such an event drawing in almost eight thousand people, with a queue of not-just-university types (as you might reasonably assume) stretching all the way out of the door.

Jordan Peterson has himself expressed amazement at his rise in popularity, going from a largely unknown Canadian Psychology Professor at the University of Toronto two years ago, to becoming one of the most well-known intellectuals. Peterson can be seen everywhere; on national television, podcasts, public debates, YouTube channels, radio shows and more. His biggest UK feature was a Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman, which went viral after their heated exchange led to online ridicule for Channel 4, and further reverence for Peterson.

Peterson is most known for his critique of the radical (or “regressive”) left, and the threat identity politics poses to freedom of speech. His book 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos, outlines ideas about how people can improve themselves and live meaningful lives in the modern world. Peterson’s view of the inevitability of human suffering and practical ideas about how one can find meaning in this chaos with taking personal responsibility, strikes a chord with many.

It is a shame that Peterson’s thought was not given much air to breathe in discussions with Sam Harris and Douglas Murray, which focused on religion and the role of myths and stories in creating collective meaning and social identity. Peterson was out of his element discussing religion and atheism, which is perhaps unsurprising given his company. Harris, the famous philosopher, neuroscientist and author, has spent many years engaging in religious debates. Harris is one the most established and well-known intellectuals in this regard, cutting his teeth as one of the “Four Horseman of New Atheism” (the eye-rolling name being intentional, allegedly) alongside the late journalist and contrarian, Christoper Hitchens, academic philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the ever-controversial Richard Dawkins.

Douglas Murray acted as a pseudo-moderator, remaining silent for most of the discussion. This is a shame, as Murray is an interesting thinker and his few contributions were insightful and interesting. However, there is no denying that Peterson and Harris’ discussion was the main attraction.

While now travelling in similar “concentric circles” and having done previous events together, the first thing one notices about the speakers is their different oratory styles. Harris’ rationality provides clarity to complex topics. But this is not without the caveat that Harris can appear narrow-minded – a charge often levelled at him by Peterson’s supporters. Peterson speaks with a frenetic energy, his points often spinning off on abstracted tangents. He is however, gorgeously articulate if sometimes lacking in precision.

Harris’ most striking critique of Peterson was his lack of precision on religion that harboured confusion. This is best expressed in Peterson’s inability to answer what his own religious beliefs were. When challenged on this, Peterson reacted aggressively proclaiming he would have “none of that” kind of criticism. This was followed by the bizarre point that we all “act out” things we can’t fully understand, otherwise we would be omniscient, hence there is no simple answer to the question.

True neurologically speaking, no doubt, but in response to a question about accepting or rejecting the claim that there is a God, this is hardly a sufficient answer. It’s hard to shake the feeling that many critics would be happier with an honest “I don’t know” to this basic question, as opposed to such smoke-and-mirrors floundering which Peterson shows on a regular basis.

Peterson was at his strongest when arguing not about the truth of religious beliefs, but the utility of religious institutions to society, a stance which he and Murray seemed to agree upon. They argued that religion is “ineradicably necessary” in ensuring meaning, and to resist the siren call of nihilism. Using the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism as examples, the pair said these secular tyrannies were a result of the “death of God” in public life. Murray stated that what unified the Communist dictators was the shared lack of belief in any powers above them.

It’s a powerful argument, made even more potent by the names which back it up – Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who all expressed concern that nihilistic worldviews emerging in Europe were a result of the declining belief in God. Such nihilism lays the bedrock for the rise of blood-soaked secular alternatives to religion (such as the race-worshipping of Nazi Germany).

Harris attempted to question the link between atheism and these ideologies, but often felt dismissive and simplistic. At one-point Harris attempted to dust off the implication, by arguing (albeit correctly) that atheism did not represent a dogmatic ideology, but the rejection of factual claims about the existence of a God. Such an objection is unlikely to have satisfied the audience, who were hoping for a deeper discussion on the consequences of such negation on the psychology of political actors.

Harris was stronger when he engaged in a discussion of secular alternatives to religious injunction. In direct response to Murray’s “no powers above them” argument, Harris illustrated an alternative to this belief: everyone, even powerful leaders, rely on others for their survival. This idea is true and serves the same limiting function on the power of political leaders, as a belief in the moral judgement of an omnipotent God. In Harris’ world, society replaces God and reason replaces faith. He went further, arguing that philosophical schools such as Stoicism (famously propounded by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius) contain as much wisdom as theology, without the attribution of divine “revelation”.

Harris’ logic on the unnecessary reverence of certain texts over others, based on claims of divine diktat, is compelling. Why else would religious ideas be given precedence over other philosophies? Peterson provided a thought-provoking response: world religions deserve priority, due to institutions built up around them and the masses of believers inspired to create great cultural works of art, literature and architecture. In short, it is the popularity of religion, which Peterson attributes to the power of myth and storytelling to convey psychological and metaphysical truths, which endows it with collective meaning.

The power of myths and stories as great spiritual motivators, for both individuals and societies, was a running theme of the discussion, and generated interesting areas of agreement as well as disagreement. Harris accepted Peterson’s point on the power of myths and stories to convey truth, however denied the necessity of literal belief in God to realize such benefits. His use of Greek mythology was apt, as many in the West manage to draw inspiration and wisdom from the exploits of this ancient Pantheon of Gods, despite them being “dead” in a literal sense.

Peterson expressed scepticism for the power of rational discourse to generate a similar magnitude of spiritual motivation. His belief to kill the idea of God entirely is to subject all of life to mere rational calculation, inevitably leading to nihilism. His expression of these dangers are sound, but one must compare this potential for a latent nihilism to fester within secular culture, with the real threat of passionate religious fervour snowballing into theological conflict. Spiritual motivation is all well and good in endowing life with meaning but loses its appeal when religious trappings lead to aggressive tribalism, regressive social institutions and even religious conflict. The answer, Peterson would likely agree, will lie somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Whether the right balance between dogmatism and nihilism will manifest in the form of a moderate believer who hedges their faith with a healthy dose of rational thought, or instead a non-believer who imbibes the wisdom of myths and legends without succumbing to a literal faith, is a matter of perspective. Peterson may deny the latter case, claiming some minimal level of religiosity is necessary to experience spiritual motivation. But what does Peterson mean by religiosity? Literal belief in God or acceptance of the wisdom of religious tradition? Must one believe in God to find sufficient meaning?

It appears that religion is still a point of weakness for Peterson (and a strength for Harris). The psychological and symbolic meaning of religious stories is an interesting topic, although Peterson’s habit of conflating this discussion with the consequences of literal belief in the world bedevils his argument to some degree.

Harris was not without faults as he could have done more to engage in a “meaning based conversation” which appeased Peterson’s fans, for instance by elaborating on the role of stories and artistic symbolism in atheist life. Clearly, Peterson’s focus on the value of religious worldview is striking a chord with his audience, Harris does himself a disservice in writing off the problem of secular nihilism.

This misfiring is no doubt a result of the pairs different focusses and ways of thinking. You need only look at the final question posed by Murray to understand the key difference: “What is your greatest Hate?” To this, Peterson answered with deep emotion – he hates the part of himself which would have been content as an Auschwitz prison guard. That kernel of unredeemed evil within him, within all of us, which religion may be the only answer to. Harris, calm and logical, answered that what he hated was the unnecessary suffering caused by people being captivated by bad ideas – for that which ruins the experience of consciousness in the present, ruins the only chance we all have to live well.

The result of the evening was a detailed discussion without a firm conclusion. It is hard to shake the feeling that the two are so deeply entrenched in their positions, that any fundamental changes of heart were unlikely to occur. Gratifyingly however, this was not the case for the audience, who were so rapt by the discussion that they voted to scrap the Q&A section to allow the debate to go on – an indication of the value many now derive from public discussions.

Murray in his concluding statement expressed surprise that events like this are becoming increasingly popular, with more people worldwide feeling the urge to think and discuss difficult and controversial issues in the public arena.

With that, this strange new form of Woodstock wrapped itself up – a deep two-hour dialogue between Rockstar public intellectuals, with not even a whiff of Justin Bieber. What could be a more positive message than that?