In 2018, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris had an 8-hour-long debate about the value of religion. Millions of people watched it.

Peterson and Harris agree on many things. They both oppose nihilism, post-modernism, moral relativism and religious fundamentalism. They are both pro free speech and pro good where "good" is what a reasonable person would think of as "good". They both agree that religion has value. Both of them agree that religious texts should not be taken literally.

They are both familiar with the Western intellectual tradition. They are both familiar with 20th century Western history. Both of them are primarily concerned with People of the Book (especially Christians and Muslims). They argue from a Western point of view. You won't be encountering references to Taiwanese ancestor worship or Zen Buddhism in this debate. This isn't really a big deal for Jordan Peterson when he's arguing in support of Christian narrative but it is a point against Harris when he opposes religion globally. It feels to me like many of Harris' attacks against religion are actually attacks against monotheism.

Peterson and Harris both agree that Western philosophy is in an era of intellectual crisis. They both agree that parts of religion have value. They agree that interpreting religious texts as literally true is bad, but they disagree with what to do about religious texts that contain literal falsehoods.

  • Peterson believes religious texts should be interpreted as a source of narrative[1] truth.
  • Harris believes interpreting religious texts as a source of priviledged truth creates a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism.

Narrative Truth

I don't know any religious fundamentalists. The religious people in my social circle include a Protestant Christian, a Pure Land Buddhist, an atheist Jew, a Zen Buddhist and a Taiwanese polytheist. None of these people treat religious texts as a source of literal truth. The polytheist believes in reincarnation but not because it's a dangerous religious dogma. He believes it because he grew up on a primitive rice paddy in the middle of nowhere and never got the complete material reductionist memeplex.

The Jew tells Jewish jokes but I've never heard him quote the Torah. He follows kosher dietary laws because that's what Jews do. He treats it like being vegetarian. His attitude toward religion reminds me of an old Jewish story.

There once was a Jewish congregation. One member believed the congregation was doing something wrong. They were violating God's wishes. The congregation disagreed. The dissenter looked up the rule in the Torah. He found a quote clearly backing his position. The congregation said they don't care. The dissenter asked God for a verdict. God appeared with thunder and lightening and angels and told the congregation that they were wrong and the dissenter was right. The congregation told God they didn't care. God conceded defeat.

This isn't to say that religion can't be bad. My ex-Mormon nonbinary poly friend assures me that the Latter-Day Saints are awful—especially to nonbinary poly people. I believe zem. My point is we should be careful about how much we generalize. Statistically, religious people who attend church have better life outcomes. My personal life experience corroborates the sociological data: religious belief correlates with good life outcomes.

Only two kinds of people take religious texts seriously: atheists and fundamentalists.

And the hare, because he cheweth the cud[2]

―Leviticus 11:6 King James Bible

If you decide the text is wrong and reality is right then you become an atheist. If you decide the text is right and reality is wrong then you become a religious fundamentalist. Since I'm not friends with any religious fundamentalists (the people I know tend to be highly-educated, which anti-correlates with religious fundamentalism), the only people I know who take religious texts literally are the atheists.

Sam Harris claims religion is dangerous because you can get religious people to do anything by promising them whatever they want in the afterlife. While this definitely can happen, it doesn't always. Any definition of "religious person" which does not include Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (MLKJ) is an overly-narrow definition of religion.

It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.

―Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

MLKJ is not an epistemic saint. He never got the material reductionist memeplex.

[A]s a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality—a power that cannot be explained in materialistic terms. History is ultimately guided by spirit, not matter.

―Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

I don't think the denial of material metaphysics is unique to religious adherents. Most people in general don't grok material reductionism. I don't think religion is what keeps modern people from learning physics (except indirectly, by denying education (especially to girls)). Material reduction is just hard. It involves too much physics.

So if religion isn't about literal truth then what is it about? Peterson thinks about religion through the framework of timeless Yungian archetypes. Learning a religion is like learning a language. Languages don't just help you communicate with other people. Learning a language is necessary to how human beings think. (Deaf children who don't learn sign language at the right age end up mentally crippled.) Similarly, religion is a big cultural package that bootstraps its adherents' minds.

If I were to steelman Peterson, I'd say that he says religion is a constantly-evolving package of cultural technology that has stood the test of time. The Lindy Effect has packed it full of Chesterton's Fences.

Tempting Fundamentalism

No one denies that religious texts are full of instructions that produce horrific outcomes when taken literally.

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

―Deuteronomy 13:6-9 King James Version

Harris believes that such passages are a recipe for irrational thought for two reasons.

  1. Sacred texts cannot be changed. Dogma is a virtue. There is no error correction mechanism. Error correction is forbidden.
  2. Religions are forever vulnerable to fundamentalism because the obvious way to interpret a sacred text is literally.

I think that #1 falls into the No True Scotsman fallacy. Religions do have error correction mechanisms. American southerners used Christianity to sanction slavery. But American northerners used Christian virtues to abolish slavery. Civil war is not a good error correction mechanism. War is an awful error correction mechanism. But it is an error correction mechanism.

I think Harris sees science as a halogen lamp beating back the darkness of religion. I agree that much of modern progress toward good is due to rational scientific thought. However, I don't see a world where the Enlightenment was caused by atheists arguing with Christians. My model of history is that the Enlightenment happened when secularish Christians argued with fundamentalistish Christians.

Harris observes the atrocities of ISIS and points his finger at religion. Peterson sees the atrocities of ISIS and points his finger at Hitler, Stalin and chimpanzees. Peterson thinks religion is used post-hoc to rationalize primate violence. Harris thinks religion causes violence that wouldn't have happened otherwise. While I must concede that Harris' claim is technically true, I think it is misleading. Yes, religious fundamentalist groups cause ordinary people to commit atrocious evil. However, evil secular groups do so too. Violent religious extremism should not be compared against acceptable secular society. It should be compared against violent secular extremism. (20th-century Communism is the most salient example.)

Religions do have an update mechanism. Their update mechanism is not rationality but rather evolution. In the thrive/survive theory of the political spectrum, Harris is a liberal and Peterson is a conservative. I am temperamentally conservative on the thrive/survive spectrum too, which might explain why I empathize better with Peterson's perspective than Harris'.

Peterson has a conservative epistemology. He likes ideas that have endured for thousands of years. He is wary of abandoning old ideas. Harris has a liberal epistemology. His philosophy is optimized to adopt new ideas quickly. The conservative approach adopts new ideas so slowly that, to Harris, it doesn't appear as if new ideas are being adopted at all. Peterson trusts evolution. Harris' trusts rationality. Peterson fears overconfidence in one's individual judgment. Harris fears underconfidence in one's individual judgment.

Harris' point #2 claims that the simplest way of interpreting religious texts is literally and that interpreting religious texts literally produces horrific results. Peterson claims that the obvious interpretation of religious texts is often wrong and that the right interpretation of religious texts is often non-obvious.

I think Harris is correct that having religions around at all creates the conditions for religious extremism. He thinks that if the only religions around are moderate ones which interpret their texts liberally then someone will go "hey, you should be interpreting these texts literally" and start a fundamentalist sect. I think Harris' model of religious equilibrium is correct[3]. Liberal religions do create the conditions for the formation of fundamentalist restoration movements. But even though this is how causality works, I do not think the moral culpability should be placed on the moderate religions. If a group (whether religious or not) is acting reasonably then I do not believe that group is morally responsible for splinter sects which act unreasonably. After all, there are rationalist-adjacent cults whose actions we are not culpable for.

But just because someone lacks moral responsibility does not mean they do not cause harm. In this way, I diverge from a pure utilitarian calculus. Though I do not personally subscribe to Harris' consequentialist moral stance, I do agree that it is factually correct, internally consistent and perfectly reasonable.

  1. Peterson is cagey about what he means by "narrative truth". I think this is because he is an anthropologist and not a machine learning engineer. If I were to present his argument, I would say "stories provide useful tools for thinking about the world". Telling the story of Moses or tales about Loki to a child is useful in the same way pre-training a neural network with English is useful even if your ultimate goal is for the network to sort documents in French. ↩︎

  2. Rabbits are not ruminants. They have no cud to chew. ↩︎

  3. While I believe that religions create the conditions for religious extremism, I do not believe that religions are a prerequisite for irrationality or horrific outcomes. I predict much of the irrationality harnessed by religious extremism would direct itself to other manifestations of irrationality. ↩︎

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25 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:08 AM

This doesn't necessarily connect to any larger point, but rabbits are... "approximately sorta" "cud" chewers? 

The confident partial falsehood caught my attention on agricultural and nutritional grounds, which are kind of objectively interesting. (I had never heard about this part of the bible before.)

Only two kinds of people take religious texts seriously: atheists and fundamentalists.

And the hare, because he cheweth the cud[2]

―Leviticus 11:6 King James Bible

2. Rabbits are not ruminants. They have no cud to chew.

Mechanistically, the problem that rabbits face is that their digestive system is quite similar to humans (with a small intestine first, and then a larger intestine) but their diet is NOT similar to humans. 

We get all kinds of vitamins (esp B12) and absorb it in the small intestine directly after grinding it up in a pretty cursory way. 

Then grassy/cellulose junk that humans eat goes the the large intestine for fermentation (hence humans farting), but that final end of our GI tract is bad at absorption. (Empirically, high fiber and its resulting hindgut bacterial growth are still better for health than not... it just lacks the raw sufficiency that is available to other species with different GI tract designs.) 

Humans get to not care about bad absorption at the end of our GI tract because the first stretch of our GI tract is good enough when steak is so yummy and full of vitamins and we can hunt and farm n'stuff! <3

Rabbits face the same design challenge, but rabbits don't have high quality food... eg they don't eat steak. They eat vegetarian crap. And they can't buy B12 vitamins at the hippy store either. 

So to make up for the limited diet, plus a human-like GI tract, rabbits generate special "first pass poops" that they emit mostly at night called "cecotropes" and then they eat those

The virtue here is that this specialized nutrient rich feces goes through the small intestine a second time, so the interesting nutrients (that were only really properly unlocked by fermentation in the colon, with help from gut microbiomes that have bigger genomes and crazier digestive chemistry) can finally be absorbed! <3

Cecotropes are not pieces of "cud"... exactly

True ruminants chew cud for slightly different reasons than rabbits. Both are struggling with annoyingly low quality food, and both need to process it a lot, and both end up sending many of the same atoms through their mouth more than once... but then... there are some differences too, like the chemistry is slightly different, and "whether it came out of the butt or was thrown up" is different. (Both seem gross to me, but... nature is gonna nature, you know?) 

The rabbits don't actually care about it being in their mouth... that's just the only way to get it further down to the the part of the GI tract that is really good at absorbing nutrients (but couldn't absorb it on the first pass).

Maybe the language of the bible didn't even HAVE a word for "cecotropes"?

If I was going to connect this back to some larger point here about "literary interpretation" that Harris and Peterson were making? Uh...

For me, it is reasonable to treat all human mouth sounds (and writing) as "requiring literary interpretation" because of things similar to this cecotrope/cud distinction. 

The physical reality over time is the thing pointed to. 

The words are... just pointers, and often aren't very precise in contexts where people have high trust, and highly shared context, and care about each other, and want to be parsimonious and helpful in their "pointer sharing".

I guess a deeper point is that most of Harris's points about religion could be leveled at science as well? 

IF (purely hypothetically here, of course) there was some crazy group of half-bad humans (and which humans do NOT have some badness in them?) that formed into a tribe, and got in a resource conflict with another tribe, and they had a bunch of "Science Texts" full of non-generalizing non-replicating "supposedly literally true" claims... THEN they might do some pretty heinous shit. It would stand to reason that it is possible.

Whether the tribe claims to be doing "Science" or claims to be "Religion" it is all basically just words-words-words from "long ago" that might be true, or might have seemed true in some ancient context, but also you really should probably nullius in verba the moment the words suggest "common sense bad action" or "things that seem factually or heuristically doubtful and could be tested again from scratch".

My favored "nullius in verba" schtick is not even that hard to follow, what with search engines and all. 

I don't know what the jewish dietary laws are here, but capybara also chew "cud" in a way that's probably highly similar to rabbits, and if jewish smarty-pants are sensible (and... why wouldn't they be?) then my guess is that they consider capybaras to have the same kosher/not-kosher status as rabbits? Maybe? (I checked: yup!)

The reason I had a pretty good hunch here is that it was trivial to find visual evidence of a capybara eating cecotropes on youtube (its a little bit gross, but not suuuuper gross). 

"Pics or it didn't happen" is not the BEST epistemology possible, and it was impossible prior to cheap photography, but there are certainly worse epistemologies.

Maybe the language of the bible didn't even HAVE a word for "cecotropes"?

I like this theory. The authors of the Old Testament were herders. They interacted with animals all the time. They knew knew animal behavior backward and forward.

There's an ancient rabbinic saying that "The Torah spoke in the language of men"—that is, when faced with confusing language in the bible, one should look at what the common vernacular was at the time that it was written. I should note that historically not everyone has agreed with that thesis, but it's the majority opinion in Orthodox Jewish circles when trying to figure out practical issues like this one. If you want to learn more about how Jewish theology treats this and similar issues dealing with animals and seemingly impossible legends, I highly recommend the writings of Rabbi Natan Slifkin (though his particular views are sometimes considered  controversial).

This part made me laugh out loud:

On 5 October 2008 Slifkin published an essay entitled In Defense of My Opponents in which he acknowledges that there is a reasonable basis for a ban on his books in certain communities.

That amount of upside down chutzpah is fantastic <3

Yeah, Slifkin is great. If you want a steelmanned version of the view against his perspective btw, I recommend “Torah, Chazal, and Science,” by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. He takes a really interesting fundamentalist, but also very scholarly view that I haven’t really heard spelled out explicitly elsewhere.

I love how <3 has the dual interpretation of a heart and a fart.

Is there a particular reason for people to prefer eating animals who eat low quality food? Health, nutrition, etc?

People can often eat the higher quality food directly instead of feeding it to animals, which matters if food is scarce or expensive. On the other hand, if you want to convert grass to calories for humans, feeding it to a cow is a pretty reasonable way to do it.

(Warning: this is erring on the side of 'beware the person who can explain everything'.)

Is there a particular reason for people to prefer eating animals who eat low quality food? Health, nutrition, etc?

Said animal doesn't necessarily have the extra nutrients available to resist / fight back / be energetic in general, for one.

Omega-3 fatty acids Oleic acid Total saturated and trans-fat
Ground beef from grass-fed (grazing on native Texas pasture) 0.055 grams 6.3 grams
Ground beef from grain-fed cattle (fed a feedlot diet containing primarily corn and milo) 0.020 grams 8.3 grams

Source: Ground beef from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle: Does it matter?

For reference, I think the referenced "old Jewish story" is The Oven of Akhnai. Though it doesn't particularly matter for the present discussion, I will note that the disagreement was between one rabbi and a bunch of other rabbis (rather than between members of a congregation); since the story was also written by the rabbis, this makes it analogous to our Marbury v. Madison.

(though it would also not be very surprising if the story has multiple versions/settings)

[+][comment deleted]2y1

I don't think religion keeps is what modern people from learning physics

Should this be "I don't think religion is what keeps modern people from learning physics" or am I missing something?

Fixed. Thanks.

Monothestic religions evolved in a world without reliable birth control, paternity tests, synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, nuclear weapons, industrial farming, household appliances, radio and television, railroads, telegraphs, and the ability to make any man the equal of a professional soldier in combat with less than a year of training. I don't trust them to have social technology relevant to today any more than I expect them to have medical technology relevant to today.

When Peterson argues religion is a useful cultural memeplex, he is presumably arguing for all of (Western monotheistic) religion. This includes a great variety of beliefs, rituals, practices over space and time - I don't think any of these have really stayed constant across the major branches of Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the last two thousand years. If we discard all these incidental, mutable characteristics, what is left as "religion"?

One possible answer (I have no idea if Peterson would agree): the structure of having shared community beliefs and rituals remains, but not the specific beliefs, or the specific (claimed) reasons for holding them; the distinctions of sacred vs. profane remains, and of priests vs. laymen, and of religious law vs. freedom of actions in other areas, but no specifics of what is sacred or what priests do; the idea of a single, omniscient, omnipotent God, but not that God's attributes, other than being male; that God judges and rewards or punishes people, but no particulars of what is punished or rewarded, or what punishments or rewards might be.

ETA: it occurs to me that marriage-as-a-sacrament, patriarchy, and autocracy, have all been stable common features of these religions. I'm not sure if they should count as features of the religion, or of a bigger cultural package which has conserved these and other features.

Atheists reject the second part of the package, the one that's about a God. But they (like everyone) still have the first part: shared beliefs and rituals and heresies, shared morals and ethics, sources of authority, etc. (As an example, people sometimes say that "Science" often functions as a religion for non-scientists; I think that's what's meant; Science-the-religion has priests and rituals and dogmas and is entangled with law and government, but it has no God and doesn't really judge people.)

But that's just what I generated when faced with this prompt. What does Peterson think is the common basis of "Western religion over the last two thousand years" that functions as a memeplex and ignores the incidentals that accrue like specific religious beliefs?

They are both pro free speech and pro good where "good" is what a reasonable person would think of as "good".

I have trouble parsing that definition. You're defining "good" by pointing at "reasonable". But people who disagree on what is good, will not think each other reasonable.

I have no idea what actual object-level concept of "good" you meant. Can you please clarify?

For example, you go on to say:

They both agree that religion has value.

I'm not sure whether religion has (significant, positive) value. Does that make me unreasonable?

I mean Peterson and Harris both support "good" as opposed to "moral relativism" where there is no good, there is no evil. Moral relativism is a philosophy without objective goodness e.g. Nietzsche: there is only will to power. There are many competing definitions of "good". Peterson and Harris agree that the concept of "good" shouldn't be thrown away entirely. Which definition of "good" we use is not important to the Peterson-Harris debate.

They both agree that religion has value.

I'm not sure whether religion has (significant, positive) value. Does that make me unreasonable?

In the context of this debate, not. I'm using "reasonable" the way legal scholars use "reasonable": for having to avoid defining nebulous-yet-commonly-used words.

Moral relativism is the Nietzsche philosophy there is only will to power.

Nietzsche's approach.might be a form of relativism, but it's not the only one.

Thank you. I have corrected the original comment.

I'm a moral anti-realist; it seems to me to be a direct inescapable consequence of materialism.

I tried looking at definitions of moral relativism, and it seems more confused than moral realism vs. anti-realism. (To be sure there are even more confused stances out there, like error theory...)

Should I take it that Peterson and Harris are both moral realists and interpret their words in that light? Note that this wouldn't be reasoning about what they're saying, for me, it would be literally interpreting their words, because people are rarely precise, and moral realists and anti-realists often use the same words to mean different things. (In part because they're confused and are arguing over the "true" meaning of words.)

So, if they're moral realists, then "not throwing away the concept of good" means not throwing away moral realism; I think I understand what that means in this context.

Should I take it that Peterson and Harris are both moral realists and interpret their words in that light?

Yes. I believe neither Peterson nor Harris is a moral anti-realist.

So, if they're moral realists, then "not throwing away the concept of good" means not throwing away moral realism; I think I understand what that means in this context.

Yes. I think you understand the debate correctly.

Harris is both a moral realist and a naturalist. He thinks moral truths can be derived by science.

the complete material reductionist memeplex.

What's complete about it? I don't think we have or need reductive explanations of everything.

There's a difference between

the complete material reductionist memeplex


the material reductionist memeplex is complete.

Having all of a thing that is incomplete is to completely have that thing.