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Substitutes For Religion Are Meaningless

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The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s conversation with Clay Routledge on the role religion plays in society. You can listen to or watch the full podcast on DailyWire+.

Start time: 1:24:10

Jordan B. Peterson: More academically oriented thinkers have proposed critiques of religion that reduce it to a single dimension, and then criticize it along that dimension. The atheist types like Richard Dawkins tend to think that belief in God is like belief in a stateable proposition: Is God real, like is a table real? And it is not obvious that that is the proper way to formulate that issue. You can make it absurd almost immediately by reducing it to that sort of representation, but there are a multitude of functions that religious traditions serve. Even people like [Ernest] Becker basically reduced it to a single dimension: It is a defense against death anxiety. Well, it may be that, but it certainly is not only that. It is a very complex issue. But people run into these critiques: Marx’s critique (religion is the opiate of the masses) or the Freudian critique (God is essentially an infantile projection of the father). Yes, sometimes in some cases and in some ways. But it depends to some degree. 

Maybe you can tell me what you think about this: It seems to me that the core of a culture is something that is essentially religious, by definition. If you look at what unites people across geography and time, there is some central conception of the world as spirit that brings people together implicitly and explicitly. And if you dispense with that, then what? You have demonstrated that you get people adopting rather odd beliefs. So that is a kind of heresy, essentially. There is an automatic tendency to produce heretical religions; that is the consequence. And maybe some of those are political, and they are fragmentary.

Clay Routledge: I agree. That is actually why I started looking at the individual difference level of analysis, not because I was particularly interested in thinking about spirituality or religion — or any of these things as an individual difference. People did this when they talked about the need to belong. You can pretty much get everyone to agree that humans are social and have a fundamental need to belong; that’s not controversial. So you can use that as an example. Researchers said if that’s true, then you would expect there to be natural variability. Everyone might have some basic need to belong, but there are going to be some people that are very, very oriented towards belongingness, whereas others aren’t going to be so much. That individual difference isn’t a case against the basic need. It’s saying that the basic need manifests differently across the continuum. And so that’s pretty much my argument, I think, for religion and spirituality. What you just said, I think it’s true. If a society abandons religion, they don’t really become secular; they start investing in all sorts of other things — what we might call a substitution hypothesis — to fill that space of the multiple roles that religion was playing in their society. An important question, you know, which we talked about a little bit, is, just because people are turning to different things to fulfill that function, doesn’t mean they’re actually doing a good job of fulfilling it. Just because people are turning to politics as a substitute religion or UFOs or New Age beliefs, doesn’t mean those things are actually doing a good job of providing meaning.

Jordan B. Peterson: So let me ask you this then. We have kind of come together on a hypothesis that there is some need for union around a centralizing tendency. And that kind of throws us back to the beginning of the discussion because Becker would identify that need for the centralizing tendency as a manifestation of the denial of death. We have elaborated on that, criticized it, and broadened it. We have to unite in personality to some degree, so we are ruled by a body of laws. And it is interesting that it is a body of laws and the laws are what we act out. So as long as we are law abiding, that makes us a certain kind of personality — and I would say a more conscientious personality, probably a more agreeable, emotionally stable personality than we would otherwise be alone. Imagine that for us to live in a group, we have to partake in a central personality and deviate in our individual ways. But partaking of the central personality? Without that, we get fragmentation and inability to make peace, inability to understand each other, inability to cooperate. And that is something like the worship of a central spirit, at least as it is acted out.

To hear the rest of the conversation, continue by listening or watching this episode on DailyWire+.

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

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