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Why It’s Psychologically Dangerous To Confuse Political Ideologies With Religious Movements

The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Rav Arora on the necessary distinction between political and religious beliefs. You can listen to or watch the full podcast on DailyWire+.

Podcast time: 7:29

It’s psychologically dangerous to confuse political explanations and ideologies with religious and spiritual ideologies and movements. You don’t want the political to carry the weight of the spiritual, I don’t think. I think it’s dangerous. I also believe that ideologies essentially function as crippled religions. So they have the motive force of religious belief and the attractiveness of religious belief, which I think is actually a necessity for human beings because we’re religious by nature, but they don’t have the symbolic complexity that a religion has — a well-established religion with its mystical elements and its dogmatic elements. 

You say, too, that religious belief is on the decline. Certainly, organized church attendance in some countries is radically declining. Christianity is growing at an unbelievable rate in China, for example, so it’s not necessarily a global phenomenon. With regards to abandoning ideology, there’s danger in confusing your political beliefs and your religious beliefs, not noting that there’s a difference between them. One of the associated dangers there, I think, especially in totalitarian utopian systems, is the proclivity to raise the leader — whoever that might be — to the status of a demigod. That certainly happened in the Soviet Union and in Mao’s China. Maybe it will happen again in modern China, who knows, as the Chinese premier centralizes his authority, which he appears to be doing. You know, you’re supposed to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s. That’s the fundamental ethos that underlies the idea of separation of church and state, and I think it’s a good psychological truth as well. […]

The problem with ideologies, as far as I’m concerned, is that they’re not useful as practical, problem-solving guides. Most of the problems that beset us are very, very complex. They need to be decomposed in a sophisticated way into their constituent elements until they’re differentiated enough so that partial solutions for some of the problem can arise as a consequence of practical endeavors. That requires the willingness to do that kind of detailed thinking, and it requires the development of specialized expertise. Ideology can blind you to your own stupidity, and that’s actually dangerous. 

So we could take the case of poverty, for example. I think we could all agree that poverty, as such, is undesirable. That’s the starting point and the motivation. Then you might say, “Well, what is poverty?” And you could conclude that it’s lack of money. From that you could conclude, because there’s an unequal distribution of resources, that if the rich would only loosen their grip on wealth, then there wouldn’t be poverty. Then it’s not much of a leap from that to the rich are by definition causing poverty and morally culpable for it. Even though there is some truth to that, some of the time in some situations, that doesn’t mean that it’s always true and it’s the only reason all the time. There’s an additional danger, which is that you now have a solution. So, you’re smart. You’re not the problem, so that you’re moral. You have a convenient enemy, so your dark unexamined motives have a valid target, which you’ve already defined as immoral. And that means you’re more likely to give reign to violent impulses, let’s say, that you should otherwise keep in control. That’s all very dangerous. It’s not sophisticated. It’s emotionally and motivationally dangerous. It interferes with proper problem solving. It confuses you as to the limits and depth of your own knowledge. You end up thinking you actually understand how the world works, and you don’t understand it at all. You don’t even understand the problems. 

Think about poverty. What do you mean by poverty? Do you mean alcoholism? Drug abuse? Mental illness? Physical illness? Lack of education? Lack of intelligence? Lack of conscientiousness? Antisocial behavior? Relative poverty? Absolute poverty? Do you mean a corrosive worldview? Do you mean lack of ability to plan for the future? Do you mean absolute privation of material goods? That’s all poverty, and that’s just the beginning of a decomposition. All of those problems are markedly different, and it isn’t obvious that there’s one solution that will address it. It’s not obvious at all. In fact, it seems highly improbable that one solution is going to address all of them. 

Then there’s the complex problem that you have a theory that identifies a problem and explains its existence and offers a solution. So now you’re going to assume that if you could only put that solution in place, that you would do that competently and it would produce the result that’s intended. That’s wrong. It’s unlikely that you would do it competently because it’s very, very difficult to solve a problem. Even if you did, it’s also unlikely that your intervention would produce only the positive result that you intend and nothing else. Well, that’s a lot of problems. I suppose it’s the enticement to pride that ideology also produces. ‘Well, now I have an explanation for how the economic system works.’ No, you don’t. You don’t know the first thing about it. You’re like a monkey looking at a military helicopter. You don’t have a clue and you don’t even know it. 

[The following section appeared a few minutes later in the discussion.]

I outline this to some degree in “Beyond Order” and also in my first book, “Maps of Meaning.” The world is characterized by ignorance and malevolence and danger — always, always, always. It’s an existential truth. You might ask yourself, “Well, if that’s the case, how might you best conceptualize that?” Now, you can find malevolence and ignorance at the level of the individual. And so we would say that’s the malevolence and ignorance that characterizes you and other individuals. It’s a viciously powerful and terrifying force. And then there’s the malevolence and ignorance that characterizes social institutions. That’s the negative aspect of the Great Father in my terminology, and that’s derived to some degree from Jungian theory, especially through a man named Erich Neumann, who is a brilliant student of Jung. You’re always a victim of the evil tyrant. The reason for that is that human beings have a lengthy period of intense socialization. That fosters and develops your individuality in some ways but crushes and maims and distorts and destroys it in all sorts of other ways. It’s a universal tendency to feel oppressed by the evil tyrant. And it’s so powerful symbolically — it’s such a powerful symbolic tendency — that people don’t even notice that it’s a symbolic tendency.

I’ve been taken to task, for example, for insisting that we use gendered metaphors to portray the two fundamental attributes of experienced reality: chaos and order. Order is patriarchal. That’s the symbol. Well, people accept that at face value and don’t even notice that they’re trapped in a symbolic world. The very feminists who will criticize me for pointing out that femininity is associated with chaos, symbolically, accept the idea that masculinity is the proper representation for social order without question and are irritated beyond belief if you point out that things are not so simple. They’re caught in a religious myth, and they don’t even realize it. If you accept that the patriarchy is masculine, then what’s feminine? Well, the opposite of patriarchy and order, and that’s creative chaos. That’s not my theory. That’s the Daoist theory of being, for example. It’s the ancient Greek chaos and cosmos theory of being. It’s the ideational structure that underlies the first chapters of Genesis, where a patriarchal God makes order out of Tohu wa-bohu, which is the primordial chaos. 

Young people find themselves motivated to stand up against the evil tyrant, and of course they should because it’s at that point when you’re differentiating yourself that you want to take a look at the group that you’re going to pledge allegiance to and note its shortcomings. You don’t want to be blind while doing that and fail to notice that the social world is full of pathology and danger, malevolence and ignorance, let’s say. But the natural world — which you will automatically tend to romanticize if you only believe that patriarchy is evil — is doing everything it can to kill you every second. The only reason you’re not dead is because the evil tyrant has a benevolent aspect that protects you in ways that are so deep and profound that you don’t begin to understand them. I mean, you are shielded, as am I, by a nuclear umbrella, for example, none of which you have to attend to. The other loss, of course, is that, yes, there’s evil in the patriarchy. That’s always how things are, and sometimes it’s much worse than other times — not right now, by the way, not by historical standards. But it also blinds you to the fact that you’re culpable too, deeply. You have more ignorance and malevolence in your soul than you’ll ever get on top of in your entire life. The knowledge of that stops you from being carelessly judgmental. Carelessly. You should be judgmental. You have to differentiate and discriminate between things. But you shouldn’t do it carelessly, and you certainly shouldn’t assume that all the fault lies outside, which is the point that you made. And so ideology is extremely dangerous if it convinces young people that the moral stance is that all malevolence and ignorance lies outside of them.

To hear the rest of the discussion, 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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