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About this episode:
What are the psychological roots of faith beliefs? Can we make our own rules for life or are we subject to a higher level of meaning? Can we dispense with religion as a ‘virus of the mind’, or are even atheists fundamentally religious deep down?
Jordan B Peterson and Susan Blackmore debate these questions and more in the first episode of The Big Conversation.
Jordan B Peterson has become a popular public intellectual in recent years for his popular online lectures and his stance against political correctness. The Canadian psychology professor has also debated influential atheists on the value of religious belief, a theme which features prominently in his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life : An Antidote to Chaos.
Susan Blackmore is a psychologist, lecturer and author of books including The Meme Machine and Seeing Myself: the new science of out of body experiences. She views many forms of religion as fundamentally negative for human flourishing and has written that: “religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival.”
Their conversation ranges across the benefits and problems of religion, the new atheism, cultural memes, meaning and Peterson’s own increasingly strong regard for historic Christianity and the value of Bible stories.
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More from this season:
- Episode 2: The future of humanity: Have science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
- Episode 3: The search for happiness: Can we have meaning without God?
- Episode 4: Science, faith and the evidence for God
- Episode 5: Mind, consciousness and freewill: Are we more than matter?
- Episode 6: Evolution, morality and being human: Do we need God to be good?
Justin Brierley (JB), Jordan Peterson (JP) & Susan Blackmore (SB)
JB: Welcome to The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is the psychology of belief and do we need God to make sense of life?
Well, The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Jordon B Peterson and Susan Blackmore.
Jordon Peterson is a professor of Psychology at the university of Toronto and author of the new book, ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. Jordan rose to prominence in 2016 when his stance on free speech and the threat of legal action for refusing to use transgender pronouns created a media storm, but since then many new people have discovered his academic work, including a very popular lecture series on the psychology and wisdom of ancient bible stories. And his new book, ’12 Rules for Life’ distils much of the wisdom into a guide to leading a meaningful life.
Our other guest is Susan Blackmore. She’s a psychologist, lecturer and author of books on consciousness and evolutionary psychology, including ‘The Meme Machine’ and ‘Seeing Myself: the new science of out-of-body experiences’. And she views many forms of religion as fundamentally negative for human flourishing. She’s written, for instance, that religions are an example par excellence of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival.
Well, today we will be looking at the psychological roots of faith beliefs. Can we make our own rules for life or our we subject to some higher level of meaning? And are even atheists fundamentally religious deep down? I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation, so, Susan and Jordon, welcome along to the programme.
I will start with you, Jordan. You’re a hard man to categorise in many ways. Your work actually attracts attention from both believers and non-believers. And many who say that you’ve actually made them reconsider their views about religion, especially many atheists I’ve heard of who’ve said your work opens up things in a new way.
For yourself, do you tend to just describe yourself as a religious man at all?
JP: I would definitely describe myself as a religious man, yes. I think that’s fundamentally true. The devils in the detail; what does that mean exactly?
JB: In the sense that I was going to ask, you know, I’ve seen you been asked the question: Do you believe in God? And that’s not a question you necessarily find terribly easy to answer.
JP: Well, I don’t know what people mean when they say ‘believe’. It’s as if a question explains itself like it doesn’t. What do you mean by believe? What do you mean by God and what makes you think that the question that I’m answering is the same one that you’re asking?
If this is not something that you can say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to in any straightforward manner. So I find it an off-putting question. And I don’t think it’s because I’m avoiding the issue, I think that to answer it properly requires books and lectures…
JB: Do you see yourself at least in the Christian tradition as far as your world view…
JP: Well, there is no doubt about that because I’m a Westerner. There is no escape from that. I’m conditioned in every cell as a consequence of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. And so I’ve read a fair bit in other religious traditions and have a reasonable grasp on some of them I would say, not trying to overestimate my knowledge, but we’re saturated in Judaeo-Christian ethics and so..
JB: I’ve seen you say that you certainly live your life as though God exists.
JP: Yes, I would say well to the best of my ability, right? And I think that’s the fundamental hallmark of belief is how you act, not what you say about what you think. What do you know about what you think? Seriously, I mean, we wouldn’t need a psychology, anthropology, sociology, any of the humanities if our thoughts were transparent to ourselves. They’re not in the least.
JB: And you’ve been willing to be quite critical as well as some of the new atheists, so, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins. What have you made of their particular way of approaching religion?
JP: They just don’t take it seriously enough. As far as I am concerned, they don’t contend with the real thinkers.
SB: I know all three of them very well and I have great arguments with them and they seem to be taking it seriously. I know what you mean, there’s a certain sort of superficiality in the writings of all of them. But as people I find they really care about
JP: Oh they care! There’s no doubt about that. And it’s not like I’m not sympathetic to the atheist or rationalist claim. I’m perfectly sympathetic to it, but I don’t believe that the level of discussion that’s characteristic of Dawkins and Dennett and Sam Harris approaches the level of complexity of say, Friedrich Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.
SB: Well that would be asking quite a lot wouldn’t it!
JP: But if you’re going to play in that arena, you’re going to play with the heavy weights.
JB: What I’ve noticed is that it’s a lot of people who maybe, up to a point, have been interested in what those people have been saying from the new atheists are also interested in what you’re saying. There’s an interesting sort of correlation there. And why is it that, especially some of these, you know, potentially – I see a lot of men in this audience, are coming to you, Jordan, to sort of sit at your feet and hear what you have to say at this point.
JP: Well, the new atheists have a hell of a time with an active ethic. You know, they say, ‘well, you can build an ethic on rationality’. Well, first of all, that’s not self-evident. It’s possible, but it’s by no means self-evident. And their essential existential concept is rather hollow. Like with Harris, for example, I talked to him twice on two different podcasts, and we never really got to his sense of what the ideal society might be. But I’ve read his writings on the maximisation of wellbeing, for example, and that’s just not going anywhere. You can’t even measure it properly. And if you’re thinking about something like that scientifically that turns out to be like, that’s not a problem, it’s a catastrophic problem.
SB: But Sam really goes deeply into the consequences of meditation and he tells stories about his own experience of how behaviour changes. Compassion seems to arise naturally. This is not based on rationality – which is not everything and I would agree with you there – it’s based on practical experience, training in observing one’s own thoughts which is also of interest to you, and in the way behaviour changes in ways which he would say – and also query whether it’s true – that it’s better behaviour. That being compassionate and kind to people is better.
We can’t have some great underlying reason why, if you don’t have God, you know, it’s a very difficult question. You’ve got to find some basis. But even without one, Sam is trying to say, as I would, that if you spend a lot of time meditating and really coming to understand yourself and see the consequences of certain thoughts and actions, then better actions follow.
That’s one of the things I like about his work.
JP: I’m certainly not questioning his ethical integrity or his commitment to these problems, although I certainly don’t think that compassion or kindness constitutes sufficient grounds for transcendent ethic. Not in the least. Partly because both – and I can speak to both – technically to some degree compassion is associated with the trait agreeableness fundamentally. And agreeableness is a great short-term strategy for infants. But it’s a very bad medium to long term strategy for adults. And it’s by no means the ground upon which an entire complex society can rest.
And that’s partly what you see playing out right now in the political world because the politically correct types are very high in compassion. We have research that demonstrates that. But that ethic doesn’t work for a sophisticated society.
JB: We were only doing introductions, we’re already well into the…
SB: It’s my fault, I started it, I interrupted!
JB: But let’s come to you, Sue. You may be familiar to some Unbelievable listeners who have already heard you on the show before.
I think you’re happy to describe yourself as an atheist. Does that mean for you that you are a naturalist; someone who is committed to a view that the material world can be fully explained ultimately by – our experiences can be fully explained by a purely material world?
SB: No, I mean, I’m sign up in a way to naturalism groups and beliefs, but, because I work on consciousness such a lot and the problem of how do we relate the mind/body problem, you know, here’s this table, here’s my glass of water? We all agree that if I go like this (pouring action) it will go all over the place (and ruin the microphones) how does that relate to my, the taste of the water. You know, these fundamental problems mean I have big queries about naturalism as you described it there.
In a much broader sense, yes. As you know, and many listeners will know, I started out being a para-psychologist and rejected ideas of clairvoyance and telepathy and ghosts and poltergeist because of lack of evidence. So, that’s one way to naturalism to throw that lot out.
I was brought up like you as a Christian, and I threw that out because in the end it didn’t make sense to me. So that’s another way to say I’m left with naturalism.
But I’m not left with a naturalism that explains everything. I’m left with a feeling that that’s what I want to try to do; to understand what’s going on here? In minds, in bodies, in tables and glasses of water and it’s very difficult.
JB: You’re well known for picking up the idea of memes, that sort of originated at some level with Richard Dawkins, the idea of an idea propagated across generations. And you even went as far as to describe religion as a virus of the mind in terms of its memetic.
SB: That was Richard’s term, but yes, okay.
JB: Is that a kind of view you would still stand by today?
SB: Yes. But you’ve got to be careful about what you mean by a virus. I mean, I think if – I often say in lectures – imagine a continuum between what you mean as being a virus and it’s really bad, you know, it’s like the flu virus or
JB: Usually we think of a virus in negative terms.
SB: Yes, and they aren’t always. So, imagine that you think religion is utterly bad. Or you think religion is utterly wonderful and utterly good. And all in between. I think Richard is way down there. And I’m somewhere here. I think, by and large, on balance, the world would be a better place without any religions.
But, religions would not thrive if they didn’t have within them things which are positive. I mean, we know at a personal level and at a society level, the worst societies are more religious. On a personal level, there is evidence that people are happier and they have better social connections and so on if they are religious. So, I don’t think we would be stuck with these horrible memes if it weren’t for the fact that they also have some good qualities.
JB: What do you make of the whole meme theory and the fact that Sue does feel ultimately…
JP: I think it’s a shallow derivation of the idea of architype. And that Dawkins would do well to read some Jung. In fact, if he thought farther and wasn’t as blinded by his a priori stance about religion, he would have found that the deeper explanation of meme is in fact architype.
SB: I disagree.
JB: Can you just first of all explain architype for those who are perhaps not familiar with that particularly psychological…
JP: Well, architype is party a pattern of behaviour that’s grounded in biology. So it’s the behaviour itself. So you can think about that as both the instinct and the manifestation of that instinct. But it’s also the representation of that pattern. So part of what’s coded in our mythological stories for example are images of typical patterns of behaviour. And those are the typical patterns of behaviour that make us human. I really want to have this discussion about memes by the way, because it’s really a discussion that needs to be had, because I think that the meme idea is very interesting and I do think that there are contagious ideas, but that needs to be chased down much deeper because there are ideas that are so contagious that we’ve actually adapted to them biologically.
And so, and once that happens, they’re not only… they’re no longer merely memes, they’re something else. They are built into us. It can give you kind of example of that (architypes). Imagine – I have to try to do this relatively rapidly, it’s very complicated so I’m hoping I can do it.
So, imagine that we live in dominant societies – we don’t have to imagine that, that happens to be the case. There are at least 350 million years old, so they are really, really old. So the idea of the architype of dominance is older than our ability to perceive trees, right? It’s really down there and our nervous system is fully adapted to the existence of dominance hierarchies. It’s one of the things the serotonergic system tracks.
Okay, so now, we also know that your position in a dominant society, especially if you are male, is proportionate to your reproductive success. The higher you are up in the hierarchy, the more likely you are to succeed. Okay, so what that means is that males have been selected for their ability to move up the dominance hierarchy. But that’s not quite right. They have been selected for their ability to move up the set of all possible dominance hierarchies. And that’s a very abstract set. And there is a set of characteristics that go along with the ability to move up the set of all possible dominance hierarchies that’s represented in religious terms as the optimal ethical manner in which to conduct yourself.
And that’s not a meme that’s casually passed from person to person; it’s way, way deeper.
SB: I think you’re being unfair to memes. I would make this response here about the difference between memes and architypes. So, architypes are there whether we have memes or not. All of that history of evolution is there. So we have ideas about sex differences or ideas about dominance is a very good example, that don’t require memes. They can then become memes, and a meme by definition, as Dawkins started it out, is that which is imitated or that which is copied from person to person.
So the idea of dominance hierarchies can be a meme. And all the ideas we build on top of that as long as we pass it from person to person.
JP: We can certainly think of hierarchies as memes from ones that are no more than fads that wash across the culture to ones that are permanent and enduring.
SB: But you are trivialising I think the power of the idea of memes is this: we have the first replicator genes on the planet, and we know the consequences of that: producing all these organisms.
But the idea about memes is that they are second replicator. So genes are copied by chemical processes in bodies. Memes are copied by imitation and other kinds of interactions between human beings and very little in any other species at all. And that’s what gives rise to culture.
So, the whole theory about memes is one of many ways of trying to understand the evolution of culture. And in that way, I say it’s not trivial at all.
JB: Quick response and I want to move on to talking about the 12 rules, Jordan.
JP: The issue is what happens when a meme is so widely distributed it becomes a determining factor in evolution itself.
SB: Meme-gene co-interaction.
JP: Exactly, that’s where I think the religious… for me, that’s the grounds of the essential religious instinct. It’s a meme/gene interaction, which goes back forever. And then, so, I’ll finish with this, because once you see that there’s a meme-gene interaction and that there’s selection in favour of a certain meme, let’s say, then you open up the entire question of what constitutes the underlying reality. Because – this is something I try to have a talk with about Sam Harris and we are going very rapidly – you could say that reality is that which selects.
Now, it’s not exactly a materialistic viewpoint, it’s more of an evolutionally viewpoint. And if reality is that which selects, then what’s selected by that reality is in some sense correct. Now, that’s not, well, this is why…
SB: I think that’s a big claim you’re adding there now.
JP: I know it’s a big claim, but it’s also the central claim of pragmatism.
JB: Let’s move it on just a bit, because this is all fascinating stuff, but I do want to talk about the book which I read and found really interesting, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life, very much drawing actually on your biblical series as well. And that was interesting to me, it’s almost like psychological theology or something like that, I’m not sure what term to give it. But you constantly draw throughout it, it’s a rule book for helping people to lead meaningful lives, very practical in that sense, but, stacked with illustrations and stories from biblical stories, Adam and Eve, the flood, Cain and Able and so on, and Jesus as well.
Why is that particularly been your focus recently to explain life and psychology from this very religious standpoint?
JP: I wouldn’t say recently; I think I’ve been doing this since about 1985. But the reason that – there’s multiple reasons – the reason, fundamental reason is because I was trying to solve two problems, three problems I would say. One would be the problem of how to live in the face of the undeniable tragedy of life. The other is what to do with the fact that malevolence exists.
And, well, those are the two most fundamental questions. And they are interrelated because what happens is that the apprehension of tragedy is one of the things that drives people towards malevolence. I’ve a chapter in there called, ‘Don’t criticise the world until you’ve put your house in order. And I draw writings there from some of the worst people whose actions I’m familiar with, like Columbine high school shooters and mass murderer named Carl Panzram, whose a very insightful person. And I’ve tried to track how it is that people develop a malevolent attitude towards being I would say. Towards life. And that’s intrinsically associated with tragedy.
Well, these great stories that we have, part of the substructure of our culture, our antidotes to both malevolence and tragedy. That’s what – I mean that, I’m not necessarily even saying that there’s a successful antidotes – but the reason that they were formulated, the deep reason is as a response to the tragic conditions of life and to malevolence.
And then my experience in delving in to these stories is that the farther I delve into them, the deeper they get, and that never ends. Just when I think I’ve got to the bottom of the story – like the story of Cain and Abel – which is like 12 sentences long. I mean, its’ so short, it’s unbelievable. It has no bottom. And that’s a really fascinating phenomenon. I guess it’s partly -the bible is a hyperlink text, you know. So that every verse refers to many other verses and so you never get to the end of it in some sense. But then it’s also hyperlinked with the entire culture around it. And so, and then I also think that because the stories in Genesis especially the first part of Genesis, are deeply memetic in the sense that you’ve been describing that they have a kind of biological depth that’s unparalleled as well. Yes, they have a life of their own, that’s for sure. A life that lasts a lot longer than the mere lives of mortals, let’s say.
JB: And you, the rules all have, you know, quite fun titles in a way. In fact, I think they originally came from a blog post you put up on the internet website, but you’ve obviously developed them in all kinds of different ways. ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’. ‘Rule number 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’. ‘Number 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you’, and so on.
I guess I’d be interested to know what your response – having had a chance to look at the book – is to this way of looking at life and how we create meaning for ourselves in the process?
SB: Argh, is my reaction, if you like. It’s so full of lovely stories, really interesting, thought-provoking stories. Wisdom, lots of wisdom all over the place. Then the bible stories, then this leap…
JB: You don’t understand that? You don’t get why the bible is being imposed?
SB: Well, I get it in the sense that those stories – many of them – are very deep and have something to tell us. But it’s the way, I think, that Jordan kind of slithers from a good idea about this might be a good way to live your life, to this story. I mean, let me give you example.
You talk about great knowledge about the evolutionary arms race between the size of babies heads and the size of women’s pelvises. And this is something that has always fascinated me, I think it’s meme driven, that we’ve ended up with childbirth being painful, as I well know and you probably don’t, how painful it is. And for those reasons.
But then later in the book, you bring in the story of Adam and Eve and how God says, you know, women will suffer and, you know, and so on. And the implication, not clearly stated, but the implication to the reader is; God did it. On the one hand you are saying, look, we evolved this way. This pain and suffering is an inevitable consequence of the way that evolution has played out. And in the other you’re kind of alluring people into believing that God actually made that. And the even worse than that, the idea that it, at least speaks to me, that somehow we’re so bad and deserve all that suffering. Which in other places is a book you try and get rid of that we shouldn’t feel so wicked and bad.
JB: How do you respond to that, Jordan?
JP: Well, you asked earlier about, you were talking about psychological theology. I did this lecture series on Genesis, 15 lectures on Genesis. And it was called a psychological interpretation of the biblical stories. A psychological approach to the biblical stories. And I’ve been trying to do that, like I’m not a theologian, even though I’m very interested in these stories. And what I was trying to do with – see, I do believe that a biblical text are foundational. I believe it in the Nietzschain sense. Nietzsche of course announced famously in the 1800s that God was dead and the typical rationalist atheist regards that as a triumphalist proclamation.
But that wasn’t that for Nietzsche. Nietzsche knew perfectly well, and said immediately afterward, that the consequences of that was going to be bloody catastrophe because everything was going to fall. And he predicted the rise of communism, for example, and the deaths of tens of millions of people in the aftermath of the death of God. Because Nietzsche knew perfectly well that when you pull the cornerstone out from underneath a building that even though it may stay aloft in mid-air like a cartoon character that’s wandered off a cliff for some period of time, that it will inevitably crumble. And that it would be replaced by something that’s perhaps far worse.
Now Nietzsche hoped it would be replaced by man’s ability to recreate meaning spontaneously out of his psyche, for example, which I think is a doomed enterprise. But he knew that in the interval it would be replaced by both nihilism and Communist totalitarianism, which is a hell of a prediction, because it was done like 40 years before the events actually unfolded.
SB: Well, you can see it that way, but if that is the case, why do we have evidence that the most dysfunctional societies today are the most religious? For example, in the USA, if you go across different states, the higher belief in God or proclaimed belief in God, or whatever you think that means, the more murders, suicide, marital breakdown, various measures of what dysfunction society are.
JP: Well, it depends on how you define religion in part. I mean, first of all, America is a very religious country. And to think of it as a country that is doing worse than other countries in the world is just not the case at all.
SB: Well, it’s incarceration rate is higher than any other.
JP: Well, true, but so is the standard of living. And, what would you say, the ability to provide the basic essentials of life for people and the essential freedoms that go along with that. You wouldn’t compare that to an African dictatorship, for example.
SB: No, but most of these standards have been done only in developed societies. But there if you look at equality that’s much worse than the States. So yes, a lot of people in the States have a very high standard of living, but the poorest are really poor. And, you know, with Obama Care being dismantled and so on… but nevertheless, let me go back to that point.
We know that more dysfunctional societies have higher proclaimed belief, higher attendance at church and so on. Now, this doesn’t fit with what you are saying. Now, Nietzsche’s ideas are very profound and interesting but I just want to stop you from saying that he was absolutely right about somehow if we get rid of God we’re going to be worse because we have very well-functioning societies in Scandinavia for example
JP: We were pretty bad in the 20th century.
SB: Yes, people were.
JP: And we can easily drift that way again.
SB: And there have been terrible bad things done in the name of God and there have been terrible bad things in the name of communism and atheism. I don’t think we can – I don’t want to weigh them up.
JP: I’ll weigh them up, no problem.
SB: You’ll weight them up and you’ll say… but then you have to go against this evidence that I’ve just stated.
JB: Jordan, come back on this evidence. I mean, obviously from her perspective, Sue feels like actually we’ve got pretty stable societies that are increasingly secular these days. So perhaps Nietzsche was wrong? And, in fact, we are not going to see this moral decay?
JP: Well, I would say they are stable to the degree that they are actually not secular. And this is also a Nietzschain observation and a Dostoevsky observation for that matter, is that we are living on the corpse of our ancestors, like we always have, that’s a very old idea. But that stops being nourishing and starts to become rotten unless you replenish it. And I don’t think we are replenishing it, we are in danger of running- we’re living on borrowed time and are in danger of running out of it.
I think that the reason that the Western societies essentially work quite well is because they act out a Judaeo- Christian ethic and one that is essentially predicated on utmost regard for the sovereignty of the individual. So the individual is sovereign in relationship to the state – which is a remarkable idea and one that’s fundamentally religious in its essence – in my mode of thinking. And it’s also predicated on a speech and there’s other predicates as well, but those are religious predicates in my estimation.
JB: There is a section actually, Sue, in Jordan’s book where he says this; ‘Christianity elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master, commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. It’s nothing short of a miracle’.
He has a very high view of what Christianity has done for the world, whether or not it’s objectively true. What do you take from it?
SB: Well, that evidence that I was discussing earlier that there’s plenty of now that the most dysfunctional societies are also the most believing societies. There are lots of hypotheses about why that it the case, but I would like to challenge Jordan on the implication that he put before that because a lot of our moral stance today comes from religion – and not all of it does – that it has to have that as a basis. I don’t think it does.
I feel very grateful to live in a country where now, at last, the majority are not religious. It’s just tipped over in the latest polls. And, in fact, coming up on the train from Devon today, I got chatting with various people, the assumption that I find here I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, is I always start with assuming someone is an atheist and it nearly always turns out to be there. Oh yea, all of that religion stuff, you know, it’s very, very common in this country.
Now, we have not descended into being a terrible country. We have, you know, yes, we have our problems
JB: We are still fairly early on in the experiment I suppose of ditching God
JP: Ten years.
SB: Yes, I will await with interest and hope I live long enough to see. But then if we look at many of the Scandinavian countries which are way ahead of us in that move, they have wonderful health systems, welfare states, support for people out of work and so…
JB: I’d be interested in hearing your response to all this, Jordan. We can divorce the good principles that we may have had in some respects from religion from religion ultimately and still leave perfectly happy secular lives?
JP: Well, see a lot of this depends on your definition of religion. Like, I know perfectly well from my own empirical studies that there is at least two disparate sets of phenomena that might be regarded as religious, right?
There’s the dogmatic element which is really what Sue is referring to when she talks about the pathology of religious belief. And there’s the spiritual element. And the dogmatic element tends to appeal to people who are essentially conservative in their temperamental nature; I mean that scientifically speaking. And the meaningful element, the spiritual element, let’s say, tends to appeal to people who are liberal in their temperamental fundamentals.
And religion, overall, is a continual dialogue between the dogmatic element and the spiritual element and if either of those exceeds it proper boundaries then there is a degenerative consequence. Like if the spiritual types get the upper hand then the structure disappears. And if the dogmatic types get the upper hand then everything clamps down into too much stasis.
So, to make a direct claim, say, between the existence of dogmatic belief and the pathology of society and then to assume that it encompasses the entire relationship between religion and the functioning of society I think is based upon a narrowing of, an unfortunate narrowing, of the definition of what constitutes religious.
But then, back to the idea that our moral claims can be divorced from religious substrate – it depends on what you mean, and here we go with the definition – by moral substrate. You know, or religious substrate.
Let’s say that I regard you as a sovereign individual. Well, the question is, what does that mean? It might just be an opinion. It might just be a meme. It might be reflective of something far deeper. So deep that if we transgressed against it, it would be fatal. And my investigations have convinced me that that’s exactly the case: that although it may be a rational claim, it may be an enlightenment claims as well, that there’s something underneath it that’s so much deeper than that. To reduce it to mere rationality, to mere enlightenment claims, is to do it an immense disservice. And also to fall prey, I would say, to post-modern quandary. Because the post-modern quandary is all: belief systems are equally invalid, something like that. And that’s a real problem when you try to erect a belief system on purely rational axioms. So, and you can’t – besides that, you can’t even do it. It’s like, I don’t respect you as an individual for rational memes. The rationality didn’t precede my respect for you. It’s way deeper than that. It’s embodied, for example, it’s built into our emotions, our motivations.
JB: You have this issue with rationalism and the enlightenment and so on, where you feel that those who appeal to that are somehow, we’re in this golden age now, are forgetting that it’s all built on a much deeper, longer, evolutionary, psychological history which is completely different to rationalism per se?
JP: I see, university professor, let’s take Dawkins for example. He’s the sovereign rational individual, but there’s a wall around him; that’s the wall that saved his university and then outside the university there’s the wall of the town. And outside the town there’s the wall of the state and the wall of the country. And there’s just this concentric rings that are protecting him. And he can stand in the middle and say, well, I’m divorced from all that. It doesn’t undergird me. It’s like, it undergirds you to a degree that you can’t possibly imagine. And you’re living on the, really it is the resources that have been gathered, painfully, and bloodily in the past and saying, well, we can just detach our self from that and float off. It’s like, no you can’t, you don’t understand what you are talking about.
SB: All that leads me to gratitude for all that we have. I mean, I recognise that nothing to do with any religious basis at all. I recognise that I cannot come on the train here, have a really interesting discussion, meet Justin again, have a nice glass of cool water, without a load of other people doing it for me. That gratitude, which is one of the things that you, quite rightly, put into your book, it gives good place to it, and it’s a very important. That doesn’t come from anything religious unless you say because I was brought up a Christian it came from there. But I don’t base it on that anymore.
JP: Where do you think it comes from?
SB: I think it comes from a recognition that – I have done a lot of meditation, I meditated every day for 30 years and I think this has something to do with it – but it’s observing the inner consequences of different ways of confronting the world.
And I’m much more in recent years in the habit of waking up in the morning, even if it’s raining in January in England, and looking out and going, ahh. And it’s a feeling of gratitude, as we discussed in our last discussion, not gratitude towards God or towards anybody or anything, just free floating gratitude. That seems to have a positive consequence. I set the day up better and it’s kind of self-perpetuating, it pops up again and again.
JB: Do you think you can just have gratitude in general or must gratitude always be given towards something and ultimately God?
JP: That’s a good question. That goes back to our discussion about acting things out. Like, gratitude is something you feel towards something. And you can say, well I don’t feel it towards anything in particular. And I would say, alright, diffuse nothing that you feel towards serves in your psychological hierarchy as your equivalent of God.
SB: Ah, no, but it’s gratitude. This morning, for example, I looked out and it was so green. We’ve had frosts and it’s been white the last few days and it was green this morning and it was just gratitude to the universe, if you like. It’s not really God because it’s not the creator, it’s not anything I can pray to, it’s..
JP: Why feel gratitude towards it then?
SB: I don’t know. I know that you tackle in this book that happiness is not an ultimate good, and I struggle..
JP: No, it’s not an ultimate goal. I didn’t say it wasn’t an ultimate good.
SB: Alright, okay.
JP: There is a big difference between those things.
SB: Alright you’ve picked me up correctly on that.
Nevertheless, we are happiness seeking creatures, and I have found through practice and growing older that acting gratitude, thinking gratitude, feeling gratitude makes me happier and seems to rub off on other people.
JP: I don’t think we are happiness seeking creatures. And I think it’s a low goal. Not because there’s something wrong with being happy because, you know, thank God if you get to be happy now and then. But I don’t think that that’s what we seek. I think we seek a meaning that’s deep enough to sustain us through tragedy. And that is way different.
SB: Do you know, when I hit some – tragedy is too strong a word – I think, but when horrible things happen to me, or I feel or I read some terrible thing going on in the world, yes, those are tragedies going on in the world. My response is; nothing matters. It’s all empty and meaningless. This is how the world is. Get used to it. Get on with it, girl.
JB: That sounds like a very zen, Buddhist way of dealing with meaning?
SB: I guess it is.
JP: Well, it’s a paradoxical though. The first part of that is nihilistic and the second part isn’t. So how do you reconcile those two things? Why ‘get on with it girl’?
SB: Because – here’s another thing – I’ve often done this with my students. Let’s suppose you become Nihilistic, nothing matters, there’s no point in doing that. I mean, I think we live in a pointless universe. What are you going to do? And I say to them, like William James in his wonderful thing about getting up in the morning, but that’s sort of slightly different point that he makes there.
But I say to them, ‘okay, tomorrow morning when you wake up, think, it’s all pointless, there is no point in doing anything’. Now, what are you going to do? Well, actually, you’re going to need to go to the loo. You’re going to get out of bed and you’re going to go to the bathroom. And when you’re there you think, actually I’m hungry, I think I want to go down to the kitchen. Oh, I probably should put my slippers on. Why don’t I get dressed? You go and have something to eat. And then you think, I’m bored, so you go to university and go to your lectures.
And, you know, we are not creatures who will just not do anything. To me, to go through that process which I’ve done in the past a lot and it’s just natural now, is a very positive way of living. To accept the meaningless and ultimate emptiness of everything, and accept that this creature here, this thing, this evolved creature, just will get on with life.
JP: But you’re not accepting the meaninglessness of it, even by going through those actions that you described.
SB: You don’t think so? How can you say that?
JP: Because you’re acting as if those things are meaningful.
SB: Yes, I am.
JB: Are you pretending that they are meaningful?
SB: No, I’m not pretending. My way of putting it would be that those meanings are constructed by myself and others because the kind of creatures we are, because of the memeplexes…
JP: But they are not constructed. Hunger isn’t constructed, neither is your desire to use the loo. None of that’s constructed.
SB: No. But the fact that there is the loo is part of culture.
JP: Yes, well thank God for that!
SB: Oh, you’d thank God would you? Sorry, that’s a poor joke.
JP: So see. So, imagine this: you have the proximal meanings you describe that are sort of a priori, right? They are handed to you. You might consider them as needs or drives, although they are not, they are personalities. It’s not the right way of conceptualising them.
But then there’s the intermingling of all those needs and drives, let’s say, and that constitutes a new layer of structure because it isn’t just that you have to eat and that you have to use the washroom and that you have to have something to drink and that you have to be warm enough or cool enough to survive. It’s that you have to do all those things at the same time, in a situation where you’re going to have to propagate that across time. And you’re going to have to do it with a bunch of other people. And it’s always been like that.
And so what that means is that, out of those proximal meanings, higher meanings arise. And you might say, well, those meanings are arbitrary and I would think those are religious meanings.
SB: I wouldn’t say they are arbitrary, but I would say they were constructed. It’s very interesting reading your book…
JP: What do you mean by constructed?
SB: Well, they are a consequence of memetic evolution of the language that people have brought up in the culture they live in, the arguments they have…
JP: What about the biology that they are given?
SB: Well, we start with the biology and the memes build on top of that.
JP: Now the memes are biology too?
SB: Well, by definition they are… I would follow Dawkins in saying we talk about genes as biology, talk about memes as culture. That’s all I meant by dividing that. But let me say this –
JP: But I don’t accept that division.
SB: I want to get back to what we’re saying about meaning. Reading your book made me think a lot about what you mean by meaning and your claim that we should have a meaningful life, or strive for a meaningful life, that meaningfulness is important. And I kept asking myself, do I live that way? What meanings does my life have? And, you know, if I think of something like, most of my striving goes into writing my books. And is that meaningful? And again I have the same response when I ask myself that question; it’s just what this body does.
JP: Then you should listen to the body and stop listening to the thing that’s criticising it.
SB: And what would the body say?
JP: It would say write your book and try to be as clear as you possibly can about it.
SB: That’s exactly what I do.
JP: That’s exactly what I said at the beginning; that the atheist types act out a religious structure and criticise it.
SB: No, there’s no religious structure.
JB: Let me get to this question, because I did want to get to this.
You have a fascinating part in your book, Jordan, where you do say this; you’re simply not addressing atheists. You say you’re simply not an atheist in your actions and it’s your actions that most accurately reflect your religious beliefs.
What do you mean by that? Are you saying that no one is really an atheist deep down?
JP: I didn’t say no one was. I said that most of the people who claim to be atheists aren’t. See, this is why I like Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Because Raskolnikov tried to act like an atheist. He took the ideas that were floating around, Dostoevsky, took the ideas that were floating around in the late 1800s which are still the ideas that we are discussing today. The most fundamental idea, I suppose, being after Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God, that if there is no God then anything is permitted. That was Raskolnikov, Raskolnikov’s the criminal in ‘Crime and Punishment’, the murderer that gets away with his murder, technically, but not psychologically. And he decides that if there’s no God, anything is permitted.
SB: That’s a person in a character in a novel. I don’t think that that’s so.
JB: Well, let’s hear the end of that story. What do you take away from what Dostoevsky has to say about it?
JP: Well, Dostoevsky’s take away was two; that there was a moral law that Raskolnikov was breaking, even though he rationalised his way through it. Like, he committed the perfect murder, right? He murdered a woman who people would have voted to murder, and then he got away with it. And he did it for good reasons, at least reasons that he could rationalise as good. And then he got away with it, but it destroyed his soul.
And Dostoevsky is right about that. And one of the things I like about Dostoevsky as compared to Nietzsche say – because I think Dostoevsky is the profounder of the two – is that in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, for example, Ivan is the atheist and Ivan is everything you’d want a man to be, like, seriously. And Dostoevsky, man, he doesn’t straw man his opponents. The most powerful characters in his books are always the opponents of what he himself believes. And Ivan is always arguing with Alyosha, who is his younger brother, who’s a monastic novitiate, and really can’t articulate himself very well, has nowhere near the force or charisma of Ivan. But Alyosha wins the drama, even though he loses all the arguments.
And that’s where Dostoevsky is so great, it’s like – and this is what you are doing in your life, look you’re acting out the logos, Susan, that’s what you’re doing. You’re writing books to illuminate the world, and you say, well, I don’t believe in that.
SB: Don’t you think it’s kind of offensive to say to me that I’m not an atheist, when I am? Answer me this question: why do you think I don’t go around murdering people? Why do you think I go around trying to be…
JP: I don’t know you well enough to know. I think often the reason people don’t do it is because they are too cowardly.
SB: Oh, that could be a reason, it could be that I don’t murder people but I’d really like to…
JP: No, I’m not necessarily saying you, well, it’s in fact highly likely that sometimes in your life if you’re a normal person.
SB: But it’s very… it’s a very strange claim you make. I say that I do not believe in God in any of the various forms that I have read about God or the forms I was brought up with or – except perhaps something like the cloud of unknowing. I mean, when you sit of the top of the mountain and everything you know about God you throw into the fog of forgetfulness or whatever the phrase is, there’s nothing left. Okay, that’s about the only God that I could have any connection with or feel anything for.
So, I live my life without that belief. I think in the way I tell you about this body just being an evolved thing and it gets on, it has no free will, it just does what happens.
JP: That’s another inevitable claim of atheists and materialists; that there is no free will. Try having a conversation with someone and acting that out.
SB: But you’re telling me that this isn’t true. I’m having a conversation with you…
JB: Isn’t what Jordan is saying is that you may believe that’s the case but you don’t act your life as if you don’t have free will?
JP: Or you don’t treat anyone else as if they don’t have free will
SB: Oh, I do. I do. I mean, if I think about why you are here now, I just think about all the reasons that brought you here. And you probably have an upbringing and a place where you live and your wife and your children and everything else that’s brought you here that makes that body there say the things it says.
I have found – and the I of course is a kind of another illusory thing, but I have to use the word – I have found that by looking at, for example, my husband or my children, as evolved creatures living the life they do because of the circumstances they are in, I can feel much more forgiving, much more understanding, because I can see what they’re doing and why.
JP: Do you demand of them any behaviour? Come on. I hope so.
SB: Well, demand of them, I mean, I don’t go around saying. But I mean, if any of them do something that I. I’ll tell them that I think that what they’ve done – I mean, my daughter recently did something that I really felt, I suddenly realised that in a very old-fashioned sense, I’m head of the family because her father’s dead. And her grandparents are dead. And I’m the only one of this generation left and I had to make a stand and say, you don’t do that.
JP: Despite being determined?
SB: Yea, absolutely. All these things I think are part of, you know…
JB: We need to close things out…
SB: Near the end already?
JB: I know; we’ve had not long enough. But, Jordan, just come back to this because I want to hear why, ultimately, despite everything that Sue said there, you still think she is behaving as though there is, in some sense, a God or some ultimate meaning even though she protests that no, that’s not part of…
JP: She’s acting it out. For example, the act of writing a book. The Judaeo-Christian culture is the culture of the book. It’s the revelation of the proper mode of being in written form. It’s not only that, but it’s a large part of that, it’s the culture of the book. You’re acting out the culture of the book, it’s thousands of years old. And the voice, the true voice in the culture of the book is the logos. That’s what it is, technically speaking.
And so she’s acting out the logos and writing a book. And then she says, well, I don’t believe in God. It’s like, okay, that’s fine. Acting like you do is fine.
JB: The logos, the scripture in the new testament is brought to the word (JP: the word that brings order to the chaos) and of course it relates to Jesus Christ as the sort of personification almost of that.
JP: Right, he’s the archetypal manifestation of the logos.
JB: These are all big words and things, I mean, a lot of people will be asking, what do you actually make of, in Christian terms, the figure of Jesus? Do you believe that he was, in some sense, divine? Was there, you know, when you look at what the bible tells us about Jesus?
JP: Well, one thing you might ask yourself is, do you believe that each individual is divine, in some sense, and I would say, well, perhaps not. But you act as though you do. And our law acts as if it does. It’s predicated on that idea. Because the sovereignty of the individual is the divinity of the individual. There’s no difference between those two things. And I can make an absolutely brutally clear case for the development of that idea, historically. I traced it back to Mesopotamia, at least in it’s earliest written forms. It originally, the only really sovereign individuals were the sovereigns; the emperors and pharaohs.
But the idea of the sovereign individual descended down on the hierarchy of power, so to speak, until with Christianity it was universalised. We each are sovereign individuals and that means the law itself is written as if we each contain a spark of divinity. And so then I think, well, what is that divinity? And in the Christian worldview, that’s the logos, that’s the true speech that brings forth habitable and good order from the chaos of potential.
JB: And in your view, whether she likes it or not, Sue is at some level a benefactor of that reality of what –
JP: No, a contributor. Much better than merely being a benefactor. An active contributor. It’s no easy thing to write a book and to get your thoughts straight and to put them forward into the world.
JB: But she couldn’t do it without this idea, in the sense of God, that –
JP: She doesn’t need the idea, its embodied. She’s acting it out.
SB: One of the consequences of the way I’ve been thinking about it, and Sam Harris talks about this too – is the way I think about it prevents me going, ooh, I’m so clever, I’ve written a brilliant book. I mean, it doesn’t always, I have those thoughts come. But I’ve got quite good at seeing them coming up and saying, oh, there comes that thought again.
Because I’m taking the view that these books are the means of doing it through this organism here.
JP: That would be the eternal logos manifesting itself.
SB: Alright, you want to…
JP: No, but I’m not playing games. That’s the oldest language we have for that sort of thing. The logos that I’m talking about is the integration of those motivational forces that you were describing. It’s not merely a meme. That’s where Dawkins – Dawkins is wrong about that. There isn’t biology and memes. The interactions matter. They’re crucial. They’re crucial. Some of these ‘memes’ are millions of years old.
SB: But you’ve slipped away; if I can bring you back to Justin’s’ question really because you slithered out of it I think in your question was, is Jesus different from the rest of us? By saying we’ve all got a spark of divinity. But do you then believe that Jesus was somehow divine in a sense other than what I am? Did he do miracles? Was he, you know, all of that stuff?
JB: Quick answer, then we’ll finish with a final question.
JP: Quick answer? How about this: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. That’s a miracle. That’s the separation of Church and State in one sentence. So there’s a miracle for you.
JB: We’re going to go for a final question. I’m going to ask of both of you, which is the question we began with. We’re talking about the psychology of belief; do we need God to make sense of life? Your one-minute answer begins now, Sue.
SB: Absolutely not. That will do for an answer.
JB: Okay. Do we need God to make sense of life, Jordan?
JP: Well, God is what you use to make sense of your life, by definition. This is one of the things I learned from Jung: the highest value, you have a hierarchy of values. You have to otherwise you can’t act or you’re painfully confused. You have a hierarchy of values. Whatever is at the top of that hierarchy of values, serves the function of God for you.
Now, it may be a God that you don’t believe in or a God that you can’t name, but it doesn’t matter. Because it’s God for you. And what you think about God has very little impact on how God is acting within you. Whatever God it is that you happen to be, let’s say, following.
JB: It’s been fascinating to share this time with you both, thank you so much for being with me on the programme. Sue and Jordan, all the very best.
JP: Thanks for the invitation, nice talking with you.
SB: And you.