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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 174

Jordan Peterson & Michael Shermer on Science, Myth, Truth, and the Architecture of Archetypes

This episode is sponsored by:

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Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (book cover)

Jordan Peterson is the bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life, which has sold more than five million copies worldwide. After working for decades as a clinical psychologist and a professor at Harvard and the University of Toronto, Peterson has become one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals. His YouTube videos and podcasts have gathered a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, and his global book tour reached more than 250,000 people in major cities across the globe. With his students and colleagues, he has published more than one hundred scientific papers, and his 1999 book Maps of Meaning revolutionized the psychology of religion. He lives in Toronto, Ontario with his family.

Shermer and Peterson discuss:

  • the balance between chaos and order,
  • the nature of good and evil,
  • the banality of evil and the evil of banality,
  • the meaning of Maps of Meaning,
  • objective truths, subjective truths, historical truths, political truths, religious truths, literary truths,
  • what great stories teach us about human nature and society,
  • Why aren’t all countries on earth democracies?
  • the appeal of populist and authoritarian leaders,
  • the appeal of Hitler and the Nazis, then and now,
  • the danger of assessing according to race, sex, class and power,
  • how to think about the resurrection of Jesus as mythic truths,
  • heaven as not a place to go but a state of mind and society,
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Joseph Campbell’s hero myth/hero’s journey,
  • oppression-redemption myths,
  • The Native American Ghost Dance of 1890: Wovoka as Jesus,
  • how Peterson’s dark dreams, physical and mental health issues, and his clinical practice inform his worldview as tilting toward the darker side of humanity,
  • Peterson’s critics and their motivation, and
  • the mass appeal of Peterson’s message.
Quotes read by Shermer during the podcast

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859):

A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

From 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. … It is clear that each party to this dispute is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.

Michael Shermer on the resurrection, from Heavens on Earth (Henry Holt, 2018):

But what if this story was never meant to be considered as literally true? What if it was meant to be a metaphorical or mythic truth, through which readers might be inspired to “bear your own cross” or admonished not to be “crucified” by your enemies, or warned not to “resurrect” bad habits, or encouraged to be “born again” by starting their life anew after a troubling past?

Or perhaps it was meant to be a literary truth, as famously pronounced by U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a deeply religious man, in his 1896 Democratic National Convention “Cross of Gold” speech:

we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Such mythic, metaphorical, and literary truths play a central role in human culture through the arts, literature, religion, and even politics. Recall that Jesus suggested to his oppressed peoples that redemption was coming, that the Kingdom “has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Especially in Luke 17:20–21, Jesus seems to infer that heaven is a state of mind:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you’.

What if the greatest religious truth in all of Western Christendom—that if you accept Jesus as your savior, you go to heaven where you will spend an eternity with God—was never meant to be taken literally? This is illuminated in the tantalizing passage in Matthew 16:26 in which Jesus tells his disciples:

Verily I say unto you, ‘There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’.

Maybe Christians have been misreading passages like this for centuries. Maybe the “kingdom” to which Jesus refers is the heaven within ourselves, or the heavenly communities we build here on Earth. As I wrote in my 2018 book Heavens on Earth:

Heaven is not a paradisiacal state in the next world, but a better life in this world. Heaven is not a place to go to but a way to be. Here. Now. Since no one—not even the devoutly religious—knows for certain what happens after we die, Jews, Christians, and Muslims might as well work toward creating Heavens on Earth.

Let’s reconsider the 1890 Native American Ghost Dance I recounted in an earlier chapter. Naturally, modern readers do not accept the account of the resurrection of dead Native American ancestors as literally true, but what if it was never intended to be treated as such? Consider this interpretation of the Ghost Dance by the anthropologist James Mooney in his 1896 book The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890:

And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost. The hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.

The utopian quest for perfect happiness was exposed as the flawed goal that it is by George Orwell in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf (Orwell, George. 1940. Review of Mein Kampf (Unabridged Translation). New English Weekly, March 21. In: Orwell, Sonia and Ian Angus (Eds.) 1968. Orwell: My Country Right or Left 1940–1943. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 12–14.):

Hitler…has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. Hitler…knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.

On the broader appeal of Fascism and Socialism, Orwell added:

However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet…we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

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This episode was released on April 20, 2021.

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