Breda O’Brien: Atheist-based discussion still illuminated life

Non-believers at 3Arena fill gap of spiritual hunger better than hardcore materialism

Canadian author and acclaimed clinical psychologist Jordan B Peterson: has a poet’s (or Jungian psychologist’s) appreciation of the beauty and utility of story, music, art and transcendence, but is not a believer in the conventional sense.  Photograph: James Forde

Canadian author and acclaimed clinical psychologist Jordan B Peterson: has a poet’s (or Jungian psychologist’s) appreciation of the beauty and utility of story, music, art and transcendence, but is not a believer in the conventional sense. Photograph: James Forde

 

Jordan B Peterson, a controversial Canadian professor of psychology, spoke in Dublin this week. He held a public conversation in the 3Arena with Sam Harris, a well-known advocate of atheism, and Douglas Murray, no stranger to controversy either due to his views on immigration.

At one point, the audience, which was mostly young and male, was given the option of posing questions or continuing to listen.

A generation not noted for its attention span roared approval of continuing to listen to three men speak for hours on somewhat intellectual topics. Something worthy of examination is happening here.

Two tiny incidents strike me as providing some kind of clue as to the appeal of the evening, in particular for those who went specifically to hear Peterson. (A not insignificant number were there to hear Harris, judging by the applause.  Murray also had his acolytes.)

The first occurred on the Luas as I travelled to the 3Arena. A young man in his early 20s offered me his seat. For someone who travels by Luas quite a lot, that is a rare event. I know some women find it patronising but I do not. Kindness should always be respected. At that moment, I did not need a seat but I made it clear that I was grateful for his offer.

The second incident was a young man proclaiming as he left the venue, “That shit is great trainin’ for yer brain.”

A young man proclaimed as he left the venue, 'That shit is great trainin’ for yer brain'

It is a mistake to focus only on the content of these public conversations. (Peterson has been in 55 cities in four months, addressing about 150,000 people.)  

Frankly, the onstage conversation was frustrating. The first part concerned whether you can establish values and moral norms from facts, or whether something else is necessary. It became a discussion about the value of religion.

It is always frustrating when speakers act almost as if they had discovered these questions for the first time and as if they were not the subject of fierce and prolonged debate in philosophical and theological circles for centuries.

Moral behaviour

Most of the time, Peterson and Harris were talking past each other, because Harris believes that religion is an embarrassing leftover from the Iron Age. He believes rationality and science can provide us with all that we need, whether it be rituals to mark life’s key moments, community building or moral behaviour.

Peterson has a poet’s (or Jungian psychologist’s) appreciation of the beauty and utility of story, music, art and transcendence, but is not a believer in the conventional sense. Douglas Murray is an atheist who worries that we are losing cultural cohesion by tossing out Christianity, even though he cannot believe in it himself. 

A debate involving three non-believers discussing religion was crying out for the participation of an articulate Christian, someone like Leah Libresco, an atheist blogger who converted to Catholicism. She embodies what Harris believes to be impossible. Libresco came to faith through rationality, first through engaging in debates at Yale, even though she was raised by atheists in a benign, privileged and completely secular milieu.

The second part of the 3Arena conversation concerned freedom of speech and all three were at their most witty and entertaining, riffing on how easy it is to be characterised as a Nazi if you deviate from any of the new dogmas.

All three were at their most witty and entertaining, riffing on how easy it is to be characterised as a Nazi if you deviate from any of the new dogmas

As Peterson said, there is no equivalent term for the pathologies of those on the left, perhaps because of carefully cultivated cultural amnesia.

Those who came hoping to learn more about Peterson’s rules for living a good life would have been better off listening to Marian Finucane’s recent incisive radio interview with Peterson. Through the use of simple, direct questions, she managed to extract an excellent primer from him.

Decent human being

It is important to note that people who worry that Peterson is a “gateway drug to the alt-right” are missing his real appeal.

Young men are used to being told that masculinity is toxic. Peterson’s tough dad persona tells them that life is suffering, but if you grow up, clean up your room and your life, and act like a decent human being, you will be fine.

I suspect the young man who offered me his seat took courage from the fact that Peterson would probably approve of any young man or woman doing so. 

Peterson has also benefited from the technological revolution of cheaply produced videos and podcasts with no time restrictions, where everyone can feel involved in the conversation.

These podcasts are the antithesis of the highly stage-managed set pieces of mainstream media where soundbites are getting increasingly shorter.

While his audience may not understand all that Peterson is saying, they have a sense that “that shit is great trainin’ for yer brain”. These young men are hungry for meaning, for some challenge greater than which Netflix show to binge-watch next.

Peterson’s mixture of uncompromising advice about taking responsibility combined with his slightly woolly spirituality is a better response to that hunger than hardcore materialism.

But for many, it will prove ultimately unsatisfying, as it is still rooted in an individualist creed that cannot meet human beings’ hunger for ultimate meaning. 

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