On Saturday night almost 10,000 people turned up at the 3Arena to hear a philosophical discussion between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Harris is a sort of American version of Richard Dawkins. The discussion was chaired by Douglas Murray, author of ‘The Strange Death of Europe’.
To have that number of people at an event like this is unprecedented. Normally you get crowds of thousands turning up to a concert, but not to an often highly abstract philosophical debate.
Peterson is, of course, one of the most controversial public intellectuals on the scene today. He is a Canadian academic, clinical psychologist and author of the worldwide best-seller, ’12 Rules for Life’. His talks have become an internet phenomenon gaining millions of viewers.
He is controversial because he is a vociferous opponent of the cultural left. Feminists have a particular loathing for him even though one of his basic messages to the many young men who follow him is to grow up and act responsibly.
The crowd who turned up on Saturday night was, predictably enough, comprised mostly of young men, but probably about a quarter were women. I would say about 90pc were in their 20s and 30s and they were a surprisingly fashionable looking bunch. I point this out only because the stereotype is that his followers are mostly nerdish types (at best).
Some were obviously there for Sam Harris, not Peterson and about two-thirds of the discussion was about religion, rationality, and meaning. It seemed to me that there was a high number of atheists in the audience to judge from some of the applause for Harris.
In any case, I was disappointed in this part of the evening. The two men spent a lot of time going around in circles and basically talking past each other. Given that the discussion was about religion it was very odd to have no-one on stage who is actually a conventional religious believer. Harris is an atheist who is hostile to religion. Peterson seems to be some version of a religion-friendly agnostic, and Murray (who stayed silent for most of this part of the evening) is also an atheist, although more or less religion-friendly like Peterson.
The discussion sorely missed someone like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Harris and Peterson seemed to be carrying on a discussion they began at another event in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. The organisers seemed to have an eye on the eventual internet audience for what will be a whole series of similar evenings. But for many of those present, this made things frustrating, because we were obviously not present at the Vancouver debate and would have preferred a stand-alone event.
As mentioned, the two men were talking past each other a lot of the time, speaking in more or less different ‘languages’. Harris was relying on a sort of naïve rationalism. He gave the impression that reason and evidence alone will eventually bring people to agreement on the big issues.
But ‘reasonable’ people disagree about all sorts of things all the time and they always will. They will even occasionally go to war with each other over their disagreements. Marxism presented itself as a scientific worldview, the very apex of reason, but Marxism was (and is) a sort of faith, and so is a naïve belief in reason.
Quite aside from that, religion can also be defended on the basis of reason. Atheists no more have a monopoly on reason than religious believers have a monopoly on morality and it is arrogant to pretend otherwise.
For his part, Peterson spent a lot of time analysing religion through a Jungian psychological lens. In this view (and there is a lot of truth to it), people’s brains are hardwired to understand reality through stories and to understand the ultimate questions through stories (or ‘myths’).
Cultures which have had no contact whatsoever with each other until recent times have developed similar stories, especially hero stories because certain ‘archetypes’ are embedded in our minds. The most important stories we tell ourselves are religious and that is why it is so foolish to simply dismiss religion as atavistic.
This line of reasoning is fine insofar as it goes, but it’s a pity Peterson didn’t challenge Harris’s view of reason. He would be well able to do it and has done so in other places before.
Only in the last part of the evening did the men get around to politics and I found that part of the discussion much more interesting. It was also notable that the audience was more united about politics than it was about religion.
The event, as I say, was one of the biggest of its kind to ever take place anywhere, never mind in Ireland. It wasn’t only an event, it was an Event. Peterson was interviewed on RTE, but the 3Arena evening itself received almost no media coverage. This was remarkable. Tiny summer schools which might attract hundreds to talks (at most) get covered in the papers but not an event attracting thousands and featuring one of the most prominent and controversial public intellectuals of the present moment. Could this be simply due to the fact that our media don’t like him and hate that even in Ireland he has a big following?