What the New Atheists and the Christian Apologists Miss about Jordan Peterson

One question I have been grappling with for a few months now is this: What is it about Jordan Peterson that subverts the approach of both the new atheists and the evangelical apologists? I have noticed that there is a pattern of thinking or, as I like to put it a “mode of being” that explains the encounters Peterson had with both William Lane Craig (one of the most prominent Evangelical Christian Apologists) and Sam Harris. (one of the most prominent of the New Atheist Apologists) In both encounters, Peterson’s interlocutors simply did not seem to have “the ears to hear” what Peterson was saying. Both Craig and Harris seemed to be operating within a frame, a ‘ideological’ box, which either distorted what Peterson was saying or made it unintelligible. I remember looking forward to both debates, but coming away from both disappointed, there just seemed to be a lot of talking over one another. However, the more I have digested Peterson’s message, the more I have listened to Paul Vanderklay’s commentaries and Jonathan Pageau’s videos, indeed, the more I have lived into the pattern of thinking Peterson embodies, the more I have come to see that Harris and Craig are both incapable on hearing what Peterson says.

The best way I know to unpack this, is to explore the content of New Atheist/Christian Apologist debates. What is it that is being contested when a New Atheist and a Christian Apologist come head to head?

Well, fundamentally, what is at stake is propositional truth claims. The New Atheists see the Christians making claims about reality (Jesus rose from the dead, God exists, and so on) and they demand evidence for those claims. The Christian will then respond by offering evidence in the form of arguments, the New atheists will dispute those arguments, and the two sides will go back and forth. If we were to give an account of the kinds of things the Apologists and the New Atheists are concerned about we could come up with the following list:

  1. What is Ultimate Reality? Is all matter or is there also something Supernatural?
  2. Are the texts of the bible historically true? Can we, for example, trust the accounts of the Resurrection in the gospels?
  3. What is the metaphysical basis for our conception of the good? Is it to be grounded in God, can it be grounded in nature?

So, here we see a concern with “objective reality,” that is, a concern with the truths of reality as known by reason. Both the New Atheists and the Christan Apologists claim to have (or are close to having) a “monarchical vision,” a view from nowhere, where reality is seen objectively, as it truly is. It is the world as viewed through a clear, glass window, without us getting our smudgy fingers on the glass. In Petersonian terms, what the these two interlocutors are concerned with is “the world as a place of things.” In Kierkegaardian terms, they are concerned with the WHAT.

There is only one problem with the New Atheist/Apologist approach, it leaves out something fundamental, something so blindingly obvious, that only a person “abstracted out of existence” could have left it out of their system. What do they leave out? Consciousness.

Consciousness is not a WHAT, it is not an object in a world of objects, rather, it is HOW we apprehend, construct, or attend to, the world. In a recent conversation, I made the claim that even if we could have a “science” that could describe reality down to its last detail, natural and supernatural, we would not have exhausted reality. Of course, there is a certain ambiguity in the way I am using “reality” here, how can it be that we could describe all of reality, and yet not exhaust all of reality? Well, because our description would exhaust the WHAT of reality, but it would not get us an inch closer to apprehending the HOW of reality. 

Peterson, contrary to the New Atheists and Christian Apologists, is not primarily concerned with metaphysics or the WHAT, instead he is concerned with the HOW, that is, with our conscious experience of the world. While the Apologist asks, is the biblical text historically true? Peterson asks, what is the meaning of the text? While the Apologist asks, does God exist? Peterson asks, How do we experience ‘God’? While the Apologist is concerned with ‘facts’. Peterson is concerned with narrative.

Peterson is exploring the structure of existence, not bare, ‘true’ facts. The biblical stories in his view are more True than true in the sense that they expose the nature of reality, the proper mode of being. Peterson is interested in the “world as a forum for action” not the “world a place of things.”

Peterson is able to make this shift to exploring our experience of the world by making a move known as Phenomenological Bracketing:

Bracketing… is a term in the philosophical movement of phenomenology describing an act of suspending judgment about the natural world to instead focus on analysis of experience.

This bracketing of the metaphysical questions to focus on the existential questions is a move that people in past ages could have made more easily. At a time when the existence of God or the supernatural realm was not up for debate, believers could focus more on the meaning of the biblical text, than on whether the text accurately described historical events.

In an abstract to a paper entitled, “A psyco-ontological Analysis of Genesis 2-6”, Peterson writes:

Individuals operating within the scientific paradigm presume that the world is made of matter. Although the perspective engendered by this presupposition is very powerful, it excludes value and subjective experience from its fundamental ontology. In addition, it provides very little guidance with regards to the fundamentals of ethical action. Individuals within the religious paradigm, by contrast, presume that the world is made out of what matters.

Our description of reality, down to its last detail, could still not tell us how we should act. Ethics are situated within a narrative, a narrative is situated within a community of conscious agents negotiating how it is that those within the community should treat one another.

Our description of reality, down to its last detail, could tell us nothing about our phenomenological experience of the world, HOW reality is structured, HOW we see reality, HOW we experience it, or HOW it moves us.

Our description of reality, down to its last detail, could not tell us the stories we tell about ourselves, or the stories we find ourselves situated within. The element of time which consciousness brings to reality is what allows us to talk about where we come from, were we are, and where we are going.

Reality, cannot be reduced to either the phenomenological or the physical, rather, reality is the incarnational unity of the two. The New Atheist blabber about a meaningless universe is nothing but scientistic nonsense. The world we live in, the world that is real, is ‘subjective’ and ‘objective,’ it is a fusion of the WHAT, and the HOW, it is beautiful, it is meaningful, and it is ugly, and horrifying. We can never hope to describe reality “objectively,” and assume we have reached the Truth: the Truth is the incarnation.





6 thoughts on “What the New Atheists and the Christian Apologists Miss about Jordan Peterson

  1. A worthy line of inquiry Julian. And I agree many folks are incapable of Philosophical Bracketing. I suppose in some way or another we all are. And I’ve met Philosophy students who were incapable of anything else. (Which was essentially the same thing in a way.) And a fear to commit to the terms of life.

    One thing I came across many years ago was that an understanding of time clears up many of these dilemmas, including those within science. Keep going Julian.


    1. Part of the point here is that it seems like the new athiests/apologists don’t seem to realize that the HOW is part of reality. I think if Apologists did realize that, and did incorporate that into their approach, they could be more effective.

      I would be interested in hearing more about that when we talk.


  2. I like Denning’s view on conscious, that its relationship to the brain is like wet is to water. It is not separate, as Descartes assumes in his perspctive of dualism. It’s an adjective sometimes masquerading as a somewhat descriptive noun. But it’s an attribute of water, not something that can be had or held.

    As for JBP, my biggest criticism is his derivative nature. He’s just spouting off to a generation unfamiliar with Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Frederich Nietzsche, but it’s all regurgitated. The positions of Jung and Campbell have been largely marginalised outside of the realm of analogy and metaphor, and he fundamentally misinterprets Nietzsche. His poor grasp of postmodernism and his so-called ‘Marxism’ bogeyman are still more nails in his coffin.

    I’m afraid, I am throwing this baby out with the bathwater rather than pan for whatever homoeopathic nuggets he offers as insight.


  3. Late to this (very worthwhile) discussion, but I’m curious how you’d reconcile Jordan Peterson, on the one hand, employing Phenomenological Bracketing when it comes to the Sam Harris debates (i.e. “suspending judgment about the natural world to instead focus on analysis of experience”) while he’s simultaneously SO adamantly & vocally against postmodernist denial-of-the-natural-world/personal-experience-and-truth-over-empirical-facts. Because I can’t quite reconcile it? He seems to want it both ways, and to only employ the bracketing selectively?



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