Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker piece looks at Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity — which is not how I’d characterize it:

Like many conversion stories, Peterson’s begins with a crisis of faith — a series of them, in fact. He was raised Protestant, and as a boy he was sent to confirmation class, where he asked the teacher to defend the literal truth of Biblical creation stories. The teacher’s response was convincing neither to Peterson nor, Peterson suspected, to the teacher himself. In “Maps of Meaning,” he remembered his reaction. “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,” he wrote. “I stopped attending church, and joined the modern world.” He turned first to socialism and then to political science, seeking an explanation for “the general social and political insanity and evil of the world,” and each time finding himself unsatisfied. (This was the Cold War era, and Peterson was preoccupied by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.) The question was, he decided, a psychological one, so he sought psychological answers, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from McGill University, having written a thesis examining the heritability of alcoholism.

All the while, Peterson was also pursuing a grander, stranger project. He had fallen under the sway of Carl Jung, the mystical Swiss psychology pioneer who interpreted modern life as an endless drama, haunted by ancient myths. (Peterson calls Jung “ever-terrifying,” which is a very Jungian sort of compliment.) In “Maps of Meaning,” Peterson drew from Jung, and from evolutionary psychology: he wanted to show that modern culture is “natural,” having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to reflect and meet our human needs. Then, rather audaciously, he sought to explain exactly how our minds work, illustrating his theory with elaborate geometric diagrams (“The Constituent Elements of Experience as Personality, Territory, and Process”) that seemed to have been created for the purpose of torturing undergraduates.

The new book replaces charts with cheerful drawings of Peterson’s children acting out his advice.


  1. Ross says:

    I don’t miss the New Yorker at all and here’s a perfect example of why.

    I gifted and transferred the balance of my 80% discount subscription (mistake!)to a progressive friend for whom it will be soothing and comforting.

    It wasn’t doing any good in the bathroom and didn’t work well at the base of the birdcage either.

  2. A life goal has always been to end up much like the Townsend Whelen analogue character in Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact who enjoys retirement in a cavernous hall lined with books and rifles, and is periodically entertained by the follies of the intelligentsia as revealed in the New York Review of Books. I may end up going with the UK’s Times Literary Supplement instead, but the New Yorker lost its allure long ago.

  3. Charles W. Abbott says:

    To the best of my knowledge, the father of Kelefa Sanneh is Lamin Sanneh.

    The father is a native of Gambia and a professor of “Missions and World Christianity” at Yale. Details at Wikipedia. Also the father is a convert to Christianity from Islam (not too unusual in many parts of coastal West Africa), and a practicing Roman Catholic.

    I heard the father give a lecture as an invited speaker some years ago in Iowa. I don’t recall the details. He was sponsored by many religious or ecumenical campus groups and had a large, attentive audience.

    The writing in The New Yorker is very good. I know smart people who read it religiously. Probably not a good idea to base one’s world view on a steady diet of The New Yorker and nothing else.

    I had an econometrics professor who used to say that “everything he knew on topic X was from reading The New Yorker.” It took me decades to understand the full implications of such statements — but this prof. tended toward dry humor and understatement.

  4. Graham says:

    I used to find both the New Yorker and the Atlantic quite useful, albeit for different things. Now, really why waste the effort or endure the grief?

    The Economist still is useful if you can stomach their editorial line. It’s like the Whig Triumphalism of 1843 lives on, unbowed.

    I wonder if New-Yorker-Man, Atlantic-Man and Economist-Man have enough conceptual overlap among them to form a new and better kind of humanity…

  5. Charles W. Abbott says:

    I continue to read The Economist though I’ve fallen terribly behind. It often seems to me that the best parts are the “three page mini-surveys.” The 20 page surveys can bloat and be less than justified by 20 pages. The 2/3 of one page articles can sometimes be fluff, but sometimes are very good.

    Many undergraduates college students in the liberal arts, if they dropped out of college tomorrow but just read The Economist instead, would be moderately well educated by the time they hit 35 or 40 years of age. It would be cheaper than paying tuition to sit in a big classroom and write bad papers as busywork, too.

    The Economist gets extra points for dry wit, well crafted sentences, competent graphic treatment of numerical data, decent historical literacy (rather than demonstrated blank ignorance), and a credible attempt to cover the world rather than simply a few rich countries.

    The obituaries are often brilliant. Letters to the editor are often funny, witty, humorous, or whimsical, as well as interesting examples in public relations as PR staffers write to respond to last week’s bad news about bad behavior by firms and states.

    I never got much into their online products, just because life is short.

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