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The New Mythologist and the New Atheist: A Neuroscientist and a Psychologist Dialogue on Truth


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Atheist Republic (News)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): n.d.

According to Psychology Today, a practicing Canadian psychologist and an American neuroscientist discussed religious claims to truth.

The psychologist is Jordan Peterson. The neuroscientist is Sam Harris. It has been an ongoing debate with the New Atheists dominating in the 2000s. They were ascendant and debating the prominent Christian philosophers and theologians.

The 2010s see a different debate happening with many of the prominent New Atheists aging or deceased. The current debate between the two were about religion and true speech with a connection to myths and then also the world of rationality and science.

As reported, “What makes the debate so mercurial is that Peterson himself does not believe in traditional Christian claims such as the resurrection. Rather, he sees religious belief as a Darwinian adaptation that remains mostly unconscious.”

The orientation of Peterson is the potential for a spiritual reality with the truths from the religious myths. That is, human psychology and societal structures can be illuminated through the mythologies of times past.

One evolutionary biologist, Bret Weinstein, moderated some dialogues in Vancouver and Dublin. Then there was one with Douglas Murray as well. Harris and Peterson looked into the roots of religion and the ways in which this relates to truth.

“One illuminating way of thinking about religious belief, evoked in their second debate, involves a loaded gun. If we are taught to treat all guns as loaded, the argument goes, we will be safer in the long run,” the article explained, “Whether or not it is true that a particular gun is loaded or not does not matter—so long as we treat every gun as if it is loaded, we will be more likely to survive. A society that believes that every gun is loaded, then, is more likely to survive than a society which does not.”

Harris spoke the literal truth and the metaphorical truth. The latter as having utility within the world of fiction. Then these metaphorical truths can be more helpful than literal truth in some cases. The thought is that the society built on the assertion of human beings being built in the image of the creator of the universe is better for having a basic purpose.

Peterson argued for the utility of the Biblical stories within the framework of Darwinian evolution. That these stories must have survival significance.

“In his lectures and writings, Peterson describes the story of Cain and Abel as a warning against envy and resentment, and the Tower of Babel as a call for caution against centralized, totalizing systems. These stories, he argues, are ‘metaphorically true,’ even if they are literally false,” the article stated.

Harris pointed to some of the religious narratives containing some moral data. However, they can be useless too. Because these assume gods or a God. It becomes a “misapprehension of the causal structure of the cosmos.”

Peterson’s concern comes in the form of a secular ethic coming from preceding ethics; if we lose those preceding ones, then we lose ethical systems now. We need to know their origins. He directed attention to human and animal sacrifice. The idea is give something up now for later. He argues for this as the discovery of the future.

Harris argued for the utility of the narratives but without the belief in revelation or the supernatural in essence.

“Here, the debate reached a kind of impasse. Peterson insisted that because so much of our thinking is unconscious, and stories are our way of describing the behaviors that emerge from that unconscious processing, our old religious stories might have far more to teach us about ourselves than we can rationally discern on our own,” the article stated.

Harris argued this was an evasion on the part of Peterson. However, for the three discussions, the main conversation focused on the nature of the truth. Peterson, apparently, echoed the arguments of one Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga.

That the adaptively evolved faculties should be judged on the ability for greater survival of the organism. Harris views this as a stretch. That even, in one thought experiment, if humans died off as a species; our fundamental scientific and rational discoveries would still be true.

Peterson stated that if we die based on some ideas then, maybe, those ideas are not true.

The article concluded, “At the end of the debates, the fundamental question of religion and the human mind remains unsettled. But that doesn’t take the joy out of watching two scientists tear out the foundations of truth, morality and culture beneath their feet and try to put them back together again.”


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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