This was an event designed to make a strong impact on the war of ideas (or, if you like, the info wars) and it was certainly impressive. 8,000 people packed the O2 Arena (formerly the ‘Millennium Dome’) in Greenwich, London to listen to Dr Peterson – the inspirational Canadian Doctor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and author of 12 Rules for Life – Dr Harris, the American neuroscientist, philosopher and fierce critic of religion and Douglas Murray, the British Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and best selling author of ‘The Strange Death of Europe – Immigration, Identity and Islam’. ”Imagine my shock” InfoWars presenter Paul Joseph Watson was spotted in the audience at the event and I also bumped into LBC presenter Majid Nawaz.
One might have called it an echo chamber – there was certainly a strong reverberating echo in the arena when each of the three intellectual giants spoke, but in fact the event drew a huge largely young and diverse crowd, many of whom feel disaffected and betrayed by contemporary mainstream media narratives, academic Marxism and cultural relativism and were seeking answers, meaning and responsibility. Men certainly outnumbered women but the audience was mixed and I even spotted a couple of hijabis a few rows in front of me listening enthusiastically (apparently) to Sam Harris criticising Islam and enthusing over atheism.
The triumvirate entered stage left, Peterson (56) sporting a lobster-themed tie, Harris (51) dressed least formally sitting opposite and Murray, by far the youngest at 39, sandwiched in the middle, all three perched on Chesterfield leather armchairs.
It was clear from the outset that the event would take the form of a debate between Peterson, who is a Christian and regularly uses biblical allegories in his talks and writings, and Harris, who is a fierce proponent of atheism and critic of all religions. Murray, who is somewhere between the two (a lapsed Anglican who attends Church once or twice a year) sat in the middle and acted as compère or moderator. He spoke least but also, I believe, relished the opportunity which moderating gave him to question the other two. I probably have the most admiration for and also most in common with Douglas – he is a fellow gay man, just 5 years my senior and was a contemporary at my school St Benedict’s in Ealing, West London.
The thrust of Peterson’s argument was that religion, in contrast to the negative void of atheism is a creative, poetic, emotive force whose leaps of faith enable the feats of imagination that stoic atheism lacks when considering possibilities later empirically proven or technologically realised. Peterson may have a point – as the inventor of the light bulb Thomas Edison put it genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. But where does that inspiration come from and is it in fact religion?
Peterson argued that great biblical fables such as Cain and Abel, which he maintains harbours a myriad of moral messages could only have been the product of thousands of years of religiously faithful creative minds inspired by God. But again that is difficult to accept. Are atheists necessarily less creative people?
Harris accused Peterson of ”Jesus slipping” – essentially bringing Jesus into arguments where it was entirely unnecessary to do so, and countered that religion has a very bloody history – a point that could only be conceded by Peterson. But when Peterson retorted that most of the infamous ideological dictators of the 20th century – Stalin, Mao, Hitler etc – were atheists Harris interjected and pointed to the religious nature of their cult following and their personal idolatrous veneration.
While Harris undoubtedly ‘won’ the debate on dispassionate reason, often leaving Peterson on the defensive, Peterson lobster clawed back with his passion and a palpably superior grasp of evolution, human behaviour anthropology. Peterson was able to expound at length for example on how the reiteration through the hereditary lineage of an evolved father persona is symbolised in the patriarchal figureheads of God and Allah, Jesus and Mohammed. However, Peterson, for all his intellectual vigour, only really succeeded in describing religion rather than justifying its existence.
I found the final question posed mischievously by Murray the best of the evening: ”we’ve been discussing love for the last few minutes, but tell me, what do each of you hate?” There was a poignant and audible silence. Peterson finally responded, in a very serious tone: ”being a concentration camp guard at Auschwitz, and more specifically being HAPPY in the role. THAT is worthy of my hate”. It was a response I recognised, having read and listened to Peterson’s lectures. Peterson who describes himself as a conservative understands that conservative minds are concerned with borders – at every level. From physical borders between countries to boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. When those borders are transgressed Conservatives feel disgusted. Taken at a very extreme level Hitler felt Jewish people were transgressing and infecting the pure ‘Aryan race’. Even here Peterson demonstrated his exceptional grasp of psychology.
Harris, meanwhile responded more simply to say he hates unnecessary human suffering. (Yes, really – who doesn’t?!)
It struck me that neither of these responses was entirely honest. Murray had asked Harris and Peterson what they each hated. Peterson had responded personally but to say what was worthy of his hate, which is not the same. Harris simply virtue signalled – ending world suffering is a response one might expect from a Miss World contestant. Hate is both personal and emotive. Both responded by intellectually projecting. An honest heartfelt answer might have been ‘I hate my father, screaming children, traffic, ironing shirts…’
My only disappointment with the evening was that the inherent paradox in Christianity was not discussed. Many would argue that Europe is facing a moral and cultural vacuum which is being steadily replaced by the stronger collective identity of Islam. Some of the same people would argue for a revival of Europe’s Christian heritage to preserve European culture. And yet, of course, the ethics of Christianity, particularly New Testament Christianity (which gave rise to socialist philosophy) are guilt, shame, forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek, leaving individuals and groups defenceless against the dogmatic and merciless. There is thus a fundamental self-contradicting paradox in turning to Christianity to defend Europe. And it is a paradox that has not been addressed by the great thinkers of our age.
After the debate, I caught up with the Liberalists UK group who had also watched the debate at the Slug and Lettuce pub nearby.