Jordan Peterson, C.S. Lewis, and the “wishful thinking” objection

Regardless of the wishes of the atheist, or the theist, or the agnostic, in fact the God of the Bible either really does exist or the God of the Bible does not exist.

(Image: Warren Wong/Unsplash.com)

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes,

I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking.

In a recent podcast, he expresses a similar worry, “there seems to be something too convenient about C.S. Lewis, his insistence that [the perfection of Christ] also had to manifest itself concretely in reality at one point in history.”

Is Christian belief a case of wishful thinking? Is it too good to be true, a convenient creed that should be rejected because it is too convenient?

C.S. Lewis provides some insights relevant for these questions, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of Port could do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Despite its convenience, Lewis rejected a watered down Christianity, “the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right—leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.”

Lewis accepted these inconvenient teachings because Jesus taught them (Mt 25, Mk 9:43, Lk 16, Jn 5:29). If Lewis sought a merely consoling creed, it would have been like H. Richard Niebuhr’s account of watered-down Christianity: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Peterson is certainly right that Christianity is in some respects comforting and convenient. For example, how consoling it is to believe that God’s mercy is greater than any human sin. Yet this, in itself, does not show that Christianity is wishful thinking. As Lewis points out,

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking’. You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant—but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought.

Human thinkers give rise to systems of thought, and wishful thinkers are found on all sides of religious questions. For example, the atheist Thomas Nagel wrote, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

We cannot validly reason from Nagel’s atheistic wish to a conclusion that therefore God must exist. So too, we cannot reason from the fact that the Christian wishes that God raised Jesus from the dead to the conclusion that therefore the Resurrection didn’t happen.

Wishful thinking may also be found in considerations of what God is like. Lewis wrote, “The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?” By contrast, in some rooms, “the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character.”

As Lewis put it in his book Miracles, “An ‘impersonal God’-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap–best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband-that is quite another matter.”

But Lewis would be the first to point out that we cannot logically conclude from the wishes of people for a tame Life-Force God that these wishes (somehow) show that the personal, law giving God of the Bible exists.

The genetic fallacy is the attempt to evaluate the truth a belief on the basis of the origin of the belief. Regardless of the wishes of the atheist, or the theist, or the agnostic, in fact the God of the Bible either really does exist or the God of the Bible does not exist.

Lewis offers considerations relevant for all who share Peterson’s concerns about Christianity being too good to be true, “If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.”


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About Christopher Kaczor 2 Articles
Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the co-author with Dr. Matthew Petrusek of Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life (Word on Fire Institute, 2021).

14 Comments

  1. From the article: “For example, how consoling it is to believe that God’s mercy is greater than any human sin. Yet this, in itself, does not show that Christianity is wishful thinking. As Lewis points out, (With an analogy of the balancing of one’s bank account ending in- “but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds (Rather than wishful thinking) “It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought.

    Worldly systems of though yes. Whereas in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard our heavenly Bank Manager steps outside of ‘earthly’ logic demonstrating that all those indebted to His Crucified Son can never balance the books, so to say.

    Please consider continuing via the link
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/07/24/a-new-reformation/#comment-271094

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. I don’t believe that even the slightest possibility of scandal with regards to doubt is acceptable. God does exist.

    Atheists, like false “philosophers” apparently love to be theoretical. However, the existence of God isn’t a matter of theory, but fact.

  3. I eventually came around to the conclusion that Catholicism was the most adaptive social system in a Darwinian sense.

  4. Jordan Peterson is one of the rare people who is an Atheist who is nevertheless a pro-Theism activist. Is that a contradiction?

    No, not for Jordan Peterson. His real, core mission is to promote the Conservative Movement, and destroy the Marxist movement, the Feminist Movement, and all movements that promote Egalitarianism and Compassion.

    Jordan Peterson sees God as a Myth–but he doesn’t use the term “Myth” in a insulting or demeaning way. For Jordan Peterson, as for Joseph Campbell, myths, especially the ancient ones, are extremely powerful, beneficial, and necessary.

    Jordan Peterson says that he sees God as real, but real only in the sense of being an evolved feature of the human brain. He sees God as having no independent existence outside of the human brain. Jordan Peterson says that all people are Theists whether they know it or not, and by that he means that every human brain has evolved, through Natural Selection, to operate according to the Myth of God. And so, Jordan Peterson wants people to return to some traditional version of the Myth of God so that individuals and society can function optimally, and avoid tragedies such as happened in the USSR.

    If, as I am saying here, Jordan Peterson really is Pro-Theism Atheist, why do so many people see him as a great champion for Christ and God?

    Because he is a great champion for Christ and God! Jordan Peterson is a great salesman! He’s an intelligent, forceful and compelling speaker.

    He is a great apologist–at least until you read and listen to him closely and have that moment when you realize that he actually believes God doesn’t have any independent existence outside of the human mind.

    And then you also finally notice that Jordan Peterson also fiercely opposes the centrality of love of neighbor that is at the heart of real Christianity, an opposition that should bother you if you love God and Christ, and if you truly believe Christ and Father God and the Holy Spirit have an eternal existence independent of human beings.

    Thus, in the final analysis, Jordan Peterson is both a great apologist for Jesus Christ and for the Conservative Movement (opposing Social Justice activism based on Feminism and Marxism), and also simultaneously one of the greatest opponents of real Jesus Christ.

    Jordan Peterson is an “evangelist” and a “prophet” who is working to reestablish and reinvigorate Christianity and the Conservative Movement on the basis of Charles Darwin, Nietzsche, and Carl Jung. He speaks and writes boldly of “Christ” and the “Logos,” but he gives all those shades of radical new meanings based on Carl Jung and other similar thinkers.

    But so many Catholics are so heartened by Jordan Peterson’s effective attacks on Social Justice activism based on Feminism and Marxism that they don’t see, or have decided to ignore, the Atheism and anti-Christianity at the core of his teachings. Bishop Barron wrote an approving review of Peterson’s “12 Rules” book, and only mildly noted some Gnostic tendencies, as if Gnostic tendencies weren’t such a bad thing.

    • I don’t think it’s fair or necessary to call Peterson an opponent of Christianity. His thinking is careful and precise, and his theological thinking has actually shifted over the past few years toward a more theistic position. That is largely due to the suffering he and his family were experiencing. How about we give him the benefit of the doubt and let him be a work in progress, just like the rest of us.

    • But even if all of this is true about Peterson, wouldn’t you say that Marxism, Feminism, Multiculturalism, etc., are far bigger challenges than Peterson is? Perhaps an necessary alliance with some Christian heavy hitters will lead him to see things that his boyhood “shallow Christianity” missed. And if I had to guess, I’d say there was probably more theological substance to his religious instruction than the hour-per-week in CCD classes so many Catholic kids get these days, especially since even that lasts until they’ve received the sacraments so that they can have a nice Church wedding someday.

      • Good points. It’s important to die on the right hills. Marxism, feminism, progressive ideology, and the leftist rot in the church are all far more powerful and potentially destructive enemies than Peterson.

  5. “Lewis rejected a watered down Christianity.”

    That statement is made in this article.

    May I offer a (hopefully) civilized and (hopefully) helpful comment on that?

    C.S. Lewis rejected the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith. C.S. Lewis remained a member of the breakaway movement called the Church of England, a movement that chopped, cleaved away, and distorted many essential elements of the one, holy Catholic Faith.

    So, doesn’t that mean that C.S. Lewis did accept a watered down Christianity?

    C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled “Mere Christianity,” as if he was an authority competent to declare what mere Christianity consists of. Was he such an authority?

    Isn’t the Roman Catholic Faith the one and only true mere Christianity?

    Doesn’t the broad, liberal ecumenism of the sort independently defined and promoted by C.S. Lewis (and others) lead to or contribute to the chaos, confusion, disunity, discord, disobedience, “anything goes” trend we see among so many Catholics today?

    Is there really any need for any Catholic to quote or mention as an authority the apologetics of C.S. Lewis? Don’t we have innumerable Catholic saints, philosophers, theologians, and apologist who are far, far superior to C.S. Lewis?

    • Hi, Gus. Good questions! A couple of quick thoughts from someone who, as an Evangelical Protestant, learned a great deal from C.S. Lewis and who now, as a Catholic, still appreciates his rather unique talents.

      “So, doesn’t that mean that C.S. Lewis did accept a watered down Christianity?”

      Kinda. Yes and no. What is rather singular about Lewis is how robustly orthodox he is on nearly everything he wrote about. As Mark Brumley rightly notes:

      Surveying Lewis writings, a strong case can be made that he imbibed a significant amount of distinctively Catholic doctrine. Certainly, he was not evangelical Protestant in the typical sense of the term. He was, for instance, a sacramental and liturgical Christian. He believed in purgatory and prayers for the dead. He believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though he refused to take sides in disputes over the precise nature of the Presence. He affirmed a form of doctrinal development and even sometimes behaved as if he thought there was something of a Magisterium, or teaching Church, within Christendom, although he never associated it in any particular way with the Papacy. He regularly went to Confession, a practice allowed for in the “high church” wing of Anglicanism, but not widely encouraged in the Church of England. Furthermore, many distinctively Protestant tenets — such as the twin pillars of Reformation Christianity, sola scriptura and justification by faith alone — receive little or no emphasis in Lewis.

      But, as Brumley also notes, “The next step is to ask, ‘What is the Church?’, a question Lewis seemingly never fully confronted, but which many of his non-Catholic readers do.”

      This is taken up in Joseph Pearce’s book C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, which is worth reading for more on this topic. I mention it and quote from it in this 2005 article I wrote in appreciation of Lewis.

      So, it’s a strange thing that Lewis, who had an amazing mind and was a brilliant writer, communicator, and apologist, apparently would not (at least publicly) grapple with the huge issue of ecclesiology.

      But, that said, Lewis was not a liberal, especially not theologically and doctrinally. Quite the contrary. Your comment about “broad, liberal ecumenism of the sort independently defined and promoted by C.S. Lewis” is more than a bit odd to me, as someone who has read a majority of what Lewis wrote. It simply doesn’t fit.

      Finally, you write: “Is there really any need for any Catholic to quote or mention as an authority the apologetics of C.S. Lewis? Don’t we have innumerable Catholic saints, philosophers, theologians, and apologist who are far, far superior to C.S. Lewis?”

      Well, I quote and mention non-Catholic Christian authors a great deal, as they have much to offer (for example, in my book on the Resurrection, I quote a number of excellent Evangelical Scripture scholars). Truth is truth, and truth is ultimately catholic and Catholic, even if the source isn’t fully Catholic. Lewis had a genius for expressing, explaining, and defending orthodox Christian beliefs in a winsome, accessible, and logical way. And he was wonderfully literate, with a distinct and engaging style. In my mind, only Frank Sheed and Ronald Knox come close to the same mixture of broad and deep on a popular plane when it comes to apologetics (I’d also put Chesterton in there, but Chesterton was sometimes rather scattered in his approach). And Lewis, of course, was also a brilliant writer of fiction (and was a great critic and a good poet as well).

      • Dear Mr. Olson: I concede all of your points. Good is good, true is true, nourishing is nourishing, period, regardless of the vehicle carrying the good and the true and the nourishing.

        But, for me, there is a larger context.

        I am mourning. I am grieving.

        In 1960, Catholics had their own separate culture, separate schools (elementary, high school, college), and separate world. They were forbidden to attend non-Catholic Church services and there was an Index of Prohibited Books. Catholics only married Catholics. If anyone skipped Mass, it was a major scandal, and it rarely happened.

        By 1970, the separate Catholic culture and world was gone, destroyed, and this was accomplished party by the quickly and radically changing general social mores in the USA and other Western nations, and also was accomplished party by implementation by Church authorities of some very new and unprecedented ideas and practices, including ecumenism. Interfaith marriages now became very common. Going to public schools instead of Catholic schools became very common. Going to confession practically disappeared as a practice. In most parishes, the Catholic Mass came to resemble a Protestant service. Many Catholics read non-Catholic books and attended non-Catholic worship services. Many Catholics skipped Mass regularly and no one seemed to even notice or care. Many Catholics became Baptists or other “Bible Christians,” or even Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and no one in authority in the Church seemed to care or notice.

        I saw Catholic practice and faith in my family (immediate and extended) fall into steep decline, and for many members it disappeared altogether, never to return. This all seemed to me to be mainly a result of the changes that Church authorities made in the rules, customs, and pastoral theology of the Church.

        Just when then general society was becoming more powerfully anti-Catholic than it ever had been, the Church authorities took down the walls that has long separated the Catholic Faithful from undue influence of the corrupt, deceitful world.

        So I am mourning. I am grieving.

        I also see this great loss in many other families that were formerly robustly Catholic. Dietrich Von Hildebrand in a book called this the “Devastated Vineyard.”

        Maybe I am foolish, stubborn, ignorant, unenlightened. Maybe I should join in with the many, many Catholics and Evangelicals who regularly sing the praises of C.S. Lewis.

        But I can’t, I just cant. I am mourning. I am grieving.

  6. Very well presented. We might be reminded of the late Italian journalist, Ariani Fallaci…

    Fallaci (“The Force of Reason,” 2004) called herself a “Christian atheist” because for all of its (so-called) mythology, in her judgment, “Christianity truly is an irresistible provocation, a sensational bet that Man makes himself . . .” We have a catastrophe, she specified, “[b]ecause before invading our territory and destroying our culture, before canceling our identity, Islam aims to extinguish that irresistible provocation.”

    As an atheist and like Peterson, Fallaci opined that man created God, not the other way around, and that man does this out of despair . . . but, (she continued) that Christ even as only a man demands liberty and freedom. Phoenix-like, He is ever rising up to renew these claims and, in this way, to “seduce” even her (Fallaci) into belief.

    As a “Christian atheist . . . [she found that] Life always resurrects, Life is eternal . . . That most seduces me. Because in it I see the rejection of Death, the refusal of Death, the apotheosis of Life which can be evil: yes. Which is also evil, which eats itself. But its alternative is Nothingness. And let’s face it: such is the principle which leads and feeds our civilization.” Of Europe’s reported flaccid convictions, its self-hatred and sickness and “moral and intellectual cancer,” Fallaci observed, “If a Pope [in 2004, John Paul II] and an atheist say the same thing, in that thing there must be something tremendously true.”

    • I think (but can’t find the reference) it’s Ms. Fallaci Pope Benedict cited as proposing the feminist view that women should not become priests since priesthood would be another layer of service work for women, who don’t need another service work function.

  7. From the debates in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it is obvious that Lewis would have had Peterson for lunch considering the depth of Lewis especially as one of the top textual critics the world has ever known.

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