Sam Harris Fans Need to “Wake Up”: Observations from the Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris Debate in Vancouver

by Rebecca Christiansen

On Saturday night, I attended one of the most anticipated events of the year among fans of the “Intellectual Dark Web”: Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, night one of two, in Vancouver. After two conversations on Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, it was their first time sharing a physical stage. I had been looking forward to it since I bought the tickets months ago. I brought my dad, who is as avid a consumer of Peterson’s content as I am, and we were both buzzing with excitement going into the event. 

The crowds that filled the lobby of the opulent Orpheum Theatre were electrified, upbeat, and chatty. Once we were in our seats after the initial standing ovation and the speakers—and Bret Weinstein, who served as moderator—had walked out on stage, it was pretty clear that there were divisions in the audience. There were the people who clapped when Peterson made a point, and the people who clapped when Harris made a point. I wanted to roll my eyes at the whoops and hollars of Sam Harris bros, and shot multiple dirty looks at the guy behind me who laughed derisively and loudly every time Jordan Peterson mentioned God.

That makes me sound like a dowdy old Christian prude, and though I’m none of those things (okay, maybe dowdy), it’s so strange that, on the subject of religion, I am where I am now considering where I used to be. Two years ago, I would have cheered when Harris made a “muh humanism” argument and sighed when Peterson said he would need more than ten minutes to describe his belief in God. I used to idolize Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Matt Dillahunty—and Christopher Hitchens, although I still have a soft spot for him. Even a few months ago, I would brush aside Peterson’s arguments for the relevance of scripture. Eventually, though, I realized that I wasn’t listening to him on those subjects because I wanted to remain blind. I couldn’t do that anymore. Lo and behold, I listened with an open mind, and my mind was changed.

Now, when I hear Jordan Peterson try to sort out Sam Harris’s “moral landscape” idea and question it, I can clearly see the errors that Harris and others, like Matt Dillahunty, make in their “humanist” views of morality. Harris, and Dillahunty in his discussion with Peterson, take definitions for granted. Bad is universally considered bad, and good is universally considered good. They refuse to dive any deeper than that. On Saturday night, while discussing the idea of a situation where everything is the worst for everyone and everyone is suffering (which Peterson characterized as hell) versus a situation where everything is the best for everyone and everyone is flourishing (heaven), Peterson asked repeatedly, “what’s bad about hell?” Harris insisted repeatedly that it was suffering that was bad about hell. Finally, Peterson said that no, the suffering isn’t the only bad thing about hell—the willingness of the perpetrators to cause that suffering is a big part of what’s bad about hell.

He’s on point. Evil is real. Those who perpetrate evil often feel intense pleasure while they do it—for them, in that moment, evil is good. They are operating on a different definition of “bad” and “good,” and you misunderstand those people at your peril. Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty take definitions and values for granted. During his conversation with Peterson, the self-described skeptic Dillahunty declared that bad things happening to him was “self-evident[ly]” not in his best interest. Peterson rightfully retorted, “nothing is self-evident to a skeptic.”

Sam Harris doesn’t seem to consider the fact that different people can operate under different definitions—evidenced by his exasperation when Jordan Peterson describes his own definition of God, and his complaints when Peterson’s definition doesn’t fit the one he’s used to dealing with. Peterson’s “I’m not using your words” stance has validity outside the topic of politcal correctness.

Sam Harris opened the discussion by saying that, since he and Jordan had had their disastrous podcast discussions, he had seen Jordan have productive and illuminating conversations with other members of the Intellectual Dark Web and wondered if he was problem in the equation. I do still respect Sam Harris, and I think it’s to his credit that he can see the truth. He is the problem. He’s coming to the table for honest discussion, and that’s laudable and rare these days, but it seems to me that he and his die-hard fans aren’t willing to take the intellectual journey that you have to take in order to fully understand viewpoints that aren’t your own.

I don’t want to speculate on anyone’s reasons for not taking that intellectual journey, but in my own case, it was fear of being wrong, and fear of what being aware of that wrongness might do to my life. Ignorance is bliss; awareness can mean opening your eyes to the hell around you. No one likes to wake up and realize everything they believed was a lie… then again, fans of Sam Harris should be all about “waking up.”