'An Evening with Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson & Douglas Murray' began with bombastic music, suggesting this was an epic clash of cerebral Titans.
Both Peterson and Harris pack a heavy punch with countless sold-out arena tours and millions of YouTube hits and followers under their belts. This night at London's O2 arena wasn't the first time they'd jousted, yet they still drew an impressively large crowd. And The Spectator's Douglas Murray made a great referee. He was often instrumental in decoding much of the high mindedness of the discussion adding nuance and contextualisation of the most salient points without lending any side his full support. He was able to draw the best out of the opponents without getting in the way and detracting from the real stars of the show; the big ideas.
Meet the heavyweights
In the red corner was current man of the moment Professor Jordan B. Peterson; university professor turned uber high profile, social contrarian. Whether Peterson is a Christian or not is somewhat debatable. But he clearly has a huge amount of respect for Christian ideas and often references the scriptures in his books and lectures. He first rose to prominence after objecting to a proposed Canadian law to enforce the use of gender pronouns in the public sphere, becoming the unlikely figurehead and guru of a growing movement that rejected and countered social trends such as identity politics, hate speech, and what he would call the ‘Marxist’ Far Left.
The most infamous example of Peterson’s tête-à-tête with the mainstream media was his interview with Cathy Newman (this is the same Channel 4 News presenter who repeatedly quizzed Tim Farron on homosexuality). That interview has been watched over 10 million times on YouTube. It catapulted Peterson to rock star status and gave him enough followers to start his own cult if he so chose, with his latest book 12 Rules for Life the required sacred text. I'm personally a fan of Peterson and was eager to watch him take on the man standing in the blue corner...
The champion of the atheists was Sam Harris, best selling author, podcast host and neuroscientist who has taken the crown of chief God-basher previously held by Richard Dawkins. Harris is a younger, more zen and preppy figurehead of the anti-faith squad and a worthy opponent for Peterson. More recently he has come to prominence as one who dares to point out the dangers of the rise of Islam in the West and in his view the abhorrent teachings it propagates, boldly defying Western conventions of religious tolerance.
Harris, though having an equally large and loyal following himself and being a big name in America, has not had that lightning rod moment on mainstream media overseas in the same way that Peterson has. The closest big media moment he had was several years ago when Hollywood actor Ben Affleck accused Harris (and presenter Bill Maher) of racism.
Douglas Murray, the only Brit on stage, is himself a harsh critic of Islam. The evening's moderator is also a gay ‘Christian Atheist’ who possessed a sympathy for cultural Christianity and its values, often speaking up for its positive influence on Western civilisation.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I turned up to a sea of people pilling into the arena. Those who worry about the state of our public discourse will be heartened to learn there's clearly still an appetite for high minded intellectual debate in the UK today - even if it'll cost each audience member upwards of £50 to get in!
The atmosphere was electric. I felt as if I'd just stepped inside an American megachurch, or stumbled into the midst of a political rally where people are getting behind their candidate with revivalist fever.
I came to witness an epic debate between two thinkers at the height of their powers. What I got was a really good, mind-stretching evening but a lot of friendly concessions - at least from Peterson’s corner. Perhaps this is the price of the duo’s increasing familiarity with each other and blossoming friendship? I felt like I was watching three philosophy majors staying up late one night discussing the meaning of life.
There wasn't a definite winner. And as great as the conversation was, it felt like these two combatants had lost some of their freshness.
Although it was positive to see people disagreeing without descending into nastiness, the punches were pulled too much for my liking. Peterson is not an evangelical, confessing openly to not attending church. That's fine, but he conceded to Harris' atheist arguments far too readily for this God botherer’s liking. Peterson was supposed to be defending theism. But I found myself wondering 'Is this really the best person our side of the argument can put forward to take on Harris?'
The most passionate and trademark Peterson snapback came when Harris pulled him up on being wishy-washy on whether he believed in God in the literal sense. Peterson's response was directed to the audience saying: "Don’t sit there and tell me that you actually know anything…you don't even know your own mind consistently, let alone anything absolutely". He was visibly annoyed and it was entertaining to watch. But it was his only moment of utter conviction.
A missed opportunity
It seemed that it was theism's (of the Judaeo-Christianity variety) fight to lose. As a Christian, I didn't feel too far removed from our ancestors in the faith standing in the Roman coliseum hearing the crowd mocking and teasing.
For me it all boiled down to head knowledge versus personal experience; both have a place but its fair to say that neither men have "tasted and seen that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8); Peterson admits himself to be more of a 'doubting Thomas' than a 'Paul the Apostle' and of course Harris has no qualms in knocking down the whole house of cards of ‘superstitious nonsense’ as he sees it, having been raised in a staunchly secular home.
The foolishness of the gospel and the mysteries of God have to be understood and experienced. The logos became flesh; a perfect embodiment of absolute metaphysical truth and a tangible, personable encounter. Christ as 'God who became flesh' is at the heart of what we believe and seek to proclaim. Now if that was the message shouted from the rafters of the O2 Arena that would have been one for the books. Instead, this event lends credence to the argument that Peterson though a great ally, is not quite the David to the secular Goliath that we need on the front lines of this fight.
Antony Aris-Osula is a presenter on Premier Praise, 8-10pm Saturday evenings