The Dangers of Abruptly Destroying Meaning Structures

How Sam Harris Helped Create Jordan Peterson

By in Philosophy
Created/Updated: July 10, 2019

, The Dangers of Abruptly Destroying Meaning Structures

I recently watched an older debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in which I saw Sam admonishing Jordan for creating an opening for foolish beliefs. He took a poll of who was religious in the audience, and then all but blamed Jordan for their credulity.

That’s when it hit me that while Jordan might have enabled the religious, Sam actually enabled Jordan.

How? The same way George Bush enabled Iran to take over Iraq by removing Saddam.

Sam’s ideology is brilliant at stripping someone to the bone, but it unfortunately leaves people wishing they had a jacket.

The New Atheists created a vacuum of belief and meaning among their followers, and their sadness can be felt in questions posed to Sam in AMAs and QAs. I’ve seen multiple questions like the following from his fans, delivered in almost shameful and apologetic tones:

Sam actually does answer this, but he does it in book form (Waking Up) as opposed to offering guides and methodologies like Jordan.

Thank you for freeing me, but…um…what do I believe now?

It’s a question Sam’s never given a good answer to, and one that Jordan Peterson has become a religious figure by answering well.

Peterson is like Iran taking advantage of the vacuum left in Iraq. People need structure, and he’s providing it.

I’m not implying here that Peterson is malicious or cynical in what he’s offering.

Peterson is Iran sweeping into a post-Saddam Iraq. He’s offering structure to those who desperately need it to explain their struggles, just as Iraqis have been craving a strong hand to govern them.

, The Dangers of Abruptly Destroying Meaning Structures

The lesson here is not that Sam should not have dispelled the bad magic of supernatural belief. Neither is it that Jordan is being opportunistic. I think he’s as surprised as anyone that people are so eager to hear him speak.

The lesson is that most humans need structure, and Sam made a mistake in assuming that more people were like him (or me) in being able to erect an existential scaffolding of our own making. Most people can’t do that. And even for those who might be able to, it’s likely to require a process.

Iraqis are just as capable of self-government as anyone else on Earth. Just as former Christians are plenty capable of secular and existential meaning creation. But it takes time.

He also thought that well-constructed conversations could solve all disagreements.


  1. Harris was too optimistic about the ability for people to construct their own meaning once false structures had been removed.
  2. That miscalculation left people 1) feeling empty, and 2) feeling weak and ashamed that they did need something.
  3. Peterson’s message suddenly started resonating because it was precisely the structure that could fill the void left by the New Atheists.
  4. Sam (and others) are now frustrated that Peterson acolytes might have just swapped one religion for another, and/or left the door open to other fallacious beliefs.
  1. I think Sam is one of the top living intellectuals in the world, by the way. I have massive respect for him. This is not an attack on what he did, but rather an explanation of what happened afterwards.
  2. I disagree significantly with Jordan Peterson on major topics, and particularly his flirtation with what I consider to be numerology, but I do think he is fundamentally a good person who is trying to help people. And I think he’s tapped into something powerful in the lack of meaning in the lives of young men.

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