I remain connected to the Christian world, even though I’m not a Christian. This is because I value friendship, and I don’t want to cut ties with people who are very dear to me. While having conversations about faith with Christians, though, I’ve noticed a trend that annoys me.
Christians will often make strong, extraordinary, and hard-to-defend claims about the world. But when pressed on these claims, they often retreat to more philosophical, vague, and easier-to-defend claims. This tactic is called the Motte and Bailey. When the Bailey is under attack, they retreat to the Motte.
In this episode of Sacred Tension, I am joined by the hosts of Decoding the Gurus to take a critical look at the gurus of the internet age, including Jordan Peterson, the Weinstein Brothers, and Sam Harris. We do an in-depth run-through of the Gurometer and explore tools to critically analyze public intellectuals.
2021 was a hard year, and once again I got through it by gorging myself on books. I completed just over 50 books, and the following are the standouts. A reminder: this is not a “best books” list. These are the most notable and interesting to me personally, including the best and the worst. Finally, a book only makes this list if I have something to say about it. A novel might blow my mind, but if I struggle to write a paragraph about it, it won’t make this list.
I’ve spent the past few months writing a series on reading challenging books, all of which you can find listed at the end of this post. In my fervor to make the point, I’ve come to realize that something essential was under-emphasized in my previous posts.
I’ve gotten some interesting criticisms of my recent series of blog posts on the importance of reading challenging and problematic literature. The most common is along these lines: “you can get information that is just as good from non-problematic sources, so why not just do that?”
“Fuck that dude all the way.” Wrote one person. “He is a transphobic piece of trash that uses big words to make himself look smarter than he is.” Another response read, “Jordan Peterson a well known con, I guess what I see on the internet is true and The Satanic Temple [my church] isn’t divorced from bigots. Sad to see it.”
I’ve spent a good portion of my online career bashing Jordan Peterson. I’ve often found him clownish and, at times, downright dangerous.
His new book Beyond Order, however, surprised me. The Peterson that emerged from its pages was a far more complicated and interesting figure than I had previously given him credit for. He lives with brutal addiction and depression, and yet doles out advice on how to lead a good life. He’s weird, eccentric, verbose, and surprisingly progressive and conservative at different turns. I found parts of his book genuinely helpful, and other parts frustrating and overly esoteric. None of this is to say that I’m a fan or that I agree with him on everything. It’s simply to say that I found his most recent book worth engaging.
I’ve been making noise on social media lately about how I deliberately read problematic books. By problematic, I mean that they are deemed, justly or unjustly, toxic or bad by people I usually agree with. I’ve noticed some palpable discomfort when I bring up the topic, so I thought I would take some time to explore why I think reading problematic literature is helpful.
On his podcast Deep Questions, Cal Newport said something that has gotten deep into my brain and utterly complicated my life. I notice, by the way, that the very best things tend not to make my life simpler — they make my life more interesting, complicated, and challenging. This is one of those things:
I think a lot of what we see on social media is basically what I call intellectual groupieism. Like, I don’t want to do the work, someone else tell me the cliffnotes. What are the basic ideas we all agree with, and more importantly, what’s good and what’s bad, and what do I do to make sure I do the good thing and not the bad thing? like great, I’m with it. And now I’m going to, with great fervor, push this philosophy, but there is nothing below it. You haven’t read any of the things, you haven’t done the hard reading, you haven’t confronted the criticism, you haven’t read the alternative and let that collide and then let your roots grow deep. On social media you are often just a groupie for intellectuals, and say, “I just trust you. Just give me the cliffnotes I need, because I just want to go around with your metaphorical jam band and make sure I have bootleg tapes from your concerts…” We don’t do this anymore – we don’t build philosophies from scratch, we don’t go to the sources. Social media says “don’t bother with that. In fact, if you do bother with it, we might yell at you, so just come on, we will just give you the cliff notes.