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Without the sacred, all hell breaks loose


"God is dead, proclaimed Nietzsche, shockingly, in 1882.


During the 20th century, the West became increasingly receptive to such a message. By 1971, John Lennon could Imagine that "no religion" was a precondition for world harmony. But what did he mean by "no religion," anyway? No religious institutions? Everyone but the personality-disordered anarchist understands that institutions are necessary.

No religious experience? Lennon constantly sought religious experience, through mysticism and psychedelic drug use.

No beliefs, of ultimate value? But Imagine claims that peace, brotherhood and unity are of ultimate worth, and that a heavenly utopia would arise, if they were properly valued.

Lennon's beautiful song is, therefore, conceptually incoherent. Its lyrics also expose a lack of appropriate humility: How dare a multimillionaire satirize those who cannot imagine "no possessions?"

What about "no hell below us?" Nietzsche knew that the murder of God meant trouble. He predicted a tremendous expenditure of lives, in consequence. "Who will wipe this blood off us?" Nietzsche asked. He who declared the dissolution of the sacred also foresaw the hell forged by Mao, Stalin and Hitler. Nietzsche knew that brutal pretenders would emerge to claim the abandoned throne of God.

If there are no sacred values, man is a blank slate. Anything whatsoever can be written on a blank slate. If there is a universal human nature, however, some ideas are wrong, and their implementation will result in catastrophe. The evidence is before us, in the form of the millions who were sacrificed to the values of 20th century totalitarians. Everything cannot be simply questioned and re-organized, in a purely rational matter. Thought itself must have its master.

So what, at minimum, defines the value of the human? Analysis of religious belief and evolutionary neuroscience alike has led me to conclude that three figures must remain sacred, if humanity is to flourish.

Because we are mammals, the first sacred figure is maternal. The neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp has identified several sets of neurological pathways, common to mammals. One of those is the "CARE" system. It manifests itself to our imagination as the loving and feminine source of life. Images of the sacred Mother of God, often with her Holy Infant, are figural representations of that source. To doubt the significance of the CARE system means to doubt not only the human, but the very mammalian.

Because we are social mammals, the second figure is paternal. Our ancestors clambered up the dominance hierarchy, the most ancient and persistent of social structures. Those who succeeded found secure niches and high-quality mates. Under such conditions they thrived, and so did their descendants. The figure of the Father represents this hierarchical order, which formed us, body and mind, and which even today provides us with structure and hope. For us to survive, such order must survive, even though it must also sometimes change.

Because we are self-conscious social mammals, the third figure is the individual, the mythical hero, burdened by his mortal limitations. The hero extends himself beyond the safe confines of mother and society alike, voluntarily encountering the chaotic unknown, gathering new knowledge, shaping and updating the social order. The ancient Mesopotamians knew this mythical individual as Marduk. The Egyptians knew him as Horus. For billions of modern people, the sacred individual is Christ.

If there are no sacred values, man is a blank slate. Anything whatsoever can be written on a blank slate.

A psychologist, or even a biologist, might ask: What do these heroes represent? As the holy Word of God, for example, "there in the beginning," Christ appears to represent suffering, individual consciousness, and its incomprehensible ability to mediate between the chaos and order of being. In the book of Genesis, God creates men and women in the image of this creative Word, imbuing them with the ultimate value due shapers and creators of the cosmos.

The story of Genesis has profoundly influenced the West, on a scale unmatched even by the Enlightenment. In consequence, our culture values the individual, in a manner still unrealized in the rest of the world. In the West, even prostitutes, traitors, and murderers have inalienable, sacred rights. It is our attribution of ultimate, creative value to the individual that allows us to demand personal responsibility, and to reward personal accomplishment in the many ways that keep our tragic lives bearable, here, in the West.

What, therefore, must be sacred, at minimum? The Mother, the Father, and the Individual. It is the duty of each society, and each individual, to respect these figures, in mind, thought, and action. When this is done properly, the great forces of being are kept in equilibrium, and the individual, society, and nature all thrive. Otherwise, hell breaks loose, and swallows the little heavens that could otherwise be found on earth.



Jordan B. Peterson, "Without the sacred, all hell breaks loose." National Post, (Canada) April 5, 2011.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

The Author

peterson1peterson2Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and cultural critic. He is the author of Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and his now classic Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize. His classroom lectures on mythology and psychology, based on Maps of Meaning, were turned into a popular 13-part TV series on TVO. Dr. Peterson’s YouTube channel, Jordan Peterson Videos features his university and public lectures (including the most recent 15-part biblical series). 

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