PROVIDENCE, R.I. (RNS)— Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist, bestselling author and champion of manhood, strode back and forth across the stage at the historic Providence Performing Arts Center in early February, matching the theater’s ornate decoration with one of his characteristically flamboyant suits — a color-blocked navy, white and orange number with yellow lining.

As he paced, his speech sometimes resembled an altar call, other times borrowed the intellectual heft of a Catholic college lecture, and at one point offered a secular, pop psychological argument for the existence of God:

Nonbelievers, he told the crowd in Providence, wrestle with God as believers do: when they’re morally outraged at suffering in the world. “That’s an emotional argument,” he said. “And it’s the kind of emotional argument that you would mount against someone that you are in relationship with.”

Peterson was in town to kick off his 51-city “We Who Wrestle With God” tour, in advance of his new book of the same name. The “we” in the tour’s title is the closest the former University of Toronto psychology professor and YouTube star has come to admitting his own belief in the God of the Bible.

The question of his faith is an important one to many of his fans. In 2018 the Canadian magazine Maclean’s called them “self-help junkies searching for meaning and order in a rapidly evolving age,” but many are traditionally religious, while others have been inspired by his vacillating but consistent affinity for Christianity.

Several commentators have even identified the Jordan Peterson Effect: a path of religiously unaffiliated people listening to Peterson lectures, then seeking a church to attend and converting. 

“I read online comments from many atheists who said that before listening to his YouTube lectures on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: Genesis, they thought the Bible was a ridiculous old book that had nothing to teach the modern mind,” Christopher Kaczor, Catholic co-author of “Jordan Peterson, God and Christianity,” told Religion News Service. “But after they listened to his lectures, they concluded that the Book of Genesis, indeed the Bible as a whole, is an immensely rich and profound storehouse of wisdom for living today.” 

Schedule for the Jordan Peterson "We Who Wrestle With God Tour." (Courtesy image)

Schedule for the Jordan Peterson “We Who Wrestle With God Tour.” (Courtesy image)

A Catholic priest who attended the Providence show confirmed that “a fair number” of recent converts he’s encountered at Mass said they came to the faith after listening to Peterson.

These fans have increasing hope that Peterson will announce his own conversion from agnosticism.

Religion has always been a central concern for Peterson. After becoming a viral sensation discussing Genesis on YouTube in 2017, he published “12 Rules for Life,” a series of essays with such prosaic titles as “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back,” and “Tell the Truth — Or at Least Don’t Lie,” but which declared “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization, of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil.”

At the same time, “12 Rules” credits Friedrich Nietzsche with delivering a “devastating critique” of the church.

Since resuming his public life after a bout of addiction to an anxiety drug in 2021, Peterson has hewed closer to the church, advising young people to attend church and criticizing atheism’s influence on society. His stances on gender identity, his insistence that humans are tasked with creating order in a chaotic universe and his concern for young men’s character have also endeared him to conservative Christians.

Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, himself an internet heavyweight thanks to his Word on Fire ministry, has called Peterson “a sign of hope” for the church and “one of the most influential figures on the cultural scene today.” 

Kenneth E. Frantz, a University of Oklahoma doctoral student, and Samuel L. Perry, assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the university, have called Peterson “the new Driscoll,” referring to the evangelical Christian pastor Mark Driscoll, who drew young white evangelical men in particular in the mid-2000s to his brand of muscular Christianity. (Driscoll was eventually cast out of his Mars Hill Church in Seattle after being accused of creating an abusive environment there.)

“There’s a market for secular men promoting traditional masculinity — think Andrew Tate and Joe Rogan,” Frantz told RNS, though admitting that “Peterson probably comes across as softer and more of an intellectual than either of those men.”

Peterson recently concluded a 17-part series on the Book of Exodus for The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s right-wing media company, and has appeared in recent months on social media touring ancient churches in Rome, Jerusalem and Mount Athos with prominent Catholic and Orthodox Christians, including the Canadian Orthodox iconographer and podcaster Jonathan Pageau. In March 2023, Peterson was spotted filming an episode for The Daily Wire with Barron in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

“We Who Wrestle With God,” the new book and lecture series, builds on “12 Rules,” as well as its 2021 follow-up, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” though religion has clearly become more personal than philosophical. Peterson’s wife, Tammy, who recently announced she will finish a conversion to Roman Catholicism at Easter this year, opened for her husband, talking candidly about her cancer and about suffering, praying and grieving her father’s death.

“She said, I need to reestablish my relationship with what’s highest,” Peterson said of Tammy. “I need to realign my aim away from bitterness and resentment towards only that which is optimally good. That’s the definition of God.”

Peterson himself was noncommittal in answering questions about faith submitted online and voted on by the audience. One of the most popular asked how we can know if we are wrestling with God or with ourselves. Peterson answered with maxims like, “if you’re thinking about yourself, you’re wrestling with yourself in misery.”

Jordan Peterson addresses the 2018 Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida, in December 2018. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Jordan Peterson at the Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., in December 2018. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

But his secular approach to questions of the divine is part of his appeal, said Benjamin Howard, a computer scientist in Vancouver and disaffected Peterson fan who is launching a website called Agnostics and atheists like considering Christian values without the certainty of a fire and brimstone preacher. “In his view, if you acted like God existed, then you will live a better life,” Howard said. “In his mind, that’s enough to just ignore whether he is real or not.” 

Vandy D. Chhoeun Jr. came to the show with his girlfriend, who attested that he has become “a better person” after discovering Peterson’s YouTube videos in 2022. “I really had to, like, sit myself down and be, like, you’re a horrible person, you need to acknowledge that,” he said, saying that Peterson helped him shift from feeling that all of life is meaningless to finding motivation to work toward goals.

Wrestling with God when he’s not sure God exists, Chhoeun said, means aiming for the best in all situations. “To be an optimist, basically.”

Others in the crowd had similar stories of changed lives, without involving God. Matt Johnston, who attends the Church of Christ, said he was drawn to Peterson for “his authenticity and saying things that I think a lot of people feel like they can’t say in this society.”

Johnston weighed 400 pounds when he first came across Peterson’s lectures. Now he is down to 200. “I lived one way for so long. I thought that’s all, that was it. That’s all I could do,” he said. “Every little decision, you know, adds up to a better life.”

The biggest surprise in Providence for Peterson observers may have been that nearly half of the audience was women. Frantz attributed this to Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila, who has become a fixture in alternative diet circles and traditional femininity circles.

Another audience question asked Peterson, who often talks about the ideal masculine, how he would define the ideal feminine. He recalled a recent trip to the Vatican, where he saw Michelangelo’s Pieta of the Virgin Mary holding the broken body of Jesus.

“That’s the female crucifixion,” he said. “What’s the highest possible offering to God? Child and self. … The woman who does nothing but protects her child destroys her child. The woman who offers her child to God receives her child back and that story is the core of the divinity of femininity and every mother worth her salt knows that.”

Alba Sanz, a teacher from Spain who is working out her beliefs about Catholicism, said she is not sure about that definition of the archetypal feminine.

“I thought it was really interesting but also made me think about women who can’t be a mom or don’t want to be a mom,” said Sanz, who came with her boyfriend. “I have friends who don’t feel the need. So, what about them?” 

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