In these articles, I explore the wide realm of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and delve into how our thoughts shape our inner worlds, external behaviors, and moods.

In 2019, I was devouring my books at an indy coffee shop in downtown Phoenix, my favorite at the time. The vibe at Lola’s was always inviting and social, the air tinged with baking pastries and coffee grounds, and streams of regular customers recognizing each other. So when a man in slacks and button-up shirt sat down a the next table with a book I recognized, I had no problem engaging him. He was reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

For some, Peterson’s views are controversial. In a dense, chic urban area, therefore, I was a mildly surprised to see a business man reading Peterson in the open, as if a banned book was on display. When I asked the customer if he liked what he read, his answer surprised me. Far from a political reaction, his was couched differently. “He’s too religious,” was the man’s curt reply to my question.

“Too religious?” I thought. How so? At that time, I had listened to several hours of Peterson interviews and lectures. I didn’t always agree with Peterson, but how he was religious, let alone too religious as if he crossed an invisible line into extremes, was lost on me. My read on Peterson was the opposite: A secular humanist with Jungian psychology replacing traditional spirituality. “Too psychological” would have been more accurate than “too religious.” My puzzlement must have been written in my eyebrows and the wrinkles in the corner of my eyes and the tilt of my head, because the man explained his answer.

“He quotes Matthew,” said the man as he thumbed and flipped pages, “He quotes it somewhere,” and soon gave up. “Well, I can’t find it. But I just started it and he’s quoting the Bible. He’s losing me.”

Peterson quotes the book of Matthew on page nine in a creative example of the Pareto Principle, which has two other names: the Price Principle and (wouldn’t you know it) the Matthew Principle. Pareto, Price, and Matthew share at least one thing in common. Their names were attached to a statement of the same principle that is at work in the world, from finances and forests to CEOs and crustaceans. It is the principle of unequal distribution. Read Peterson’s chapter on Rule 1 for more information.

So if my friend in Lola’s just started reading the book, I assume this is the section he ran across. Peterson does cite Matthew an additional 12 times in small clusters, starting later in the book (page 42, and then again on page 168 and much later in the 300s). By comparison, he refers to John Milton 5 times and Carl Jung, the psychologist, 29 times, and Sigmund Freud 31 times. And he is constantly referring to the non-religious scientific theory of Darwinian evolution in myriad ways as the basis for much of his thought, referring to the concept by name at least 20 times.

Why am I dwelling on this? When we or someone else uses comparatives, such as “too,” we are making a statement about our own perceptions and our own values. We are making commentary on ourselves more than on the world or the object of our interest. In a secular humanistic book of self-help, Darwinian psychology in no way geared religiously per se, an intelligent man gets squeamish with mild biblical discussion as if Peterson’s arm thrust out from the pages waving religious tracts in the reader’s face. This is more an evaluation on the cultural sensibilities of the coffee customer — and, insofar as his attitude may be generalized, on American culture in general.

Ironically, perhaps Peterson shows most readers they are not religious enough, not that Peterson is too religious. How so? Peterson takes seriously one of the literary cornerstones of Western culture gifting us our heritage of individual responsibility, the Bible. All “Bible” means is “books,” derived, as it is, from the Greek word for book. It means “library,” to interpolate a bit. So, “Holy Bible” means the holy library of Western culture. 

Put off by the word “holy”? Consider that you also may not be religious enough. All “holy” means is “set apart unto something else, reserved, sacred.” Holy books, therefore, are a special collection of texts we recognize to be set apart from all other books. They are special and revelatory. They help us live and maintain sanity. And they have stood the test of time while all others have not.

If we do not value the special reserve of texts that taught us individual responsibility, then we are doomed to regress into tribalism and pre-civilization. In other words, we are not religious enough, which equates to not being resilient enough, not emotionally muscular enough, not durable in the virtues and in meeting difficulty and suffering head-on enough. In short, worse mental and emotional health. This is because, without the fundaments of religion, we fail to grasp the deeper meaning of human nature and realty.

This is all Peterson is communicating when using the Bible.

Now, I personally believe Peterson mistakenly collapses everything religious into a type of (mostly) Jungian psychology, which is another way of not being religious enough. Peterson himself can stand to be more traditionally religious in the metaphysical and ontological senses, in my humble opinion. Nevertheless, the lesson he teaches my friend and I (and us all) is to approach our foundational texts with more seriousness for mental and social health.