The Necessity of Religion

I’ve been enjoying the fruits of Jordan B. Peterson’s labour lately.

His latest interview with Joe Rogan is a good kicking off point (you can also find it if you search in your favourite podcast app too), and it’s where I got started.

One thing he seems very interested in is how moral and political principles emerge naturally, instead of being rationally imposed on a chaotic societal order. By this he means that Moses doesn’t come down from the mountaintop and tell everyone the way they must live, in a way that God foresaw to be best. Instead, maybe there was a Moses, or many Moses-like figures, but he/they and the Jews spent years/decades/centuries resolving conflicts in a way suitable to their particular group and circumstances.  They were refining and adjusting their rules in a way that produced the most stability, which was then encoded into a grand mythology/story in which those laws were then detailed.

Basically, Common Law, arising from specifics Cases, from which were abstracted general principles which became The Law. (Not unlike how the English Constitution developed.) And this wasn’t just a legalistic, political matter. This was religion, is his argument. This is what “God” is. Religion is the grand story, the narrative we tell, which is a short-hand for the complex set of circumstances which gave rise to harmony and stability within our group – stability which allowed us to survive and prosper (instead of falling into chaos, killing each other and allowing other with greater order to exploit our chaos and wipe us out).

Now he doesn’t say this as some “Checkmate, THEISTS!” point. Dr Peterson is, in fact, a very religious guy. And his point is quite the opposite of robbing the world of the power of mythology. Instead, it’s to say why mythology/religion is so powerful, why stories are what motivate our lives, our values, our principles and our sense of the world, far more than any rational imposition that we use to force order onto the world.

His entire thing is to say that we have a need to create a social-harmonising force, which is so great, that we really need to take the motivating narratives of religion and the necessity of God incredibly seriously. It wasn’t just something cooked up on a whim to control people; it evolved from the kinds of people we are, the things that are important to us, and the things that allow us to live peacefully together. It is a fundamental need of humanity. And we can’t just say, “Ok, goodbye religion and goodbye ethnic/group-based social ordering – let’s just have an entirely flat, rationally defined set of principles which order us, that apply to everyone, everywhere!”


There are a few crucial elements going on here, I think:

(1) There is a chain of abstractions that happens because people have a constant yearning and searching for purpose and meaning. They don’t find it in their day-to-day scraping to survive, so they look for someone who seems to be living best, whom they can admire. They tell stories about an abstracted best person, which are consumed socially and shared amongst the people. And this is sufficient within a small tribe. There might be some metaphysical beliefs, but they’re pretty flexible and ad-hoc, and not much explanation is needed – one’s meaning and purpose is found in commitment to family and tribe, to the shared celebrations and sorrows you partake in.

But then, as a society goes from deeply knit tribes to large civilisations of more atomistic individuals, this proves insufficient. We need something more abstract that has the power to structure a much larger, much more complex group (which is also more varied but, compared to what we call “properly diverse” today, is far, far from diverse). The world becomes much bigger, much more complicated, and the individual becomes much smaller and isolated. And so a much grander story is told, a deeper mythology, a tale of fundamental forces in the world. The hero-stories, of the tribes from which this civilisation is composed, are carried forward, but for peace and stability to succeed (and for these stories to be sufficiently powering and ordering for this larger, more complex world) a far more abstract hero is needed, one who is a much more powerful and far more abstract embodiment of those heroic ideals, and who is much broader and less individuated, with fewer quirks limiting him to any one specific tribe – he needs to be broad and powerful and deep enough to work for the entire civilisation.

And so a mythological narrative emerges, replete with real Good and real Evil and metaphysical stories about the beings who represent these things, and what makes Good survive and Evil perish and how they relate to one another and so on. This story, abstracted from our shared-group’s agreed-upon understanding of how we can live together harmoniously and find purpose and meaning within our new, wider civilisation, is where our conception of God comes from. And he is a powerful, necessary force.

“If god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”, in other words.

(2) People fall into different groups with different standards for what they find good and what makes for a stable personal life, a stable social life, and a stable political life. The mythologies and deep, motivating forces we believe in different from civilisation to civilisation. Anthropoligically, one can study interesting similarities and structures and methods of development but… these ethnic groups are different people fundamentally, and their differences aren’t something arbitrary that can be flattened out and ignored. Fellow atheists observe (and mock) the fact that Christians just happen to find out that the One True God is the same one as their parents and local society – but the reason for this is not mere tradition, but because of the kinds of people that develop in these specific areas – their genetic and cultural heritage, as well as a shared history and environment, all of which shapes the kind of people we are and the things not only which we are inclined to believe but which we need to believe.

A person born of Christian parents in a Christian society from a Western civilisation that owes so much to Christianity doesn’t become Christian out of some arbitrary decision, based purely in peer pressure. It may be the path of least resistance, but there is so little resistance because that religion grew out of a history – cultural, genetic, environmental – that he shares with those around him, which necessitated that specific religion. And that Religion in turn created and made possible certain revolutions and achievement in thought and conceptualisation that created the meaning and purpose which gave rise to many of the cultural values he now holds (e.g. the way in which the formation of Individual Rights can be traced back to the intense focus of Christianity on the Individual, on Individual Salvation and a Personal Relationship with God).

(3) This religion is necessary not only for the meaning it provides, but crucially for the stability it provides. Society do not find themselves adopting mythological framework that produce the “best” or “happiest” outcome necessarily, but the one which allows the longevity of society, by providing the most stable framework, in which people can pursue their own happiness so far as they’re not stepping on each others toes – with an agreed upon understanding of what “stepping on toes” means.

This is similar to the way in which evolution doesn’t produce the “best” creature – it just produces a create who is best adapted to surviving and creating the most offspring (and only within that specific environment). Most people just want to get through the day, survive, not make waves, get along, live peacefully and harmoniously. They’re not looking for some perfect, rational system that can be imposed to order people into living optimally – they’re looking for something that provides the most stable, peaceful way of their group living together.

And how that is achieved varies with group, time and place. High IQ, White, Western individuals want to just be left alone, and to have as anarchic a society as possible. Lower IQ people of the same group might not be able to live peacefully and harmoniously in that way, and might deify a democratic view of the world. Low IQ, middle-eastern people in a harsh desert environment will find that peace can only be found with a more barbaric set of laws – women need to be veiled because men of that type of society can’t be trusted to behave themselves, which would cause disharmony. It’s not great for the women and their personal freedom, but it does prevent chaos. And even within that environment there will be IQ differences (I’m just using IQ as one genetic example – there are other factors, cultural, environmental and historical that are important in creating different types of people), which mean less harsh rules are needed in different countries.

Of course, all of that is very appealing to me, as someone who thinks we aren’t all one, single homogenous group of humans to whom all the same standards can be applied throughout all history and in all places for all time. There are central, objective truths about humans, but they’re also context dependent on the genetic makeup of that person and the environment they’re in — i.e. a libertarian utopia and Objectivist ethics isn’t suited to a modern day men living in Uganda any more than it would work for a bunch of barbarians living in ancient Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

You can also see why this appeals to me as someone who is growing increasingly sympathetic to the Literal Fucking Nazis REEEEEE who preach the importance of civics, who label allies and enemies as those in favour of that which is pro-civic and that which is dyscivic. They argue the future political division isn’t Left and Right, isn’t between Socialism and Capitalism (although elements of this old argument will carry over). Instead, we see ourselves regressing to a much more fundamental argument about simply that which allows for a stable society, and that which tears it apart – with all the consequent return to strong religious/mythological structures which allows to create more order, more harmony, more stability.

And thus a conflict emerges (1) between those who believe in strengthening/stabilising our specific group and those who don’t, (2) between different groups, who will need to draw new boundaries between each other (hopefully without having to go to war first). And it will have a strongly religious element, as religion and mythology are such powerful, necessary forces in creating harmony and stability for large groups. They may not be necessary for outliers like myself to live peacefully, but for most people they are necessary.

And it’s an attitude a couple years ago that I, even as a not-so-perfect Objectivist would’ve labelled as needlessly concerned with how other people are living, as not individualist and self-focused enough. I believed that it’s not our business how someone lives, so long as they aren’t violating someone else’s freedom.

But, as times change, as I learn more about past and present society, I’m seeing more how we are social animals and how much our living morally good lives depends on our taking an interest in that which keeps society stable, civic, friendly, peaceful – and that total anarchy and freedom in how people associate, with open borders for all, isn’t the way to get that, and maybe we need (at least socially, if not politically – i.e. violently) enforced standards/rules about how other people should live.

And I don’t know where I stand on what makes me and people like me different. Why we believe we can live without religion and mythology. Maybe we have one of our own. Or maybe if we were all grouped off separetely we atheistic, anarchistic/libertarian types would soon descend into chaos without such a force.

Maybe we can be as big-headed to presume that, in the future, most people will be like us and capable of imposing order and stability through a rational understanding of how we ought to live, without recourse to religion. Although I doubt that – it seems too much like trying to remake ourselves, trying to ignore the emotional creatures we still are. Maybe we could become purely rational beings, and divorce ourselves from that emotional and social element, all tied up in the evolutionary history that lives in us, that creates certain needs for us, but I don’t think such a creature would be human any more (and it’s certainly not any kind of goal we could pursue right now). Instead, I think we have to look deeper within who we already are.

And so maybe it will require us to buy into some kind of mythology, but one which, at the same time, we still recognise isn’t literally “real”, but something we believe in because we need to believe in it.

Or maybe we find it in some Ubermenschian mythology, where our “purpose” is to keep creating better progeny than the ourselves, to live in service to society by improving it through our own children, and so on, and where we do so because of a deep love for this world and a desire for a better future.

I honestly don’t know. There are a million other directions these ideas are taking me, but I need to draw a line and stop writing somewhere. I will just say one more thing – to explain why these metaphysical ideas are so powerful. I buy into what Dr Peterson is saying for the same reason I buy into Rand’s beliefs about art and metaphysics..

“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.”

This is, I think, one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Rand’s philosophy, and vitally important in this context. Knowing where to focus and how to focus, knowing what is important and what isn’t… these things are difficult to do, and while they can arise from a rational pondering about what is important in life, they become floating and difficult to grip onto – and are very difficult to hold immediately and usefully in day-to-day life and in evaluations – without a firm, powerful, deep, emotionally resonant metaphysical abstraction.

There is something powerful going on here, something fundamentally human. And like Dr Peterson says: we need to take it seriously.

Leave your mark