Lately I’ve been deeply fascinated by Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I’ve been a staunch, disagreeable atheist for as long as I can remember.
In the series of lectures, Peterson points out that religious storytelling has been one of the major constants throughout all of recorded history. This speaks to the undeniable relevance of these stories to us as humans, and for that reason he argues that it is naive to write them off without a deep investigation.
You don’t have to become a Christian or believe in God to learn something about yourself from one of the longest-standing books known to mankind. After all, it was written by fellow humans.
I never went to church as a kid. I was raised with the encouragement to believe whatever I wanted to believe. I gravitated towards atheism because it was logical to me. In my teenage years, I immersed myself in the study of astronomy, and it was difficult to find a place for Heaven and Hell in the cosmos.
Last week, for the first time in my life, I went to church. It was a large, non-denominational Christian church. I walked in and there were hundreds of people buzzing around finding their seats in the huge auditorium. Everyone I encountered seemed more happy than usual.
The Pastor who lead the worship ceremony was a normal guy and cracked a few jokes to get warmed up. As he got into his spiel, I got out my notepad. He went through three main points, using a few lines from the bible and some anecdotal stories.
These were his three main points, in my own words:
- If you see someone struggling, do what you can to help them.
- Try honestly to do the things you know are right, and avoid doing things you know are wrong.
- Don’t compare yourself to other people, compare yourself to yourself from yesterday.
These seem pretty obvious, right? Religious or not, you can’t really argue that these are bad pieces of advice.
There was no cult-like blood sacrifice and no forced baptism. Nobody held me down and poured holy water on me. It was just a bunch of people getting together, reminding themselves to “be good.”
Peterson touches on this in his lectures. Religion is our attempt to figure out the best way to live so that we can have the best life possible. We want to be the best version of ourselves and reach the highest part of our potential. So we think about what that might look like, and we think about what actions we might need to take to go in that direction, then we try to act it out. But we aren’t perfect, so we go to church to constantly remind ourselves that if we keep doing those things, it will lead us towards that highest part of our potential.
Having faith in God is the same thing as having faith that if you do things like act honestly and genuinely try your best, things will end up generally better for you.
At its core, God is an abstraction of what we see as the ideal thing we could become. It can be constantly imagined and stacked up against the you that exists right now. Religious or not, you can conceptualize God in this way, and it can be used as an accurate compass pointing you towards the best possible version of yourself, whose limits are unknown.
Religious people take it a step further by personifying this abstracted ideal. They call him God, the transcendent, all-powerful man in the sky who can make anything happen. They speak to him in prayer, which is their way of communicating directly with this ideal.
I don’t think I’ll go to church regularly, but I did enjoy having that experience. I understand a bit more clearly why people are deeply religious. They are committed to being the best version of themselves. Everyone has their own way of doing this.