Personal Religion, Uncertainty, and Progress10 min read

This is a reply to a conversation I am having on another blog. Nathan Rinne has some very insightful writing and the people who are reading his work seem to be very intelligent. They are also willing to discuss things and I can tell they are good people. I find this exceptionally useful, so I am talking with them on a post about Jordan Peterson. It is helping me understand why Christians don’t seem to like Jordan Peterson very much. Their argument against him makes a lot of sense after being exposed to it. I disagree with their logic, but I understand it. I’ve included the reply in whole below.

The Comment

Hi Chris,

So, I had typed out over the last 45 minutes or so a reply. I’ve always scoffed internally when people have said that their laptop crashed just before they had a chance to submit something. That actually just happened to me. We’ll take it as a test for my resolve to actually reply to you in detail. Regardless, I am less upset than I would have expected to be.

I’ve decided to make a blog post out of this since if I am forced to create this again. I might as well get more mileage out of it. That isn’t to say that anyone but me cares about my blog. I do tend to read back through my entries and see if I still agree with them. That is not true with comments. Also, please excuse any serious typos. I don’t have the energy to proof read this after spending an hour typing this the second time. This is as far down as I got in my proof reading and decided to quit. 🙂

About Me

I’ll give you some personal background to start with. I had a best friend who was a missionary of some kind. I didn’t really understand what he said his denomination was since it didn’t matter to me at the time. My family was Lutheran and my mother is a second generation immigrant from Germany. My long time girlfriend was a Catholic.

The friend was the one who would bring up the topic of religion, where my mom and girlfriend never would. I spent a good amount of time reading different articles or writings that he thought were relevant. I also read chunks of the bible during this time to competently argue with him. He was truly worried about me and was a good friend. He spent many hours going over things with me, but there was something missing at the bottom of the pile. I did not have the default understanding of there being a higher power. I also lacked the ability to see the process of eliminating other possibilities as proving Gods existence.

Of the people who insisted on engaging me on religion, only this good friend came out of it without some kind of damage. The damage either happened to the relationship between us or their understanding of religion. It wasn’t my intention. I assumed they knew something I did not. That never proved to be true.

Jordan Peterson

The problem for me with messaging about Christianity has always been it presumes that I believe in God. The messaging doesn’t work if I must see God as a possibility or a likelihood. Even things that don’t presume God as a possibility presume that I am searching for it and just don’t know it yet. Dr. Peterson doesn’t present things with any such presumption. He looks at the psychological meaning of the stories and it allows me to see what others might see in them. Since he doesn’t have them stand on their own, they illustrate his broader message and are extremely interesting to me.

Dr. Peterson’s Ethics

I can summarize Jordan Peterson’s ethical philosophy as I see it pretty simply. Suffering exists. It is very obvious that everyone understands suffering. There are things that provably reduce suffering that you can do personally. You can choose to do them or not, but why the hell wouldn’t you reduce suffering within yourself? Further, the more meaning humans find in life the less they suffer. We can find meaning in doing things that directly or indirectly reduce suffering in others. Without meaning, we suffer in an intrinsic way we can’t fix. Why the hell wouldn’t you do something that gives you meaning?

The rest of his philosophy on how to reduce suffering in yourself is about chaos and order. He sees this as being internal and external. To find meaning, you have to walk along the border of chaos and order. My favorite example of his is a home. If someone is in complete chaos and there is nothing but diapers and cat urine all over a house, it is disgusting. If you go into a home that is perfect, the order overwhelms and you are uncomfortable as well. The right mix is between chaos and order.

This philosophy requires no externalities at its base. He ties it down with religion to illustrate that the writers of the bible understood these concepts long before it made sense for them to.

If you don’t fear a God (me and maybe Peterson) or realize that the people you are talking to may not believe in God (Peterson) you don’t take the religious aspect any further.

Truth

As for truth under Peterson’s conception, it is a personal truth. You must determine what is true for you. People’s conceptions of what is true don’t have to line up, but it is useful if they do. That is how we form a productive society. We agree on important truths. If the majority of people are Christian, it is in society’s interest to accommodate their truth with our own. If this truth harms us personally, we can reject the parts that do. America is a Christian society. Being a part of that society doesn’t require a belief in God. I can say this with experience.

If you want to work productively with people, you need a common ground. Propositions don’t cross the is/ought barrier, which is why I think they are very useful. You can make the determination on your own. If you choose the non-productive option, good luck to you.

Truth for Society

It is people like you who define what is true for society. An individual can follow whatever truth they like. Without your philosophy and understanding of the world, I suspect society would get pretty bad pretty quickly. Most humans naturally try to conform to the group. I am the opposite. My nature is to fight against the group. I am just as required, since I will sound the alarm when the path is wrong. My truth is just as important to society. I also shouldn’t expect others to let me misbehave in public because I see the world differently than them. That’s where we seem to be going wrong right now. We are trying to change society to an optimal one for those with aberrant behavior. That is backwards.

Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil section 228:

I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious and has belonged to the soporific appliances—and that “virtue,” in my opinion, has been MORE injured by the TEDIOUSNESS of its advocates than by anything else; at the same time, however, I would not wish to overlook their general usefulness. It is desirable that as few people as possible should reflect upon morals, and consequently it is very desirable that morals should not some day become interesting!

That seems about right. We all play our part.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I disagree with the idea that consequences don’t bridge the is/ought gap. As a free person, you can do whatever you want but there may be consequences. In fact, there almost always will be some kind of consequences. It is for you to determine if those consequences are what you want. There is no ought in that. If you want to kill a whole lot of people, there are consequences if society is constructed usefully. Society should determine the morals, and Christian morals are useful and appear good. You can follow them as a Christian or a pragmatist. I don’t want to live in a society that loses that moral compass.

Further, the idea that being a good person isn’t enough for God doesn’t work for me. My goal in life has always been to avoid suffering. Lying and saying I believe in God seems useless to me. That applies to lying outwardly to others and lying inwardly to myself. It would cause me great suffering, and I have to assume God would know I was lying. Either God has created a system I can’t defeat or does not exist. Regardless, there is nothing I can do about it. I don’t say that lightly.

Killing God isn’t a good thing. Society as we know it relies on God. We can mimic being Christians only for so long. Those who have no moral compass and no God will destroy society as time progresses. I believe we are seeing the start of that.

Lutheranism

I don’t believe that the Book of Concord explained away the contradictions in the biblical message well enough for me. I think to explain away those contradictions requires something akin to Antonin Scalia‘s originalist interpretation of the law. There is bias no matter how you try to look at it. Even if you accept the idea that the scriptures contain everything needed, the idea that you can understand them well enough to use them on themselves seems self contradictory. I won’t argue this better than others have before me.

Aquinas

The argument I am familiar with from Aquinas is that of the unmoved mover. It is a proof from elimination. The problem with those kinds of proof is that they are unverifiable. I have the same criticism of things like the big bang. They are unverifiable and require faith. Unfortunately, it is something I am lacking.

Summary

I’ve started reading more religious literature since I no longer am upset at the mere mention of God. I can even accept that someone believes in God. My most recent author was Kierkegaard because I know that Peterson likes his writing. I also read the Brothers Karamazov. I’ll take a look at Aquinas and Augustine and see what I can glean from there. I am working on finishing Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which I can finally read without becoming enraged at all the references to God.

It is important for me to understand other people. I am still missing something with how people get from where I am to being a Christian. It isn’t that I haven’t tried to bridge the gap, it is that I feel like I am on another planet from them. Dr. Peterson has made it so I can visit that other planet without gasping for air and feeling rage as I am assaulted from all sides. I don’t think I am normal in my thinking. I am certainly a counter example to Dr. Peterson causing harm to someone’s religious beliefs, though.

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this with me. I truly hope I am wrong about God and I can find something that proves it to me. Even if that doesn’t happen, Dr. Peterson has helped me. I can say the same about you and this conversation with everyone.

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