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A scientist explains how he can believe in God and be a scientist at the same time

Scientists who believe in god

Have you ever wondered whether a scientist can believe in God?

While studies have found that scientists tend to be much less religious than the general public, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press found that just over half of scientists believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, one-third of scientists say they believe in God.

Professor Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and former professor at Harvard University. He’s one of the scientists who believes in God.

As a scientist committed to the scientific method to develop an understanding about the world we live in, he’s also a Christian and believes we need a notion of truth that is more expansive than science can provide.

He was interviewed by Joe Rogan for his podcast, and in the clip below Peterson responds to the question: “do you believe in God?”

It’s a remarkable clip and worth watching in full:

If you’re not able to watch right now, keep on reading for our overview.

Expanding our notion of “truth”

For 20 years, Peterson has done almost nothing but think about the intersection of science and religion.

He told Rogan that reading Carl Jung helped him to understand that religious fundamentalists have the wrong idea about religious truth. Here’s the key distinction he draws:

  • Religious truth is different from scientific truth.
  • Religious truths were written at a time when we didn’t know about science.
  • The stories in Genesis aren’t scientific theories.
  • Scientific truth tells you what things are.
  • Religious truths tell you how you should act.

As Peterson says: “What scientific truth tells you is: what things are. Genuine religious truth tells you: how you should act. These are not the same.”

Religion helps to create a map of how to behave in the world

According to Peterson, it’s important for individuals to act in ways that are good for themselves as individuals, their families, for society at large and for the broader environment.

The question is, how can we do this?

Religion provides the answer, says Peterson. At its core, religion distils everyday life into its most important elements, providing a map of how to behave.

It takes the things that are most true about our lives, combines it with thousands of literary or metaphorical heroes, and extracts from each story what it is that makes a heroic person.

The result:

We end up experiencing a life that gives us more meaning. What’s more is that by living a “religious life”, according to Peterson, “decreases the existential load on you, but that actually decreases your psych-physiological load. It makes you healthier. It makes you less stressed.”


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Your brain is attuned to tell you when you’re living a life of meaning

This is where it gets interesting.

Peterson says that our brain has evolved to seek meaning in what we do. Our nervous system has adapted to this way of living, and according to Peterson signals of meaning will keep us living on the edge between order and chaos.

We find meaning in the space between order and chaos, where you’re partly stable, partly curious and operating in a manner that increases your scope of knowledge. We’re constantly inquiring and growing, stabilizing and renewing, and contributing productively to ourselves, our family, our society and to nature now and into the future.

When you get the signal from your brain that something is meaningful, you know you’re living in this state.

Using music to achieve transcendence

Peterson says that music helps to put us in this state. It “models the manner of being that is harmonious.”

Jason Silva has made this point before, suggesting that music communicates the ineffable and inexpressible.

What does science have to say about the experience you have when completely immersed in your favorite orchestra, for example?

Just as music help us experience a state of being that is modelled on something approximating transcendence, religious writings can do the same. They’re guidelines to the mode of being you experience when enraptured by your favorite music.

Searching for engagement and meaning in your life

The video above was a profound reminder to me about how we can derive “truth” from our experience of life.

On the one hand, science has provided a process to build knowledge about the universe and construct new ideas that allow us to develop new technologies, solve practical problems and make informed decisions.

On the other hand, the incredible achievements that science has brought to human civilization may have the inadvertent effect of causing us to neglect the positive role that religion can play.

Knowledge of the world comes not just from what we know, but also what we experience.

Peterson has reminded me that the search for meaning is a key driving force to human life. Ultimately, the music of life is always playing, and my feeling of engagement with the present moment and the meaning I’m deriving is what helps me dance to the music.

Thanks for reading the article. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and follow me on Facebook to find out when I’ve written a new article.

Notable replies

  1. ACD says:

    “… achievements that science has brought to human civilization may have the inadvertent effect of causing us to neglect the positive role that religion can play.”

    This is the great challenge to human civilization: to discover the limits of human understanding and respect them before we destroy ourselves. Meaning doesn’t mean much to the extinct. Humans must learn again to exist in balance with the rest of creation and to resist the Promethean temptations of Victor Frankenstein. Religion is all about a humble human relationship with the eternal. This aspect of human civilization has been dangerously neglected.

  2. Great article! I might add that in my world, religion and spirituality are absolutely not the same thing. As I’ve stated before, I detest organized religions as they truly fulfill the ubiquitous perception that they are designed to make the organization, ergo the leaders, wealthy at the expense of those who belong to it. Spirituality on the other hand is man’s search for, and understanding of his place in the cosmos, his purpose, his role.
    I am a Christian, and I never make apologies for being a Christian. In my own way, outside the boundaries of science and religion, I have discovered my purpose and meaning, and in the process I have come to believe that pure science and God are mirror images. After all, God is the author of all the laws and principles in the universe, and not the byproduct of them.
    No, I cannot tell you how God came into being. But there is no one to tell me how the singularity came into existence. At that very point science and spirituality are perfectly united…and man is left to determine which path he will take. If the path of scientific knowledge brings one to enlightenment, or if the path of God brings one to enlightenment, should we not all rejoice that we have arrived at the same place?
    Science was never “invented” to prove or disprove the existence of God. But as with most things, man’s interference introduced this distraction, and we are left to deal with the aftermath.
    My final thought here is this…if ANY organization, religious or scientific, attempts to seduce its followers into worshipping the institution and demands goods from its followers as well as strict adherence to its precepts, it’s probably a great idea to stay away from them.

  3. Thank you for the thought provoking article.
    To answer the question, I need to merely point to the most notable scientists and thinkers, Jung , Fenyman , Dostoyevsky, to show that a scientist can certainly believe in God. Jung actually said that " belief is not an adequate word, I know God exists ".

    We are born not knowing what gave us our life’s breath.
    Still in hubris, we go around labeling things . It’s silly actually but what alternative is there ? Anyhow we dwell at the conscious level and marvel at our ability to take a current activity and find a way to make it easier, more efficient and mastered relatively speaking.
    The problem is that we can only like where our ability is relative to where it was. For example, if the smartest man to ever live was tasked with keeping his body alive just by conscious thought, he would surely die within a minute. It is the subconscious that keeps the million balls juggling to keep our body alive, it is the subconscious that governs most of our decisions.
    Ask yourself , "what controls what interests me ".
    If it isn’t you then what is it and if it isn’t you then you need to exert as much influence as you can to not be a leaf in the wind let’s say. This lends itself to the Greek idea that men are the playthings of the gods.
    On a side note , one can say that religion is responsible for atrocity, one can also say that science is more than likely going to kill us all , I mean we’re actually trying to recreate the big bang on a small scale as if we knew what scale it was on. Both are right and wrong and in hubris but again, what choice do we have in fog but to advance . God help us.

  4. I have seen this elsewhere. My only point is that it is his belief he is comparing and as belief is flexible it merges very easily with science which are only facts. However it is totally understood that religion can not be factually proved as that would change everything. Can you imagine, in a world where religion was fact no one would pursue science and we would have to believe in our cell phones and microwaves as we would not know anything about their origins.They just appeared under a holiday tree which is celebrated the first of each month. Do not doubt me, in religion anything is possible.

  5. We’re a curious, insecure, adventurous species. Whoever, whatever, God if you prefer, has organized things so that we’re never bored. Panicked maybe but never bored. Mathematic & language has allowed us to reason things, but whether or not they’re right is a matter of experiment (mathematics) or life experience (language). We’ve also been given a brain that interprets our reality, whether it is correct or not (mental illness).

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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