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.
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.”
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.