In the 17 May 2021 episode of his podcast, Jordan Peterson talks to Stephen Fry about how atheists view the moral value of mythology. (Fry, a well-known atheist, is also the author of three books on classical mythology: Mythos (2017), Heroes (2018) and Troy (2020)). Fry’s exploration of myth can be seen as a rational humanist’s effort to highlight the value of certain ideas from antiquity, regardless of the literal truth of the stories in which they are embedded.
As a novelist and an atheist, I consider the mythopoeic tradition a valuable part of our cultural heritage and intellectual history. I think that mythologies and world religions should be taught in school—from a structuralist point of view: how they’ve evolved, converged and diverged; what narratives, themes and symbols they have in common; and how they illustrate the historical development of ideas about the cosmos, morality, medicine and law. Learning about a variety of myths and religions can also help us understand how people used to think, and why many of us don’t think that way anymore. Fry’s popular books about the heroic sagas of ancient Greece help accomplish these goals.
Peterson claims that he is trying to do the same thing with respect to Christianity: to “extract that which is crucial” from it, rather than simply “dismiss that which is no longer relevant,” as atheists tend to do. And yet he insists that the religious impulse is indispensable to morality, and that Christ, specifically, embodies how a moral life should be lived. That is, he wants us not only to find moral and cultural value in Christianity, but also to accept its Logos. In fact, he seems to be asking for much more than “extracting that which is crucial.” And perhaps separating what seems “crucial” in Christianity from a belief in Christian teachings is not practicable. Unlike Christianity, ancient Greek polytheism has long been downgraded from a religion to a mythology—so it is easy to convey the moral insights it contains without confusing people into thinking that belief in polytheism is necessary to lead a moral life. The question is whether Christianity could survive this demotion and still retain the moral and cultural value that Peterson believes it has: how much value can a holy book retain once it ceases to be seen as holy?
Perhaps the greatest test of this question was performed by Thomas Jefferson, who embarked on a project of extracting what he thought was valuable about scripture and leaving behind that which he found indefensible. Using a razor blade and glue, he cut all of Jesus’ teachings out of the gospels and pasted them into a new text, omitting the other material—the miracle stories and supernatural claims. He described the result—which he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—as an attempt to strip scripture of the “artificial vestments” that he saw priests exploiting for power and profit.
Jefferson’s book was not only very short, but somewhat incoherent: the passages contain awkward lacunae, and the verse is sometimes amputated mid-sentence. This was probably unavoidable, since it is difficult to separate Jesus’ teachings from his claims to divinity. A secularist may still find useful ethical advice in the gospels, but this requires her to ignore the very thing that Christianity demands one embrace: Christ’s divinity. If Christ is not seen as a divine, supernatural being, many of his teachings cease to be morally coherent. For example, no moral man would claim that, in sacrificing his life, he could prospectively absolve the sins of all humankind, or that redemption can only be attained for those who throw themselves on his mercy. C. S. Lewis, a devout Christian, says as much in Mere Christianity, arguing that it is impossible to admire Jesus as a moral philosopher unless one accepts that he is literally the son of God:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.
Thus, from a Christian standpoint, one must go the whole hog. If you cannot bring yourself to accept the divinity of Christ, the moral architecture of Christianity crumbles. And that is the problem with Peterson’s recommended approach. He seems to advocate acting as if God exists, even if one doesn’t believe it. Sam Harris has aptly described this approach as “logos smuggling.” Call it what you want, it is neither secular, nor wholeheartedly Christian.
One reason many of us enjoy reading Greek epics is that we are not burdened by a demand to see them as anything more than great stories. We go to them for cultural heritage and ancestral wisdom, but rarely for moral instruction, or as a guide to ethical conduct. Indeed, using them that way would be reprehensible: their gods are portrayed as routinely committing unapologetic acts of rape, slaughter and capricious cruelty. For example, while Achilles may be one of the great ancient archetypes of honour, family, pride and glory, we don’t wish to emulate his conduct (by, for example, dragging the bodies of our enemies in a circle around their homes).
We would presumably feel the same way about the Bible if we were to read it the way we read Gilgamesh or The Iliad. For example, the book of Job, read as fiction, is a tragedy that explores the nature of grief and the experience of endurance through loss. But read as an allegory intended to justify the ways of God to man, it is wicked. The same goes for the story of Abraham and Isaac: read as fiction, it is an absurd drama about the nature of sacrifice; seen instead as the foundation of Judeo-Christian morality, it ties one into moral knots that can’t be slipped. The same is true of Jesus’ crucifixion: if it is read as the story of a man being lynched for teaching others and attempting to reform his tribe, it can be experienced as moving and powerful. But if we are asked to accept it as something that actually happened––and for which we must be grateful because it was necessary in order to free us from sin––it becomes morally abhorrent.
If a stage magician’s audience believed that she was actually sawing someone in half, they would be screaming with horror. If readers take the Bible as literature rather than as factually true, that defangs it. Reading the Bible as literature was therefore one of the goals of the Enlightenment. Beginning in the eighteenth century, most Christians switched from insisting on the Bible’s literal truth to insisting on its poetic truth. Secularists tend to forget how intensely literal Biblical interpretation used to be. Today, when Christians apologise for some indefensible biblical passage, they almost always do so by appealing to its poetic or metaphorical truth. This shift is a triumph that both secularists and Christians tend to take for granted.
The Enlightenment was also the era in which the modern novel was born. Books like Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones and Candide inaugurated a tradition of fictional, secular literature that could both teach and delight: Rousseau called Robinson Crusoe the only book a child needed to read in order to learn how to survive in the world. The instructive content of secular literature arguably reached its peak in the nineteenth century, with the bildungsromane (novels about right education and the development of good character) and the moral dramas of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Henry James. In this period, belief in the desirability of sublime experience—the inspired condition—began to replace belief in the supernatural, and literary criticism began to replace exegesis. In his 2020 book, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness Ritchie Robertson writes:
For very many people, the supernatural is now literature: that is, the excitement or awe associated with supernatural phenomena is nowadays generated not by supposedly religious experiences, but by the reading of imaginatively compelling fiction … And much of the labour formerly devoted to the exegesis of sacred texts has now been transferred to the interpretation of the secular literary canon.
One of the ongoing goals of modernity is to recover a sense of the numinous without falling victim to religion’s supernatural claims. The secular literary canon has furthered this goal. There is as much joy and insight to be had in Whitman, Shakespeare, Kafka and Lucretius as there is in any holy book. And the beautiful thing about literature is that everything is provisional––it asks questions instead of handing down answers, and it never speaks in absolutes. The moment one introduces moral absolutes into a work of poetry and makes it the basis of an ideology, it begins to rot from the inside out.
Religions are literary phenomena: they are based on storytelling; they rely on moral allegories for instruction and express their ideas through poetry; they use literary tools like metaphor and symbolism; and they depend on language as the delivery system for truth. The Judeo-Christian religious tradition––one of the first to codify itself in a bound, self-contained volume that demanded interpretation––is arguably the most literary religious tradition. If there is anything in that tradition worth preserving, it is that. The Bible is possibly the greatest book ever composed. But all holy books are ultimately just books. And, like all books, they are best enjoyed when we don’t believe that they were divinely inspired.