Evolution vs. Religion vs. Storytelling — A Writer’s Take on Jordan Peterson’s Theory

Should we believe in something that’s “metaphorically true, but literally false”?

Maybe? In a recent discussion that’s of critical importance to storytellers, the ever-controversial Bret Weinstein invited the equally polemical Jordan Peterson onto his podcast. Of interest to me (and hopefully most storytellers), Brett called a belief in an afterlife, “metaphorically true, but literally false.” But while that’s sure to cause a stir with some folks, Jordan Peterson’s response proved even more fascinating…

And if you’re a storyteller, it’s worth digging deeper into this philosophical conversation about storytelling and the nature of truth.

WHAT DO EVOLUTION AND RELIGION HAVE TO DO WITH STORYTELLING?

The YouTube algorithm recommended that I watch a conversation between evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein and psychologist Jordan Peterson — both controversial, thought-provoking philosophers (or, if you have a strong distaste for them, “old, white guy podcasters”).

But whether you like them or hate them, this discussion has important implications for storytellers, because they delve into human evolution, religion, and the power of storytelling.

So… what do evolution and religion have to do with storytelling?

Maybe everything?

DELAYED GRATIFICATION IN HUMANS

Weinstein and Peterson’s full conversation covers a variety of topics, but I’m going to focus in on their thoughts about storytelling. In order to do that effectively (without you having to listen to their entire show), I do need to set up their conversation.

From the jump, Jordan and Bret launch into their theories on evolution and consciousness, which leads them down a path of noting the differences between humans and animals. The key takeaway here is that they agree on the first discussion point:

One of the notable attributes that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the unique way in which humans are able to delay gratification.

[CLIP: Starts at 26:00 and ends at 27:03]

In other words, when given the choice between instant gratification — let’s say, the taste bud satisfaction and sugar rush of eating a Twinkie — or delayed gratification — having six-pack abs this summer — humans are capable of making a value judgment and delaying their gratification in order to achieve a bigger goal. (That’s my example, by the way, not theirs.)

Eating a Twinkie is easy. Washboard abs are hard — in this case, metaphorically and literally (which is a joke that will pay off later — though the payoff really isn’t that great so don’t get your hopes up).

I swear there’s a storytelling connection coming here, but I have to set up a bit more of their argument first…

DELAYED GRATIFICATION AND THE AFTERLIFE

So, Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson agree: Delayed gratification separates human beings from animals. Which brings Bret to his next, more controversial point: The human capability to delay gratification is the reason why humans form beliefs in an afterlife.

[CLIP: Starts at 30:55 and ends at 31:47]

Because you can say no to Twinkies and get washboard abs, you can also delay instant gratification while you’re living so that you can attain a superior afterlife. In other words, your religion is based entirely on evolutionary biology. Religion — most notably religious belief in an afterlife — is an extreme form of our unique, human ability to delay gratification. As an example, if religious people choose not to commit sins (i.e., instant, earthly gratification) while they’re alive, they’ll receive something far better when they die: a better afterlife (i.e., delayed, heavenly gratification).

Bret Weinstein and Jordan Peterson have now presented two points:

  1. Human beings are unique in that they can delay gratification.
  2. Because humans can delay gratification, they form beliefs about the potential for an afterlife.

Note the significance here of why religions are formed given an evolutionary framework for human understanding. Said differently, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that humans would form religious beliefs. But there’s one more building block to cover here, and then we get to the discussion about storytelling…

METAPHORICALLY TRUE, BUT LITERALLY FALSE

Let’s unpack Bret’s sense-making exercise about why it makes sense, from an evolutionary biologist’s viewpoint, that human beings would form religious beliefs in an afterlife. Why would human beings do that? What benefit does that form of delayed gratification have for an evolved species?

Bret’s theory goes as follows:

Humans create religions — which are, according to Bret, a form of mythology — in order to benefit future generations of the species. (Re-worded more bluntly by me: humans tell themselves lies about the existence of an afterlife so that they’ll avoid committing sins, which in turn benefits their offspring.) Resisting the instant gratification of sin means setting up future generations to inherit a better planet.

The lie you tell yourself about an afterlife is a helpful lie. It tricks you into doing things that help future generations.

Bret describes belief in an afterlife as, “metaphorically true, but literally false.”

[CLIP: starts at 32:12 and ends at 32:16]

To recap the building blocks of this discussion again:

  1. Human beings are unique in that they can delay gratification.
  2. Because humans can delay gratification, they form beliefs about the potential for an afterlife.
  3. Belief in an afterlife is an example of delayed gratification meant to impact the lives of our offspring and is, “metaphorically true, but literally false.”

Now, we can finally transition into our discussion about storytelling…

STORYTELLING: METAPHORICALLY TRUE, BUT LITERALLY FALSE?

Here it is, the connective tissue binding evolution, religion, and storytelling together: most works of fiction strive to be, “metaphorically true, but literally false.”

Jordan Peterson picks up on that point here by asking a critical question: What contains the greater truth, the metaphor that benefits humanity or the cold, hard facts that may cause humanity harm? My paraphrase, but his actual words can be heard here:

[CLIP: starts at 32:07 and ends at 32:41]

Storytellers should not miss this point or the implications of it. Jordan Peterson is asking an important question: Is it better to believe in the fantasy that improves your life and the lives of those around you, or is it better to face the grim reality of the dreadful scenario that lies before you? Which belief is better for humanity?

Which begs a deeper question that must be considered: What is truth?

Do facts that offer nothing more than cold comfort — a better knowledge of reality, perhaps — but that paint a bleak, despairing future… do those facts contain more truth than a belief in a fantasy world that furthers the species? Which truth is superior?

The implication for storytellers is striking. How do we approach the art of storytelling given the implication that storytelling itself could be a higher form of truth? Let that sink in for a moment… Is storytelling a higher form of truth?

While Bret and Jordan go on to compare religious belief to scientific belief (in which Bret makes some fascinating comparisons), I’ll skip ahead a bit because I want to keep the focus on storytelling.

IS THE ESSENCE OF STORYTELLING A QUEST FOR TRUTH?

There’s a lot to unpack here. And for the record, I’ve never heard Jordan Peterson or Bret Weinstein claim to be a storyteller. But, Jordan Peterson, as a psychologist, does spend a lot of time talking about personal responsibility and comparing that ideal to the Hero’s Journey (as outlined by Joseph Campbell), which he talks about here on this podcast as well.

If metaphor and fantasy can convey higher forms of truth, then the implications for storytellers are enormous. Storytellers have an incredible responsibility to humanity. In fact, Jordan Peterson absently wonders if storytelling can give us a picture of the Divine, or stated differently: the highest form of truth.

I’m going to respond to that question separately, because as a Christ-follower, I have thoughts. But for now, I’ll stick to the implications this theory has for storytellers. If we assume the points made here are valid and have some level of meaning (which is optional, to be sure), then we are left with these building blocks:

  1. Human beings are unique in that they can delay gratification.
  2. Because humans can delay gratification, they form beliefs about the potential for an afterlife.
  3. Belief in an afterlife is an example of delayed gratification meant to impact the lives of our offspring and is, “metaphorically true, but literally false.”
  4. Belief in and adherence to metaphor and fantasy may present us with a higher form of truth than does belief in cold, hard facts.

If you ever listen to the videos and podcasts we produce for The Art of Storytelling YouTube channel or The Story Geeks podcast or even my articles here on Medium, then you know we care passionately about that last point. The implications of the last point are striking, and they present storytellers with important questions to consider:

  • What beliefs will I, the storyteller, form in the minds of those who engage with my stories?
  • Do I have a responsibility to tap into a higher form of truth?
  • Is storytelling a quest for truth and perhaps even a quest to understand the Divine?

Those who know me will know that I answer the second and third questions with a resounding, “yes!” Which means that the answer to the first question must be consciously and ardently worked out if storytellers are to tap into something that changes lives.

Many storytellers may respond with, “I’m not trying to change lives. I just want to entertain!” That’s all fine and good, but I would argue that the question still must be considered, maybe in less detail, but at least pondered momentarily. Why? Because if the storyteller ignores the implications of the story’s impact on their audience, what if the storyteller drives people in an opposing direction to the truth? What if the storyteller’s audience begins to believe in outright lies?

Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein are suggesting that the human mind is shaped by stories. Stories drive belief. What stories are feeding your belief system? And are those stories improving your life and the lives of those around you or are they causing harm?

If you’re a storyteller, would you accept driving your audience in a direction that causes harm, either to the individual or to the community at large? It’s a heavy question. And it’s the reason we always encourage both storytellers and the audiences engaging with their stories to, “Question everything in your favorite stories and always seek the Truth.”

I’ll close out this article by posing the root of these questions back to you. Whether you’re a storyteller or someone who loves to engage with stories, consider this the next time you find yourself engaging in a story:

What is Truth?