A Secular Case for Faith for Agnostics and Atheists

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.
Have you met my friend Sisyphus? I heard he’s in hell.

The Big Question(s)

How can I get the confidence to act? If I make sacrifices, how do I know any of it is going to pay off? Is self improvement possible? These are different ways of asking the same question. We want to make sure our suffering will pay off. And I thought a lot about this question of “how do I know…”, and the only answer I can see is, you can’t, and if you sit on your ass and wait for an answer, your time might have already passed by the time it comes, if it comes, and believing that it even will is a weird sort of faith. So what now. What are we to do, realizing that there’s no reward promised, that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel? Positive thinking? If you’re a skeptical person, saying “I will succeed” in front of a mirror doesn’t make it so and even when I tried that, I couldn’t believe it for a second. I’m a cynic and an agnostic, if you can’t already tell. Not everyone will succeed and a lot of them have tried positive thinking. Or making a schedule. Or any self help trick you can think of. They didn’t make it, and we don’t know why.

Sometimes you find a theory to fit the facts. Why did this person fail? He was unlucky? He didn’t try hard? Was he unlucky because he didn’t try hard, or did he not try hard from being demoralized by his lack of luck? Just because you manage to wrangle a theory into the container of circumstantial evidence, doesn’t mean it’s true and whatever your theory is, you can find real people to fit that. On the flip side, looking at people like Steve Jobs, who did, admittedly, work very hard, but had some undeniably lucky breaks, that’s also a mystery. And everybody has an opinion on why somebody succeeded or failed, and implicitly, an opinion about whether or not working hard works. And forgive my crudeness, but opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. So in my humble opinion, we are doomed to ignorance, and no amount of looking around can lead us to an indisputable conclusion.

The Evidence

Case Study 1: Hard work doesn’t pay off

I know a lot of people who would say it isn’t possible and live like that’s true. A friend of mine found out I wake up at at dawn, and I tell him of my workouts and increased productivity during those wee hours of the morning. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re valiant alright. I did that for a time. You’ll see eventually. It’s unsustainable.” Ok fine. There’s no reason for me to doubt that the guy made an earnest effort. But I also know how he lives. He’s quite unhealthy, sleeps past midnight until late morning or early afternoon on weekends, doesn’t exercise, cannot retire anytime soon and at his age (much older than me), doesn’t know what he wants and in any case even if he did, doubts he can get it. We’re very similar, and it makes me nervous to be around him sometimes because I can’t help seeing my future self in him and at this point in his life, he seems to have given up on the whole notion that he can, well, live properly.

Anything he himself admits he probably should do: join a gym, quit sugary drinks, work harder, save for retirement instead of spending his discretionary money, marry his girlfriend, etc. he has a hundred reasons as to why he can’t or shouldn’t. And it’s easy to point fingers and say, HAH. That’s why he failed! He’s a quitter and I bet he was always a quitter! Maybe. But that’s presumptuous. How do you know? How do you know he hasn’t tried his damnest, only to fall flat on his face every time and is now too demoralized to lift another finger? Self change is impossible, for most of us anyway. This is what this evidence says, because I mean, is he even that unusual? Who doesn’t know someone who fits his profile?

Case Study 2: Hard work does pay off, but you’re going to pay through nose for it

My mother. Only because I know her well. So let’s talk about the most impressive person I have the inside scoop on. The short version is, she grew up in a dirt poor family in a dirt poor country, and her parents, looking back, definitely suffered from a small army of untreated psychological disorders. I lived with my grandmother for a time. She’s a bit messed up, and that’s probably mild compared to what my mom experienced. Tl;dr, Mom had it hard. Dysfunctional parents. Poverty. Depression. ADHD. Mood disorders. Crippling debt. Raised me alone for most of my early childhood (dad worked elsewhere). And worst of all, her emotional regulation was nonexistent and couldn’t afford therapy. My dad nearly divorced her over it. But you don’t need the gory details. Suffice to say she went from being a volatile, bankrupt trainwreck of a person to someone successful in all the ways you can think of. Hell, she’s even happy and even tempered.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

Matthew 6:30

If I didn’t know her that well I wouldn’t have believed it myself. She must have had some hack. We’ve all heard of people like that and if you’re like me, you instinctively think, well, they have something I don’t. Sure, they worked very hard, but they have luck. Or grit. Or money. Or providence. Substitute anything you like, as long as you can’t have it. But I was there. I saw it. There was no hack. She suffered for discipline everyday, without fail, and most days she saw zero or negative progress. Because of this she screamed. Wept. Raged against the heavens (not being dramatic. She really did). She had an unstable personality and a real affinity for nihilism. Some of the things that came out of her mouth when she was like that will make most people wince. But she sacrificed for twenty years like a woman possessed, and then she prevailed, dropping many jaws. Twenty years. I haven’t been alive for much longer than that.

The Conclusion

If you’re like me, you’ve done this. You look around your world and try to figure out why some people you know succeed, and some fail. All that is, of course, limited by what you can observe about them and what they will tell you, but you nevertheless try to form a universal theory based on what evidence you manage to gather. So what’s the result of this little exercise? To me, it’s inconclusive. And look, if you can repeat affirmations and it really works, do it. If you can make yourself believe, don’t stop. But I can’t be the only who laughs cynically in my head no matter how much I tell myself nice things in front of a mirror, so the following is for people like me. TBH, there are a lot of people like my friend and lot fewer people like my mother, and even if you can make it, it’s a decades-long slog as far as she was concerned. It’s pretty bleak. She didn’t know she was going to succeed, and people who knew her didn’t believe it. Maybe she’s just got “it”, whatever that means. If “it” exists and Steve Jobs had “it”, he didn’t know it at 20. He can make up a story post hoc all he wants. He could well say, “yeah, looking back, everything in my life proves I was destined to found the world’s most valuable company.” Proves nothing. Ultimately, you’re an individual. No matter how other people’s lives pan out, it says nothing about you, only your possible fates.

Most people read 4 books a year. The mean is pulled up by avid readers, to a paltry 12. CEO’s read on average 60 books a year and they’re much busier than you. How do I know this? Well, statistics. Also, my mom’s a CEO and that was how hard she worked; she worked even harder to win that position, like 10-13 hour days with Saturdays. Past tense intentional. She’s turned into a veritable human supercomputer by now, works way less all the while presiding over her company’s tenfold expansion. I’m really mystified, but anyway. Try reading more if you’re into climbing the corporate dominance hierarchy. If you walk like a CEO and quack like a CEO, are you a CEO? Not necessarily. But if I gather the people who work out everyday, read a lot, work a lot and wake up early (none of these things are easy), will I get an overrepresentation of CEOs, concert pianists, top athletes and intellectual juggernauts at Harvard? Or hell, even just averagely successful folks you wish you could be? What if you think, “I don’t know one way or the other, but I’m going to study successful people and do what they do and it’s probably going to work”? Because if nothing else, research shows that your self belief is basically a self fulfilling prophecy. That one, you don’t even need to have faith in; it’s borne out by data. There’s no guarantee that if you sacrifice like them you will be them, but if you do everything you can to end up in the same statistical category as them, you just might. And if you’re going to assume something, and you’re definitely going to assume something (I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t have an assholeopinion on this), assume that. That’s some kind of faith.

“Noted author and speaker Jim Rohn once said, ‘We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.’ Throughout your life, you can make a choice as to how you suffer.”

– Peter Hollins, “The Science of Self-Discipline”

Jordan Peterson (and all the intellectual titans who inspire him) exhorts us to aim for our highest good with the right sacrifices, because there isn’t anything else to do. What’s the alternative? Wallow in our resentment of the pain of living? Sure. That’s easy- in the moment. Because it means we can stay still for a little longer and avoid our demons for another day. But is it easier in the long run? If you had faith and sacrificed and failed, well, you failed. If you didn’t sacrifice, you failed. If you’d tried, as my SO would say, “at least you have a story for the bar.” Great. You’re marginally more interesting! That’s better than having no story at all. That few months of blood, sweat and tears you suffered to no avail? Probably not enough. Do more. Another month. A year. Five years. Twenty years. After you have sacrificed enough, only then will you know. And I’m not sure you can ever say you’ve sacrifice enough to reach your personal heaven; how do you know? You can’t. Life is suffering, folks, we all have to bear a load whether we like it or not, and it’s named “hard work” or “regret”.

PS: There is some scientific consensus to back up this faith as Peterson will gladly point out. I wrote with minimal reference to scientific evidence because when you’re in the trenches, you don’t have time to think about science; on a certain level it feels irrelevant to us. And it’s a happy consensus; happy and challenging, because being conscientious is not easy, and having high IQ is certainly not easy because you’re born with what you’re born with, but both these factors are somewhat within your control. Sleep well, eat healthy, exercise, don’t drink too much or do drugs; those are things you can do to maintain your IQ at your personal maximum. Conscientiousness is also trainable; for that, read “The Science of Self Discipline” by Peter Hollins.
PPS: If you want to know more on what successful people have in common, read Cal Newport or Covey. All of Newport’s books if you can manage it. If you’re a student, read “How to be a Straight A Student”. He’s interviewed loads of star students and they do very similar things.

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