Peterson is fascinated with religion and teaches a whole course on the Bible, but he doesn't seem to have much faith. If Peterson believes in a God, it must be an abstract sort of spirit who set the universe in motion but otherwise has better things to do than worry about us. For all practical purposes, we are on our own. Micah Meadowcroft, a religious traditionalist, sums up Peterson's theology like this:
There is no grace, and Jesus is just an "exemplar of human strength."I would call Peterson a humanist, in the basic sense that he thinks "man is the measure of all things." Like many humanists, Peterson thinks that the lack of a God who regularly intervenes in our lives is an opportunity. Since it is ultimately up to us, our choices have a deeper meaning than they would if God were in charge; I suppose that is the fundamental teaching of Existentialism. Freedom can be bleak, but it is not meaningless. You are on your own, but your very aloneness is the secret to your significance.
No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself.
Freedom is everything; the one thing we have, or at any rate the one meaningful thing, is the freedom to choose.Peterson's world is suspended between order and chaos and our choices and responsibility allow us to navigate that tension, to walk the narrow way between them in our fullest participation in Being.
As with everything else about Peterson's teaching, I connect this to his role as a therapist. The two thinkers I think he most resembles are M. Scott Peck and Judith Viorst, two other therapists with a philosophical bent. All three focus on you – the patient, the person, the hero of your own quest – and your confrontation with a world that feels cold, dark, and hostile. Well, they all say, maybe it is cold and dark, but that means any spark you can strike shines all the brighter. Maybe it is hostile, so sharpen your weapons and stand up strong to fight it. The emptier the void around you, the more freedom you have to act and the more important your actions; the greater the obstacles you face, the more glorious your victories.
As Meadowcroft says, Peterson's particular take on our situation has to do with order and chaos. It is sometimes hard to parse out exactly what he means by these words, but it seems related to a belief in work. What you should be doing, says Peterson, is working hard to make your world better. Symbols of this effort include proper posture, a clean room (common retort in my house: "go clean your room!"), a regular schedule, financial independence, and a sense of direction based on goals you are working toward. More deeply this could include seeking love and building a lifelong marriage, raising children, a successful career, working as an activist on causes that matter to you. If you think about Peterson's patients, who seem to include lots of young men doing nothing and going nowhere, I think you can see where this is coming from. On the one hand is an adult life of action and responsibility, on the other a listless drift through depression and addiction to drugs, porn, or video games. It also exactly replicates the main teaching of Peck in The Road Less Traveled, where he says among other things that love is work, that is, you love someone to the extent that you are actively working to make that person's life better. Peterson's teaching also has the vaguely political implication that life is more meaningful when it is built around rules and clearly defined roles, which provide some of the clarity that keeps everything from being a sad muddle.
This all resonates with me. I am an agnostic about the sort of God who wrote the equations for the universe, or who just is the equations of the universe, but I have never had any sense of a supernatural presence so I agree that in practical terms we are alone. With respect to God, that is; the thing that bothers me most about all three therapists I have mentioned is that they focus so much on the lone person. I personally think that we are social beings as much as anything else, and that a good life has to involve deep and lasting relationships with others. Peterson's models of the lone hero is I think a flawed one, because it implies we could win these cosmic battles on our own. He seems to think that there is us, and then outside us somewhere are society and other people, but I think other people are part of our inmost existence, and that a good life in one in which we are fundamentally not alone.