Free Will

Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. ~Mark Twain

One of the timeless questions of religion and philosophy is whether man has free will. Indeed, the topic has been cause for great divides in the church, with Calvinism/predestination on one hand and Arminianism/free will on the other. Both will pull out this and that biblical verse to support their case. But what about God? This topic is not debated as often. While the debate over man’s free will, which now spills over even into science, has been going on for centuries, nobody much poses the question about the righteous dude in the sky. I believe the first inclination would be, at least for those who fancy such lofty sky lords, yes. God must have free will. He’s God, after all.

But wait. God can do only good. In most Christian circles there is no chance of him performing an evil act. Ever. Even though by default he was the one who allowed evil to exist in the first place. So how can he have free will? As all-powerful as he might be, by the virtue of this definition of being incapable of an evil act (much as Christians say of man that he is incapable of any good on his own), God can not have free will. Just as it is said man is born to sin and in bondage to it, incapable of doing right since the Fall, so in like respect God must be a slave to “good.” What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Nothing, I guess. I reckon you could say that is a good thing, if true. But it’s not free will. It will be argued then that God has free will, but just lacks the desire to do evil. But it’s also hard to see how one can call God good in this sense. People are called ‘good’ when they do right when they could have done otherwise. Let me illustrate for further clarification: we don’t consider animals that kill and eat other animals to be either good or evil, that’s just their nature and what they do to survive. But that’s not the case when it comes to people killing people. If God is no different from those animals, that it’s just his nature, then likewise there is no reason to call him either good or evil.

But more to the point, if God can have free will and not be evil, he should be able to create us the same way–with free will but incapable of performing an evil act. After all, isn’t that what heaven is supposed to be like? At that point, your seat is secure, right? Because you’re not going from bondage to sin to bondage to God, right? So why all the drama and tortured souls to get there? If God can do only good, and is all-powerful, how can there be the possibility of evil, even in a passive sense? It thus seems to follow that the existence of evil, of an eternal place of torture and torment called hell, must be good, or such things wouldn’t exist under such a luminous being.

One of the common arguments against these questions and angle of reasoning is, “God doesn’t want robots. He wants people to freely choose Him.” As humans we can relate very well to this sentiment. We want our friends and loved ones, our children and spouses, to love us for who we are. But this reasoning simply cannot work with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God that Christians espouse. An all-powerful, all-knowing God, by virtue of being what He is, can create nothing but robots. There is no mystery, no lack of knowledge, in which a person’s choice of God would be giving him warm fuzzies. Christians will tell us that God loves us more than anything, that he is “long suffering…not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). That humanity is the crown of his creation. Despite this, we are to understand that God has known from all eternity that his favored creation would fall and that the majority of it (and, for an all-powerful God, I believe we can safely say that this, no matter your view on free will versus predestination, serves as a resounding fail) would be thrown into an eternal torment he created. But gosh, He loves us. At no point did this all-powerful, all-seeing God go, “maybe I should approach this differently, because gee, I’d like to save more than a handful of these cute guys.” No, it is quite clear that this God does not love everybody. This can only be the brutal God of Calvinism, the one who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). At least the New Testament Paul seemed to get it. Calvinists are okay with this, because it’s not like they are getting pitched into hell. They are the special elect. Sucks for you, though. Of course, a God that finds fault with a creation that He created to be damned is, of itself, problematic and Arminians interpret the verse a different way by jumping through a different hoop. It is complications such as this that have led some believers to what is called open theism, which posits a God that, in some sense, puts his power in his hip pocket or otherwise turns it off and that the future is not so predetermined. Ergo, it is open. Hardline fundamentalists regard this as heresy.

And what makes something Good? Another option is that an act of God is good by virtue of God being God, regardless of what the act may be–because God declares it to be so, and so by virtue it can be nothing less. Whether it is snuffing a race of people because he is angry with them or hardening pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power, it is all good, because God is the doer. That’s more problematic than it sounds, for either God creates good by virtue of what he decrees, or good exists extraneous from God. If something is good only because God says it is–ergo he creates good–then murder, rape, theft, it can all be good. God only need give the nod. And in Old Testament times, he did. If, however, good exists extraneous from God, if certain things hold true regardless and by which God himself is restricted, then it must be said something higher than God exists. And if God can only do good because that is so much a part of his nature he can do nothing else, then good is more powerful than God. If the former is true, all God has to do is declare everything good. Problem solved, we all go to heaven. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. God is bound, he can’t just say what is good and what is not anymore. There is a code that governs and which God must follow, even if we don’t fully understand that code. In defense one might say God IS the code. Which would also be to say, of course, God has no free will. He’s a program, a robot. And, again, a robot can be considered neither good nor evil, but only follow its programming. In this sense, God is no different from the robots he doesn’t want.

So it’s not a question of if God doesn’t, for instance, lie to us just because he’s such a great guy, but if God even has the capacity to lie. Consequently, if there is no capacity, there is no chance for temptation or desire. And how could a being with no capacity of choice possibly relate to the humans who face temptation and by whose choices they are judged? The concept of choice, of temptation, would be an alien concept. Some argue that is why God became man, to better relate to the human experience. But, generally speaking and definitely in fundamentalist circles, that’s not the reason given. That whole death and resurrection was also part of the program.

Which leads one to wonder exactly what heaven will be for those who make the cut. Heaven is most oft portrayed as a place of no suffering, no tears, no pain, and, of course, no evil. There is simply the adoration and bliss of being with and serving God (though I’m not sure what that service would entail). The Bible seems to make it clear there will be gradation or levels attained based on service/performance during your earthly existence, with the saints certainly being right at the top on Cloud Nine. But maybe you only make Cloud Five. Still, it’s heaven, and you’re perfectly happy right where you’re at, because there is no regret or envy, and certainly no sniveling. Given that you’re going to be perfectly happy no matter what cloud you land on, as the actor asks, “Exactly what is my motivation here?” Just get your foot in the door. To be honest, given one looses all desire to do anything but praise God, it sounds like a brainwashing program to me. And, to paraphrase a point made by Matt Dillahunty, I know such a heaven cannot exist, because it would make my beloved family who do believe sad to know I was not there. There is no way my grandmother is happy in heaven if she sees that I’m going to hell. If she is, or the memory of me has been wiped or altered or whatever it is God does against her will (because I can’t imagine someone wanting to forget their loved ones), then quit simply she is no longer my grandmother.

Such are the conundrums when your god is  elevated from a pleabian god amongst many to Master of the Universe.



Reasons To (Not) Believe

The struggle to believe and reason through faith is a constant battle for the faithful. Reasons To Believe is an organization that aims to meet this endeavor with a blend of modern-day science and biblical exegesis. It’s an organization I have more than a passing familiarity with. A younger, more faithful me once enrolled in their home study apologetics course. In a world where science and logic call metaphysics into constant doubt, it was the greatest factor keeping me tied to a tenuous belief as I grew older. The leading members of RTB aren’t just bible thumpers. They’re astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, and more. Unlike their interfaith rivals (the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis come to mind) served by young earth luminaries such as Ken Ham, RTB holds to a scientifically friendly old age creation date, the Big Bang theory, and some of them hold to a local (as opposed to global) flood. Their goal is to come up with scientifically testable models that support the bible. I have left my faith, but I still like to keep my toe in the theological swimming pool. So I still drop in on RTB now and again to see what they think they have up their sleeve.

There are some questions that continue to haunt the faithful throughout the centuries even while they bracket bible verses with scientific overlay to give hope. Such as why does an all-powerful righteous deity allow evil and suffering (aka the problem of evil). Fazale Rana, biochemist and Executive Vice President of Research and Apologetics at RTB, tried to answer this age-old question in regards to one example: earthquakes. You can read his original article here. Fuzz’s conclusion? It’s the fault of corrupt governments, not God. Seriously.

Fazale clearly seems to have his head out of the game in this article. At one point he writes “more deaths occur in poverty-stricken parts of the world” where, as one might expect, building codes aren’t the best and you get by with what you can, and then writes “yet, there’s another factor at play. Some countries experience more…deaths than expected based on the country’s income.” So, you live in ramshackle slums, your chances are better of dying in a severe quake. Kind of like if you don’t have a good health care system, that disease is more likely to kill you. Makes sense. But then Fazale wants to tie earthquake deaths to corrupt countries, quoting Transparency International as saying “It is in these countries that about 83% of all deaths from earthquakes in the past three decades have occurred.” The most “striking in comparison” for Fuzz are the two 7.0 quakes that hit Haiti and New Zealand, respectively. He says, in essence, that Haiti suffered casualties topping 300,000 because their government is corrupt and that New Zealand, being pillars of governmental virtue, had a death toll amounting to zero. His bottom line? “Quake-related deaths stem from, in large measure, moral failings and could rightly be understood as an example of moral evil, not natural evil. Blame corrupt humans, not God.”

Wait a minute. What?? Because God is punishing the poverty-stricken because they are subject to bad governance? Or God would stop earthquakes if governments would just straighten up? Certainly a case can be made for better architecture resulting in a lower death toll, but how does that play out historically under this notion? You know, before architecture reached this zenith. Under Fazale, I take it he believes we should be living under a nanny state government whose duty it is to keep us out of poverty and provide us with the best in quake-proof architecture. At no point does Fazale, besides leaving the definitions of poverty and corruption parameters undefined, scientifically demonstrate how governmental corruption is a better explanation for quake deaths than, say, this: Haiti is 10,641 square miles with a population density of 781 per square mile, while New Zealand is 103,734 square miles with a population density of 39 per square mile. Call me silly, but I believe where you have the most people crammed together, especially when that differential margin is extreme, is where your higher death toll is going to be regardless of how unpleasant your government is. So much for looking at this with a scientific bent.

This is what happens when believers stretch their “science” trying to make a case for or defend their God when they really don’t have a good explanation. So take the advice I give our ten-year old. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” One of the reasons I became disenchanted with RTB was their propensity for reading science into every passage of scripture they possibly could. Because at some point poetry and metaphor is just that, it’s poetry and metaphor. It doesn’t need a scientific underpinning to enhance it. By it’s very nature poetry and metaphor is subject to wide ranges of interpretation, and the Bible is far from western literature. So, much like people’s interpretation of their god, you pick the interpretation that best enforces your belief of what should be. That’s what believers do the world over, and RTB is no different.

31 Questions

Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) with apologist Matt Slick posted a list of 31 questions for atheists to answer. Many atheists rose to the occasion (or challenge?) and you can find their answers in blogs and YouTube videos around the net. These are wonderful in getting a fuller view of how different atheists think about the issues. However, I consider myself an igtheist or theological noncognivist. Which means, to paraphrase RationalWiki, whereas agnosticism declares “you can’t really know either way,” igtheism states “you haven’t even agreed on what you’re discussing.” The igtheist position is “I have no clear concept of anything labeled ‘God’ nor any reason to suspect that anyone else does either.” But I’m not an apatheist. I find the argument not only interesting, but also socially relevant. While the concept of God may be ambiguous, there are a great many who believe they know exactly what God is and what God wants. On a personal level for people this may be fine, but this often translates into how one perceives and treats others, from chopping hands and heads off to racism to female genital mutilation to saying who can marry whom to what one is allowed to read. I find it hard to be apathetic about these things.

  1. How would you define atheism?

I’m good with Merriam Webster’s definition “a disbelief in deity” or, to rephrase, a lack of belief in god(s). To many atheists/skeptics/freethinkers atheism is a conclusion, not a proposition. Other people may put a different spin on it.

  1. Do you act according to what you believe in (there is no God) or what you don’t believe in (lack of belief in God)?

I act according to my conscience, motivation, and strongest inclination at any given moment (as we all do). After all, not all my inclinations are in agreement with each other. I respond to my environment and how it seems the world operates around me to achieve desired results. My skepticism about the existence of an ill-defined Supreme Being may influence some actions, but no more than the same skepticism regarding other superstitions/mythological beings (ghosts, leprechauns, psychics, and so forth).

  1. Do you think it consistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?

I don’t do this. Nor do most of the skeptical people with which I am familiar, though the confidence  may go higher when presented a case of particular revelatory theism. The burden of proof always lies with the person making the positive claim. Also, is it consistent for a believer to attempt to show that other gods don’t exist? There sure are a lot of Christian apologetics aimed at Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, and so forth. It is not inconsistent to argue against what you think is wrong. What a baffling question.

  1. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

Theological noncognitivism says nothing about the state of reality, only the state of the discussion regarding god(s). Even within denominations believers don’t agree on what God is or wants. But on a theistic (God giving revelation to particular people/groups) scale I’d say 99.99999%. I have no reason to believe that any of these people who can’t present a coherent definition of God are right.

  1. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

Isn’t what is correct also what properly represents reality? Unless Mr. Slick means something else by the term “correct,” I understand what’s correct is what also “properly represents reality.”

  1. How would you define what truth is?

If we’re talking about mathematical or scientific truth, it’s what can be reliably proven by experience–or, otherwise, what is correct and  properly presents reality. It’s repeatable (past observations are useful in predicting future results) and falsifiable by what we call the scientific method. One might consider other forms of “truth” that are more subjective–artistic truth, emotional truth, philosophical truth. So I guess it depends on what “truth” we’re talking about.

  1. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

Because there is no unambiguous definition of what constitutes God. God is a mental construct and seems best defined as people pretending to know something they can’t possibly know. Therefore it is impossible to determine any position on God’s existence.

  1. Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

I suppose I would be inclined towards a physicalist out of the two choices listed, although I am leaning towards a version of neutral monism as an area of current study. What is meant by “physical” is not fully understood and being expanded. Can “thought” be separated from the physical? It seems to at least be dependent on the physical, if not the same thing.

  1. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

As I answered in the first question, to me atheism is a conclusion, and only a conclusion to a single question. That’s not a worldview. However, viewed this way it would be compatible with any number of worldviews from capitalism to communism, from conservatism to progressivism. There are plenty of atheist fiscal conservatives who don’t find a home in the theocratic leanings of the Republican party, which might explain why the majority of Libertarians (according to an informal poll by the Libertarian party) are atheists. This is not to say that atheism isn’t a world view for others claiming the label, but you’d have to get that clarification from them.

  1. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

This question is painting with a very broad stroke. Not all Christians are created equal here. Are we talking about Westboro Baptist Church, or the person living out their belief in personal privacy? Because I have no problem with the people who want to apply their beliefs to their private lives and find enrichment in magical x. It’s when they start trying to bring everyone else under the heel of their belief that I have problems, such as when creationism is attempted to be passed off as science in schools, or segments of the population are denied privileges (such as the LGBT community for gay marriage) based on unfalsifiable ancient manuscripts. Indeed, Christians in America today seem very enthusiastic about “taking America back for God” and putting everyone under what they believe those rules to be. The only person a True Believer can really put under their conception of God’s thumb is themselves. Stick to that and we’re golden.

  1. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny his existence?

Reason and better arguments, although at this point I don’t deny that existence per se. Many Christians think that something “bad” must have happened for us atheists who turned away, and that may be true in some cases. But not for me. I enjoyed my faith and theology and the fellowship of believers. There were a couple of factors that propelled me to maintain that faith for longer than I might have. At the end of the day, it wasn’t any atheist that swayed me away, but Christianity itself. Just look at all the denominations, the varying interpretations, but how everyone believes they have the “right” version. That’s a bit of a simplification of my reasons, but it’s a start. That everybody was pretending to know things they  really didn’t, and I was too, and that there is nothing reliable about faith to reach correct conclusions. Now I’ve reached a point that, given that there is no unambiguous concept of what constitutes “god,” I don’t deny that existence; I don’t understand what is even meant by it, and I don’t think believers making the argument really do either.

  1. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

Generally speaking I think religious/superstitious belief has done more harm than good throughout history. But, given that I see religion as a human construct, that’s not to say it couldn’t be replaced by some other damaging construct. I believe we are fully capable of wrecking the ship of humanity without the iceberg of religion. However, I believe it is always better to believe in things that can be shown correct and accord with reality than not. If one has a belief that lacks evidence yet will not change or, worse, is contradictory to evidence, that is an unreasonable position. I think we’re better off without unreasonable positions. Also, for the good that religion does do, I find it easier to replace those motivations with justifiable secular humanist reasons than for finding justifiable reasons for, saying, bombing a building absent the idea of god. Of course this would not eliminate the problem. I’m only saying that, bereft of God, it’s easier to find other reasons to “feed the hungry” than it is to “kill the infidel.” Because, bereft of God, there are no infidels.

  1. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

I don’t see much difference here from the last question. Even were Christianity to be removed, that leaves a host of other religious rigmarole.

  1. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

No. People are indoctrinated into faith, it is not congenital. However, persistent belief in something without evidence, or contrary to evidence, can be considered delusional behavior.

  1. Must God be known through the scientific method?

I don’t know of any other reliable method to know things exterior to ourselves.

  1. If yes, how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

I don’t know what “immaterial” is or how it can be known (much less it have consciousness). Regardless, the God of the Levantine religions regularly is said to interact with the material world, so material evidence shouldn’t be an issue in these regards.

  1. Do we have any purpose as human beings?

Not any inherent purpose, but we can give ourselves purpose.

  1. If we do have a purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

People determine what their purpose is. Seriously, this is elementary stuff. But I understand how believers go astray here, because they believe that we must have an ultimate purpose (and have the hubris to say they know what that is). For them, otherwise, life must be meaningless. This is a non sequitur.

  1. Where does morality come from?

People. This is also self-evident.

  1. Are there moral absolutes?

Not that I’m absolutely certain about. I’m open to examples.

  1. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Most any moral, even those that find broad acceptance across multiple cultures (i.e., murder is wrong), falls on some scale with varying shades of grey. Generally I accept the axiom that what is moral is what promotes happiness, well-being, health and/or minimizes unnecessary suffering/harm.

  1. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

Are we talking evil with a capital “E” embodied in some nebulous force or entity? Then no. Otherwise evil is a moral construct created by people.

  1. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that he is bad?

My conscience.

  1. What would it take for you to believe in God?

For starters, a meaningful, understandable definition of what God is. Second, sufficient evidence for which the simplest falsifiable explanation is God. As an aside, if I am to accept the Christian god that is toted about as all-knowing and long-suffering so that none may perish, then that God knows what it would take for me to believe, and that hasn’t happened. Instead of behaving like my own parents, or so many other parents I know, who have done to the best of their abilities to guide their children out of love, this absent parent requires faith. And if you just can’t buy into that, well, it’s eternal torment for you. This doesn’t strike me as the best effort one might make to save the creation they supposedly love so much. It’s absurd. I can’t think of any other instance where faith of this sort would be considered a virtue. As Christopher Hitchens said, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  1. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

Evidence is sufficient if it’s empirically demonstrable and best explained by the hypothesis that God exists.

  1. Must this evidence be rationally based, archeological, testable in a lab, etc. or what?

I don’t know what “rationally based” evidence is. Evidence is empirically based. But, ideally, yes, something along these lines. If it’s not verifiable, it’s not evidence.

  1. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

Safer for who? At the end of the day, both groups are far too diverse to say that either  would be inherently safer–whatever is meant by that. The society I prefer is one that cherishes liberty, compassion, and evidential  empirical truths. If that society also happens to be one filled with people who believe in a mythical sky god but mind their own business, we’re copacetic.

  1. Do you believe in free will? (Free will being the ability to make choices without coercion.)

Is living under the threat of eternal damnation for making the wrong choice not coercion?? It does seem that most of us have some degree of free will, or at least the illusion, coerced or not. Others, such as the severely mentally ill, may have less so. So biology seems to play its role as well. It’s an interesting area of study, to be sure. But I don’t believe we can dismiss biology as playing a part in determining our behavior.

  1. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the  physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

As I see it? Maybe. The science is still out on the free will issue. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe there is some mixture there depending on how we define our terms. However, granted that the brain is “limited and subject to neuro-chemical laws,” this violates the previous definition of free will given here as “the ability to make choices without coercion”–if brain chemistry influences us, that is a form of coercion, and then it can’t be said that true free will exists. But that’s only one definition of free will.

  1. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

WTH? I might take this as the basis for some fantasy novel. But, yes, I affirm evolution. I don’t know if the universe will expand forever. And I have no freakin’ clue what is meant by “exceeding mere physical limitations.” If you’re going to use such an expression, you better be able to give a coherent definition of what it means.This is just…bizarre.

  1. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

See, the trick here is setting people up to most likely answer the previous question “yes.” So, no.