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Why both atheists and Christians need to believe in free will

Free will vs determinism isn’t just a debate for Christians. Atheists face a similar conundrum, as Justin Brierley explains

Someone I know (let’s call him Joe) recently owned up to an embarrassing incident during his time at Bible college.

Another student there (let’s call him Trevor) was a confirmed Calvinist, who believed that everything in life had been predestined by God – from eternal salvation to the colour of the socks he’d put on that morning. In fact, such was his love of John Calvin that he even kept a plaster-of-Paris bust of the Reformer in his bedroom.

Joe frequently got into disputes with Trevor. Joe believed that God gives us freedom to choose or reject him and that Calvin was wrong about predestination.

On one occasion they got into such a heated argument that, in a fit of frustration, Joe grabbed the bust of Calvin and smashed it to smithereens over Trevor’s head...fortunately no lasting harm was done (except to John Calvin).

When Joe told me this frankly hilarious story, I couldn’t resist suggesting a plausible excuse he should have given Trevor: “It wasn’t my fault. I was predestined to do it!”

Christian determinism 

Calvin may have written his theology 500 years ago, but his thoughts continue to influence much of the Church today.

Calvin was a key figure of the Reformation, alongside Martin Luther, the monk who rediscovered the truth that salvation was a free gift of God’s grace without need of any efforts on our part. But Calvin took that thought a whole lot further.

If God’s grace alone is sufficient for salvation, then we must have played no part in it at all. God chose us, we did not choose him. In Calvin’s mind, God had predestined those who will be saved and those who will be damned. The lynchpin for this view was contained in Romans: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29).

According to many Calvinist theologians, the Bible also testifies to God’s total and meticulous control of every aspect of life. Whatever influence humans think they may have over their destinies, in reality God is the one who has planned it all out from the beginning. As Calvin himself wrote in The Institutes: “Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”

Has God predetermined every thought in every heart?

This perspective amounts to a ‘deterministic’ view of reality. The world is the way it is and could be none other, because God has predetermined every atom and every thought of every heart. In such a universe, human free will is an illusion. We are all playing our designated parts in a script that was written before the world began. To Calvinists this is a testament to God’s glory. To others it looks like the work of a puppet master. Like an impossible optical illusion, the puzzle of free will can be confusing for many Christians. But they aren’t alone.

Atheist determinism 

Calvinistic Christians have more in common with many atheists than they may realise. Determinism has also become a very popular philosophy among their godless counterparts. For some time, prominent voices in atheist circles have also been announcing that the notion of free will is past its sellby date.

Popular atheist author Sam Harris wrote a book titled Free will (Free Press) which, drawing on research in neuroscience, argued that our innate sense of freedom is merely an illusion foisted on us by nature. None of us is actually in control of what we do. So far so Calvinist. But rather than believing God has predestined us, atheists like Harris say the universe is responsible.

Atheist determinism springs from a ‘materialist’ worldview. All that exists is the ‘material’ stuff of the universe. Everything about us and the world we live in can ultimately be explained by the physics of atoms, electrons, quarks and neutrons, interacting according to the predictable regularity of natural laws.

Think of it like this: the skill of the snooker player is in predicting as accurately as possible how the balls will ricochet off each other in order to find the pockets on the table. But, theoretically, if a snooker player lined up their very first shot with perfect precision and perfect force, they could clear the table in one shot. The universe is like that, but on a much bigger scale.

Every single physical event, from the movements of electrons to the orbits of the planets, follows predictable laws of cause and effect. Therefore, the way the universe is now is a direct result of the way it was when it first began. If you rewound the clock by 13 billion years to the exact same physical state of affairs, things would roll out in exactly the same way they already have.

But, in such a universe, the idea that we have any measure of free will evaporates. Every aspect of our existence was predestined by a cosmos blindly following the laws of cause and effect.

Unbelievable? presents: The Big Conversation

Are we determined to behave well?

In this excerpt of their dialogue, atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett (DD) and Christian philosopher Keith Ward (KW) talk to Justin Brierley (JB) about whether or not we have free will

DD: I assume that you’ve been raised to be a moral and non-violent man Keith?

KW: Non-violent, yes (smiles).

DD: If I were to hand you a gun right now and suggest “why don’t you shoot Justin in the arm?” just to prove you have free will, would you?

KW: I might surprise you!

DD: You might, but you won’t! And you won’t because you know better. I bet very, very large sums of money you’re not going to do it and it’s going to be a free choice, but you’d better hope that it’s not an undetermined choice because if it were then you might suddenly find yourself doing it, in spite of all of your previous experience.

KW: Ah…my view is not that you would find yourself doing it, but that you could decide to do it, which is very different.

DD: Well, who is the ‘you’ that’s doing the deciding?

KW: But I’ve got a ‘you’. You’ve just got a brain! The subject self which I’ve got is the soul. In Christian terms it is also an agent self, so it decides between courses of action. So, it is not determined by its past behaviour – I would not actually shoot Justin – but there are things that I would do to Justin if you asked me to.

JB: I’m starting to feel a bit worried here…But seriously Keith, when Dan talks about your moral upbringing, you say those things don’t determine your actions, even if they strongly influence the way you lead your life?

KW: That’s true. But, nevertheless, there are tipping points and when people are put in crisis situations they can act out of character.

JB: So Dan, Keith says he could still do otherwise.

DD: Yes, and if he did otherwise, we’d want to know what determined him to do otherwise.

KW: I’d say I just decided.

The Big Conversation is a video series featuring world class thinkers across the Christian and atheist communities. For the full debate, further videos, bonus content and the Unbelievable? newsletter visit thebigconversation.show

Dennett's determinism 

One proponent of the deterministic view of the universe is Daniel Dennett. Alongside Harris, he is one of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the New Atheism’ (Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens made up the other half). Dennett, however, disagrees with Harris over whether determinism delivers a death blow to the concept of free will (rather like Trevor and Joe, they’ve also had some vitriolic arguments about it). As a ‘compatibilist’, Dennett claims that we are still free in a meaningful sense, as long as we are not being forced to act against our own will by anybody else.

When he appeared on an episode of The Big Conversation to discuss these matters with Christian philosopher Keith Ward, Dennett dismissed the problems raised by determinism as “uninteresting questions”. But they certainly interested Keith Ward, who insists that even the compatibilist version of freedom is hopelessly misguided if a deterministic universe has wired all our thoughts, desires and choices to begin with.

A God of love only makes sense if he has given us the ability to freely choose or reject him

In contrast, as a ‘libertarian’, Ward believes that humans are truly free creatures with the genuine ability to choose alternative outcomes in the future. That we are neither subject to a puppet-master God nor a puppet-master universe matters a great deal.

Losing love and justice 

Reflection on the subject has led me to agree with Ward. The compatibilist view seems (to quote Kant) a “wretched subterfuge”. Our free will is not truly free if determinism is still the bottom line.

There are major problems created by both Christian and atheist determinism. Firstly, there are two major casualties when we dispense with free will in the Calvinist framework. Love and justice.

Love is only truly love when freely given and freely received.

We are familiar with the fairy tale of the enchantress who puts the prince under a spell to make him ‘love’ her. But we know it’s not really love – it’s a delusion. Being manipulated in such a way is the opposite of love. By the same token, if God has pre-contrived our every desire so that we had no other option but to love our wife, love our children and to love him, then we are acting as little more than robots.

Likewise, any meaningful sense of justice is also lost under the deterministic view of God.

Can the person who commits a heinous offence be judged guilty of a crime if they were bound to act in such a way by the divine decree of God? Indeed, it could be argued that God himself is more culpable than they are. Equally, how can those God has predestined to hell be considered guilty of rejecting him, if they had no option to choose him?

Atheist determinists must face exactly the same problems and questions as their Calvinist counterparts. The truth is, it’s difficult to ground love, justice or any of the values that make life meaningful in a purely material universe. As Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th Century’s most renowned atheists, wrote: “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving...his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”

Cheery stuff. But the problem is even worse for atheist determinists than they realise. For, in such an accidental universe, how can they even trust in their own choice to be an atheist?

Losing reason 

Most atheists I know pride themselves on the use of reason and evidence in their arguments against God. But, in a purely naturalistic worldview, all that’s really happening at a fundamental level is a variety of atoms bumping into other atoms, triggering electrochemical responses in the brain. What’s more, because the universe runs on the deterministic principle of cause and effect, all of those collisions were predetermined in the distant past. You and your beliefs are the product of a long chain of inevitable physical events.

So when you come to the conclusion that there is no God, that’s just the way your brain happens to end up fizzing. And when I claim that there is a God, that’s just the way my brain fizzes. But the atoms aren’t doing any reasoning. It’s all just a series of physical events – snooker balls bouncing off each other. They aren’t the least bit interested in the truth or falsity of the thoughts they are producing.

As CS Lewis wrote: “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”

Why freedom matters 

So atheists have a major problem. If our thoughts are the product of a predetermined, non-rational process, then why should we trust the reasoning that brought us to believe in that very process? In doing so, the atheist has cut off the branch they were sitting on. The only way to guarantee that our reasoning is itself rational is if there is a transcendent mind beyond the physical stuff of nature. Getting rid of God turns out to create more problems than it solves.

Meanwhile, Christian determinists are faced with the problem of how to rescue the concepts of love and justice from being rendered meaningless by a God who controls every thought and desire. Calvinists may have a logically consistent view of God, but is he worthy of our worship? And what does worship even mean when it isn’t freely given to begin with?

Losing free will is too high a price to pay for the God of determinism. Surely the Christian view of a God of love only makes sense if he has given us the ability to freely choose or reject him, just as he freely chose to give himself for us.

Sorting through scriptures 

But what about those scriptures that seem to affirm that God controls everything and only chooses some for salvation? The fact is, we all read scripture through an interpretive lens, guided by our intuitions and theology. Where others see predestination, I tend to see God granting genuine freedom to his creation.

In 1 Timothy 2:4 Paul states that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. God’s heart is for all to know him, that’s clear enough. But it’s less clear in Romans 8 that Paul is talking about individual salvation when he speaks of those whom God has “predestined”.

Our eyes are often clouded by a modern individualistic approach to salvation when reading these passages. Paul almost always spoke in terms of group identities – Israel, Pharaoh, Jacob and Esau are references to collective categories rather than individuals.

Imagine that a Boeing 747 is scheduled to fly from London to New York. Anyone who gets on that plane is ‘predestined’ to arrive at that destination. But the individuals who chose to book that flight were not predestined to do so. Likewise, all those who are ‘in Christ’ are predestined for glory, but choosing whether or not to be part of that collective group is something within the free control of each individual.

The freedom to choose God 

Inevitably, mysteries still remain. The age-old theological conundrum of reconciling the God who knows every future event with genuine human free will is one of them. Healthy dialogue and respect is important, and I don’t intend to smash any statuettes over the heads of the many Calvinist theologians who disagree with me. But there are many possible options beyond Calvinism. Arminianism, Molinism and Open Theism all have their supporters. Most recently John Lennox has offered a very helpful synthesis of divine sovereignty and human freedom in his accessible book Determined to Believe? (Monarch).

In the end we will always have imperfect knowledge of a God who exists beyond our temporal limitations. Paul recognised it: “for now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). But Paul also declared: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

Having genuine free will really matters. It’s one of the reasons why I’m neither an atheist nor a Calvinist. I’d much rather be someone who, imperfectly but freely, chooses to follow Christ.

Watch the Big Conversation between atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett and Christian philosopher Keith Ward

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