Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Creationism, Evolution, Faith, Free Will, God, Purpose, Religion, Salvation, Science, Truth

3 Questions for Atheists — 1st Question

A week or two ago, friend and fellow blogger unkleE posed some questions to atheists, and instead of getting into them in that thread, I decided to address them here.

1. Do humans have choice to change the course of events? If so, how does it work in a physicalist universe? If not, who is kidding who that belief and disbelief are about evidence and choice?

Free will is admittedly a difficult subject. We all feel like we’re making our own decisions — that we could have just as easily made a different choice than the one we actually made. But is that really true? There are many factors at play when we make decisions: the physiology and chemistry of our brains, our biases and preferences, our upbringing, the time and culture in which we live, and our past experiences. All of these things heavily affect the choices we actually make. When I graduated from high school, I had a state scholarship that would have let me attend any school in the state of Florida, essentially for free. I chose to go to a college in the same city I lived in. On the surface, it seems that I could have made any other choice just as easily, since cost wasn’t a big factor. But could I really have chosen any differently given the same time and circumstances? It’s impossible to say.

So unkleE raises a good point: how can any of us say that we’ve come to our positions on things like religion solely based on evidence? Are we not being influenced by other subconscious factors? I don’t have a good answer for that — I’m not sure that anyone does. However, I don’t see how religion handles this problem any better. Most brands of Christianity teach that salvation depends on faith in Jesus. But if our position on Jesus is influenced by so many factors that we can’t really help whether or not we believe in him, it wouldn’t be just for God to judge us on it.

As an atheist, I can’t tell you how much free will we have. For the record, I do think we have some measure of free will; I’m just not sure how much. But I can tell you that I don’t think it really matters. No one is going to judge us at the end of our lives. We aren’t going to be held to a standard that’s impossible for us to meet. It’s okay if we all make it to the end of our lives having come to different conclusions about religion, the end of the world, etc. So while I can’t completely explain the nature of free will, I don’t really see where that’s a problem for atheism.

We’ll talk about question 2 in the next post.


38 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 1st Question”

  1. “If this weren’t true, then it would be impossible to teach people new behaviors, yet we do it all the time.”

    I think you are still misunderstanding determinism Nate. Even if determinism is true, it is still possible to teach people new behaviours – they would just have no real choice in the matter.

    “I agree that given all the same factors, it’s hard to imagine how one could make a different choice than the one they actually made”

    You seem to be caught up in believing that we have some element of freewill, but not being able to explain how that can occur if naturalism/atheism is true. I don’t want to be rude, but isn’t this the sort of ‘faith’ response that you have rejected?


  2. “I am comfortable living in a reality without free will. I don’t have a choice after all ;P”

    Lol!! I wonder then if you never use words like ‘choose’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, etc, and if you never criticise a person for doing ‘wrong’?

    “I am not a fellow Aussie ….. my name is Dustin.”

    The Wiggles have a lot to answer for!! : )


  3. I don’t really agree with the way most are trying to flesh out the meaning of ‘Free Will”. I tend to have a much simpler view of it. However I fail to understand how if we cannot choose what we believe that automatically makes atheism or any other theism untrue. For the record I very much believe we do have free will, just don’t see how it alone proves or disproves a god.


  4. You seem to be caught up in believing that we have some element of freewill, but not being able to explain how that can occur if naturalism/atheism is true. I don’t want to be rude, but isn’t this the sort of ‘faith’ response that you have rejected?

    Yes, I suppose this is a “faith-position” to some degree. Like I said in the other thread, I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to philosophy. I still rely heavily on things like Des Cartes’ “I think; therefore, I am.” I have faith that my perceptions are reasonably accurate. To me, that doesn’t require a great deal of faith — going off of what we experience, it’s a reasonable position to have.

    I feel like I have free will, too. Maybe I don’t — and I can understand why my will is limited based on many external factors. I don’t think that means I have no free will, but I don’t see how that can ever be proven one way or the other anyway.

    But none of this makes atheism untenable, in my view. And even if I felt discomfort about the free will thing, that can’t manufacture actual belief in God within me. At best, it would make me slightly more agnostic than I already am. Since I personally see things a bit differently than you, UnkleE, and because I haven’t had the same kinds of personal experiences that have helped you develop your faith, my current position still seems most reasonable to me, even if it requires some aspect of faith.

    For instance, if you were to see a flying object, but you couldn’t see it clearly, you could assume it was a helicopter or plane. Assuming that requires a certain amount of faith, because you can’t make out the object clearly. You could also believe that it was a flying saucer of alien design, but that position would (presumably) require more faith for you, because it’s so unlikely.

    That’s how I feel about all this. I feel like our existence is best described by natural phenomena, even though we don’t understand them fully. I acknowledge that there could be a God; I just don’t find that as likely a scenario.

    Sorry for the long-winded response. 🙂


  5. Thanks Nate. I know that our beliefs are not easy to define and the reasons for holding them and questioning them are complex. They generally change gradually and in small steps. So I can empathise with what you say even as I don’t fully agree.

    I am happy to have had the opportunity to make a few points, and leave them there for you and other readers to have in the backs of your minds. And to have learnt from what you and others have said in response. Hopefully the conversation, on this and other issues, will continue. Thanks again.


  6. but as a Christian I believe Christianity is a very personal thing, a relationship between you and God, that he communicates with all of us and we all make choices based on that. Some choose to ignore it. I don’t think what you are taught decides your fate at all. Some who grow up to be raised to believe it like you become Atheists and that is for now and might change again at some point, but some are not raised with it at all and become Christians, obviously something or someone influenced them in some way but not as strongly as their overall upbringing and surroundings, at some point we all make a choice, just like two siblings raised the same who end up completely different. I personally do not believe God would never give someone the chance to know him and then send them to Hell for not knowing him and I have never believed that because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know what the alternate answer is but I don’t believe that but I still believe in God and Heaven. I have seen enough in life to believe that God is a fair and just God and that is not the God I know.


  7. @Amanda Dodson Gremillion

    As your god is Yahweh, found in the Old Testament , which is acknowledged by all genuine biblical scholars today to be nothing but historical fiction how do you square away belief in this deity?


  8. I am happy to have had the opportunity to make a few points, and leave them there for you and other readers to have in the backs of your minds.

    And I for one welcome the input for I believe that not a single deconvert on this or any other blog you patronize would consider your apologetic arguments have any merit or veracity whatsoever.

    In fact, the more of this nonsense you espouse the more you convince those who also once pandered to this pernicious diatribe that their decision to walk away from such filth was likely the most beneficial and rewarding life decision they made.


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