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A friend of mine is presently running an “ad” in the Free Enquiry magazine. There are a few ideas I would like to look at here, and I will do so in two posts. The questions to look at are as follows.

First of all: is the term “Christian free will” meaningfully different to mere “(libertarian) free will”?

Secondly, are modern atheist compatibilists, who claim that free will and determinism are in some way harmonisable, being counter-productive in not openly accepting hard determinism and taking the free will route of attack against Christians and Christian thinkers?

Let’s go to the ad, or at least the first part, for the source material:




Christian free will is not by a long shot the free will of philosophers. They ask: “can we make choices entirely free of all antecedents?”

Christian free will insists on three elements: (1) that all persons everywhere (except children, incompetents, and those acting under force) are born with the equal ability to make seriously deliberated moral choices entirely free of the interactions of biological inheritance and experience; (2) they also know which course is right(3) and they can freely make it.

Christianity must have guilt for one to need salvation, and guilt requires that moral choices must not be affected in any way by forces not within your control. Thus, those who make wrong choices are evil and deserve punishment up to and including eternal suffering in Hell!

If Christian free will is wrong, that indispensable foundation of Christianity collapses — as St. Paul said of the resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

So, how sad it is to see some of our great atheist-heroes dancing on pin-heads trying to find ways to “harmonize” what they know and proclaim: “we will as we do for reasons beyond our control” with its polar opposite: “yet there are ways of stating the case which validates free will”. 

Here are depressing quotations from four of those brilliant atheists:

1.       Yes, the brain tumor (or whatever) is one of the causes of the action, but the individual human being is the actual perpetrator. It is irrelevant to ask whether the person was ultimately free or not. We only assume the person was immediately free.

2.      We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes ‘autonomous agents with free will’ as crucial ingredients.

3.  Even if my choices are entirely determined in advance, I still make decisions, and my decisions are still caused by who I am – my thoughts and desires and personality – just as they must be if I am to be “free” in any sense that matters. And because I am the cause I can still be praised or blamed for them.

4.  If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

It is ironic that these eminences aggressively teach and are champions of iron determinism which says that all choices are caused by all the conditions in the universe, down to the last molecule, as they existed just before the decision. If time could be rewound, and all conditions in the universe were exactly the same as before, the decision would always be the same – with no freedom for it to have been otherwise.

Meanwhile, as they confuse us with their fine distinctions, in the world of people the Roman Catholic Church and protestant denominations with the overwhelming number of adherents, teach and are believed, that unless everyone uses their God-given free will correctly before they die, “many”, as Jesus promised, will go to a ‘lake of fire to sufferforever’, while only a ‘few’ will be saved!  And that is so good, right and justified, that the believer in heavenly ecstasy will be wholly content knowing a beloved wife, child or parent is suffering in hell!

These harmonizers fail to consider the real-world implications of their foolish compatibilism. It only serves to deceive, obfuscate, and divert fellow atheists from the supreme moral issue – eternal suffering for anyone — and gives aid and comfort to the religionist free willers. 

The notion of Christian free will I think is interesting and worthy. In the context of Christianity and ultimate judgement (with whatever version of heaven and hell you may believe in), there is this implicit idea in Christianity (and other monotheisms) that competent adults have enough knowledge of right and wrong to be able to make decisions to which God can ascribe judgement. Forget the idea that libertarian free will may or may not work, this particular idea looks at attaching a necessary condition to agency – that they know enough (about whatever) to make properly informed choices in order that they can be ultimately judged.

Of course, this makes the idea of libertarian free will even more difficult to obtain. But, supposedly, pretty much all adults have this in a seemingly binary sense. All (competent) humans (almost all) appear to be able to be judged by God.

I think binary approaches to punishment (heaven or hell; heaven or not heaven) are completely nonsensical, anyway, when meted out in the context of spectra of moral behaviours. But let’s not dwell on that can of worms.

Humanity exists on a spectrum of knowledge (moral knowledge), on a spectrum of genetic influences; on a spectrum of environmental influences, and so on. And yet, under Christian free will, all of these people, no matter where they exist on any given spectrum, are victim to God’s judgement.

But this judgement, if it is indeed binary, renders all of these influences completely irrelevant. As I wrote in Christianity in the Light of Science:

Imagine a decision. For example, let us take Wendy. She decides at 09:15 to give $5 to a homeless person she passes in the street. Now imagine that the world continues for any amount of time (say, ten minutes). We then rewind the world back to 09:15. The LFWer believes that Wendy, at 09:15, could just as well have decided not to have given the money to the homeless person, rationally and consciously.

Let us now concentrate on 09:15. This snapshot of time I will call the causal circumstance (CC). A causal circumstance is made up of, well, everything in the universe at that “snapshot.” This would include, for any given person:

  1. a)  Being born.
  2. b)  Their genetic inheritance.
  3. c)  Their life in the womb, shaping your genetic self.
  4. d)  Their time and place of birth.
  5. e)  Their parents, relatives, race and gender; your nurture and experiences in infancy and childhood.
  6. f)   The mutations in their brain and body throughout life; and other purely random events.
  7. g)  Their natural physical stature, looks, smile and voice; intelligence; sexual drive and proclivities; personality and wit; and natural ability in sports, music and dance.
  8. h)  Their religious training; economic circumstances; cultural influences; political and civil rights; the prevailing customs of their times.
  9. i)  The blizzard of experiences throughout life, not chosen by them but which happened to them. All the molecules, particles, forces and wave functions; i.e. the environment.

The point being that these things are in place, immovably so (since they are all variables which are inaccessible by being in some sense in the past, or instantaneously ungovernable) at the time of the decision making. In this causal circumstance (let’s call it CC1), Wendy chooses to give the money away (let’s call this A). So, in CC1, Wendy does A.

What this means is that Wendy’s choice is grounded in and is caused by all of those variables at play at that exact moment. The rational deliberative processes in her brain (themselves variables in the eventual decision) act upon those variables and the outcome is giving the money away.

There are so many variables acting on any given agent that Christian free will looks utterly incoherent.

So I think the idea of using the term “Christian free will” is useful in showing how ridiculous the project of the Christian religion and its theology really is.

I will look at the atheist compatibilists in the next post.


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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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