This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
And is “free will” a good answer to this question?
A few weeks ago, in this very publication, I posed the question, “Why did God create atheists?” If God reveals himself to religious believers, in visions or revelations or other spiritual experiences… why doesn’t he do it with everyone? Why are those revelations so contradictory — not to mention so suspiciously consistent with whatever the people having them already believe or want to believe? And why doesn’t everyone have them? If God is real, I asked — if religious believers are perceiving a real entity with a real effect on the world — why isn’t it just obvious?
When I wrote this piece, I addressed (and dismantled) two of the most common responses to this question: “God has revealed himself to you, you’ve just closed your heart to him,” and, “God doesn’t care if you’re an atheist — as long as you’re a good person, he doesn’t care if you believe in him.”
But I neglected to address one of the most common religious answers to this question:
“God can’t reveal himself to us clearly,” this argument goes, “because he wants us to have free will. We have to be free to believe in him or not. If he revealed his presence to us, we’d be forced to believe in him — and our free will is a precious gift. It’s what makes us God’s unique creation.”
It’s a really, really bad argument.
I’m going to dismantle it today.
The Freedom of Information Act
Imagine you’re on a jury. You’re asked to decide whether something is or is not real, whether it did or did not happen: whether the accused stole the diamonds, or set fire to their warehouse for the insurance, or shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. The prosecution doesn’t offer much evidence at the trial — it’s all circumstantial at best, third-hand hearsay at worst, with excessive appeals to emotion and fear, and arguments based on faulty logic. So you decide to acquit.
You’re baffled. You’re outraged. You confront the prosecutor in the hallway, and ask, “Why didn’t you show us this evidence at the trial? Why show it to us now — when it’s too late to do anything about it?”
And the prosecutor replies, “Because you had to be free to decide for yourself. If we gave you that videotape, it would have made your choice too obvious. Free will is a precious gift, a crucial component of the justice system — and in order for the jury to have free will, we can’t make the right verdict too obvious. That would have forced your hand.”
Would you nod your head sagely in agreement? Would you think that was a sound and reasonable explanation?
Or would you think they were out of their gourd?
And if you’d think this was a ridiculous and outrageous explanation from the prosecutor — then why on earth would you think it’s a good argument when it comes to God?
Having more information doesn’t make us less free to decide what’s real. It’s the exact opposite. The more information we have, the better able we are to make a free, independent conclusion about what is and isn’t true.
If God was real, but was playing hide and seek? If he was deliberately hiding himself from us? If he was leaving maddeningly frustrating and inconsistent hints about his existence, always staying one step ahead, always keeping carefully out of sight? That wouldn’t give us free will. That would make us pawns in his manipulative, passive-aggressive game. (Especially if he punished us at the end of the game with intolerable, permanent torture, just because we guessed wrong.)
And even if clearly revealing himself somehow “forced” us to recognize God’s existence… how would that force us to worship or obey him?
I mean, I have no doubt whatsoever that the San Francisco Police Department exists. They have made their existence very clear indeed. But I still have a choice about whether to obey the laws they enforce. I have a choice about whether to jaywalk, hire prostitutes, drink beer on the street. I usually obey these laws; I occasionally disobey them. I sometimes make that decision based on my fear of the cops; I sometimes make it based on my own conscience or convenience. But my freedom to obey or disobey the law does not hinge on my ignorance of the fact that the SFPD exists, and has power to enforce these laws. My awareness that the police are real, that they are not mythical creatures, does not in any way eradicate my freedom.
Why would it work that way with God?
Now, some people will argue that God is a special case. They’ll argue that, because God’s power is absolute — which the SFPD’s clearly is not — revealing himself to us would be tantamount to coercion. It’d be like having the cops follow every one of us day and night… with the absolute power to put us in Abu Ghraib forever if we broke even the tiniest law.
But why would that have to be true? Couldn’t God clearly tell us all, “Hey, I exist — but I think you need to make your own moral decisions, so I’m not going to punish or reward you for good and bad behavior”? Or at least, “I’m going to make your punishments and rewards proportionate to your actions, and I’m going to clearly spell out those punishments and rewards ahead of time, so you can decide for yourself if it’s worth it”? There’s no reason free will couldn’t be consistent with knowing that God existed — or even with knowing that God was all-powerful, and could kick your ass from here to Saturn if he felt like it.
It’s arguable, I’ll grant you, that while free will could be consistent with the clear, non- hide- and- seek revelation of this more open and moderate (albeit clearly non-existent) god, it wouldn’t be possible with the more common notions of permanent, perfectly blissful heaven and permanent, perfectly torturous hell. But if what God wants for us is our free will… how would that version of the afterlife help matters? To return to the jury analogy: How would it make the jury more free to deny them the videotape of the accused committing the crime… and then throw them in Abu Ghraib forever for giving the wrong verdict? If that’s the god you believe in… then with all due respect, your god is a capricious, sadistic jerk, who plays a cruel game of hide and seek with his most beloved creation, and then punishes us with intolerable, permanent torture when we lose. In which case, the only moral choice would be to reject him. (Which, supposedly, he made us free to do.)
And even the idea of Heaven raises its own set of problems here. Namely: If our free will depends on God playing hide and seek — then how do people have free will in Heaven? In Heaven, God’s existence is supposed to be blindingly clear. We’re supposed to spend eternity basking in his presence. If knowing for sure that God exists eradicates our free will, then how do souls have free will in Heaven? And if souls don’t have free will in Heaven, doesn’t that undercut the idea of our freedom being the most precious and unique gift God could have given us?
It makes no sense. Again: When people are trying to make a decision, not just about what’s real but about how to act on it, denying us relevant information does not make us more free. It makes us less free. In every area of life other than religion, this is clearly understood. It’s the foundation of the principle of informed consent: when relevant information is denied us, our consent is impaired at best, and negated at worst. Having the best possible information about reality is essential to making good decisions about how to act in that reality.
Why is God an exception to that rule? Why is it that with everything else in our lives, having more information makes us better able to make a free choice… but with God — and only God — clearly revealing the simple fact that he exists and has power to enforce his rules would somehow turn us into his mindless robotic slaves?
How does that make any kind of sense?
Why Are There Special Snowflakes?
So when believers argue that God can’t reveal himself to anybody without mysteriously eradicating our ability to make our own choices, that’s my response. But that’s not the only belief people hold about God and his supposed relationship to humanity. Some believers think that God reveals himself to some people, but not to others. Believers in the Bible, for instance, think that God used to reveal himself to people all the time: to Moses, to the prophets, and so on. Heck, the whole Adam and Eve story is based on the notion that they knew full well who God was and what he could do… and disobeyed him anyway.
And even people who don’t believe in the Bible’s literal truth still make an argument very much like this one. “Personal religious experience” — i.e., the belief that God communicates his existence and/or intentions to some people directly — is one of the most common reasons believers give for believing.
Which brings us back to the original question:
Why are there atheists?
Why does God reveal himself to some people, and not to others?
If it would eradicate my free will for God to make his existence obvious to me… why doesn’t it eradicate yours? Or your neighbor’s? Why doesn’t it eradicate your priest’s free will, your minister’s, your rabbi’s, your imam’s, your guru’s? Why didn’t it eradicate Paul’s, or Moses’, or Muhammad’s, or Adam and Eve’s, or that of any of the prophets and figures in religious texts who God supposedly spoke to?
If clear visions of God’s existence would eradicate our freedom to believe in him or not… why does anyone have them?
I’m not looking here at the problem of why God reveals himself in such wildly different and even completely contradictory ways to different people. I’m not even looking at the problem of the mind being a highly fallible instrument, prone to a wide assortment of cognitive errors, and so if you think God is talking to you, you really need to confirm that hypothesis with external corroborating evidence.
I’m talking here strictly about the problem of free will. And I’m talking about the glaring contradiction in so many religious beliefs: the idea that, on the one hand, God reveals himself directly to some people and has done so many times in the past… and that, on the other hand, God can’t reveal his existence to everyone, because doing so would somehow make us not free. I’m asking the question: Why are some people special snowflakes, able to communicate with God without it impairing their freedom to believe and obey him… while the rest of us aren’t?
You can’t have it both ways. Either God revealing his existence would undercut our free will — or it wouldn’t. If it would undercut our free will, then God must not be revealing himself to anybody… which means you can’t count personal religious experience — yours, or anyone else’s, including the prophets who wrote your holy book — as evidence of his existence. And if it wouldn’t undercut our free will, then we’re back to the question: Why isn’t God making his existence clear?
Why does every religious believer have a different understanding of him, many of which are totally contradictory?
And why do some of us — more of us every day — not believe at all?
Why Are We Even Having This Conversation?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If God existed, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. If God existed, it would just be obvious. If God existed, there’d be no reason for him to keep his existence a secret. There’d be no reason for him to create life, and yet somehow make that life look exactly like it would have if it had evolved naturally… right down to the inefficiencies, jury-rigs, superfluities, mind-numbing brutality, and other glaring flaws in life’s supposed “design.” There’d be no reason for him to animate conscious beings with immaterial souls, and yet somehow make those souls look exactly like they would have if they were biological products of the brain…. right down to the radical changes in people’s consciousness and character that happen when our brains change. There’d be no reason for him to hide.
So why don’t we see him?
Doesn’t it seem likely that the reason we don’t see him is that he doesn’t exist?
The world does not look as if it was created by a supernatural being who intervenes with it on a regular basis. Or even on a semi-regular basis. There is not one scrap of good, solid evidence supporting this hypothesis. The world looks like physical matter and energy, governed by natural laws of cause and effect (and by that special version of cause and effect known as “randomness”). As Julia Sweeney says in her brilliant performance piece Letting Go of God, “The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”
Given that that’s true… which is the simplest, most plausible explanation?
That the world really has no Supreme Being?
Or that the world does have a Supreme Being, who created the world to look exactly as if he doesn’t exist… just so he can play a cruel game of hide and seek with his most precious creation?
If you think the latter is true… you’re certainly entitled to that belief. But if you care whether the things you believe are true, you’re going to need a really good answer for why this is.
And “free will” isn’t going to cut it.
(Inspired in large part by One More Burning Bush: The Argument from Divine Hiddenness, by Ebonmuse.)