Is Atheism Incompatible With Free Will and Moral Choice?

Freidrich Neitszche
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It's common to find religious theists, and Christians in particular, arguing that only their belief system provides a secure foundation for free will and the sorts of choices — and especially moral choices. The point of this argument is to prove that atheism is incompatible with free will and moral choices — and, by implication, morality itself. This argument is founded upon misrepresentations of free will and morality, though, which renders the argument invalid.

Compatibilism and Determinism

Whenever this argument is raised, you won't usually see the religious believer explaining or defining what they mean by "free will" or how it is incompatible with materialism. This allows them to completely ignore compatibilism and compatibilist arguments (they aren't without their flaws, but a person should at least demonstrate familiarity with them before acting like they have nothing to offer).

The question of free will has been hotly debated for millennia. Some have argued that humans have the capacity for free will, which is to say an ability to choose actions without being forced to follow a certain course by either by the influence of others or by natural laws. Many theists believe that free will is a special gift from God.

Others have argued that if the universe is deterministic in nature, then human actions must also be deterministic. If human actions simply follow the course of natural law, then they are not "freely" chosen. This position is sometimes supported by the use of modern science because of the extensive scientific evidence that events are determined by prior events.

Both of these positions tend to define their terms in such a way as to explicitly exclude the other. But why must that be the case? The position of compatibilism argues that these concepts do not need to be defined in such an absolutist and mutually exclusive manner and, therefore, that both free will and determinism can be compatible.

A compatibilist may argue that not all types of prior influences and causes should be treated as equivalent. There's a difference between someone throwing you through a window and someone pointing a gun to your head and ordering you to jump through the window. The former leaves no room open for free choices; the second does, even if the alternatives are unappealing.

That a decision is influenced by circumstances or experience does not entail that the decision is fully determined by particular circumstances or experiences. The existence of influences thus does not exclude the ability to choose. So long as we humans are capable of rationality and able to anticipate the future, we can be held accountable (to varying degrees) for our actions, regardless of how we are influenced.

This is why children and the insane are not always treated in our legal system as moral agents. They lack the full capacity for rationality and/or cannot conform their actions to take future events and consequences into account. Others, though, are assumed to be moral agents and this assumes some level of determinism.

Without some measure of determinism, our brains wouldn't be reliable and our legal system wouldn't work — it wouldn't be possible to treat certain actions following from moral agency and other actions as following from someone who lacks moral agency. Nothing magical or supernatural is necessary and, what's more, a complete absence of determinism is thus not only not necessary, but excluded.

Free Will and God

A deeper problem with the above argument is the fact that Christians have their own and potentially more serious problem with the existence of free will: there is a contradiction between the existence of free will and the idea of a god that has perfect knowledge of the future.

If the outcome of an event is known beforehand —and "known" in such a way that it's impossible for events to proceed differently — how can free will also exist? How do you have any freedom to choose differently if it is already known by some agent (God) what you will do and it's impossible for you to act differently?

Not every Christian believes that their god is omniscient and not everyone who does believe it also believes that this entails perfect knowledge of the future. Nevertheless, those beliefs are far more common than not because they are more consistent with traditional orthodoxy. For example, the orthodox Christian belief that God is providential — that God will cause everything to turn out OK in the end because God is ultimately in charge of history — is essential to Christian orthodoxy.

In Christianity, the debates over free will have generally been resolved in favor of the existence of free will and against determinism (with Calvinist tradition being the most notable exception). Islam has experienced similar debates in a similar context, but the conclusions have generally been resolved in the opposite direction. This has caused Muslims to become far more fatalistic in their outlook because whatever will happen in the future, in both small and great things, is ultimately up to God and cannot be altered by anything humans do. This all suggests that the current state of affairs in Christianity could have gone in the other direction.

Free Will and the Urge to Punish

If the existence of a god does not guarantee the existence of free will and the absence of a god does not exclude the possibility of moral agency, why do so many religious theists insist the opposite? It seems to be that the superficial ideas of free will and moral agency which they focus on are required for something entirely different: the justifications used for legal and moral punishments. It would thus have nothing to do with morality per se, but rather the desire to punish immorality.

Friedrich Nietzsche commented a couple of times about exactly this issue:

"The longing for 'freedom of the will' in the superlative metaphysical sense (which, unfortunately, still rules in the heads of the half-educated), the longing to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for your actions yourself and to relieve God, world, ancestors, chance, and society of the burden--all this means nothing less than...pulling yourself by the hair from the swamp of nothingness into existence."
[Beyond Good and Evil, 21]
"Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work...: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wants to impute guilt...Men were considered 'free' so that they might be judged and punished--so they might become guilty: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within consciousness...."
[Twilight of the Idols, "The Four Great Errors," 7]

Nietzsche concludes that the metaphysics of free will is the "metaphysics of the hangman."

Some people can’t feel better about themselves and their own choices unless they can also feel superior to the lives and choices of others. This, however, would be incoherent if people's choices were heavily determined. You can’t easily feel superior to someone whose baldness was genetically determined. You can’t easily feel superior to someone whose moral missteps have been determined. So it's necessary to believe that, unlike baldness, a person's moral missteps are wholly chosen, thus allowing them to be entirely and personally responsible for them.

What's missing in the people who take this path (usually unconsciously) is that they haven't learned how to feel comfortable with their choices regardless of how determined they may or may not have been.