Yes, free will is but an illusion. So says neurscientist Sam Harris in his new little book, Free Will. In his view, all our thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and brain states; in other words, we cannot choose to do or to think anything other than what we in fact do and think.
Christian apologist J. P. Moreland, whose book Scaling the Secular City (1990: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House) I read in my seminary apologetics class in 1991, begs to differ, quoting theologian H. P. Owen on page 90:
"Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgement is true or false."
Busted, as my kids would say. This quote was so arresting that it has remained lodged in my mind for over twenty years since I first read it, allowing me to pull the book from my bookshelf and locate it today as a foil for Harris’ position.
I recall that after first reading Moreland’s defense of free will and his arguments against physicalism, naturalism, and determinism, I arbitrarily lifted my left pinky finger in defiance of the notion that everything I did was determined by natural laws. I didn’t have to lift a pinky finger, let alone my left one, but I did so anyway. “Take that, determinism!” Yet even then, I had a nagging thought that a determinist might wish to dismiss my act of raising my left pinky finger as nothing more than a reflexive impulse against the repugnant notion that all my actions were outside of my control.
Isn’t it self-evident that we are the author of our actions, that we are responsible for what we do (both good and bad), and that we could freely opt for action a or b when given a choice? Isn’t it built into our justice system that a man of sane mind who pulls the trigger of his gun to kill a man who seduced his wife could have instead listened to his conscience, paused, and avoided carrying out the crime? If, as Harris believes, the murderer could not have done anything other than what he ended up doing, must society then give up its mandate to hold criminals responsible for their crimes? Are we really only left to excuse the “guilty” as follows? “It wasn’t his fault; he was just driven to pull the trigger by his circumstances, his underprivileged upbringing, his exposure to violence as a way of life, his genes, his personality, the lax gun laws in his state, a chemical imbalance in his brain, yada yada yada!” Or, to use a recent example from the real world, “Sargeant Robert Bales was driven to murder 17 innocent Afghani civilians because he was stretched to the breaking point by his four deployments, the loss of fellow soldiers in his unit, injuries he suffered, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. He simply had no choice but to go take out his frustrations in the way he did.”
Harris would argue that even the most heinous and most senseless of crimes are triggered not by a free will that could have chosen to do otherwise, but instead by a series of events and brain states governed by the laws of nature, including those described by chemistry, physics, genetics, biology, and (perhaps) quantum mechanics. He rhetorically asks free-will advocates what else but the laws of nature could possibly account for our decisions. Setting aside the special case of coercion by others, if I lift my left pinky finger, it’s because I want to lift it. If I don’t want to lift it, I don’t lift it. But why do I want or not want to lift it? I don’t have control over my wants; they just appear for reasons I’m not often conscious of, reasons that arise from the laws of nature operating on my brain and on my environment.
Sometimes I sense a conflict of wants within me, and it's when choosing between two wants that I feel I'm making a free moral decision. For example, I want the thrill that comes from clicking on the link to a sexually explicit photograph, but I also want to preserve my marriage and to direct my sexual passions exclusively toward my wife. Since I think (based on the input my brain has received about the dangers of pornography) that I can’t have both, I think I have to choose between the two options, and I prefer a long-lasting, intact marriage over the thrill of the moment, so I decide not to click the link. And because I gave up something potentially thrilling in favor of fidelity to my wife, I gain a sense of satisfaction in having made the right moral decision, for which I think I am entitled some credit. But where in that decision-making process was there room for anything outside the laws of nature? Did I have any control over my upbringing, during which the dangers of pornography were instilled in me? Can I help it that my wife is a beautiful person to whom I’m helplessly attracted, a wife who faithfully loves me in return? Is it up to me whether I want her more than the pornography, or that I have been led to believe that in some sense the pornography jeopardizes my relationship with her? No, my brain controlled my wants, and I ended up doing what I wanted to do, that is, giving up the short-term thrill of the pornography for the longer-term stability of my marriage.
Now, what if I had been away from my wife on a trip without any sexual release for months and the urge to click that link had not been overcome by my desire to remain emotionally faithful to my wife, and what if I had gone ahead and clicked that link because the desire for the thrill was greater than my perceived risk of doing so? In either case, I’ve done what I wanted to do, and I can’t control my wants. If I know ahead of time I’ll be vulnerable to such temptation and wish to avoid it, then I can choose to not take that months-long trip, but my choice not to do so is also governed by my wants, over which I have no ultimate control.
As for a potential criminal who’s contemplating pulling the trigger on his wife’s seducer, what if the thought enters his mind that he might well get caught and put in prison for life or executed if he were to go through with the murder, and the fear of getting caught makes him relent? Then he relents because he wants to relent. Why does he want to relent? Because his brain (whether consciously or otherwise) weighs the various outcomes and decides it’s in his interest to hold off. In this case, the desire to relent is traceable to an external factor, though in many cases it isn’t always easy to determine where our desires come from. But one thing Harris is sure of: they don’t arise from a disembodied or supernatural soul that drives our decisions apart from who we are, apart from the sum of all the circumstances and brain states that precede our every thought and action.
Harris’ confidence in the non-existence of free will is based at least in part on the results of experiments he describes as follows:
“Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions. One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next—a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please—your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this ‘decision’ and believe that you are in the process of making it.” (From Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 159-168). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
This is incredible: brain scans reveal that our brains make decisions before we’re even aware of the decisions we make. It’s as though I’m an automaton driven by factors beyond “my” control (whatever “my” means), and the decisions I’ll make can be visible to researchers before I’m even aware I’ve made them! Only, it’s not as though I’m an automaton; the inescapable conclusion is that I really am an automaton, albeit an automaton that’s aware of its decisions and consequent actions in such a way that it feels as if it’s making free decisions unconstrained by the laws of nature.
But if we’re all just automatons that will do what we’ll do, why bother to exert any effort to do anything at all, let alone anything noble? Why even get up in the morning? To this question, Harris retorts:
“...people generally confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like ‘If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?’ This is pure confusion. To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.” (Harris, Sam (2012-03-06). Free Will (Kindle Locations 374-378). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. )
And to the worry that we’ll not be able to hold others (or ourselves) responsible for our actions, I would add that, even if we don’t have free will, we as a society can seek to provide disincentives (like sending murderers to prison or criticizing those who act recklessly) and incentives (like medals of honor, monetary reward, or verbal praise) as a means of influencing our fellow automatons to behave in ways we perceive to be in the interest of the society in which we live.
What about Owen’s charge that determinism is self-stultifying, that if our beliefs are determined by circumstances beyond control, then even our belief in determinism is determined, and there’s no legitimate reason to think that either our belief in determinism or any other belief is grounded in reality? I am not a philosopher of epistemology (the study of how we know what we know), but as an armchair philosopher who’s open to my readers’ contrary input, my first take on this question is that our brains have evolved a certain (I use “a certain,” because it’s limited) capacity to adjust our beliefs to evidence. If there’s evidence of a poisonous snake in our path (based on visual stimuli reaching our brains), we come to the unavoidable conclusion that a snake really is there, and we decide to take measures to avoid it. It does not follow that, since our decision to believe that a snake is in our path is determined, then there are no grounds for believing it. Similarly, if our decision to accept determinism is itself determined (for example, as a result of learning that brain scans show us to be unaware of our decisions until after they’re made), that does not nullify the grounds for legitimately accepting determinism.
Why should we engage in argument to convince anyone else to adopt our point of view on any matter, if in fact the other’s point of view is already determined, and if that person is not personally responsible for holding what we think to be a mistaken view? It seems to me that there is still plenty of room for us to discuss our differing views in an effort to communicate knowledge and reasoning that will serve as input to the brains of others (this sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? Sorry about that! I can’t help it!) and thus convince them of what we discern to be true, based on the evidence to which our brains have been exposed. In the process, we might ourselves be surprised to be exposed to new evidence that changes our own position, and so knowledge based on good evidence is given a chance to thrive in more and more brains, leading to more lives lived in accordance with a truer understanding of reality.
In writing this post, don’t I run the risk of making people feel less responsible for their actions and thus more prone to live immorally? I doubt it, as long as my readers understand that if you live immorally, you’ll still reap the consequences of your actions, and those consequences are no less sufficient grounds for “deciding” to behave than is the notion of free will. In other words, a deterministic contemplation of the consequences of my actions serves to put the brakes on a reckless course of action. The best way to ensure moral living is to gain an ever more complete understanding of how our actions will impact us and those we love in the long term. This is why we educate our children, not only in the 3 “R”s (Reading w‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic), but also in m‘Rality.
Finally, why should I care about whether others adopt a realistic view of human free will, i.e., that we don’t have free will? One practical benefit is a greater sense of compassion for those caught in a trap not of their “own” making. Instead of reacting in moral outrage to those whose who are bent toward destructive actions, we can think to ourselves, “There but for good fortune go I.” It tends to pop the balloon of our smug self-righteousness and arrogant moralizing when we realize that our own accomplishments and moral rectitude aren’t due to our own free will but are a result of the legacy of the nature and nurture bequeathed to us. This doesn’t mean, as I’ve said before, that we can’t still put in place measures to encourage constructive behavior and to discourage destructive behavior in all of us, but it takes the edge off our tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness when we recognize that free will is an illusion.
If you’re interested in knowing more about this topic, I would strongly encourage you to read Harris’ book, which should take no more than a couple of hours to get through, and if you buy the Kindle edition, it’s only $3.99. Having also read philosopher of science Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (2004, Penguin), I prefer Harris’ more direct and accessible approach, but Dennett’s views are also worth reading and considering as a less hard-nosed naturalistic alternative to Harris’ characteristically pull-no-punches stance.
In last week’s blog post
, I asked whether loyalty is a virtue and concluded that truth must sometimes trump loyalty. This week I’ll try to put my money where my mouth is and explore an area where loyalty to my freethinking “in-group” is shaky.
Having spent the first 32 years of my life in an evangelical environment (including family, church, mission boarding school, college, seminary, missionary society), I have a mostly positive view of evangelicals as people. Certainly there are many exceptions, but on balance, I respect the warmth, sincerity, self-sacrifice, discipline, and love of many of the more earnest followers of Jesus. I attend my wife’s Bible church only very occasionally, perhaps three or four times a year for special occasions. One such special occasion was a recent “father-daughter desert” I went to with my thirteen-year-old daughter (and with my wife, who attended with her father). In addition to the food, there were some fun games and a talent show; a fun, wholesome time was had by all. Everyone was respectful, positive, and friendly, and there was a good mix of ages and gender (though not so much of race).
I mentally compared this experience with the one I had at a large weekend freethought convention I attended last fall. The respective goals of the two events were quite different, of course, so it’s probably unfair to compare them in any way, but I found myself struggling to identify with many of the presenters and attendees at the freethought convention. There were some families and a children’s program, but it seemed that most of the attendees were single; there were more men than women; almost everyone was white, and there were probably more middle-aged-and-above attendees than younger adults, with hardly any children. Many (not all) of the presenters made liberal use of expletives and focused a good deal of their ire on their religious competitors. We all received a complimentary condom in our welcome packet, and the evening social gatherings were centered around the hotel bar.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking out against expletives, singleness, condoms, or drinking per se. What I’m trying to get at is a little more intangible. For many evangelicals like me, coming to the conclusion that we were mistaken in our evangelical beliefs is, relatively speaking, the easy part. The harder part is that we still appreciate the general warmth, family focus, and respectfulness of the evangelical community, qualities that are harder to find (though not altogether absent) in the freethinking community.
In a recent response to one of my blog posts
, a believer referred to the following passage from John 6, suggesting there’s nowhere else to turn for those who leave Jesus:
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?...”
Incidentally, I’ve been reading a long, fascinating e-book (An Examination of the Pearl
) by Edwin Suominen, a struggling member of a tiny (about 100,000 members), little-known exclusivist Lutheran sect called Conservative Laestadianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Laestadianism
). According to the author, the above passage from John 6 is often used by the Laestadian leadership to deter its members from leaving the sect (see location 1984), since its members are led to see only darkness outside its walls, even in the wider “mainstream” Christian community.
Getting back to the freethinking movement, I have no doubt that the perceived and/or actual culture of the freethought movement is one of the most important barriers to believers who might otherwise contemplate leaving their faith. “To whom shall we go? Certainly not to those family-unfriendly, foul-mouthed, arrogant, fornicating, drunken atheists!”
I’ll probably catch some flack for this from some of my fellow freethinkers, but as a long-time-evangelical-turned-unbeliever, it seems to me that struggling Christians are looking for a more comfortable landing pad than the cold, hard, unfamiliar ground they often hit on the other side of faith. I’m speaking on behalf of the doubting Christians who don’t particularly have a problem with other Christians or with the evangelical lifestyle but who simply doubt the tenets of their faith. I have in mind those who have placed a premium on sexual purity as believers and those whose social lives have been lived largely in the church, free of profanity or drunkenness or “worldliness” in general. For many longstanding members of the freethought movement, Christians like those I’ve described here seem to be from another planet, and that feeling goes in both directions.
I don’t have a ready solution to the hard-landing problem. I can’t necessarily expect those from Planet Wordly to change their lifestyle radically just to provide a softer landing to those coming in from Planet Purity. But somehow someone somewhere needs to be there for each new arrival, and the greeter needs to be someone the new arrival can connect with, trust, and have something in common with. It needs to be someone who’s at least sensitive to the gap in lifestyle choices between that of the typical earnest evangelical and that of the typical unbeliever. Keep in mind that many of these recent deconverts are struggling to maintain relationships with their believing family members. It’s already bad enough that they no longer share their most cherished beliefs in common with family any more; they don’t want to exacerbate matters any more than necessary by completely changing their lifestyle at the same time. I’m simply asking those from Planet Worldly to understand the predicament that new arrivals from Planet Purity find themselves in, to get a feel for where they are, and to meet them at that place. They’ve already sacrificed enough to give up what they believe; don’t expect them to adopt your lifestyle or your differing views on politics or morality. If an Orthodox Jew leaves his faith, don’t wave a ham sandwich in his face and expect him to give up his lifelong hangup over pork. If a conservative evangelical Christian leaves her faith, don’t litter your speech with expletives and tell sexually explicit jokes or share your sexual exploits. Of course, how you relate to former believers will depend on where they are and to what extent they continue to embrace elements of their former lifestyle.
That said, I’m not sure how effective the sensitivity I’m advocating really can be. I think some sensitivity can’t hurt, but the new arrivals are probably not going to be as comfortable with a Puritan “poser” as they would be with someone else who’s from a hybrid third planet that I’ll call “Planet Purity without Belief.” This is a sparsely populated planet of those who’ve left their faith but who retain more or less a similar lifestyle to the one they embraced on “Planet Purity with Belief.” Those who’ve deconverted and still inhabit “Planet Purity without Belief” have a unique perspective and set of experiences that can and should be used to help conservative believers who are transitioning out of faith.
As a general rule (which has its exceptions, of course), it seems that freethinkers and humanists are more concerned with structural/societal justice than with personal morality, while for conservative Christians it’s the other way around. Secular humanists couldn’t care less what anyone does in their bedroom, while they generally do care about avoiding war and providing justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the minorities. Vice versa for many American evangelicals.
Week after week in church services, congregations are enjoined to eschew the acts of the flesh and to cultivate personal virtues like the fruit of the Spirit in Galations 5:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
By and large, those outside the church are not encouraged on a weekly basis to cultivate such virtues. A debate can be had as to which of the above admonitions should be heeded by us nonbelievers (I don’t know any freethinkers who engage in witchcraft, for example!), but it seems to me that we would do well to give some thought to our personal morality, just as we would like conservative evangelicals to give more thought to matters of social justice. Acts and words of kindness and patience, rather than outbursts of disdain toward those we disagree with, would go a long way to breaking down the mistrust that no doubt prevents many evangelicals from reaching out across the divide. Sensitivity to the mores of others, rather than their dismissal as “prudish,” would also no doubt help bridge that gap.
Just as religion is not monolithic (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Conservative Laestadians certainly wouldn’t get along!), neither is freethought. Though no doubt most are left of center, freethinkers are found at virtually every point along the political and moral spectrum. I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel fully comfortable in a typical freethought convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only former believer in that position. To be sure, I share much in common with the predominant freethought culture, but I also share much in common with my wife, family, and former coreligionists. It’s not a matter of which one is superior to the other; that could lead to endless debates. It’s more a matter of where we all find ourselves in this sometimes convoluted journey called life and what we can do to make the best of it, both for ourselves and for our fellow travelers in this journey. Perhaps as more and more evangelicals leave the faith for intellectual rather than for moral reasons, the population of “Planet Purity without Belief” will grow and will serve as a softer landing pad for those arriving from “Planet Purity with Belief.” I don’t envision this planet being populated with moral crusaders but with those who simply continue to feel comfortable embracing family values and cultivating personal virtue as they did during their years in the church. No doubt some on this planet will go on to migrate to Planet Wordly, and that’s fine with me (within reason), but I would hope that our numbers would be sufficient to form a community for those of us who find ourselves caught between Planet Purity (with Belief) and Planet Worldly (without Belief).
Is abortion wrong? It's not a question that was ever up for debate for me as a conservative evangelical believer, but after my deconversion, I had to wrestle with a host of moral questions from a new perspective: premarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, war, government welfare, and many more. As I argue in my book, I think the feared (and real) loss of clarity on many of these issues is a significant factor preventing many believers from reconsidering their faith; it’s just a lot easier to take the word of God or of Dobson or of Colson on these matters than to do the hard work of weighing the variables and considering them in shades of grey rather than in black and white. And it’s scary to think of falling down the precipice of moral relativism.
I find it remarkable that no Christians have asked to know my opinion on abortion since my deconversion (well, perhaps once in the context of a small discussion group perhaps five years ago). Up until now, I haven’t publicly expressed my thoughts on this issue, partly because I hadn’t (and still haven’t fully) come to a firm conclusion on this question. Now that I’m maintaining a blog and abortion and birth control have been in the news again recently, it’s probably time for me bring my thoughts out into the open.
Secular humanists, though predominately pro-choice, are not unanimously so. For examples, listen to Robert Price’s Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Jen Roth entitled “Atheist Against Abortion
,” or read Nat Hetonff’s entreaty to Obama
. So if you’re a conservative Christian and you fear that leaving your faith will necessarily entail changing your views on abortion, you needn’t let that stand in the way of deconverting. But I won’t pretend that it’s likely for your outlook on abortion to remain unchanged.
As former believers, we can no longer call on the Bible or Christian tradition or the divinely established sanctity of human life to argue against the practice of abortion. The best we can do (if we remain pro-life) is to appeal to an agreed-upon commitment to treat all human life as deserving of preservation. But then on what basis can we agree on this apparently arbitrary commitment without also maintaining a similar commitment to other species?
Before I continue the discussion of abortion from a secular perspective, let me back up to my perspective as a believer. My opposition to abortion was rooted in the sanctity of human life, a sanctity that in my view derived from God’s having created humankind uniquely in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). As soon as the 23 chromosomes of the father’s sperm and the 23 chromosomes of the mother’s egg came together, a 46-chromosome human being is formed, worthy of the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by all other members of our species, whether born or unborn, strong or frail, athletic or invalid, intelligent or mentally disturbed. Terminating a human life, no matter how small, is equivalent to murder, period. I was impatient with any line of reasoning about abortion that did not take this into account. I could not understand how certain politicians like George H. W. Bush could call themselves pro-life while allowing exceptions for rape or incest. Would these “pro-life” politicians think it’s fine to kill such offspring if they’re already born, or if they’re 10 years old? If not, then why is it any different if they’re still in the womb? They’re still human, for goodness’ sake! (I did reluctantly allow for one exception to abortion: when a mother’s life is at stake, when it comes down to one life versus another, but I considered this to be quite rare and more hypothetical than a daily reality.)
Though I bought into other pro-life arguments, it was this murder question that primarily drove my anti-abortion stance, exemplified by the bumper sticker, “It’s a baby, not a choice.” Some have argued that abortion leads to higher rates of cancer for the mother, but the research is not at all definitive on this, so it makes pro-lifers look disingenuous when they pretend it is more definitive than it really is. Another common pro-life argument is that there are many childless couples who would love to adopt if only mothers who don’t want to keep their babies would give them up for adoption, but that’s merely a pragmatic argument that doesn’t take into account the opposite pragmatic concerns of the mothers who do not wish carry their babies to term, or the health of our planet that one day will reach its practical population limit (whether in decades, centuries, or millennia). Once we wade into pragmatic arguments like these, we lose the force of the central ideological argument against abortion, namely, that it’s the taking of a human life, i.e., murder.
Another argument I considered but which didn’t have the same weight for me as it did for other pro-life proponents was the concept of potentiality. Mozart is the poster child for this argument. His father was crippled and his mother deaf and blind when he was brought into this world to join his 13 other siblings. Surely in a situation like that today, abortion would have been encouraged, but in his day, Mozart was allowed to live and grow into the genius who contributed so much to our culture. And yet, to be blunt, every time a teenage boy has a wet dream or masturbates instead of having sex with his girlfriend, or every time a wife declines sex because she’s “too tired tonight, honey,” it could be argued that the world may have lost a potential Mozart or an Einstein. Then too, by the same token, perhaps a potential Stalin or Hitler could have been lost to the world. I just never bought the peculiar “potentiality” argument for these reasons.
Then there were the scriptural arguments. As a Christian I was aware that I couldn’t simply appeal to the Bible to convince the wider secular world that abortion should be restricted or outlawed, but the Bible did help reinforce my personal pro-life stance, particularly the following verses from Psalm 139:
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
However, even such passages didn’t have the weight of my primary argument against abortion as a Christian, namely that humans (no matter how small) are in some sense unique among all the species and that our common prohibition against murder extends to all members of our species. The above passage could surely apply just as well to animals--if God is the author of life and knits humans in their mothers’ womb, does he not do the same for dogs in their mothers’ womb? And yet no Christian that I know if is as exercised about canine abortion as they are about human abortion.
On a more emotional level, I was moved as a Christian to hear descriptions of the violence of abortion and the pain it caused to sentient babies, particularly in the course of so-called “partial-birth abortions.” I learned that a baby can feel pain certainly by the 25th week of pregnancy and that abortion does cause intense pain to the baby. Yet I had to admit that I wasn’t as concerned about the pain experienced by a bull when slaughtered so I could have hamburger, and I also realized that the pain-to-the baby argument couldn’t be used against the practice of abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, so again, this was in a sense another distraction from my central argument against abortion, namely that it constituted the taking of a human life.
It’s getting late, and I need to work in the morning, so I’ve just now decided to make this into (at least) a two-part blog. I intend to continue next time by explaining my current views as a secular humanist, even if I’m not fully settled on the matter. Perhaps this will lead to a dialogue that will help many of us consider a viable position that recognizes the legitimate arguments that can be made from different points of view.
From “George,” a reader: “After two years of nagging doubts, 13 months of focused reading, and then six months of intense study and agony, I've finally come out the other side. As of a couple weeks ago, I've admitted to myself and my family and close friends that I'm no longer a Christian. 11 days ago was my last time at church. I've had a lot of hard conversations, and more are still to come, but I'm moving on with life.
"The problem is, the deconversion testimonies I've read about finding a new freedom in life or raw existential joy don't seem to ring true. Instead, I find myself almost entirely lacking in motivation to do anything. Life is overcast and gray, a film watched through foggy goggles. I feel like a robot following its programming. The Christian would say, ‘Congratulations! You're now experiencing the meaninglessness of life apart from God,’ but when I look at other non-believers who don't have this problem, it's clear I'm doing something wrong.
"I realize that I can't just expect to flip a switch and immediately be freed from my Christian frame of reference. I'd been a true believer for my entire life, and the mentality and habits of faith are extraordinarily hard to break: I still feel awkward not praying before meals; when I'm approaching something difficult or uncertain, my first instinct is still to pray; and I still recoil from things that Christianity (alone) says are immoral.”
I include this message from George because it is unguarded and compelling--and probably more common than he realizes. It’s true that the testimonials of former Christians posted on the Internet are typically positive, inviting stories of liberation from the suffocating grip of fundamentalism. But for every glowing invitation to follow in their footsteps, we have no idea how many tormented souls wish they had not ventured into the stormy, open seas in which they find themselves, without an anchor or bearing and with no land in sight. Why do I think George is not alone? It’s because his experience mirrors so closely my own turmoil that began over a decade ago, and those of others with whom I’ve privately corresponded.
In fact, I would be surprised if George’s experience were not the norm, at least for those of us whose faith, whose relationship with Jesus, formerly constituted our very identity. It wasn’t that Jesus was just a part of our lives, or even the most important part of our lives; he was our life. Should it come as a surprise to experience the loss of Jesus as we would the death of the one we hold most dear or as a divorce from our beloved spouse? I recall all too well in the year 2000 the knot in my stomach, the nausea, the sweat, the grey fog, the depression, the uncertainty, and the dread that filled my heart as I crossed the threshold from the comforts of faith to the despair of doubt. George, you are not alone, not at all
If you’ve lived your whole life with the understanding that the universe was created with you in mind, that your life matters infinitely to your creator, that you have a purpose to fulfill for the glory of your creator, that he considers you as the apple of his eye, that he gave up his son for you, that he watches out for you and protects you, and that he’s preparing a place of bliss for you for all eternity, and then if you come to doubt all that, of course
you’re going to be depressed! For those that easily skip from belief to unbelief without missing a beat (if such a person exists), I wonder how much their former faith really meant to them in the first place. The loss is felt most acutely by those who had the most to lose.
Those of us who’ve never used heroin don’t know how much of a struggle it is to give it up; only those who savored a regular high struggle to withdraw. Incidentally, perhaps this is why I (and other former believers) tend to seek out fellow apostates. Though we share a common worldview with lifelong unbelievers, we don’t share the same pre-deconversion or deconversion experiences. And, as George mentioned, we carry into our new life many of the views on morality we grew up with; for example, we may remain uncomfortable with drunkenness, profanity, loose sexual mores, homosexuality, abortion, or liberal political views--things that longtime atheists often don’t have a problem with. I’m not going to delve into these matters here, other than to note that these questions constitute one more source of angst for those of us who’ve grown up as conservative Christians and have left the faith for intellectual rather than moral reasons.
A number of surveys have shown that religious people are on average happier than unbelievers. I have been confronted by Christians who’ve used these statistics to question my new worldview. Likewise, they’ve also confronted me with assertions that, without God, there’s no good reason to be moral, nor does life have any meaning. What these well-meaning Christians don’t understand is that I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to, but because I came to see it as untrue. And if you don’t think something its true, you cannot simply make yourself believe it to be true. It doesn’t matter whether I might be less happy or less inclined to be moral or to find meaning in life; I cannot believe what I cannot believe. I suspect George is in the same boat, wanting in some sense to go back to the familiarity and security of faith but finding himself unable to do so.
But is there hope for those of us who give up our religion out of intellectual integrity, with no benefit to ourselves or to society? Are we just to grit our teeth stoically, tell the world we don’t believe, and forgo the benefits of religious meaning, morality, and community? I have written at greater length on the questions of morality (chapter 8; see also this blog post
) and meaning (chapter 9) of my book
. It’s my conviction that unbelievers have no fewer legitimate reasons or any reduced capacity to be moral compared to their religious counterparts, and there’s no reason we cannot lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. However, the loud insistence of the church that this is not so can actually make us believe it has a monopoly on the true source of morality, meaning, and joy, even as we make our exit from the church. Our long-term dependence on religion for these benefits is real and does make it difficult to envision a fulfilling life outside the church. In the months and sometimes years following our deconversion, we suffer this loss acutely. But over time, we adapt to the “new normal”; we “come out” to everyone, we keep many of our old friends and make some new ones, we find activities that give life meaning, we adjust to the idea that the universe was not made with us in mind--and eventually the turmoil we experienced in the beginning fades away into a bad memory. In other words--and this is the main point I want any struggling readers to take home--it gets better with time
. Not only to we adjust to loss, but we eventually our situation improves as we begin to see the world closer to how it really is; as we shed our egocentric notions of cosmic importance, as we let go of the congitive dissonance we experienced when we tried to fit square pegs into round holes; and as we no longer have to see others as targets of conversion lest they suffer for all eternity separated from God. For some the benefits come sooner than for others, and I can only hope that your deconversion blues will soon begin to fade, though there may always be a social price to pay, as there continues to be for me.
Finally, though it’s conventional wisdom that believers are happier than unbelievers, the truth is more nuanced than that. According to this study
, firmly convinced and engaged believers are happier than lukewarm or uninvolved believers. The interesting thing is that the same phenomenon holds true for unbelievers: those that are just lapsed churchgoers (those who might have left the church for interpersonal or financial reasons, for example, or those who simply lost interest without intense study, or those who are unsure whether they believe or don’t believe) are less happy than those who are confident and open in their unbelief. In other words, whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever, if you’re uncertain or half-hearted about what you believe, you’re less likely to be happy than if you’re a confident and/or committed believer or unbeliever. So it’s natural that as you’re going through the uncertainty surrounding deconversion, even if you suspect that Christianity is untrue, if you have natural lingering doubts about your doubts, you can expect to live with the blues until your pressing doubts are resolved in one direction or another. But again, it gets better with time, since generally over the years you come to terms with your doubts and become more settled in what you believe.
From blog reader Holly: “What do you think the world would be like if every person was an Atheist? Would it be better or worse? As much as religion can cause harm, would it be worse if there were no religion? Would there be more suicides, attempts and support to eliminate the ‘burdens’ in society such as the mentally or physically handicapped, less charity and acts of good-will towards the less fortunate? Would there be more murder, crime, lying and deception (is that possible?). I of course would not be inclined to behave that way, but given my recognition of our very selfish nature and propensity to fall into despair and need hope, I wonder how many people would behave in such ways given a lack of belief in god. I like to think that we would still realize that it's best to respect life and that we would band together in attempts to make society a good place for everybody, but maybe I'm just kidding myself.”
Thanks for your topic suggestion, Holly. It’s a major subject about which many books have been written, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice in a single blog post. The best I can do is to provide some high-level thoughts and point you to some resources for further exploration.
Before delving into your question, I’ll start with the obvious: believers typically would like us to think that the world would be a disaster if everyone were an atheist, while atheists typically assert that the world would be a better place without religion or superstition. It’s like the results of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election: if you’re a Democrat, Al Gore got the most votes in Florida, but if you’re a Republican, George W. Bush edged out Gore. The take-away lesson: don’t listen just to the side you prefer; the truth is probably more complex than either side would like you to believe, perhaps even too complex to answer using the tools and information we have available.
It’s not difficult to find examples of atheists (think Stalin or Mao) or believers (think the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisitors, the Crusaders, or the Taliban) who’ve made the world a worse place. Nor is it difficult to think of skeptics (e.g., Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson) or believers (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, St. Francis of Assisi) who’ve made the world a better place. Nor do we have to look far for dysfunctional religious (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan) or nonreligious (e.g., Cambodia under Pol Pot, the Soviet Union, North Korea) nations or for healthy and prosperous religious (e.g., the U.S.A.) or nonreligious (e.g., Sweden, Denmark, Japan) ones.
We should be suspicious of those who make blanket pronouncements about the merits of religion or irreligion based on a selective mining of examples that support one perspective or the other. For example, in The Book That Transforms Nations: The Power of the Bible to Change Any Country
, YWAM missionary Loren Cunningham seeks to link every case of a prosperous nonreligious country to some point of Christian influence, past or present, small or great. Even the success of modern Japan is attributed to the work of a Christian industrialist in the early twentieth century. But using this approach, a Muslim apologist could cite Muslim influence as the explanation for the prosperity of any nation. It was, after all, Muslims who reintroduced to medieval Europe classical Greek science and writings, along with important contributions to algebra, medicine, and other disciplines. It serves Cunningham’s agenda to attribute Japan’s success to a Christian industrialist, but not the success of Europe to Muslim or pagan Greek thinkers. The same selectivity pervades many apologists’ explanations for the holocaust: it was all Darwin’s fault, and the antisemtism that had reigned in Germany since the time of the consummate antisemite Martin Luther had nothing to do with it.
Likewise, atheists are quick to trumpet the shining examples of relatively nonreligious countries like those in northern and western Europe and Japan as proof that atheism is good for society, while finding ways to explain away counter-examples like the former Sovient Union, Camboia, Maoist China, and Cambodia (they were due to quasi-religious devotion to a Leader or a political ideology, not to atheism per se, or the atheism was externally imposed, not organic). Though perhaps plausible, this strikes me as a form of special pleading in the service a conclusion reached beforehand (i.e., that atheism is good for society), similar to that of Christian apologists like Cunningham.
I recently received an e-mail message with a call to prayer for Liberia, a country in turmoil that “needs God.” Having spent 15 months as a missionary kid in that country, I was curious to know its current religious situation, so looked it up on Wikipedia:
As a whole, Africa is the continent with the smallest proportion
of the nonreligious and unaffiliated; in other words, it is the most religious continent on earth, yet the least prosperous. Perhaps these are not “true” Christians--i.e., the type of Christians who construct a healthy, prosperous society. But then this definition of Christian is too convenient; if “true Christians” are defined as only those who construct a healthy society, then of course
all “true Christian” countries are healthy! In any case, it seems we should all be able to agree that religion is not a sufficient
condition for a prosperous society.
But even if it’s not a sufficient condition, might it still be a necessary
condition? The short answer is No (unless you’re intent on using special pleading to attribute the prosperity of all relatively secular nations to the presence of a mustard seed of Christian influence, past or present, while ignoring the fact that an even greater degree of Christian observance in Liberia has not led to prosperity there). After sociologist Phil Zuckerman lived in irreligious Denmark (where only 18% believe in heaven, compared to 88% of Americans) for a year to study a nonreligious society, he wrote the book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment
, from which I’ll include an excerpt here:
I'd like to end this chapter with a bus ride.
It was a very simple, uneventful bus ride through Aarhus [Denmark], on a relatively unremarkable autumn afternoon. But it was during this particular excursion that I had several personal thoughts and reflections that eventually morphed into the urge and impetus to write this very chapter.
What happened during that bus ride was this: I felt a real sense of goodness. It was a sense of goodness that stemmed not from some internal endorphin rush, but rather, simply from taking in and observing the pleasant social world around me. There I was, heading to an appointment downtown, and I felt it deeply: everything was fine. Calm. Good. The bus was clean - not dirty and grimy, like many buses in large cities can be. The bus was also on time, stopping at each stop right on schedule. And all the people on the bus were sitting peacefully. Teenagers were placidly punching the keypads of their cell phones, old ladies were holding their handbags. A young schoolgirl was absent-mindedly flicking the neon-green strap of her backpack. The bus driver was doing his thing. Outside, through the bus windows, I could see a park full of trees with leaves turning yellow and red. And people jogging. And there was not a honk to be heard, for the flow of traffic was moving right along, smoothly. As we got closer to the city center we passed ice cream stores, book shops, law offices, flower shops, banks, and bakeries. Men and women of all ages buzzed safely alongside the bus on their bikes. The city buildings were largely devoid of graffiti. Litter in the streets was minimal. Every few minutes a pre-recorded voice would announce the name of the upcoming stop. People got off, people got on. Everything was fine. Remarkably fine.
And then, amidst that goodness, I thought about the words of Pat Robertson, particularly his words concerning "Gods wrath," and how when people disobey God, He gets angry, and unleashes His wrath on disobedient nations. Robertson surely isn't the only religious leader who espouses such rhetoric; nearly all religious leaders since time immemorial have warned that when God is disobeyed--or simply ignored--He gets mad, and we all suffer the consequences. Many millions of people, especially in America, sincerely believe this. And yet, on that smooth and uneventful bus ride, there were simply no signs of God's wrath. Just the opposite: all was good. Uneventfully good. Peacefully good. If ever a society could be described as "safe and sound," relatively secular Denmark would be it (pp. 30, 31).
In today’s world, there is a statistically significant correlation between a nation’s lack of religiosity and its societal health, including economic prosperity, longevity, and lowered rates of homicide and other violent crimes, incarceration, and teen pregnancy. Even the abortion rate in secular western and northern Europe is lower than that in the U.S.
The suicide rate
of the Scandanavian countries is slightly higher than that of the U.S. though interestingly it's lower in the Netherlands, also a notably secular society, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions about suicide rates as they relate to religiosity. I encourage you to read Zuckerman’s book, Society without God
, to gain a fuller appreciation of just how well a secular society can function. (He has a new book Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion
that I intend to read soon; based on the Kindle preview, I would also heartily recommend it.)
Incidentally, the U.S. stands as somewhat of an anomaly among developed nations in that it is both economically prosperous and relatively religious. Author Greg Paul posits an interesting thesis for this anomaly in his essay, “The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved” (available here
; it might take some time to load). He posits that there’s a direct correlation between religiosity and the degree of income inequality of a nation; in other words, the more religious a country is, the greater the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots,” as in America. The less religious a country is, the fewer very poor and very rich there are. I’m not sure that this correlation Paul has identified is a causal correlation between secularism and relative equality, but it’s an interesting twist worth considering.
I would never claim that freethought (atheism, agnosticism, deism, etc.) is a necessary or sufficient condition for a well-functioning society; there are too many examples to the contrary. But neither would I say the same about religion. There is benign atheism and toxic atheism, benign religion and toxic religion. Neither atheists nor humans are exempt from the foibles of human nature. The worst atrocities in human history have been committed by those most convinced of the rightness of their ideological, utopian causes (whether for this life or the next)--for example, the Crusades, the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 17th century, and the bloodbaths committed by Communists, Nazis, Maoists, and radical Islamists.
I’m sorry I can’t provide a more definitive answer to your question, Holly, but it seems to me that we can’t know for sure whether society would be better or worse if everyone were to become an atheist. Yet the examples of northern Europe and Japan and other secular nations at least assure me that society wouldn’t necessarily go down the toilet, and there’s probably a better than even chance that it would improve, provided that the move toward atheism were voluntary, not externally imposed by tyrants like Stalin or Mao.