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By Ben Love ~
Having spent the better part of the last eighteen months writing intense essays documenting both the research and the personal experiences that led to my rejection of Christianity, I would wager that my readers are in no way uninformed regarding my embrace of atheism. Indeed, I’ve been quite vocal (perhaps to the point of loquacity) about the logical arguments that, once digested, slew what little fledgling faith I had left. Likewise, I’ve been even more vocal (and perhaps a bit too forthright) about my personal reasons for determining that Christian thought and religious faith are inherently erroneous.
I often look back on my essays, particularly the ones that were written in the immediate weeks after my deconversion, and conclude that, at times, some of my early naysayers were right: there was a bit of belligerence cutting through the undertone of my work. Now, just as then, I attribute that to the anger I felt at the venomous wall of hate that hit me when I “came out.” I have not forgotten the mass exodus from my life that my so-called “Christian friends” committed at the time, nor have I forgotten the many detestable remarks that were leveled at me, remarks like, “You’re too stupid to even talk to,” or “I always knew you were a heathen at heart.” There is a degree to which I wear those remarks as a kind of badge of honor, since they are evidence that there is nothing within the average Christian that bids him to behave with any kind of so-called “godliness”; but all the same, I still feel the sting. And, for better or worse, I know my writing over the last year and half has reflected that sting.
That said, I also know that I’ve not left anything out. I feel as though I’ve covered all that needed to be said. Whether or not my readers agree with me is immaterial to the fact that I’ve not left them wondering. I have attempted to anticipate all the questions they might ask me, and I believe I’ve been faithful to answer those questions with honesty, diligence, and profusion. My lengthy essay “The Atheist’s Perspective” alone should be enough to satisfy the “why,” even if you disagree with the “what.” Even so, I’d like to write a bit more about one particular aspect of Christianity that, above all the others, sealed my exultant fate and sent me irrevocably to the side of atheism. I’ve touched on this aspect before, and I even wrote a small blurb of an essay about it, but now, after more reflection and more research, I’d like to revisit this topic again.
The aspect I’m referring to is the problem of Free Will. What is free will? Free will is a doctrine that accompanies most monotheistic expressions of the divine. That is to say, most religions that subscribe to a single God (and even a few that are polytheistic) typically believe that this God, while still being absolutely sovereign, has surrendered a bit of control to his creations. In other words, free will states that we the creations are permitted by the Creator to exercise a measure of autonomy in our personal lives.
On the surface, this perhaps sounds pretty good and may not necessarily pose any logical problems to the casual observer, but the problems begin to mount exponentially when we note that existing within the parameters of this free will is the implication that one of the creations could, by use of this autonomy, choose to reject the Creator. This poses a serious problem because not only does it put this particular created being at odds with his Creator (not a pleasant situation if indeed this Creator is real), it also raises a logical contradiction that absolutely refutes the entire theology. And it is this contradiction that, more than anything else, led me to conclude cerebrally that Christianity is nothing more than exercise in the absurd.
I call this contradiction the Problem of God’s Complicity. I’ve raised this issue with at least a dozen Christian thinkers and not one of them has been able to give me a suitable response. In fact, I observed that their collective attitude toward this problem was one of complete disinterest. I suppose it is easy to be indifferent to that which could imply your own downfall. At any rate, the Problem of God’s Complicity can be stated as follows:
If X = Y, and Y = Z, then X = Z, making Y superfluous.
Some might see it as too easy a detraction, but I don’t think so. After all, this equation would apply to any other conceivable situation in reality, but believers want their idea of God to be excused from this logic. For instance, suppose a boat (x) is constructed from cardboard (y). Well, cardboard (y) is water-permeable (z). Therefore the boat is water-permeable, and thus rendered useless on the high seas. If the boat itself is useless on the water, the end result is the same regardless of the material in question.
Likewise, if I (x) put a knife in the hand of my infant daughter (y), and she (y) accidentally stabs and kills her twin brother (z), I am the one responsible. I (x) am responsible for the death of my son (z). Sure, my daughter (y) was involved, but the end result is the same as if I’d stabbed my son myself. Why? Because my infant daughter had no business wielding a knife, an instrument which was beyond her mental development. I am complicit in the death of my son, even though it was my daughter who struck the blow.
The exact same logic applies to the idea of free will. If God (x) gives us free will (y), and free will (y) results in our sinfulness (z), then God (x) is responsible for (z). If X = Y, and Y = Z, then X = Z. At this point, Y is just a needless middle man. If X = Z, then God is responsible for sin. To state this differently, the one who permits the choice is ultimately the one responsible for the choice. If God, being a perfect intelligence compared to us, saw fit to entrust his imperfect creations with free will, one would have to assume that this perfect intelligence knew ahead of time what would happen. Moreover, one would have to conclude that he who permits the choice is just as responsible as he who made the choice. The boat is just as water-permeable regardless of whether it’s constructed with cardboard or paper or fabric. Y is irrelevant as the boat is sinking. Only X and Z matter in the end.
It is no different with free will. The one who enables the choice must be considered complicit in the end result. After all, the end result occurred under the umbrella of the enabler’s purview. This logic is amplified when we consider that if a higher being gives responsibility to a lesser being, the higher being should be held accountable for what the lesser being does with that responsibility. I can’t help but feel that not only are these conclusions self-evident, they are also irrefutable. That is why, to me, God’s complicity in our sinfulness renders the entire theological understanding absurd. The argument inherently undermines itself and collapses… and the belief system collapses with it.
When I was attempting to explain this to a Christian friend of mine, he waved my conclusions away with typical indifference and made a statement that, to him, must have felt like the best trump card of all time. In reality, however, I found his statement to be so absurd and irrelevant to the topic at hand that I just shook my head, not deigning to respond. He said, “Michael, what you’re conveniently forgetting is that no one wants to be loved by a robot. Robots do what we tell them to do. There is therefore little satisfaction in being served by a robot. But someone who has the ability to reject us? It means everything when such a person chooses us. And that’s why God gave us free will. He didn’t want to be loved by robots.”
Let us forget for the moment that this assertion is utterly ridiculous from a logical standpoint. Let us treat it as though it were a meaty statement deserving a meaty reply. I ask you: What is the definition of a robot? I would say a robot is the artificial work of a creator. A robot is a creation that was fashioned to perform specific functions, typically functions that serve or aid or assist the creator. The creator is a higher being than the robot, even if the robot is programmed to be an advanced intelligence. The robot is a lesser being; it owes its existence to the will and mercy of the creator, and as such can be deactivated any time the creator chooses.
This, if you ask me, is not unlike the supposed dynamic that exists between the alleged God and us. We were wrought by his hands, created for a specific purpose, and we live and breathe by his mercy. And what is our specific purpose according to Christianity? The Bible says it is to “love God.” But the same Bible also says that we love God by obeying God. To obey is the province of a robot. How, then, are we not robots in contrast to God?
Moreover, let us suppose that I create a robot and program it to decide for itself whether or not it will serve me (choose me) or disobey me (reject me). By thus programming it, I have in essence given it free will. If it rejects me goes off on its own, the situation is still the result of my programming, yes? If I had never programmed it to be autonomous, it could never have disobeyed me and gone rogue. But I specifically encoded within its programming the ability for it reject me; that means that I was allowing for the possibility that it would. And if it does reject me, what kind of sense would it make for me to blame the robot for doing that which it was programmed to possibly do? That’s the same as blaming a poorly designed car for its poor designs. If a car is a lemon, you blame the designer. If the human is wayward, why is not perfectly logical to take a hard look at the supposed Creator? Well, guess what, it is logical do so. And in so doing, we see that this alleged Creator as expressed through the theology of the Christian religion is a patent impossibility.
To take it a step further, let us suppose that I create ten robots, all of which are programmed to decide for themselves whether or not they want to serve me. Let us also suppose that I somehow know ahead of time that nine of those robots will reject me and that only one of those ten will choose to serve me. Suppose I knew this as I was making them. Where is the logic if I hold those nine accountable for 1) doing what I knew they would do, and 2) doing what was programmed within in them to possibly do? Wouldn’t it be considered a horrendous waste of resources that I went ahead and created those nine, especially when I knew ahead of time that not only would they not choose me, but also that I’d have to destroy what I created as punishment for their waywardness? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to create only the robot that would use its autonomy to choose me? I can think of nothing more wanton or gluttonous or illogical than wasting resources on that which I know ahead of time I’m going to have to destroy anyway. And yet my intelligence is supposedly nothing compared to the vast mind and wisdom of this alleged God.
Let’s take it even one more step further. Consider this scenario: Suppose I create two robots and I put them in a specific enclosure of space—a garden, let’s say. Like the others, these two robots are programmed to be autonomous. Thus, they have a measure of free will and can do my bidding if they so choose or reject me if they so choose. Suppose I give them specific instructions not to pluck fruit from a certain tree. I warn them that if they do pluck fruit from this tree I will surely destroy them. Now, let us further suppose that it is my dearest hope that they will not molest this tree and that they will choose to serve me. I think that anyone watching this endeavor would be right to pull me aside and say, “Michael, if you didn’t want them to pluck fruit from that tree, why did you place them in the one garden where that tree is to be found? You could have deposited those two robots anywhere in the world and yet you placed them in an enclosed setting very near the one tree you don’t want them to touch.”
To complicate matters, suppose I also secretly deposited a third robot into the garden. This robot’s programmed function is to encounter the other two robots and specifically tempt them to pluck fruit from the very tree I instructed them to avoid. Well, you can see where this is going. In this scenario, free will seems like nothing more than a game I’m playing with myself, a game to see how these robots will respond to the circumstances in which I’ve placed them. Never mind the fact that this is all a ghastly waste of time and resources. And this is only robots we're talking about, not flesh and blood humans who may experience much existential pain as a result of this wanton game.
This is, essentially, the story told in the first chapters of Genesis, a story clung tightly to by devout believers who have based their entire belief system on this understanding. After all, if there is no sin, there need be no Jesus. Whatever else Christian theology may be, it is built upon the foundation that one day Adam and Eve used their God-given free will to disobey their Creator, thus ushering sin into the world. Free will is therefore woven into the most basic fabric of Christian thought, and it is inherently illogical. If the foundation is bad, what does that say about the structure?
The whole ludicrous idea of free will ties into another faulty mainstay of Christian thought: God’s sovereignty. The Christian believes that his God is in total control of everything. And when you ask a Christian what he means by “everything,” he says, “everything.” That literally means everything. Okay. Got it.
But there’s a problem here. I ask you: What does it mean to be in control of everything? Think about that for moment before you answer. Really think about that. What is included under the heading of “everything?” The truth is, every single thing you could possibly conceive of must fall under the heading of “everything.” But this implies things that we cannot imagine being true of God, at least not the Christian God and his human manifestation of Jesus. For instance, if God is in control of everything, and “everything” literally does mean everything, then he was the one who engineered the house fire that killed the family of five. He was the one who allowed the little girl to take the wrong path home, a path that ended with her capture, molestation, and murder by the man who wouldn’t have noticed her had she taken the correct path home. God was the one allowed the children to die in their sleep from a carbon monoxide leak. All these terrible, atrocious things that happen in this world can be laid ultimately at the door of God if he indeed is in control of everything. But what does that make him if not a monster?
It is at this point that my Christian counterparts say something like, “Well, no, those things happen outside the parameters of God’s will.” To which I reply, “So God’s will has parameters? It has limits?” If this is true, then God is not actually in control of everything; he is only in control of some things. To be in control of everything means that nothing could possibly occur that was outside the parameters of my own will; nothing could possibly occur that didn’t have my ultimate stamp of approval.
When I raise this issue, the Christian usually backpedals and says something like, “Well, what I meant was that God is in control of those who, through the use of their own free will, submit to his will. But he doesn’t force his will on anyone. He lets them choose.” If this is true, then I can’t help but feel as though the implication is that we have a measure of control over God. Indeed, if God’s control over our lives is contingent upon our compliance, then God actually isn’t in control at all; we are. Or perhaps a better way to put it would be to ask this question: where does God’s control end and where does ours begin?
The point is this: If we, the creations, can undermine, thwart, or in any other way successfully oppose God’s will, then the only conclusion to be reached is that this God is actually in control of nothing. God therefore absolutely cannot be sovereign if we truly do have free will. And we cannot have true free will if God is indeed sovereign. Sovereignty is an all or nothing dynamic. You can’t be sort of sovereign. You either are or you’re not. Thus, human free will and the sovereignty of God cannot coexist with each other. God either controls everything, or he controls nothing. There is no in between. If you maintain that we have free will, you have to accept one of only two options: 1) God’s sovereignty must mean he is complicit in our sinfulness, or 2) God is not sovereign, and we are. But this would have to mean that God is not God, not in the biblical sense. Once again, the argument inherently undermines itself and collapses… and the belief system collapses with it.
Moreover, if I truly had free will, I would have it without anyone having to give it to me. If someone bestows free will upon me, then this same person can ultimately withdraw that gift. In either case, the giver of the gift is still the one in control. Free will becomes nothing more than a nice illusion at that point. And what can be said about free will if the giver gives it to me and then says, “You have the option to choose whatever you want, but if you choose anything other than my agenda for you, I will torment you for eternity.” That’s not really free will. That's just brute coercion. How free am I really if you make it clear to me that terrible consequences will befall me if I don’t choose what you want me to choose? If I were truly free, you would impose no penalties upon me for failing to choose that which matched your agenda. Is God a bully?
My question is whether or not the idea of free will would hold up in a court of law. Consider this scenario, taken from one of my earlier essays:
“…if I give my five-year-old son a loaded gun, and I, knowing more about guns than he does, instruct him to choose freely what he will do with it, is it really his fault or mine if he blows his own head off? It’s my fault, right? Who would disagree with that? I gave my son a responsibility that was beyond his scope and capacity (a loaded gun) and then let him choose what to do with it. He chose poorly and now he is dead. Sure, I could have advised him what the right choice was. But this did not guarantee that he was going to follow my advice or that he was obligated to do so. He might have had ideas of his own. If my son is dead, it’s my fault for putting the gun in his hands and then making him choose how to best use it. Why is it my fault? Because he is the child and I am the adult! He was in my care. I should have recognized that he was not capable of handling a loaded gun and the responsibilities that came with it.”
Now, suppose I was arrested and tried for gross negligence and manslaughter and whatever else could be leveled at me. Imagine me shrugging my shoulders and saying to the judge, “Your honor, I gave my son free will. What happened was his fault, not mine.” Among many other choice replies, the judge would likely point out that my son wasn’t capable of handling that amount of free will, not when it was a matter of life or death. “He didn’t know what you know,” the judge might say. “Your son didn’t understand the full implications and ramifications of that gun in his hands. But you, the father, did.”
What would you think of my gift of free will at that point? Is there anyone who could hear that story and agree with me that I was right to entrust my son with such a responsibility? What jury in the world would find me innocent? Why does the allegedly perfect God get a free pass on this? After all, a five-year-old son knows more about his human father than we creations could possibly fathom about a perfect Creator. And yet the eternal destiny of our souls hangs on the balance of what we will do with this free will given to us. As the creations, we don’t have all of the information, but we are supposed to make the right decision anyway and damn us to hell if we don’t!
Maybe things were even sicker than that, though. Maybe I look the judge square in the eyes and say, “Your honor, I truly wanted to know whether or not my five-year-old son would choose to shoot me or choose to let me live.” Such a statement would be ridiculous and insane, and yet Christian theology contends that God’s gift of free will to us was for much the same reason: to see who would choose him and who would reject him (even though in his supposed omniscience God apparently already knows anyway).
I really must ask at what point my readers will see the writing on the wall… There is no such thing as free will. It’s nothing more than wordplay, a contrived doctrine of convenience that helps Christians win arguments in their own minds. Peel back a few layers and you will see that this doctrine undermines the concept of the Christian God at every turn. A rational understanding of the notion of free will can lead nowhere other than to a total rejection of all Christian theology.
That’s what it did for me. I had other reasons for walking away from my faith. Personal reasons. Experiential reasons. Logical reasons regarding other particulars of Christian theology. I had even definitively concluded for myself that the resurrection of Jesus was nothing more than third century fabrication. But it was the absurd illogicities of free will and God’s sovereignty that finally flipped the switch in my heart and mind. I knew that these concepts formed the absolute foundation of everything else. And without these concepts, everything else crumbles. I let it all crumble for me. When will you do the same?
I quote Dylan Thomas: "When one burns one's bridges, what a lovely fire it makes."