Many (but not all) atheists argue for and accept that “free will” in an illusion. Why? Because this conclusion follows logically from the basic principles of atheism. I want to clarify why all atheists should deny the existence of free will or, by contrast, why all who believe that they have free will should reject atheism. (See also my article on Sam Harris and Determinism).
In other words, I will argue that if atheism is true, then humans do not have free will. But by contrast, if humans do have free will, then atheism is false. (Please notice how I define atheism).
First, let’s note that at least two significant atheist organizations have published articles rejecting the idea of free will. For instance, Frank Zindler, “Editor of American Atheist Magazine and Director of American Atheists Press,” denies the existence of free will. In an article he wrote for the American Atheist magazine, he writes this:
Although I risk inciting to disaffection many of the people who have expressed admiration for some of my previous articles, I must now focus my ‘Probing Mind’ upon the question, “Can will be free?” Let me answer the question straightaway with a firm “no,” and then attempt to support my conclusion.
The Center for Naturalism is strongly advocating for widespread rejection of free will:
We should doubt the little god of free will on the very same grounds that atheists doubt the big god of traditional religions: there’s no evidence for it.
Why is this? Atheists offer a variety of arguments.
First, Christians argue that it is our souls, made in the image of God, which give us the ability to make free-willed choices. Atheists deny that we have a soul made in the image of God. Therefore, they also tend to deny that we have the capacity to make free choices.
Second, if atheism is true, then human beings are exclusively physical beings. As physical beings, humans are subject to the same deterministic natural laws that all physical objects are subject to.
The Center for Naturalism makes both of these points:
Just as science has radically altered our view of cosmic reality, replacing the static earth-centered heavens with the Big Bang, and supernatural human origins with Darwinian evolution, so too it replaces the soul with the fully physical person, shaped in its entirety by the complex interaction of genetics and environment. Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that’s independent of neural processes. There’s nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there’s nothing supernatural outside it.
The third argument, articulated by Daniel Miessler on his website, is that the only way to change outcomes in the world is to either change a) the previous state of the universe or b) change the laws of nature. Why? Because these are the only two things that matter in what will happen next. As Daniel goes on to say:
If you do not have some measure of influence on at least one of these two variables, you simply cannot affect (let alone control) any future state of the universe. Thus, if you are unable to control any future state of the universe, then–regardless of how it may feel–you are incapable of making a true, free decision. Instead, causal events are moving through you, and you are being given the perception that you made a choice.
Neither quantum randomness nor consciousness provide an escape from this. Randomness simply removes predictability from the universe–it does not provide humans any additional control of outcomes. Similarly, consciousness–since it does not offer the ability to control the previous state of the universe or its laws–offers no escape either–despite strong instinctual feelings to the contrary.
What Daniel argues here is crucial: A naturalistic explanation of human consciousness and human behavior is that “causal events are moving through you, and you are being given the perception that you made a choice.”
To summarize, there are three reasons why atheists argue that atheism logically eliminates the possibility of human free will:
1. Atheism denies that human beings have souls.
2. Atheism understands human beings as mere physical objects, which are thoroughly subject to deterministic laws of nature.
3. Human beings lack the ability to change previous states of the universe or the laws of nature, and these two components are sufficient, by themselves, to determine the future states of the universe.
Therefore, the inevitable conclusion is:
4. If atheism is true, the perception of free will is an illusion.
Therefore, we are forced to choose between the following two statements:
a) There is no god.
b) I have free will.
These are competing, mutually exclusive claims. If (a) is true, then (b) is false. And if (b) is true, then (a) is false. But it is not logically possible for both to be true.
Therefore, if it happens to be the case that you are strongly convinced that you do, in fact, have free will, you have a good reason to suspect that atheism is not true.