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
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?
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?
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 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?
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.
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?
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?
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.)