“For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”
“In order to cure most of the ills of human life, I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. Let the whole species possess naturally an equal diligence with that which many individuals are able to attain by habit and reflection; and the most beneficial consequences, without any alloy of ill, is the immediate and necessary result of this endowment.”
—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779
In 2006, I said the following in “Putting Humanity on a Pedestal“:
…in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.
Since I first wrote that, I’ve been thinking some more about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this was, if anything, an understatement. With a little work, this could be one of the most important arguments in the atheist’s rhetorical quiver, one that would give us a virtually unanswerable talking point against nearly every form of theism.
If you’ve spent any time reading apologetic literature, you’ve probably come across the theologians who conceive of human free will as a blank slate, a mathematical point lacking any internal structure, such that not even God could influence our decisions without canceling our free will altogether. Curiously, many of these same theologians also insist on a doctrine called original sin, which claims that our decisions are biased toward evil – a contradiction that usually seems to pass them by without notice.
That contradiction aside, it’s easy to see why theologians insist that free will is a blank slate. They want to claim that God is good, yet there’s a huge amount of evil in the world that needs to be accounted for. The easiest way out is to put the blame on humans: insisting that God endowed human beings with free will so that we could achieve genuine fellowship with him, but that we went astray and brought sin into the world (and some go so far as to blame all natural evil on human sin). This serves to justify continued belief in God as the creator of all things while still holding him guiltless for evil and suffering.
This question takes on special importance when you consider that, according to the moral rules traditionally handed down by religion, God has created human beings with strong inclinations to do things that he doesn’t want us to do (the original-sin idea again). For instance, he cautions us against gluttony, yet creates us with an appetite for rich, sweet, fattening foods. He enjoins us not to commit adultery, but gives us sex drives that are unpredictable and uncontrollable. He warns us against wrath, but creates short-tempered people who get irrationally angry. He threatens doom for homosexuality, yet creates people who have homosexual desires.
I’ve tried this argument on a few occasions, and what I’ve found is that most theists react with bewilderment. They fail to comprehend the question, or insist that humans are the only kind of creature God could possibly have created, or claim that God could not have improved us without making tradeoffs that would have resulted in an even worse outcome (the absurdity of applying the concept of “tradeoff” to an omnipotent being is something else that never occurs to them).
Well, I think we can help them out. In an upcoming series of posts, I’ll propose a series of imagination-stretching exercises – thought experiments which show how human nature could have been different, in ways that would improve it without any negative tradeoffs. These changes, while not depriving us of free will, would lead to a world with a greater sense of morality and smaller amounts of sin – and after all, isn’t that what we’re told God wants?
Other posts in this series: