Mama’s Choice – Part 7: Free Agents

by Vyckie Garrison


Recently I wrote this to my atheist uncle, Ron:

So here’s a big question for you: do you believe in free will? I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, I can’t really believe we do have free will. It seems to me that so much of our decision-making is influenced by circumstances completely beyond our control – circumstances which we did not choose. Plus – I don’t know anyone who has managed to actually carry out all their good intentions to live a good life with honesty and integrity. We all want to live well – but things happen and we end up somewhere near the opposite of what we planned.

For example – I really and truly did not want to have any children. I saw what a mess my parents made of it – and I did not want to be responsible for the upbringing of another human being.  I was even determined! I remember thinking as a young teen that the perfect plan would be to become a nun so that I could be close to God, remain a virgin, never get married, not have any children, and teach English – my favorite subject in school. And yet – here I am, mother of seven. How the hell did that happen?  Not that I don’t love every one of them – and I do not regret having them, but wow – it’s hard to even contemplate how someone so unlikely to be a mother (let alone a prolific mother) ends up with seven kids.

In his book, “Willing To Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will,” theologian, R.C. Sproul explains the Calvinist position on Free Will articulated by Jonathan Edwards:

“Man is morally incapable of choosing the things of God unless or until God changes the disposition of his soul. Man’s moral inability is due to the critical lack and deficiency, namely the motive or desire for the things of God. Left to himself, man will never choose Christ. He has no inclination to do so in his fallen state. Since he cannot act against his strongest inclination, he will never choose Christ unless God first changes the inclination of his soul by the immediate and supernatural work of regeneration. Only God can liberate the sinner from his bondage to his own evil inclinations.”

Okay – I will admit that I re-read nearly all of Sproul’s book trying to get a clear response to the simple question, Do humans have free will? … and for all my effort at deciphering the elaborate and convoluted labyrinth of words, words, words, the only thing tangible I managed to come away with was a desperate desire for a double rum and coke. But … the bottom line for orthodox scholars seems to be that we only have personal agency in so far as God allows us to choose what He has ordained – which, in case you’re still confused, is a tedious way of answering, “No, we don’t have free will – not really.”

Arminianism, which is a system of theology supposedly asserting that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will, nevertheless maintains that unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will: God alone determines who will be saved and his determination is that all who believe Jesus through faith will be justified. According to Arminius, “God regards no one in Christ unless they are engrafted in him by faith.” If we are saved by faith, and Ephesians 2:8 says, For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God – it seems evident that even “Free Will” Baptists, Methodists, Charismatics, and “Non-denominational” denominations do not actually believe we truly have a free choice apart from the sovereignty of God.

Open Theism” allows for substantive free will by denying that God is wholly omniscient and omnipotent. Also known as “process theology,” this view is based on quantum theory and has been articulated by “God of the Possible” author, Greg Boyd, as well as post-modern, or “Emergent” teachers such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.

“Openness is based on God as the Living God. The five most fundamental attributes of God are that God is Living, Personal, Relational, Good, and Loving. These faithfully represent God the way that Scripture presents Him, and starkly contrast with the Greek and Roman philosophical construction of God” – Openness Theology – Does God Know Your Entire Future?, Bob Enyart v. Samuel Lamerson

Before my brain exploded and I gave up trying to figure all this out, I believed Open Theism to be somewhat promising and I read the works of process theologians extensively … which led to an interest in actual science and my attempt to understand quantum mechanics.

In “The Grand Design,” theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking describes an approach to quantum theory called alternative histories: “In that view, the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called a quantum superposition. That may sound as outrageous as the theory [bio-centrism – another mind-blowing idea] in which the table disappears whenever we leave the room, but in this case the theory has passed every experimental test to which it has ever been subjected.” (p 59)

“Hope you’re keeping up!”

Never mind for now the question of whether God is actually necessary – instead, let’s think about “the vast landscape” of possible universes, each with its own laws, coexisting simultaneously which M Theory implies. When I tried to contemplate the idea that every possible outcome spawns a new universe in which that possibility is realized, I began to wonder if all varieties of speculation regarding Free Will vs God’s sovereignty might actually be irrelevant considering how little we really know about the nature of human existence. And when all the thinking resulted in the frying of my brain circuitry, a friend suggested that I Google “Bell’s Inequality” because, “the underlying principle destroys reality.” Nice.

A school yard scene comes to mind in which two young children squabble in the sandbox over the fine points of a subject about which an observing teacher recognizes the kids know only enough to confuse themselves and each other. From the teacher’s perspective, both of the children’s arguments are equally invalid.

Do we have a choice? Who knows! Does it matter? Probably not. Whether our children are here by chance or intention, we’re glad to have them.

Still, the question of Choice and why women subject ourselves to multiple pregnancies is a fascinating subject to think about. (✿◠‿◠)

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 

Open comments below

Read everything by Vyckie Garrison!

Vyckie Garrison started No Longer Quivering to tell the story of her “escape” from the Quiverfull movement. Over time, NLQ has developed into a valuable resource of information regarding the deceptions and dangers of the Quiverfull philosophy and lifestyle. Several more former QF adherents are now contributing their stories to NLQ and our collective voice makes these Quiverfull warnings impossible to dismiss or ignore

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NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce



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  • Mary

    I’m a physicists, and I do quantum mechanics for a living. You know, the practical stuff, like lasers and atomic clocks. I read lots of physics blogs, but I didn’t expect to see the many-worlds theory turn up on *this* blog. 🙂

    The thing about “Many worlds” is, it’s not really testable. Just like the idea of God is untestable. How would you disprove this idea? It’s consistent with the the parts of quantum mechanics that we can test, but so are other interpretations. Like the Copenhagen Interpretation, that two possibilities can both exist at the same time, but as soon as an observe tries to determine which outcome really happened, the possibilities “collapse” and only one of them is real from then on. Or various interpretations of “decoherence,” which says you don’t need a conscious observer to collapse the possibilities, just enough interactions with other parts of the universe.

    Anyway, if the question is “How free is your choice to become a ‘mother of many’ in America,” and you’re saying it leads to the question of “how free is any choice, really?” then you have a good point. We don’t really know. But I have one more idea to throw out there for you to complicate things even further…

    Lately I’ve been noticing that patriarchy in all its forms around the world, and the “fundamentalist” strains of a lot of religions, share a single fundamental principle — maximize the number of kids per family. I mean, when you say “no sex before marriage,” it encourages people to marry young. Discouraging homosexuality means no one is getting sexual fulfillment from a non-procreative marriage. Forbidding birth control and divorce? Clearly the same outcome. Forbidding women to work outside the home (or have any life outside the home, in some cases)? Encourages them to invest all of their efforts in child bearing and rearing. This is the way to get a population to grow as quickly as possible. (Throw in a little polygamy — but not polyandry — for even faster population growth but less stable social dynamics. And certainly some strains of patriarchy do on in for polygamy.)

    Anyway, now think about Darwin, and evolution. The societies that go in for patriarchy will quickly outbreed the ones who don’t. Evolution *selects* for these ideas, to the extent that ideas can be passed down from generation to generation like genes, or spread like viruses… So how much choice do we have? Were you just “infected” by the patriarchy “meme”? The fact that the children of patriarchy will tend outnumber the children of other societies means these ideas will always have some popularity…

    Fortunately, ideas aren’t passed down quite as reliably as genes. The children of patriarchy are quite likely to want to try some other system when they grow up, because patriarchy makes many people unhappy. So I don’t think there’s a stable end-condition where the patriarchs, by virtue of outbreeding everyone else, take over the world (again) permanently. But nor do I think it will ever go away.

  • Attackfish

    Specifically referencing the patriarchy out-breeding us: Curiously, most research conducted in the third world says that absent modern medicine and most especially modern sanitation, poligyny does not maximize the number of surviving children per woman, only the number of births. Similarly, Patriarchy in general is bad at maximizing the number of children surviving to reproduce. There’s a saying in modern charities, give a man resources, he’ll use them. Give a woman resources, she and her family will use them. Women and children are systematically stripped of access to resources in Patriarchal societies, which leads to lowered child survivability.

    Quiverful families, which at the least are using modern sanitation, can have more children survive in a patriarchal model than they might in premodern conditions, which was after all what our societies evolved within.

    Patriarchies have an advantage in competing non patriarchies in a premodern world in a very different way, however. Patriarchies are not “the rule of men” per se, but the rule of a special subclass of men. All men get benefits from being male in the Patriarchy, but the society is designed for the specific benefit of a select few. That’s why Patriarchies are nearly always accompanied by ideas about what proper manliness is, and it makes them better able to raise an army to fight other societies. If you don’t fight, you aren’t a real man, you’re a coward, might as well be a woman. This enabled them to push non-Patriarchal societies out, kill them off, or absorb them.

  • Attackfish

    Also, this isn’t for you Mary, but for anyone reading this comment thread who gets the wrong idea about the evolution of Patriarchy in society, when I say premodern, I mean pre-industrial, post-development-of-agriculture, which as far as species evolution goes, an eyeblink. I’m not saying, in other words, that as a species we evolved to be Patriarchal, or that it is somehow natural and instinctive to humanity. That logic tends to fall down pretty quickly when you poke at it.

  • Great, now I have a label to call my type of faith – Open Theism

  • stairway to heaven

    I have spent a lifetime involved with nature in a very elemental way. Because of that I have long been aware of the connectedness of things. Einstein once commented that there are only two ways to live. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other being that everything is a miracle.

    Carl Jung’s theories on ”synchronicity” have a great many parallels in a broader view of Christianity. His thought was that there are certain times when we become more self aware and draw synchronicity to ourselves – birth, death, illness for instance. Those are also the times when many Christians feel moved to prayer and in so doing closer to God. Spirituality sees life as a journey towards increased knowledge and that all things that happen, good and bad, teach us a lesson if we allow them to.

    I was drawn to Vicki’s blog some months back as a way to to to understand what happened to a beautiful young women I knew many years ago that became involved in the Christian patriarchy/Quiverful movement and how it nearly ruined her life and that of her children before leaving. Over the years the Universe sent me little pieces of information about her life although I ceased contact with her nearly three decades ago. They were pieces of a puzzle scattered over those years, together with a few things I knew she was involved in the last time I saw her. One day I did a Google search for some of the things I had heard about her life and was immediately brought to this blog and a world I had no idea existed. I don’t believe any of that was by accident or happenstance.

  • Vyckie, I believe you are misunderstanding Arminianism. Arminians do believe in real free will. They don’t believe that God “determines” who will be saved. Yes, they believe that humans can’t come to God without God’s help– but they believe that the way God helps is to set humans free of their predisposition against God, so that they become capable of a truly free choice. In other words, Christ’s death is for everyone and God draws everyone to Godself– there is no “limited atonement.” But God is capable, in drawing people, of using enough finesse that people are able to resist if they decide to.

  • africaturtle

    i grew up in a church that, while it did not call itself Arminian, it definitely was NOT Calvinistic…the basic premise was that God already “knows” who’s going to choose him, but you are free to choose, or not choose to follow him. Also Original Sin, was seen more as a “general condition” of mankind, not a belief that we were inherently evil. Basicly everyone if they want to can choose to do good and choose to follow God. And babies that die go to heaven, the notion of an “age of accountability”, etc. This is different from true Calvinists who do not necessarily believe a baby will go to heaven unless it was “chosen” to. Which kinda links back into the issue of infant baptism…baptism was seen as the symbol of the “New Covenant”. There is the notion of the the family unit being “sanctified” if one or both parents are Christian . So if the parent wanted to link their child into the familial sanctification they would have it baptized in case it died before it got big enough to choose to follow God… otherwise there is no guarantee as to where that baby will end up.

    I know i’m getting off-subject with the baptism part, but as i was thinking through the tennets of reformed theology that part came back to me. I always found that horrible that they believe babies could go to hell. Of course even as a practicing evangelical I always found Calvinism terrible in the ways of doctrine and unbiblical even…but out-arguing (convincing) a Calvinist they are wrong is mission-impossible! Arminians are usually a LOT less dogmatic about their thing because they basicly say “i don’t really understand how it works exactly but God is wise and just and so i just trust Him!”

  • Mary

    Really interesting points about the differences between “more births” and “more children growing up to have families of their own.” And about the ways in which men are exploited by the patriarchal standards of “manliness.” Still, I can’t help but think of the statistics I’ve seen that suggest that more egalitarian societies with higher standards of living tend to have such low birth rates that they often have shrinking populations. Under our present circumstances that is probably a very good thing, but for much of history (and pre history) it would have been bad news, so maybe that’s why people cling so tightly to these ideas today. Though I guess the risk of actually shrinking populations was pretty low, since the “high standards of living” part of it were unlikely…

    I sometimes wonder what I would do in the case of a (non-religious) apocolypse. If I were one of a few thousand human survivors left on the planet, would I be content to become a (pardon the phrase) baby-factory? I think I might. But it goes back to Vycki’s question — is it really a free choice, when you’re forced into it by an existential threat to your species/community? I wonder how many women, in how much of history, have felt that they had no choice for reasons like that?

    But I hope, by working in science, to help continue to advance our understanding of the universe so that we can keep our standards of living high, and patriarchy can stay with fat and sugar cravings in the category of “maybe good for our ancestors, but terrible for us.”

  • Attackfish

    I mentioned before modern medicine because of birth control. Modern birth control changes the equation completely, and a non-Patriarical (or mildly Patriarical, because the modern West is still Patriarical) model has a much much much too low birthrate to compete for surviving children with any non-birth control using group. But our societies evolved to be Patriarical before the invention of birth control anything like as reliable and safe as modern methods.

  • Attackfish

    If you’re curious, in the absence of modern birth control, an equitable society with mutual serial monogamy with an average long term relationship lasting between 5 and 10 years seems to do the best at getting children to fertile adulthood. Though given that on a global level, we are far from demographic collapse…

  • Mary

    I wonder if you can recommend some reading material, Attackfish? I’m interested in this subject, but it seems like where I’m mainly just speculating, you’re aware of some actual research.

    (Also — can I just apologize to everyone for all of the typos in my two posts above? They’re just embarrassing — in some cases obscuring my meaning. I’m a sloppy typist, but usually not that sloppy. And I know “apocalypse” only has one “o.” Sorry.)

  • Attackfish

    The problem is I read most of this when I was in anthropology classes three or four years ago, which is about when I forget paper names and authors. The ability of a Patriarchal society to field an army better is mostly speculation on my part, but it fits with the data I have seen. We know, for example, that any form of marriage which causes young women and girls to marry older men, both polygyny and other Patriarchal forms of marriage based for example on bride price or an older man’s ability to support a wife, decreases a young man’s ability to find a wife, and that high numbers of unattached young men are closely associated with a society’s ability and eagerness to go to war. (And also other problems, as China and India are both finding)

    Papers on Polygyny and fertility:

    (Note Polygyny, when controlled for factors like birth control use, does seem to decrease an individual wife’s fertility in many, but not all, societies as well as number of surviving offspring. Oops.) On indivitual 19th century Polygynous Mormon women from Washington State University – on the Dogon people of Mali, higher number of births for polygynous wives, lower number of surviving children possible explanations for lowered fertility for women in poligyny

    I can’t for the life of me find the paper on serial monogomy… here’s one, but it’s not the one I was thinking of and argues more for a research paradigm shift and more data collection than anything else.

  • Mary

    Thanks, AttackFish. And I appreciate that the papers are not behind paywalls.

  • Tim

    It’s interesting that some people have completely the wrong idea about Open Theism and what it teaches:

    ““Open Theism” allows for substantive free will by denying that God is wholly omniscient and omnipotent”

    This is not correct. Every well known Open Theist thelogian affirms God’s omniscience and His omnipotence. Where the confusion arises is where they disagree with Classical Theologians on the nature of the future God knows. They believe God knows the future utterly. It is just that they believe that the future is made up of some fixed things that won’t change (like the second coming of Christ) and also possibilities (that are open to the choices of free creatures). Hence, the debate is about the nature of the future not the nature of God.

    It’s very important to understand that Open Theism is not at all the same as Process Theism. The two are similar in the way that Calvinism is similar to Islam (both believing in God’s meticulous control of everything and that everything is predestined therefore the will of God). But we know that Calvinism and Islam differ hugely in other ways. Open Theists are theologically conservative ie believing in the Authority of the Bible. Process Theologians are not Biblical in any way – they also believe that the Universe and God are co-existent – Open Theists in contrast believe that God created the universe.

  • Tim

    To elaborate on the Calvinism comparison to Islam example. What I was trying to say is that just because there are some similarities between movements doesn’t imply that there is any association or derivation of one from the other. Similarly with Open Theism and Process Theism. They are not related.