Nicholas Turner suggests that the battle among scientists over the existence of free will is a mirror image of the earlier battle over the existence of God

The new-atheist culture clash (Richard Dawkins and chums versus bishops and theologians) was fun while it lasted. Now that the heat has died down, we can laugh at the rash of books, the bad tempered articles, and those bus advertisements. Perhaps the most unexpected element was not their secularist agenda and visceral hatreds (Pope Benedict chief among them), but their interest in the non-existence of God. Why were they so obsessed by this non-fact?

I wonder how long such (apparent) interest will last, for outside of the needs of propaganda, the death of God is generally regarded as a given. Science, politics, law, human rights – in all these spheres atheism is the default position.

There is no militant secularism involved; this is simply how things are. And (we can readily acknowledge) this is not always a bad thing, for God should not be confused with, nor included within, his own creation. The point here is not to regret the loss of God from general discourse, but to acknowledge that in twenty-first century European culture atheism is the default position.

It was not always like this. Atheism was once unimaginable.

A standard insult

Three centuries ago ‘atheism’ was a pejorative term hurled at those who supported a scientific or mechanistic view of the world. It was a term reserved for one’s enemies, and not claimed with pride by anyone, for the actual notion that there was no God was essentially unthinkable. Plenty of people wanted nothing to do with God, and with the Christian God in particular, but this is not the same as saying there is no God.

The problem, in those early days, was that God seemed to be part of the explanation of just about everything; get rid of him, and far too much collapses to dust. Deism was invented to solve this problem. Here, God has nothing to do with us nor we with him, but the standard, shared belief system is left unaffected. Deism was necessary, then, because atheism was unthinkable. The difference however is negligible: if God is irrelevant, it is of no consequence whether he exists or not.

One of the finest eighteenth century tirades against the new ‘atheists’ was by that amiable Scot, James Beattie. His Essay on Truth of 1770 was a triumphant success in his own day. Were he living now he might regret the confidence of his conclusion: ‘Let not the lovers of truth be discouraged. Atheism cannot be of long continuance, nor is there any danger of its becoming universal… When men have retrieved the powers of serious reflection, they will find it a frightful phantom; and the mind will return gladly and eagerly to its old endearments.’

As one who has been plagued by the temptation to atheism for most of my adult life; I would not say that I have given up on the arguments for and against, but I am intensely conscious that the real battle is now being fought in a new setting. At the risk of appearing flippant, God can look after himself; the fight is about Man.

I would suggest we are in the same position now, arguing about free will, as our eighteenth century colleagues were, arguing about God. Look closer and the forms of argument seem uncannily similar. Neither are susceptible to proof; and while there are a large number of powerful and convincing arguments on both sides, in the end one’s conclusion is a matter of faith, character, experience, emotion.

In both cases, the problem is now a moral and subjective one, although fought out and discussed in a scientific and objective arena.

Still the same war

In the way we look at the world, and ourselves in the context of other people, there is no need of God, and we are all Darwinian organisms, subject to the beautiful and complex rules of natural selection: we are animals with the capacity for self-awareness.

In the way we look at ourselves on our own, and reflect upon our hopes, fears and intentions, we are fully human persons (maybe, even children of God), and for all the constraints we recognize, we believe we are free agents, that our plans and projects are our own and are freely chosen.

What happens when the two perspectives clash? Whereas in the eighteenth century we would happily have been persuaded by James Beattie and the other proponents of God and free will, now we are not so sure. Science has grown stronger, God has grown weaker (in the public sphere), and with every advance of neuroscience we grow less and less certain that we are free individuals.

The moral of the story? The new battleground is no longer about God, whether he exists or not, but about us, whether we are free or not. A different battle, but still the same war. ND