Can there be free will without God?

How can atheists, agnostics or rationalists explain Free Will if they don’t believe in God?

 This is a question frequently asked by Christian side of a debate with people who openly profess atheism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its multiple interpretation of Free Will by defining it thus:

“Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.”

If this definition is accepted, then the Jewish God, his triple-incarnated Christian God and the finally emerged Muslim God do not fill the bill. “God has total control over everything,” Daniel (4:35). Yet he gives you the free will to reject him so you could go to hell. We are told that Jesus rejected his mother and brothers because they did not do God’s will. “And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34)

Quran says that even the weight of an atom is in the control of God (10:61) which is fine, but also that “GOD is the only one who guides whoever chooses (to be guided). (Q. 2:272). So no free will for man in Abrahamic religions. Muhammad said that when a foetus is forty or so days old, God sends an angel to the womb. From inside, he (the angel) shouts: “Oh, Allah, what should be the sex of this child?”

Allah gives his decision.

Next,”Should this thing be booked for heaven or hell?” queries the angel.

God decides that too on the spot, while sitting on his ornamented throne in the seventh layer of heaven above.

From that day, neither the foetus, nor the child and adult it morphs into in good time, has a free will. I cannot, even if I chose to, convert to Islam and hope to go to heaven and its lurid pleasures simply because Allah determined my face and denied me free will.

Think of the fate of Pharaoh of Egypt who tried hard to exercise his free will. He took a liking to Joseph the Israelite who was nearly killed and buried by his brothers and imprisoned by the captain of Pharaoh’s guards under a misunderstanding, The Pharaoh, of his own free will, took a liking to Joseph because of his ability to interpreted dreams and suggestions for keeping the bad portents at bay. Joseph was finally given the status of number two after the Pharaoh himself. Although Egyptians considered the Israelites too unclean to sit with them at the table, they were made subordinate to Joseph and to do his bidding. The Pharaoh bore up with Joseph’s nepotism, allowed him to bring the thirty score plus ten of his starving family consisting mostly of his ignoble step brothers and their wives and children. They were given the land of their choice and allowed to flourish even through the years of famine.

The next Pharaoh – or may be the one next to the next, was alarmed that the Jews were multiplying like pests and would soon have the upper hand over the natives.  The new Pharaoh tried a different ploy. He commanded that the Jews be given harder tasks so that the land would be rid of them. He would have been happy if they left on their own free will and went on the land of Canaans, Hittites, Philistines or wherever their God had promised them milk and honey. But no. God chose a man abandoned by the Hebrews and brought up by Egyptians to fight the only people who, of their own free will, ever in history gave them a land to live on in peace . Instead, he chose the ungrateful Moses to go and ask for the release of his people from Egypt, but at the same time hardened the heart of the Pharaoh who, if he was allowed his free will, would have happily led them go. God played this cruel joke nine times – sending Moses to ask for freedom, God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart against his free will, and saying nay to his own heart’s desire. When eventually Moses was allowed to go away, God punished the soldiers who were made to chase them (after blocking their free will) by drowning them in the sea; then killed all the first-borns of Egypt the next morning. There, as God loved to repeat with salivating pleasure, there was much wailing and beating of breasts.

So much for the grant of free will by the Christian God.

Animals have free will and exercise it freely with no direction from God. A dog delivering eight pups has, say, one that is sickly and lame. She might feed the other seven and let the lame one die, or decide to feed it and let it survive, She exercises her free will. Having had dogs most of my adult life without gender discrimination, I have noticed both kinds of behaviour in different dogs. You can train your dog to poop where you will, but he would only piddle wherever – on lampposts or fire hydrants – of his own free will.

A goose being chased by a child might decide to wiggle and get away. On another occasion, it might attack the child, particularly if the chid is alone. On the other hand, a family dog would protect the child and bear with her antics. When confronted by a dog, the cat exercises her free will whether to flare up and swell to frighten him, or take flight herself. Cows use their free will and relieve themselves wherever they are – resting in their sheds, grazing on the meadows or strolling on the highways of India while looking for plastic bags to eat.

Exercise of free will by anyone – a worm, a snake, a rat, pig or man – depends on several factors:

  • Genetic coding
  • Past experience
  • Environmental conditions
  • Odds of success in exercising a particular option
  • Present convenience
  • Training

Not necessarily in that order.

Judeo-Christian-Islamic God or Gods seldom give conditional orders. He (never a She) does not command that during the next two thousand years you could make slaves of other races and then be ashamed of your history of human enslavement. The ten commandments are unconditional and gives you no choice to exercise your free will. Soon after issuing the command that Thou shalt not kill, God ordered Moses to kill his own people – some three thousand of them and then to go on a genocidal spree all through the voluminous book of gory tales. You could enslave those who lost to you in war, retain the virgins for your pleasure and kill the rest and all their animals.

Hitler might have acted on his own free will, but he attributed his attempt a the elimination of Jews to the will of Jesus – he claimed that he was continuing the work that Jesus initiated. Free will dawned on the Christian West (and gave rise to previously decried secularism) after the second world war when Hitler showed the futility of the presumption of racial superiority. If racism was a virtue in the Bible, because it reflected God’s will to favour on his favourite race, it now became a dirty word, its practice not entirely disappearing, but giving diminishing returns on the political scene.

God of the Bible did not tell the soldiers of his favorite tribes (circumsized Jew or uncircumsized Christian depending on who interprets your rules -Moses or Paul) that they could of their own free will use a camp toilet or the bush, but unconditionally commanded that when they went out for relieving themselves, they must take a spade with them, dig a hole on the ground, poop in the hole and cover it with mud so that God who would be strolling around their camp (though a-seeing and all knowing) would not step on their stinking filth (Deut 23:13).

During the colonial days, a British tea-estate manager who lived in our neighborhood in Travancore hills used to have his bowel output packed in paper and thrown over the wall to our backyard. The local police refused to take action against a white man. The policeman’s free will was superceded by the white man’s free will to poop wherever he pleased.

You have no freedom to decide what position to adopt for a happy sexual encounter (you’d be surprised: a Hindu sage, Vatsyayana who held the same rank as a junior god, gives you the choice of 64 poses!), how not to masturbate and drop your seed on the ground. Women must not speak in church and if they must clear a doubt about what the priest sermonized, she must ask her husband when they are home. All religions insist that menstruating women must stay away from God. (As regards this particular rule, Hindu Gods allow no relaxation whatsoever; some God(s) sitting in their temples do not want women to visit them at all for fear that they could be hiding their blood in sanitary napkins.

Political parties are like God(s), and allow absolutely no free will. The one who ensures that free will is not exercised at all in physical matters is aptly called the whip – at least in Commonwealth nations. Fortunately, most party members who hope for a ticket to the next election, or do not possess the cerebral equipment needed for exercising it, are not keen to exercise any free will.

So where does God come into the exercise of free will?

He guides you. He whispers in your mind (or soul) whether to stand and fight or take a flight when the taxmen come calling.

If He does, it is more than likely that you were guided wrong. If they pick up all your incriminating papers and collect the couple of millions in your safe apart from your Laptop with all your bank details in it and issue you a lousy receipt, you would say to yourself : dammit, God, I should have called my lawyer. God could guide you wrong and when he finds you in deep trouble, who knows, he could be thunder-clapping his invisible hands.

Something like that happened to two Christian creationists I had heard of – Kent Hovind and Dinesh D’Souza. When the former was serving his term of 9 years for 58 counts of felony (presumably relating to taxes), his wife left him; his son sold his hard-earned and tax-evaded millions-worth properties and a dinosaur-theme park filled with plastic toys for 6,300 dollars to himself. When Hovind returned and was given a humiliatingly small room to sleep alone in, God was not of much help. Nor was God of much help to D’Souza who went to America chasing his dreams, got a citizenship under the disdainful eyes of the law, and landed in prison for a shorter term of one year – again for a tax fraud.

They should have used their free will and said no to God’s offer of help whispered in their ears.

God is very, very particular that a man must not use another man (even an angel) as he would use a woman. Since the second man is unlikely to be equipped like a woman, what God meant was – don’t go for the next best thing: the rear entry meant only for exit. In short, don’t sodomize. If you do, I will burn your city, said God, and the next city as well, as I did to Gomorrah, the innocent neighbor to the city of Sodom. God would even turn into salt-rock anyone – at least any woman – who would take a look at the burning cities. God’s anger is always wholesale.

As for Muslims, this second choice is only allowed on boys fresh like pearls whom God would keep ready in paradise for those who fought in this case.

Jesus was determined on free will in some ways, against it in other ways. He didn’t min preaching and allowing his disciples to steal on Sabbath. “Sabbath is for man, not man for Sabbath,” he explained, forgetting that his father (who he said was everyone’s father and called himself son of man) had had a man stoned to death for collecting firewood during Sabbath. Jesus, too was awarded a possibly more torturous death – crucifixion. After his death, Paul and Peter decided that his death was a ransom paid to God, and that his was a sacrifice to end all sacrifices and splashing of animal blood all over the tabernacles.

Hindus. naturally, are averse to sodomy which they say was a practice brought by the Catholic Portuguese over the seas to the Southern states and the Muslim invaders who brought it to Punjab when they came from over the mountains. Bhagavad Gita only advises what men (not women) should do if they are of high castes, but gives them much freedom of choice to face the consequences of their deeds – the punishments being not to severe, a longer period in the purgatory and then a lower birth (in which you won’t remember what you did and who you were). However, the great law-giver, curtails the entire freedom of all and strict obedience to his rules including what clothes to wear and how; but the severest of punishments like pulling out tongue and death by strangling only to the lowest of castes who are not even allowed to say the prayers in the Vedas.

Father Georges Lemaitre used his free will, in the face of stiff opposition, to show mathematically and using the godless theory of Relativity by Einstein, that the universe originated by what later came to be called a big bang – an explosion of a single primeval atom. He refused to agree with Pope Pius XII that his theory was in agreement with Genesis. Since then, the Catholic think-tank in Vatican has come around to the view that science is more right when it comes to creation, but it is somehow in agreement with the Bible. Pope Francis drove one of the last nails on the coffin of God’s will with the quotable quote that God is not a magician with a magic wand. Although that admission, expressed with free will, has made most protestants furious, and many Catholics fet double-crossed, the latest Archbishop of Canterbury and his immediate predecessor appears to be in large agreement with the Pope.

Jesus was of the view that it was fine if God chose a victim at random and gave him afflictions so that his power will be displayed for all to see.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. 2 And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that  God’s work  might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3). Imagine you, a sinless man, born of sinless parents (should that matter?) suffering all his life because God wanted to show that it was his will that worked.

Good Christians follow the example of God. How God’s will (he only liked to bash children on the ground and kill them; saving a mother’s life not part of the powers he willed. God’s power was  thus demonstrated by the case of an unfortunate lady of Indian origin, young Savita Halappanarar, who practised dentistry in Ireland. 17 weeks into her gestation, it became obvious that she was going to have a septic miscarriage.

There was no way her foetus could be saved. A distraught Savita requested abortion. Her husband begged for it. No, the God of Catholic fundamentalism would not allow abortion, come what may. Doctors would only treat her for sepsis. When it became clear that her life was in extreme danger, they tried to induce delivery, but not to abort the dead foetus by safer means. God’s will won; Savita died of cardiac arrest during the forced induction of delivery of a dead foetus! A Coroner’s report indicted the doctors for medical misadventure. Many shed tears for the young life and the agony of her husband who watched her die. Demonstrations were held across the world. But it was God’s will that was on free display.

No, sir, God of the Bible is a primitive group of sheep herders’ idea of a superman out to protect their race. Free will came with the first gene that found a way to reproduce itself. The concept of God and religious decrees destroy that free will that comes as a bonus with life.

Hindu Gods are rather laissez fare on the issue of free will. He leaves it to the stars (or Constellations that reside in the house of a particular planet (or sun or moon)  that was peeping at the baby emerging into the world. There is no free will; it is all pre-determined whether you will be academically successful, marry the right female who was watched by the stars when she emerged, how long you would live and when that special mad planet of Saturn interferes for a certain period in your life. You could, to some extent, remedy the situation by praying to a particular god or goddess. The problem is that even these gods and goddesses are susceptible to the pre-determined effects of the aforesaid constallations. Things could get worse if a someone casts an evil eye on you, or if jackals howl at the time of your birth or if a powerful Brahmin or sage places a curse on you. You could wash your sins away and receive a better birth (at least the best among the many choices) by bathing in the Ganges and praying to your favourite god(dess), but cannot alter your fate in this life. You are like a train on a crooked track. No free will.

On the flip side, unbelievers like myself cannot be blamed for exercising my free will to support those who lead their sex in private according to their free will, advocate the cause of a raped woman or a teen who made a slip in her young life to decide on her choice of abortion. I will use my free will to bring up my little ones away from the monstrous ideas of religion – any religion .

Even by the dictum of the Bible, my free will was selected by your God when he decided not to choose me into his flock.. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16)



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