I recently asked readers to submit questions to me they would like me to answer. If you would like to submit a question, please follow the instructions listed here.
Henriette asked: Do you believe in free will? Can anyone escape the social religious determinism they were brought up in if they have enough courage (or any other necessary faculties)?
I have written almost three thousand posts since December 2014, and not one of them dealt with the subject of free will. The reason for this is two-fold: first, discussions on free will always bring more heat than light, and second, I am not really certain what it is I believe about the matter. I continue to read and study the various leading voices on free will, but so far, I am not convinced one way or the other. That said, you did ask me if I believed in free will, so I will take a stab at answering it based on what I presently think on the matter.
When I look at the decisions I make day-in and day-out, it seems to me that I have free will. I am willingly and freely answering this question. Now, that does not mean that I was not influenced by outside forces or personal behavioral patterns. I have OCPD, so I crave order. I hate leaving things undone. I asked for questions all the way back in July and here I am still answering them. My mind is telling me, get it done, Bruce. Do it now. Henriette deserves an answer. Don’t delay. I also like pleasing others. I want to be well thought of, so it’s important to me answer this question. I also want this blog to be place where doubting Evangelicals can come to find answers to their questions and encouragement as they wrestle with what it is they actually believe. All of these things pressure (influence) me, leading me to take time tonight to answer this question. Yes, I am doing so FREELY, but not without influence.
Henriette also asks whether someone can escape the social/religious determinism they were brought up in? The short answer is yes. One need only look at my life to see that someone can escape these things. I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I spent twenty-five of those years pastoring Evangelical churches. It is extremely rare for someone my age with the ministerial experience I have to leave the ministry and later leave Christianity. By the time you have been preaching for twenty-five years, you have too much invested to leave it all behind. As the old gospel song says, I’ve come too far to turn back now. I don’t know of any of the men I attended Bible college with who are not still believers. Some have left the ministry, but all of them, at least outwardly, still profess to believe the core doctrines of Christianity. What was different about me? Why was I able to walk away? Was my defection an act of the will?
On one hand, it is clear, at least to me, that I willingly walked away from the ministry and Christianity. I CHOSE to stop believing. One the other hand, I can look at my sixty-one years of life and see a behavioral pattern that shows up time and time again. I was raised to be a true believer, an all-in kind of person. I can thank (or curse) my mom for this. I have never been someone who did things half way. I remember when I bought my first computer in 1991 — a VTech 286. I quickly became bored with this computer, so I bought an IBM PS1 286 And after that an IBM 486 for almost $1,700 (Thank you Sun TV for no money down, low payments, like forever). Over the years, I have owned numerous computers, and since the late 1990s, I have built my own. I spent hundreds of dollars on massive books about Windows computers and how they operated. I threw myself headlong into learning everything there was to know about Windows-based computers and software. I soon became the resident expert, and to this day extended family and friends call me whenever they have computer problems.
I repeated this behavioral pattern when I took up photography. I am the type of person who needs to know everything I can about a subject. This approach has led me change my mind many times, and has led others (especially former ministerial colleagues) to suggest that I am mentally unstable. I can’t leave things alone, content with just a cursory knowledge of a matter. I can’t even take a shit without reading the ingredients on the back of the cleanser or a magazine. There’s much to learn, and I have concluded that I haven’t scratched the surface of the knowledge available to me (and declining health has certainly curtailed this pursuit).
So, when I began to have doubts about Christianity, I threw myself headlong into reading books that challenged the beliefs I held for most of my life. And once I came to the conclusion that Christianity no longer made sense and that its fundamental claims could not be rationally and intellectually sustained, I left Christianity.
Did I leave Christianity solely for intellectual reasons? I so want to say yes, but that would be a lie. Yes, I left primarily for intellectual reasons, but there were also emotional and psychological factors that played a part in my deconversion. I like to think that I freely chose to stop believing, but I suspect that deep seated emotional hurts and psychological scars played a part too. They, without my help, played a part in pushing me out the door. These influences certainly played an instrumental part in me freely choosing to divorce myself from Jesus. Make sense?
I doubt that I have answered your question on the matter of free will. My thoughts are all over the place on this subject. All I know to do is live my life as if I have free will. Can any of us do otherwise?
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.
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The free will issue is a real show stopper for many people, mainly because from an evolutionary viewpoint the sense that we control our actions is so overwhelming. Yes, of course we acknowledge that there are any number of external (and internal) influences on everything we do but underlying it all there’s no doubt that we have free will…. Isn’t there?
Well no, I don’t think we have any free will whatsoever, because the moment that you acknowledge actions maybe based on external influence then however far down the chain you go you’ll find an influence. It’s simple cause and effect and, in reality, what we see as actions are really physical responses to neural actions within our brains. Research shows that our brain has already made a decision microseconds before our conscious mind ‘thinks’ it’s making it, very much suggesting that the thought was at a subconscious level. When people discuss free will, and wow do they discuss it, I always am struck by two points. Firstly, if everything in the universe could be rerun (okay, a thought experiment) in what way is it possible that a particular decision could have been taken differently (and if randomness happens then that doesn’t give free will any more legitimacy)? Secondly, where does ‘free will’ come from; it can be nothing more than neurons moving inside your body, and those neurons are subject to all the laws of physics.
Ultimately I don’t think the discussion matters, though it’s certainly immediately relevant if you are religious and think God gave you free will, and it’s probably relevant for areas such as crime and punishment, but that’s for others. Knowing I don’t really have free will makes no difference to how I behave or what I take out of, and give to, life. It just is and it doesn’t matter.
This is one of those topics I need to study more. There is some research that suggests we don’t have as much free will as we think. I definitely do not believe we are controlled or led by supernatural beings though.
free will? isn’t that a dumbass question to ask of an athiest? more like do believers have any will at all or are they just completely brainwashed?
Just how far does the lack of free will go? I have cereal most mornings and I pour milk into the bowl. So does my brain make the decision ahead of time on how much to pour? As my eyes pick up a certain level in the bowl, do they send a message through the optic nerve to stop pouring? Therefore if the cereal was arranged in the bowl next week exactly as it were this morning, would the same precise amount of milk be poured? And would factors such as how thirsty I was or the slant of the kitchen light or exact time it was also alter the amount of milk?
I mean just how far down do we take this? I realize many genetic and environmental things determine our reactions and decisions, but how minuscule does this become? Down to what level?
One more thought..
If the brain makes the decision microseconds ahead of “you” feeling you made the decision, isn’t it still “you” making the decision? I mean your brain IS you so isn’t it one in the same? To me, just because the decision is made subconsciously doesn’t negate free will. The brain is just speeding up the process.
The argument for free will is not scientific, it’s moral/religious. It goes, if all there is is physics and chemistry and brain processes, there can be no free will (and therefore no moral responsibility) because there’s no soul/mind/person making a decision to act in a certain way. Since a religious person has a fundamental belief that god (or karma or my ancestors or my successors or whoever) will hold me responsible for my actions in this life or after I die, I must believe in free will as a subsidiary consequence or condition of that more fundamental commitment.
As an atheist, I reject the fundamentalist thesis that I will be held accountable after I die. I observe my own personal decision-making processes and those of others and conclude that decision-making is very complex, involving multiple intersecting influences and factors that can’t be reduced to physics or chemistry or biology or neurology or deterministic psychology. I have arrived at the conclusion that I have some but not unlimited control over my actions. I try to live by the serenity prayer (without the god part) because I believe on the basis of my 70± years of experience on this earth that my life, the lives of those close to me and my society are better when I do. Is that free will? Who cares! It is what it is and it doesn’t matter what label you give it. So I am basically a non-combattent in the free will debate.
PS I am always leary of “Do you believe in …” questions because by their very nature they invite a faith-based answer. I’m more interested in “What is your evidence for … ” questions.
There is often a very blurry line between the two. I am a scientist and there was a time when I had anxiety concerning even such basic things as gravity. I even wrote to the most famous physicist in my country to share my trouble. Simply put, we have no certainty whatsoever that gravity will work tomorrow the same way it does today. We only *believe* so based on countless observations. Based on empiric evidence it is highly unlikely, but still it can happen just like that. All science is based on “I believe.” The famous scientist gave me a nice answer, “Yes, it is just as you say, but it makes no sense to be worried about it.”
Also decision making perhaps is an emergent ability with all the vast complex subconscious and neural activities at work. We assume animals act on instinct and repetition reward/pain situations, whereas humans with a more developed brain, this emergent decision making has evolved over the eons.
The discussion does remind me of Isaac Bashevis Singer who, a generation ago, remarked “We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.”
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Thanks, Bruce. I came across this blog only today, because you answered the question two months after I asked (no blame intended). Thank you again for *choosing* to do so. I, too, believe we have free will – without this concept there is no responsibility for one’s actions; everyone is just a product of causality, therefore there can’t be heroes nor villains. There is loads of causality going on, but history shows too many examples of people doing improbable things.
In my original question I said “anyone” not “someone.” I think it is much harder for a parent with four kids to leave the system as she or he deals also with condemnation and fear of her or his kids missing the rapture, heaven, blessing or any other stuff used to manipulate people. Plus, I also think that a mother of six children with no education is simply incapable of inner argumentation against all the manipulative religious shit – she doesn’t have time, space nor the required knowledge. Or is she? That is a question I still have no answer to.
I was going to recommend this song for Songs of Sacrilege, but searching shows you already added it…