One of the key components of Christian doctrine is the notion of free will. This is the freedom to make conscious decisions and choices about what to think.
Free will is a controversial and much-discussed topic, unresolved by science or philosophy. It is also confusing, because people use the term to mean different things. I use it here in the more classical context, which says that free will is our ability to make decisions independent of the constraints of our physical circumstances and selves. It implies a dualist nature of consciousness – a component of our conscious mind that exists independent of our brain and body (a ‘soul’ perhaps?).
Suffice to say, my view is that this type of free will is an illusion. There is no component of our consciousness that exists outside of our brains, and therefore no free will that allows us to think in a way that is independent of our physical selves, our memories and our environment. No scientific observations have ever been made to demonstrate that a dualist free will might exist. And while we all have a compelling sense that our thoughts are our own to control, we do not have any persistent sensation of our thinking occurring outside our physical bodies or independent of our physical circumstances. At least, I don’t, and I would doubt and dismiss the claims of anyone who said that they did have such experiences (ie., free of brain chemistry-altering substances and psychological disturbances).
Christians (and followers of other religions) maintain that belief and worship of their God is a conscious choice – an ability endowed by free will. Believers are saved (they go to heaven when they die); non-believers are damned (they go to hell). According to Christian free-willers, when we reject belief, we are doing so entirely of our own volition. There is more than one philosophical argument against this position, including the point that if God is omniscient and omnipresent, then He must already know what all of our conscious decisions will ever be. This therefore means they must be predetermined, putting a lie to the claim that our decision-making ability was ever truly free. Theists have an out-clause for this argument, however, and for those interested I suggest looking up the wafflings of William Lane Craig and others to hear the rhetorical gymnastics of how they escape from it.
But I’m more concerned with the direct, more personal and less metaphysical observations of conscious thinking. What we know – what we come to believe (or disbelieve) – is not something that is wholly (or at all) within our control. Everything we ever learn is the result of life-long conscious experiences – what we’ve been taught by others, what we’ve discovered and how these things have been shaped by our memories, our circumstances and environment, and even our genetics. Although it may ‘feel like’ any conscious decision we make is truly under our control, it is impossible to eliminate influences from these sources.
In a recent online discussion with some Christians, I made this point to them. And yet they still argued that I had the ‘choice’ to believe. In response to my suggestion that God needed to be more convincing if He truly wanted me to believe in Him, one said that He had already done enough, and that ‘the rest was up to me’.
If God is truly omniscient then He ought to know what kind of knowledge is sufficient to convince a skeptic in the 21st century. He should know that contemporary society, for which none of us are individually responsible, contaminates us with the bogus trappings of modern lifestyles and of centuries of recorded history of superstition and alternative belief systems. He should know that we ought to be discerning about what we accept as truth and what we reject as lies. And He should see that many of us are already discerning about those things.
So no. If God really, truly, wants us to believe, then He needs to do more. The fact that He apparently chooses to reveal himself to only a subset of the human population demonstrates either that He isn’t there at all, or that His existence isn’t consistent with the claims of Christianity – in particular that we are all equal in the eyes of God. For if all people were truly equal, then all people ought to be given the same opportunity at salvation by the Christian God making himself known to them.