Atheists and agnostics (of which I am one) often insist that religious people should live without illusions or delusions. In other words, atheists and agnostics (in general) profess to believe that people should never believe things that run counter to science or reason.
And yet those of us who are atheists and agnostics (and again, I fall into this category) tend to believe in free will—and are indulgent with people who live their lives as if they have free will—even though it is very hard to fully defend coherently.
Christopher Hitchens, for example, was once asked if he believed in free will and quipped (without offering an intellectual defense): “I have no other choice!”
And I know that Daniel Dennett has written a very good book about this (titled Freedom Evolves)—in which he makes the best case that he can for free will. I personally found the book compelling, and a great read, yet I wanted to find the book compelling (because I deeply want to believe in free will). But I would note that there are a lot of scientifically trained people who do not agree with Dennett’s thesis that human beings really have free will, and they are in the majority. And both physics, neuro-science, and psychology offer difficulties for believing in free will.
Consider the following:
- If physics is correct that we live in a “block universe” and that time may not be fundamental, then it’s hard to imagine free will as being anything other than an illusion.
- And if, as psychologists have pointed out in careful clinical studies, the unconscious frequently makes decisions for us before we are consciously aware of our “choice,” it is also difficult to imagine free will as anything but an illusion.
- And if it is the case that we are made up of genetic and environmental factors (and what else are there?), then it is hard to imagine our “choices” as less determined than the position of the clouds over our heads at any given moment.
Again, I know that there are arguments for free will, and rebuttals to the above, but they are not generally considered all that compelling scientifically, and yet I’m willing to bet that every atheist and agnostic who visits this blog believes that they have free will, and that they engage in behaviors associated with free will (such as fretting over options, talking to friends about choices etc.).
We do this because, for us, it seems difficult to conceive of a human existence apart from free will. Call, therefore, part of the atheist and agnostic lifestyle “the free will delusion.”
By analogy, then, maybe this is the position of liberal clergy with relation to the arguments against religion. They can read, say, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and acknowledge the compelling nature of the arguments set forth there, and still be theists, and pray, and engage in other “irrational” behaviors. Why? Because they find it hard to imagine a human life (for themselves) that does not have an element of hope (that the universe is ultimately a cosmos instead of a chaos; that there is some telos and poetic justice somewhere that will make things “right” in the end). Yes, they see atheists and agnostics walking around, and can see that they function in the world. I’m not talking about the notion that a religious person cannot literally see a different way of being in the world. But perhaps the religious person simply finds it profoundly unpleasant to think of his or her life as simply atoms and the void rustling about, and therefore he or she chooses to hope for something less “souless” (just as you wish to imagine that you have free will, and hope that the arguments for free will, however apparently weak or besieged they might be, turn out to be correct afterall).
I think, in short, that this is really what atheists and agnostics are up against when arguing that people should stop being “delusional” about religion. Our reasoning is generally sound, and most theists might even concede that it is such, but like us with free will, they don’t see a happy existence for themselves in entirely rejecting their faith.