Atheism’s irrational denial of free will is plain to see

Atheism’s irrational denial of free will is plain to see
Many people who don’t believe in God do believe that human behaviour is simply the result of social conditioning, writes David Quinn

Atheists often enjoy making sport of religion. They mock us for believing in the ‘great sky-fairy’ (meaning God), or the virgin birth, or that a man can walk on the water, or rise from the dead, and so on.

Atheists like to think they are defenders of ‘rationality’ against the ‘superstitions’ of religion.

In recent years, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have made fortunes writing books such as The God Delusion, God is not Great and Letters to a Christian Nation. These men formed a group that became informally known as ‘the new atheists’.

But should atheists be allowed to try and own the term ‘rationality’? The answer is, definitely not because when you examine atheism closely, and draw out some of its implications, it will strike the average person as anything but rational.

For example, almost everyone believes in free will. That is, we believe we make decisions and then act out on them based on our own free choices. This is why we are considered morally responsible for most of the things we do. A person who does good things is considered to be a morally good person, while a person who does bad things is considered to be a morally bad person.


We don’t think this way about animals, not even the higher forms. If a dog does something bad, we might say “bad dog”, but we don’t believe that the dog is morally bad. We just think it is need of better training.

Likewise if a dog does something good, we might say “good dog” and encourage more such behaviour. But no-one believes dogs make moral choices as such. They are simply acting on instinct shaped by good or bad training and conditioning.

Amazing as it may seem to you, many leading atheists do not believe in free will. They believe that like other animals, we simply act on our natures and that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour are the result of social conditioning.

The vast majority of atheists are ‘materialists’, that is, they believe that matter is all that exists. You might have emotions and feelings that are not made of matter per se, but they are products of matter nonetheless.

They believe that everything physical is controlled by physical laws. From their point of view, this makes perfect sense. But here is the catch; it means everything thought that comes into your head and everything you do is also controlled by physical processes.

For example, your brain consists of neurons. Those neurons produce thoughts and states of emotion. But your neurons are not controlled by you, they are controlled by physical laws. If your thoughts are controlled by physical laws, then you lack free will.

If you don’t believe me, then let me quote a couple of leading atheists to you starting with the most famous of them all, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins.

Most people who say they are atheists believe in free will. Let’s call them ‘naïve atheists’, meaning they haven’t properly thought through where atheism really leads…”

Asked one time whether he believes in free will or not, he replied: “I have a materialist view of the world. I think that things are determined in a rational way by antecedent events and that commits me to the view that when I think I have free will, when I think I am exercising free choice I am deluding myself. My brain states are determined by physical events.”

Read that sentence again: “When I think I am exercising free choice, I am deluding myself.”

Dawkins thinks that belief in God is delusional, but it is clear he thinks the same thing about free will. In fact, maybe the title of his next book should be, The Free Will Delusion.


Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will either. In fairness to him, he has written an entire book ruling it out.

Prof. Francis Crick, one of the most famous scientists of the 20th Century, said on the matter of free will: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”

Most people who say they are atheists believe in free will. Let’s call them ‘naïve atheists’, meaning they haven’t properly thought through where atheism really leads. People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Francis Crick have, which is to say, they accept that if we are purely physical beings, purely our bodies, then we are completely controlled by physical processes, leaving no room for free will.

I put this to Richard Dawkins when I debated him on RTÉ radio some years back. He tried to duck the issue, but it is too important for that because if we have no free will then we are not morally accountable for anything we do. We are simply well behaved, or badly behaved, like a dog might be.

If we take atheists at their word, then we must change the way we approach all moral debates, almost all of which are based on belief in moral accountability, like the golfgate scandal. We must cease all such talk and stop acting like people make their own choices.

This will, of course, strike the average person as both impossible and vaguely mad. But it is where atheism leads and it is why leading atheists ask us to ditch belief in free will along with belief in God. That means we must also ditch belief in moral responsibility.


A belief in God, on the other hand, is much more compatible with belief in free will, because theism holds we are not purely physical beings and therefore we are not totally controlled by the laws of physics.

Which belief seems more rational to you, one that leaves room for free will or one that denies it? Put it like this and religion seems far more rational and compatible with how we understand human nature than atheism.