The militant atheists I grew up with (my family and all their friends) considered free will a critical component of the human mind. The idea that people were to some degree free to choose their mode of action was crucial to the very fabric of liberal (not to mention radical) social action. The restriction of free will by outside agencies, like the Church, the oppressive ruling class, poverty, or lack of education, was in fact identified as the obvious enemy of progress.
Modern militant atheists, on the other hand, now hold that outside agencies do indeed have such a strong influence on our choices that free will does not exist. For some time I have been puzzled by this assertion, not only by its counterintuitive nature, but also why this idea would be a bedrock of atheism.
Sam Harris, one of the more influential New Atheists, has written a book and given quite a few talks on this subject. According to Harris, the illusion of free will is closely related to another idea popular in the atheist camp; namely, that consciousness is also an illusion. This makes some internal logical sense, since if we have no real consciousness, we cannot make conscious choices.
But the heart of the matter about free will is determinism. Harris believes in a universe where everything that happens has a series of causes and that there is no way to avoid obeying those causes.
“We live in a world of cause and effect…Either our wills are determined by a long chain of prior causes…or they’re determined by some random influences…and consciousness is clearly not in the driver’s seat.”
If you decide to visit your friend, and you do so, it wasn’t your choice, but the unalterable result of all of the billions of events that led up to your illusory decision. You had no choice, just as the snow has no choice about whether it will cascade down the mountain in an avalanche.
So Harris and the atheists see us (and all other creatures, of course) as nothing more than automatons acting in accordance with all of the physical and chemical influences that impinge upon us.
This is based on a 19th century view of reality, though then, it was only understood to apply to the physical universe, not to the lives of humans. It harkens back to the Clockwork Universe model of the world, where all events are predictable, given enough information. It ignores all of science from the 1920s on, including quantum uncertainty (which is absolutely nondeterministic), as well as deterministic chaos, the new laws of complexity, and just about everything we are learning about how particles, atoms, and biochemical pathways are dependent on random events. Even pure genetic determinism (Richard Dawkins’ contribution to this mess) has now gone out of favor with evolutionary biologists.
Of course, it also ignores the reality of human experience, while it is again logically consistent with the New Atheist view that human beings are really nothing more than slightly more complicated earthworms.
What an incredibly depressing and bleak philosophy modern atheism has become. To hold that human consciousness and human free will are not real, but only evolutionary spandrels that help us cope with our huge brains; to profess that we are all slaves to a purely deterministic past and have no control over anything; and to conclude that human beings, like the universe, are devoid of purpose or meaning – all this used to be called nihilism, and was not very popular at the time. For obvious reasons.
I feel sorry for the New Atheists. But I feel even sorrier for their children. Anti-theists like to claim that teaching children about God is child abuse. It seems to me that teaching children that they are purposeless, meaningless robots, without the ability to make their own decisions or even think their own thoughts, is far more abusive.
And I will end by saying that I decided to post this of my own free will.