Ask a stupid question countdown... five

TodayChristian.net posted a list of Ten Questions for Every Atheist. Since I count myself as one of the "every" and I'm far too snarky to leave rhetorical questions alone, I thought they would be interested in my responses. I'll tackle one a day, counting down from ten to one. I'll also be unpacking the questions so not only do I address them directly but also some of the hidden assumptions and fallacies behind them.

Before reading the answer, keep in mind that they have the rather absurd lead-in:

Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…

Someone out there imagines that no one ever thought to answer these, and I'm guessing from the general tone, they think they are unanswerable. So with my apologies for busting your bubble, here are honest answers:

5. If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Because there's obviously no way of phrasing this question which is less loaded and provocative (!) or more grammatically correct, let's push on.

The short answer is yes... with a very long follow up.

Of course it's equally true if god does exit that we can do what we want, and are free to murder and rape.

Returning to the theme of learning to be a grownup, most people realize that actions have consequences, both intended and unintended. Most of these hypothetical moral discussions take place in a kind of fantasy causal vacuum where we can ignore the consequences we don't like and leave with our desired position appearing much more rosy than it actually is.

It is a central tenant of most forms of monotheism that god has given humans free will. So we are accountable for the consequences of our actions. I'm free to kill anyone I want (within the limits of the laws of physics - there are probably some serious obstacles to surmount if I wanted to assassinate the President of the United States so to say I'm "free" to do something I could never reasonably succeed at doing can wind up confusing people). What I'm not allowed to do is construct a fantasy world where I can kill people but not have them hold it against me, or worse try to kill me back. I will pay the price, which means I risk retribution, imprisonment, being treated as an outcast because most people have realized that living in a society that allows murder is not conducive to human happiness. I suppose I could be "free" to go to an island somewhere and start my own society where murder is ok but we'll see how long that lasts.

If I'm a reasonable person with some knowledge of how the world works, I should work these potential consequences into my decision making and stop to wonder if this hypothetical wanting to murder and rape people is really in my best interests.

The only thing the existence of a god changes is the nature of the consequences. If I would grant the rather long chain of what ifs that gets the existence of god, the existence of heaven and hell, the existence of some postmortem judgement and the rather absurd conditions this god has placed on getting into either heaven or hell, it only extends the list of consequences I should already be considering to include the post-death ones. I just add divine reprisal to real-life reprisal and the logic remains unchanged.

I'm not sure what the original inspiration for free will was but currently it's used as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for God. The presence of suffering or theodicy is at odds with a god who is both good and powerful. If we have freedom of will to go against god's wishes and we're outside of his control, then he can no longer be blamed for bad stuff that happens, even though he must have known it was going to happen that way. This may seem to make sense at first. After all, if we're going to go around killing and raping each other we deserve the bad things that happen to us. However it's unclear at one point god also decides he needs to leap into the mix and throw tsunamis at us and give children bone cancer.

It's worth noting there are varying kinds of free will which are defined differently and we know that the kind of free will necessary for the above argument to hold water doesn't exist. But a thorough discussion of this will have to wait for another time. You may want to investigate two of the authors mentioned in part nine, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Harris picks apart the kind that doesn't exist and Dennett defends the version that does.

I'll end on that sentence fragment turned question: While good deeds go unrewarded?

Here I'll simply state my opinion that the questioner is out to lunch and blissfully unaware of the world around him. Good deeds are plenty rewarded. My good deeds get rewarded very often. Certainly not all the time and not with a hundred percent accuracy, and I'm not expecting the sort of eternal reward offered by Christianity (you should go looking for what the reward is, it's actually pretty dreadful.)

Stay tuned for question four...