Don’t Distrust Atheists; Distrust Deniers of Free Will!

In my last blog post, I noted the high level of prejudice against atheists and its basis in the assumption that atheists are more likely to behave immorally because they do not fear God.  I did not believe that assumption to be correct, and I have discovered a little more evidence against it since them.

First, the small groups of hunter-gatherers that I wrote about seldom worshiped gods or other divine beings that they saw as concerned about morality.  Religious reinforcement of proper behavior was not needed because everybody knew what everybody else was doing in those small groups, and the members’ interest in protecting their reputation among their fellows was enough to motivate them to restrain their impulses to violate the group’s expectations most of the time. It was only when populations grew and larger-scale societies were formed, as people became farmers of domesticated plants and herders of domesticated livestock, that their gods started to be seen as punishing immoral behavior.  People could no longer watch each other constantly, so they told each other that the gods were watching them.

That strategy just never seemed to work, however, as the frequent scandals exposing the hypocrisy of religious leaders in our own society show.  Research shows that, too.  Laboratory experiments by psychologists have found that highly religious people will consistently behave ethically only when they are interacting with other members of their own religious community.  They are just trying to preserve their reputations for moral rectitude in their own in-groups, as the hunter-gatherers of the past were.  Religious people do not act any better that other people do when no one from their own little sect is watching.

The first field study of the issue found the same thing.  In it, over 1200 people were recruited on social media to receive periodic prompts on their smart phones to write short accounts of the moral or immoral actions they had performed, seen, or heard about in the last hour and send them in confidentially.  The researchers were inundated with replies and carefully read through all of them. The result they found was that religious people behaved no better than non-religious people.  

Another study I have read about was carried out some time earlier on the issue of belief in free will.  Philosophers and theologians have always been worried that if people believed that they had no free will and that they were therefore not responsible for their actions, they would behave immorally.  I have always thought that if their worries were correct, it would prove that people do have free will, since their conscious thoughts would be affecting their behavior.  Philosophers do not seem to have the same standards of logic that I do, however, and they do not seem to have noticed that problem. 

In the research, the participants were each given a report of one of two different fictitious studies about free will. One study claimed to have proven that people have free will and the other claimed to have proven that they do not.  The participants were then put in situations where it appeared to them that they could gain by cheating without being detected.  Of course, the researchers could actually detect any cheating, and they found that the participants who had read the fictitious evidence against free will were much more likely to cheat.  My interpretation is that, since they believed that they did not have the power to resist the temptation to cheat, they just did not bother to try to resist it, whereas the people who believed that they did have free will—and free won’t—did successfully make the effort resist the temptation. 

My conclusion is that atheists who believe that they have free will are most likely trustworthy, whereas the ones who do not believe they have free will probably are not.  So far, no one on Atheist Nexus has disagreed with my previous arguments for free will, so I hope I have converted all of you to being good, responsible atheists!

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Comment by Compelledunbeliever 12 hours ago

I do not "know" that free will exist. I do know that the Christian concept of free will does not exist as if God knows the future we can no change it by our will as God already knows what we will do. This also means that according to this theology that we are in fact predestined to go to Heaven or Hell. This is an argument that Christians are not fond of.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on June 8, 2018 at 11:44am

I think my experience with the issues of morality, free will, and guilt has been different that that of most other people.  It was not morality that was imposed upon me from outside against my will, but illegitimate power.  When I was a small child, I was convinced that my mother did not love me and I never accepted her authority over me.  I did not want her to touch me when she tried to hug me, and I even refused to call her "mother."  Consequently, I perceived my mother's attempts to make me and other people do what she wanted rather than what we wanted as profoundly immoral.  No one taught me that. Much later I found that idea  expressed and elaborated by libertarians, especially by Barry Goldwater in his book, The Conscience of a Conservative, written before the term "libertarian" was in use in political discourse.  I soured on Goldwater when I realized that he was a militarist who wanted to use nuclear weapons to "defoliate" Vietnam. True libertarians, like Ron Paul, are opposed to militarism and imperialism and interventionism.  I am no longer a libertarian, but I am a supporter of human rights. As long as my mother was the dominant figure in my life, I did not believe that I had any rights: not the right to do what I wanted, nor the right to be who I was, nor even the right to exist, if I did not meet the expectations of my mother and other people.  My mother could not impose guilt on me, because I did not accept the moral validity of her standards and expectations, especially when she demanded that I lie in order to express socially acceptable feelings that were the opposite of my true feelings. What she imposed on me was shame.  I was ashamed that my thoughts and feelings were socially unacceptable, and I was ashamed that the truth about me was socially unacceptable--although I never really understood why.

My way of resisting my mother's domination and determination to control my actions was developing my own determination achieve autonomy by controlling my own actions--by achieving free will. I had my own moral standards and I refused to violate them even when other people, including my mother, put pressure on me to do so.  I knew that it was immoral to lie; I knew that it was immoral to steal; I know that it was immoral to cheat.  Intuitively I understood that these actions misled and harmed other people.  Moral responsibility always means responsibility to other people. My second blog post enlarged these ideas by arguing that evolving humans have created their own moralities in order to be responsible to each other. Morality was not imposed on us by external powers such as God. 

Detailing the immoralities of our criminal justice system would require another blog post--or maybe a whole book  (such as The Divide, by Matt Tiabbi).

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on June 8, 2018 at 4:30am

Homer, I too disagree but will explain.

Defending your thesis (that denying free will is a way to escape responsibility) requires more.

Where is responsibility if it’s not solely in offfenders’ minds?

At what ages do children understand free will and responsibility?

Amoral folk, psycho/sociopaths, ignore it.

Mentally ill folk might not comprehend it.

Law enforcers need guilty pleas only when they don’t have the evidence to convict.

Importantly, where and when were you taught your thesis?

Comment by Frankie Dapper on June 7, 2018 at 7:08pm

i disagree with your scribbles Homer but am too lazy to scribble my critique.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on June 7, 2018 at 7:04pm

Tom, the research shows that even atheists may suspect other atheists of being more likely to commit crimes.  So the research on whether that is true is worth doing.

On your second point, I see the denial of free will as a way of escaping responsibility for your actions by claiming that you had nothing to do with them.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on June 6, 2018 at 6:01pm

Homer, for two reasons I would not start an analysis where you start yours here.

First, religions use the desire for pleasure to encourage the behavior they want and the desire to avoid pain to discourage the behavior they don't want. IMO the remarks of theists about the motives of atheists are probably projections.

Second, we atheists need not "read" what theists have "written" on our minds.

I see free will as a means of instilling guilt.

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