If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: God is not responsible for the evil and suffering in the world; that is caused by humans’ misuse of their god-given free will! Sentiments such as “Don’t blame god, blame your own bad choices!” and “God isn’t responsible for the bad things others do to you!” abound in Christian literature and online enclaves, and they seems to make so much sense to the people who claim it – but what makes sense to the theist mind is often nonsensical in any other context, and this is no exception. Under even mild scrutiny, free will is shown to be nothing more than an apologetic sleight of hand, glorifying an ostensibly loving and powerful god while simultaneously placing dramatic limits on his benevolence and ability. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is total bullshit.
1. Free will is not a universally held belief among Christians. As is the case with virtually every other claim made by Christians (and, to be fair, followers of every other religion), free will is not only not accepted across all denominations and adherents of Christianity, it is rejected outright by many as false teaching. Some Christians believe that humans are slaves to sin and are not free to choose not to sin, and that since god is the author of evil, it must simply be accepted. As explained by the kind folks at christianfallacies.com, “evil is a part of God’s eternal plan as so many scriptures illustrate . . . Free will is not needed as an answer to deliver God from the charge of evil because evil is not a problem for God, but for man, and man is in no position to question God about its existence.” The non-believer is then left to ask, as with all other contradictory statements about the intentions and nature of god, what makes one of these claims true and the other one false – a question that I have yet to see any theist answer.
2. Free will and predestination are mutually exclusive. The internet is laden with dime-store theology that declares loudly and unambiguously that whatever is happening at any given moment is exactly what god intends. Try as one might, it’s nigh impossible to find pithy memes and articles that say, “God had a plan for you to be happy, but Monsignor totally blindsided god by using his free will to sodomize you when you were a child, and that threw a wrench into the whole thing. Sucks being you!” On the contrary, we are told that god would not have allowed Monsignor to rape you unless he had a purpose for it. Furthermore, given that “god is directing each one of your steps,” and since that claim does not come with an asterisk clarifying that ‘your’ refers to ‘non-pedophiles only,’ then he had to be directing Monsignor’s steps too. There’s no room in any of this for anyone’s free will.
3. Semantic hoops of fire to make a divine plan compatible with free will are disingenuous. To hear some tell it, god’s plan is really just an idea, a hope, like the plans people have for the weekend, which can be fouled by the free will of other humans who are either ignorant of or averse to our own desires. In this version of “god’s plan,” god has no way to either communicate the plan to humans or to make it happen – it’s all just sitting there in his head while he crosses his holy fingers that our guesswork will cause us to stumble more or less blindly into doing what he wants us to do. This, of course, is entirely intellectually dishonest, because we all know that when theists speak of God’s Plan™ they are ascribing a much greater degree of control and intentionality than this weak excuse allows. One must also wonder what kind of mean-spirited fool this god would have to be to make a plan that he knows in advance isn’t going to pan out, or to not at least tell humanity what the plan is so that we have a better chance of using our free will in a way that comports with that plan. This is not the behavior one would expect of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god – indeed, it is not even the behavior one would expect of a marginally competent middle manager.
4. Free will is never used as an explanation for positive outcomes. We only ever hear about the importance of free will in discussions of why god allows evil or suffering. You can read elaborate explanations here or here or here or here or in many other places that god just had to give us free will because golly, he didn’t want to make an army of robots! He wanted humans to choose to love (read: enslaves themselves to) him! Let’s set aside for the moment that an omnipotent god wouldn’t have to do anything (and an omniscient one surely could have come up with a way to make non-automatons who were nice to each other). If humans are free to choose, doesn’t that mean that sometimes they choose to do good things? Why do we exonerate god in this child’s suffering by blaming her parents’ use of their free will to abuse her, but credit god for blessing that child who is thriving, rather than ascribe his success to his parents’ use of their free will to lavish him with love and opportunity? To hold any water at all, free will has to account for both the good and the bad choices that people make.
5. The concept of free will leads to acceptance of suffering as inevitable. “Humans are sinful, flawed, fallible. Of course some of them will use their free will in sinful, flawed, fallible ways. I know, it’s truly awful when children get raped, beaten, neglected, tortured, or murdered. But oh well, what are you going to do? That’s just the cost of god making us free beings.” Which leads us to . . .
6. A god that allows misuse of free will to cause human suffering has the wrong priorities. Most crimes have not just a perpetrator, but a victim – perhaps many victims. Do the victims not have free will? Surely they did not choose the circumstances that led to their suffering. Surely they did not choose to suffer. When the parish priest is sodomizing the altar boy, why does the priest’s free will choice to rape matter to god, but the child’s desire not to be raped does not? A god who always favors the evil over the innocent can be nothing but evil.
7. Free will does not cause natural disasters. Even if free will was an acceptable explanation for human-caused suffering (which it isn’t), it doesn’t work for the suffering caused by wildfires, tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, famine, or disease outbreaks. In fact, a great many evangelicals will confidently declare that god does, in fact, send natural disasters as punishment for human sinfulness, such as some claimed with regard to Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, they do not seem to recognize that killing, maiming, and impoverishing tens of thousands of innocent people (not to mention the devastating cost to non-human animals and the overall ecosystem) as a means of punishing a handful of guilty people is as far away from just and loving as their god could get. More to the point, it admits outright that a significant percentage of suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with free will, but is caused directly and on purpose by god.
8. Science indicates that the notion of free will in the biblical sense – individual agency to make choices entirely free of unconscious influences – does not exist. Advances in neuroscience have severely eroded the notion that humans can freely choose their behaviors. Our genes, brain chemistry, parents, geography, and life experiences shape everything from our sense of right and wrong to our intelligence to our emotions and everything in between. This is not to say that we are automatons who cannot behave morally and ethically, but it does allow us to see human behavior in a different, perhaps more dispassionate light and over time may lead us to more effective strategies for dealing with things like mental illness, violent crime, and other complex and nuanced problems. Once again, the space of ignorance so long occupied by god has been replaced by scientific knowledge, achieved through observation, empiricism, and evidence.
It’s remarkable to consider the armies of people throughout history who have devoted years, perhaps their entire lives, to figuring out how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with the notion of a loving, perfect, and just god. The intellectual capacity wasted on such a fruitless and absurd endeavor is as mind-boggling as it is tragic – one can only hope that humanity will one day realize that those things are in fact irreconcilable, and rather than devote their lives to understanding why god allows suffering, put that energy into alleviating it.