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Tamler Sommers Ph.D.

Can an Atheist Believe in Free Will?

Why isn't Dawkins as tough on himself as he is on believers?

Here's an interesting 5 minute video accusing Richard Dawkins of being inconsistent in holding that belief in free will and moral responsibility is justified but that belief in God is unjustified. The argument goes like this.

In response to a questioner, Dawkins concedes that if you take a deterministic or mechanistic view of the universe, it seems absurd to think we have free will and that we can go around blaming criminals and praising distinguished authors. The whole idea of blame and praise seems to go out the window. It's like Basil Fawlty blaming his car for not running properly. And since there's likely no one alive who takes a more mechanistic view of human behavior than Dawkins, he should stop going around affirming free will and blaming and praising people. But when asked why he doesn't stop, he says first, that it seems to us that have free will and second, that life would be intolerable if we believed otherwise. In another post, I've challenged the latter point, but that's not the concern here. Let's grant Dawkins those claims.  Dawkins concludes that "this is an inconsistency we have to live with" and so we may continue to believe in free will and moral responsibility, and blame and praise people accordingly. (In his defense, he does seem slightly uncomfortable about the tension.)

Now the video turns to his views on belief in God. A questioner asks him why he doesn't think that belief in God is a personal choice, given that some people find great comfort in that belief. Dawkins replies: Look, that's fine if some people find comfort believing in God, but that doesn't mean that belief is true! He says: "I'm afraid that something intolerable may still be true. That's just tough."

Now wait a minute!  Didn't Dawkins just say that it's fine for us to go on believing in free will and acting accordingly because life would be intolerable otherwise? By that same reasoning, people who would find life intolerable without belief in God are justified in retaining it. What's sauce for free will goose should be sauce for the God gander, right? Or, on the flip side, why isn't it "just tough" for Dawkins that he would find life without free will intolerable?  Why shouldn't he stop affirming it anyway?  This seems like a deep inconsistency.

Now granted, Dawkins doesn't find life without God intolerable, nor does it seem to him that God exists. So Dawkins himself wouldn't be justified in believing in God by his own standards. But someone who did meet those conditions-and there are certainly plenty of those people-would seem to be justified in that belief.. After all, I'm someone who doesn't find life without free will intolerable. I see Dawkins on free will the same way he sees people who couldn't bear it if there were no God or afterlife. I don't think he's thought the implications through clearly. In any case, to resolve this consistency, it seems Dawkins has to either (a) think that it's justified for people to believe things that make life tolerable, or (b) repudiate his own belief in free will and moral responsibility as firmly as he thinks that others should repudiate belief in God. I don't see any other way out. Does anyone else?


About the Author

Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston.