In a discussion on Free Will (the idea that we have the ability to make independent choices not determined by genetics, environmental history, or brain chemistry) atheist Jerry Coyne makes this rather startling statement concerning his view of free will:
“We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free. But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet. I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is. I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, either, but you don’t see me redefining the notion of “death” to pretend I’m immortal”.
That statement itself is not the contradiction I want to address. Indeed, despite the fact that many atheists might believe in free will, the lack of free will is actually the consistent position within atheism. This is because since naturalism denies the existence of a soul or something like it all that remains of our cognitive facilities is chemical processes in the physical brain. In short there is no ‘I’ there to hold opinions, make choices, or hold beliefs – there is only the organ of the brain responding to stimuli. As much as ‘we’ might feel like ‘we’ are making choices about what ‘we’ desire, this feeling would by necessity be merely illusory in a naturalistic schema; all that exists is the mechanism of the brain; there is no ‘person’ actually there.
Where the contradiction comes in is the when atheists discuss what is or isn’t true concerning beliefs about religion and atheism. If no free will exists, and if thoughts and beliefs are merely the result of physical and chemical processes in the brain, then what an individual believes is already determined and they are no more able to change that reality than they are able to fly to another planet by merely thinking about it. Religious sentiment as well atheistic rejection of that sentiment is simply the way our particular cognitive equipment responds to the stimuli we encounter – it has nothing to do with someone being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or any more or less reasonable or logical. So the entire conversation for an atheist is moot, and any devotion to advancing their beliefs is an exercise in futility.
But then again, if atheism is true, they may have no other choice in the matter.