(pictured: not a fan)
It’s hard for an atheist to believe in free will.
If sentience is just a complex chemical process in the brain, then every decision and preference, down to the finest detail, is determined by the movement of organic molecules, doing only what Newton says they’ll do.
More broadly, you’ve got “nature” (the deterministic clockwork inside you) interacting with “nurture” (the deterministic clockwork outside you), to produce a larger and more complex system of deterministic clockwork. It would take a pretty clever argument to find room for human choice in there (not that people haven’t tried.)
Creedal Christianity moves the problem one step back, but it doesn’t change much.
Now you have a “soul” which can ostensibly override the influence of your genetics and environment — but no matter how complex that system becomes, your soul and your genes and your environment were ultimately created ex nihilo by God, so the chains of causality are just as unbreakable; all your capacities for good and evil were given by God from the first, and you’ll only ever do exactly what he created you to do.
Most Christian traditions teach that this doesn’t interfere with free will — in fact, justice demands free will, so that God can send sinners to hell — but there’s not much explanation of how that might be possible. (At best, you get koans about “parallel lines meeting at infinity“, which is theology-speak for “you figure it out if you’re so damn smart”.)
This problem isn’t specific to atheism or Christianity. The source of human consciousness doesn’t really matter: as long as it has a source, as long as every component of your decisionmaking can be traced to some prior cause, it’s all just very elegant clockwork; and we enjoy the illusion of choice only because we can’t trace the billion causal threads that have already made the decision for us.
For Mormons, though, intelligence is co-eternal with God.
You still have genetics and environment (the “natural man”) pushing you in one direction, and your God-given “divine nature” pushing in another; but your intelligence, your “self-ness”, isn’t subordinate to any prior cause — it just is.
As far as I know, Mormonism is pretty much alone among Abrahamic faiths in taking this view — and if you asked a mainstream Christian theologian to list all our mortal heresies, it would probably make the top three.
This means that, for better or worse, no one else is really talking about it — but this one truth has immense implications: not the least of which is actual, non-illusory, non-paradoxical human freedom. Or, as President Packer put it:
“The Lord’s votin’ for me, and the devil’s votin’ against me, but it’s my vote that counts.”
And it raises as many questions as it answers. For example:
What is the purpose of existence?
For mainstream Christians, the answer is pretty simple: we were created from nothing to glorify God. Not only that — the concepts of “purpose” and “existence” were also explicitly created by God.
For Mormons, it’s trickier. Our intelligence wasn’t created for a reason — it wasn’t created at all. Certainly we were organized as spirits and sent to Earth for a reason, but that isn’t quite the same thing.
From a mortal perspective, the Mormon “meaning of life” looks a lot like mainstream Christianity — we’re here to repent, exercise faith, and receive salvation through the Atonement of Christ.
But if you pan back a little, and consider why God implemented the Plan in the first place, it starts to look a bit like Buddhism: our intelligence was “wandering since beginningless time“, in a state of disorder and confusion, without purpose; and God, having transcended that state, provided a path whereby the rest of us could transcend it too.
(Of course, in Buddhism, “transcendence” means blowing out the candle of individual consciousness/attachment and merging with the undifferentiated divine — so, basically the opposite of exaltation. Can’t win ’em all.)
And if you pan back further still, the gospel feels almost existentialist. In the beginning, the universe was chaotic, formless, meaningless. But:
“God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” (Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse)
In other words, the creation was an act of imposing meaning on meaninglessness. Our existence has meaning now, but it didn’t always.
If our actions aren’t deterministic, what makes people good or bad?
I guess the obvious answer is “nothing makes them, they choose” — so instead let’s say, “What’s the difference between good people and bad people?”
It seems like “eternally joyous all-powerful godhood” is unambiguously preferable to the alternatives, and sooner or later everyone is going to make a fully informed decision. So is it just a question of delayed gratification/impulse control (people get a lesser inheritance because they simply didn’t feel like waiting it out)? That seems like kind of a prosaic way to decide who gets transcendence and who doesn’t.
In The God Who Weeps, the Givens offer an alternative hypothesis: maybe Godhood is hard for the same reasons being a good person is hard. Loving people who are free to reject you, free to hurt each other, free to make themselves absolutely miserable — is a risky and painful experience, especially for a being whose capacity to love and empathize is so dramatically superior to our own.
From that perspective, it’s a lot more obvious why “trying to be a good person” (i.e. repentance) is a primary criterion of who gets exalted. The “test” of mortality makes a lot more sense if our experiences here are actually relevant to what we’ll face there.
It also explains how, even in the full light of post-mortal certainty, we won’t change our minds about what we want. If you didn’t like heroic all-consuming sacrificial love down here, you’re going to like it even less up there.