Who's Pulling the Strings? God, Agency, and You

Another week, another essay! This time I’d like to focus on the intersection of agency and its relationship with the divine and the world in which we human beings find ourselves. This topic bubbled up into my consciousness from two different directions, and I think it can be a useful subject to explore for those aiming to advance a humanist and secular (atheist, agnostic, etc.) worldview, or for those who at the very least want to temper religious zealotry wherever possible.

Setting the Stage

The first impetus towards this topic was a post by blogger godless titled “Why Evangelicalism and Humanism Cannot Be Friends” in which he explores his reasons for believing that the type of evangelical Christianity as experienced in the Bible belt is fundamentally opposed to the core tenets of humanism. The second was a conversation I had with fellow online personality Mary (who runs these two awesome - and completely unrelated - blogs on gaming and baking that can be found here and here.) Mary described a conversation that she had with a friend who had overheard a woman talking about how God had led her to Georgia and how God would give her direction on what to do next. Mary found this state of affairs “…disconcerting? This thing about letting god make decisions for you, or considering your own personal desires/decisions to be really made by someone else, it seems like a bit of a cop-out in terms of your own personal agency.”

For those who are not familiar with the concept, agency is the “capacity for an agent (a person, conscious being, and the like) to act in the world”, to paraphrase Wikipedia’s explanation. You can apply this agency in a variety of areas, such as morality, but the core of agency is the ability to act in the world through choices that agent makes. While in the broadest sense these decisions can be voluntary or involuntary, the agency that is relevant to our discussion is of the voluntary variety (also known as intentional agency).

My interest in this area of inquiry goes back many years. I studied philosophy for my undergraduate degree and my favorite areas of study were moral agency, ethics, free will, and any relevant metaphysical topics. I say this so as to lend credence to the following: this is an incredibly deep area of debate and discussion. When discussing intentional agency, one must keep in mind any metaphysical assumptions that might limit or dictate the type of agency available to a given agent. (If you are interested in some of these basic metaphysical topics and how drastically they can effect your philosophical worldview, check out these previous posts here and here.)

You must also keep in mind the particular avenue through which agency is being expressed, because different subjects will have different guiding principles or assumptions. For an example, metaphysics has much to say about how an agent can act, insofar as the principles of that metaphysical system will limit or define the freedom or options available to that agent. When discussing moral agency - however informed that discussion will be by the assumed metaphysical framework - we are now focused on how an agent ought to act in reference to right and wrong (good and bad, good and evil, etc.).

If you are interested in having a debate in which the relevant terminology and assumptions are laid out explicitly, the aforementioned particulars matter. Given the complexity of the subject and the informal venue through which we are approaching it, I will only give a cursory reaction to the comments of the God-guided girl from the coffee shop while attempting to link it to some of the underlying or implicit assumptions that support a worldview such as hers.

The Disturbing Art of Puppetry

I’ll start by stating that I sympathize with Mary’s disconcerted reaction. I find the idea that someone is effectively a marionette whose every movement, physical and mental, is dictated by a divine puppeteer to be profoundly disturbing. This seems to be because we naturally think of ourselves as free beings, capable of dictating (at least in principle) the direction of our own lives. We have thoughts, desires, emotions, and we act in light of those. These internal motivations and the external responses they elicit form the story of who we are and what we have done.

In light of this, I think the underlying concern is that the girl in the coffee shop seems to have abdicated responsibility to another agent for her internal motivations. This strikes me as a wholly different view from those who aim to take personal responsibility for their actions, even if those actions are done in light of the supposed teachings and mandates of a deity. This distinction between visions of personal agency is important to make, as I think that many deeply religious people would object outright to the idea that they are helpless vessels through which god works its will.

Even if some do object, however, there is (particularly within Christianity) plenty of precedent for the “controlled” worldview. For example, Calvinism holds to the doctrine of predestination. This metaphysical worldview states that all actions and everyone’s fate are the result of god’s will. Any feeling of free agency is an illusion, as your will is merely a vessel for god’s will. The puppet strings are firmly attached and we are merely actors playing the parts given to us by an all-powerful director. Why would anyone adopt this eerie outlook on personal agency?

One reason this worldview is philosophically attractive is because it seems to avoid certain hang-ups that arise when you try to make sense of the idea of an all-knowing (omniscient) god and human free will (free, voluntary agency). There have been innumerable debates about how it is that god could know everything and yet that knowledge does not mean that all events about the future are pre-determined. Many different solutions have been proposed and argued for or against (an atemporal god, god self-limiting his knowledge so as to allow for free will, etc.) but predestination does away with the need for any philosophical back-bending. God’s knowledge is considered absolute and acknowledged as such, which means that any illusion we have about being free must be false. After all, how could our will or imperfect knowledge, even of our own feelings of free will, trump the divine knowledge and will of god?

I point out that usefulness of the predetermined position only to highlight that, however unsettling the girl in the coffee shop’s pronouncements might have been, they were not without precedent. The conclusion at which predestination (and other similarly agency-denying positions) arrive might be somewhat counter-intuitive, but the end result is neat, if somewhat unsettling. I believe most people feel that they have free will, however vaguely defined that term might be to them. We normally assume that we are in control of ourselves and our actions, and we certainly act as if that is the case in relation to our fellow human beings. Our basic social interactions are underpinned by the idea that people are responsible for what they do, but how can people be responsible if their will is not truly their own?

To be fair, there are philosophical positions that deny people the robust sort of free will and agency that most people are familiar with, though those theories rarely do so by giving that agency over to another agent. Causal determinism, for example, if a philosophical position that states “that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states.”* Basically, if every effect has a cause, and the relationship between cause and effect is not subject to randomness (indeterminism), then you could, in principle, know the past and future state of any fully-defined system. If:

  1.      I know how the laws of physics work;
  2.      I could calculate every relevant particle in a given situation;
  3.      Everything is subject to the laws of physics, including people;
  4.      Then, I could determine what any given person would be doing at any given time.

While causal determinism is not a position commonly held by contemporary philosophers, it does serve to show that it does not take a god to rob people of free will.

I bring this up because I want to be clear that the reaction many people have to the idea of being a puppet does not have to be a reaction reserved for religious doctrines alone. Even if there are other, non-religious ways to rob people of personal agency, demonstrating that belief in certain conceptions of god can clash with deeply felt notions of our own freedom can lead to cracks in the foundation of a person’s faith. This is where to power of this topic lies and I think that atheists (agnostics, secularists, etc.) should be willing to explore this conceptual space with those willing to engage with us. If nothing else, these discussions can only help all of us better understand the complex reality we all must face together, which I believe is a critical step in advancing empathy and understanding for our fellow human beings.

The Moral of the Story

As I said before, this is an area of so much nuance and depth that there is no viable way to present all of the various positions, counterarguments, and philosophical systems that go into any discussion of voluntary agency and free will. That does not mean, however, that we cannot use the varied and often strong reactions people have to these positions for the purposes of advancing humanism and secularism (atheism, agnosticism, etc.). I venture that it is a safe assumption that people do not regularly check how their religious beliefs square with their beliefs about free will and personal agency, and I have found this area of discussion to be a profitable one for the purposes of demonstrating some of the problems that stem from various sets of religious beliefs. The degree to which we see ourselves as free agents tells us something about our place in the world and about who we are.

Religion, in its various forms, has many things to say about our place in the world and how we should be in it, so there is a natural intersection between these two subjects. I believe that this intersection is a problematic one for many, particularly those of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their related off-shoots), because people want contradictory things for themselves and for their creator. They want a god who is omniscient, omnipotent (all-powerful), and (usually) omnibenevolent (all-loving). They also want a god who has a meaningful relationship to his creations, and the notion of voluntary agency is normally a crucial component to having a truly loving relationship. After all, how is it truly love if one party if compelled by the other to love? Ignoring other problems with the tri-omni god (the problem of evil being one I have written about before) this issue of agency can create some serious cognitive dissonance (my favorite kind of dissonance).

Agency is a key concept and potential hang up in the light of many religious teachings and doctrines. Exploring the tension that can be created in this space, even in a cursory way, could lead to fruitful conversations about religion, faith, and god. Any time we open up conceptual space that was previous occupied by religious belief, you create room for the advancement of beliefs and worldviews that are in line with secular and humanist ideals. While I doubt anyone is going to de-convert simply because it is pointed out to them the implications of god playing puppeteer, these discussions might make that person question their relationship to the divine. This is a first step away from religion that could lead to a second, and maybe more. That strikes me as a good enough reason to explore this topic when the opportunity arises.


*This definition is taken from this article on Wikipedia.


Featured photo by Flickr user David Ensor


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