the surprising price of atheism

My wife absolutely loves the Hallmark Channel – especially around Christmas. Starting around August 12, it’s all Christmas all the time on Hallmark, and shortly thereafter my DVR will start filling up with a seemingly endless parade of movies celebrating the spirit of the season with provocative titles like “My Christmas Dream,” “A Dream of Christmas,” “My Christmas Love,” “Love you Like Christmas,” “Christmas List,” and “Christmas Cookies” And that’s just a small sampling from last year! Appointment television. I’m wondering about the nuanced difference between a Christmas dream and a dream of Christmas. And I say a movie dedicated to the glory of Christmas cookies is well overdue.

This is probably why my wife literally won’t let me watch any of these movies with her. My sarcasm kind of breaks the spell and ruins Christmas, but I have seen enough of them to know that they all follow the same basic plot (sometimes even with the same actors and actresses).

  1. Setting: Nondescript small town America. Definitely small enough that everyone knows everyone’s business. North enough that there is always snow on the ground. South enough that you can detect just a hint of a drawl in some of the side characters. The town itself plays a role in creating a sense of longing and nostalgia for something that really none of us has ever experienced – an idyllic small town with a diner but no McDonald’s and a general store but no Walmart. This is not the small town America of Hillbilly Elegy. This is small town America through the lens of Hallmark. Everything is great. Except…
  2. The local diner/greenhouse/general store/pet shop/haberdashery is in trouble. Times are tough for the middle-aged, hunky, and inexplicably single owner. You see the diner/greenhouse/general store/pet shop/haberdashery has been an institution in the town for decades, but is now at risk of being put out of business (somehow – don’t worry about the details) by the big, bad bank from the big, bad city. The urban/rural divide and distrust is a ubiquitous reality – even on Hallmark.
  3. The big, bad bank sends a representative to the small town to talk sense to the young, hunky, single guy and close the deal. They obviously send the young, attractive, too-busy-to-settle-down-and-get-married-but-she-definitely-has-a-boyfriend-who-is-a-crossfitter-with-slick-backed-hair, mid-level executive who is trying to climb her way up the corporate ladder. And plot twist: This was once her home town before she became fancy and moved away to the big city. This will be her first Christmas home since “going away to that fancy college.” And plot twist number two: She and hunky guy have an unresolved history.
  4. The rest of the movie practically writes itself. Hunky dude and hot executive don’t like each other. At all. Hot executive thinks hunky dude is an unreasonable, small town hick who doesn’t understand how the world works. Hunky dude thinks hot executive is out-of-touch and has completely lost her priorities. But alas, love must conquer all. Hunky dude gradually realizes he has always loved hot executive and maybe that’s why he’s still the only eligible single guy in town. Hot executive, begrudgingly at first, comes to realize that the city is not her true home at all and that crossfit dude is really just a jerk with a fancy car. She also has never fallen out of love with hunky dude. There is usually an outdoorsy wintry scene involving some combination of a horse, a dog, a young child, or a heart-to-heart with dad that helps her to realize her heart’s true home. The mini-skirt is traded in for blue jeans, the vegan hemp milk for southern biscuits and gravy. The movie ends with a kiss and a Christmas-themed, small town wedding with the horse/dog/young child playing a supporting role in the ceremony.

If I could be so bold, I’d like to add one scene to the movie which would make it much more interesting. Imagine that the young, newlywed couple has made it back from their honeymoon in the Adirondacks and are getting settled in their new life together. They are eating breakfast before he heads off to work at the diner/greenhouse/general store/pet shop/haberdashery. With love in his eyes he gives an “I love you” followed by a goodbye kiss. After this kiss he reaches toward her and opens a small control panel on the back of her head. Inside is a switch that he moves to the off position. She powers down for the day as he walks off to work.

The entire movie has changed in a moment when you realize that the woman was just operating according to her programming. The love that she “felt” wasn’t real love. It was only programming. The plot twists and turns were only imaginary. The ending of the story was never in doubt. Somehow an artificial feeling movie has become more authentically artificial.

What does this have to do with the surprising price of atheism? Thoughtful atheists recognize that one of the many implications of atheism is that free will becomes a fiction. Cornell professor William Provine says, “Free will as traditionally conceived…simply does not exist. There is no way the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.” The Richard Dawkins Foundation has this short article celebrating the supposed growing popularity of free will skeptics. The fact is that according to the story of naturalism, we are simply highly evolved machines. Machines, no matter how complex, cannot exhibit libertine free will. Everything about us – things that we assume are at least largely freely chosen like emotions, desires, thoughts, intentions, etc. – are merely the by products of irresistible chemical, biological, and sociological forces. We don’t choose to fall in love any more than we choose to digest food. It’s all just in our programming. What a painfully boring, loveless, and humorless worldview.

Evolution it seems built within us (there we go anthropomorphizing again) the useful fiction that we are free agents, but now enlightened thinkers like Dawkins know better. (Of course, their enlightened thinking is also determined by programming, so I’m not sure that we can really trust it.) The fact is that even though numerous atheistic thinkers are aware of the implications on free will, very few will actually conduct their lives as if mechanical determinism is true. The reason is pretty obvious. Even if we wanted to, we simply cannot escape the thought that we have free will. We are not robots. There is a yawning divide between Alexa, the human being, and Alexa, the Jeff Bezos spying device.

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