It’s a sad fact of modern life that we think we have to wait for elaborate scientific studies to tell us it’s okay to believe what we already know. A small tidal wave of recent research, for example, has shown that if you want to help kids avoid drugs, pregnancy, crime, and the usual adolescent temptations, one of the most powerful tools we have available is religion.
The same holds for adults confronted with alcohol addiction, marital breakup, patterns of violence, and the whole slate of other current pathologies: serious believers fall into these difficulties far less often than do the nonreligious. In addition, for all age groups, religion-based counseling has a much higher success rate than its secular counterparts, particularly in dealing with drug and alcohol problems.
Why should this be so?
One indication of the hole we have dug for ourselves is that we even have to ask that question. And if we arrive at an answer, don’t expect the salutary effects of religion to dominate the news or the analysis of public issues any time soon. Some people will put the successes down to the repressive nature of religion, though why a force that keeps us from doing what is indisputably bad to ourselves and one another should be thought merely repressive is hard to understand. Besides, when was it demonstrated that nothing in human nature ought to be repressed?
But I’d like to propose another explanation, one that William James made a long time ago, though in a slightly different form. Religion leads us to believe that we have the power to make free choices—choices anchored in the truth about ourselves and the world, not the empty “choice” of current political rhetoric—and the belief itself empowers and frees us.
In the innocent days before we expected sociologists, psychologists, defense attorneys, pop singers, movie actors, talk show hosts, and graduates of journalism schools to explain human nature to us, we had some simple, but strong beliefs.
We learned from our churches that, over and above material needs and social circumstances, human beings have twin powers: the mind and the will. In other words, we can know good and evil, and with God’s grace choose between them. Religion still teaches those lessons, though even the churches—the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church unfortunately among them—have by now conceded a lot of ground to the social scientists and unscientific social elites.
But who else teaches free will, even in weakened form? Schools? universities? the courts? the media? politicians or political institutions? Though they all talk of choice, in fact, they have made the gospel of economic man and social determinism the default setting in our public culture. Science and philosophies with too narrow a view of science have also long been a source of mischief here. We cannot help but be grateful for advances in technology and medicine, but reductionist science has made many of us think only our bodies are real. If we give in to addiction or promiscuity or homosexuality or pedophilia, the fault (contra Shakespeare) is in our genes, not in ourselves.
Or if our internal structure is not the problem, we can always invoke external structures. Predictably, the politicians have tried to get good mileage out of the new therapeutic and social determinism. How many subtle and not so subtle demagogues have been elected and reelected telling people that things are not their fault, and that “society,” as we used to say glibly in the 1960s—poverty, injustice, racism, and patriarchy—is to blame? The tide has begun to turn a bit because we’ve sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind so undeniably that there’s a price to be paid now for not talking tough. There’s not much difference between Democratic and Republican presidential rhetoric anymore on the moral issues. But outside of national politics, the victim juggernaut rolls on.
Good accounts of moral responsibility have always allowed for internal and external factors. Aquinas, for example, gives a subtle treatment of the issue and how it relates to the freedom or bondage of the will. But in all the great Christian teachers from Jesus to Martin Luther King Jr., the bottom line was clear: we can know the good and, in God’s grace, do it. Alcoholics Anonymous and other effective twelve-step programs would be out of business if they ever accepted the excuse that some sort of physical disposition settled things irrevocably. Such programs work precisely because they believe in a Higher Power, and invite Him to work upon will and intellect regardless of pre-dispositions.
Yet there may even be more power in these two faculties than we recognize. This spring, a little-noted news story announced that scientists studying people with chemical imbalances in their brains have discovered a remarkable fact. When these people undergo successful psychotherapy, they often show a return to chemical balance, without medication. In other words, acquiring the right attitudes and behavior may even change our physiology. If we hadn’t grown mesmerized by a mechanistic view of ourselves, we would have expected as much. Dealing with a human person, you can never say for certain that the physical alone produces bad thought or behavior.
If cognitive therapy can affect human biology, do we have something like an argument for mind even in science today? There are other confirmations that this is so.
About twenty years ago, Roger Penfield did some experiments on people undergoing brain surgery. He found that he could stimulate memories, sensations, and muscular reactions, but not ideas or will. Different parts of the brain control physiological systems, but the patients would tell him, “You made me do that.” They never reported that they had willed or thought something as a result of the stimulation, nor was he able to locate an area that controlled thinking or willing.
The two faculties of will and intellect used to be regarded as the gifts that made human life special and wonderful. Everything else in the world—subatomic particles, galaxies, trees, animals—follows a well-worn deterministic track. For good and ill, we do not. But along with the risk of going wrong lay the possibility of going right, and the high excitement and adventure of human life. Abandon that view and life becomes poor and flat.
It is no wonder that widespread moral skepticism has also led to the inability to believe we are capable of doing anything significant. There is still celebrity and wealth and power and pleasure, but little of overriding meaning and happiness.
The Bible reminds us that all flesh is grass, but it also records that there is something special about the human race: we’re made in God’s image and likeness. Like God, we can both know and will. A cartoon I saw the other day showed a figure holding the Ten Commandments and saying to God: “Don’t these kind of imply free will?”
They do indeed.