Does God underwrite our freedom, or undermine it? There are thousands of self-styled “libertarians” who would argue the latter. They actively oppose the religious commitments of most social conservatives, many of them convinced that materialism is the best metaphysical home for what we might call “libertarian values”—individual rights, freedom and personal responsibility, reason, and moral realism.

Ayn Rand was a leading apostle of this view. An ardent defender of individual rights, free markets, and small government, she was an equally ardent opponent of most forms of state coercion. She was also a committed atheist who insisted that “capitalism and altruism are incompatible, they are philosophical opposites.” The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, though by no means as rock-ribbed an atheist as Rand, agreed that free enterprise and Christianity were irreconcilable.

Many secular libertarians hold that if there is a divine arbiter who will judge our actions, then one can’t fully enjoy the freedom, say, to consume pornography and illegal drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex. Philosopher Thomas Nagel made the point well when he admitted, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

But the impression that atheism or materialism is an accomplished host for libertarian values is mistaken. Individual rights, freedom and individual responsibility, reason, and moral realism: none of these make much sense if reality is ultimately blind matter in motion, if, as Carl Sagan said, “the cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Libertarians may be surprised to learn that these core values—if not the entire repertoire of libertarian ideas—makes far more sense in a theistic milieu. But they need not take my word for it. The history of the West supports this view, as do the arguments of leading materialist intellectuals.

No Individual Rights

Historically, the very idea of human rights and the related idea of equality emerged over many centuries in a theistic and specifically Christian culture. In the West, major milestones include the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791). A specific anthropology emerges from these documents with greater and greater clarity. Human beings are made in the image of God, and as such, should be accorded special rights and dignity manifested in law.

The most widely known articulation of the idea for Americans is the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson (a theistic rationalist rather than an orthodox Christian) working together with several other founders. Jefferson believed that human equality and rights were truths knowable by natural reason; nevertheless, he anchors individual rights and equality squarely in theology: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jefferson originally wrote “sacred and undeniable,” but Benjamin Franklin replaced the phrase with “self-evident.” The original may have been better. Though the truths Jefferson enumerated may be self-evident to an unfallen reason capable of seeing the natural law clearly, our ordinary apprehension of this truth is nothing like our perception of the truths of logic or mathematics. On the contrary, most people at most times and places not only failed to realize but positively denied that individuals were equal in value and dignity. Jefferson’s is an extraordinary claim, and seems to contradict the plain testimony of the senses. Some people are smart. Others are dull. Some are strong. Others are weak. Some are virtuous. Others are vicious. Even if one perceived the truth about man, it’s hard to see how the notion of equality could be systematically maintained without a theological presupposition.

Of course, there has been a long and mostly fruitless search over the last couple of centuries for another basis for rights. Yet even the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), who studiously avoided the “G” word, nevertheless drew on the work of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, a tacit admission that they could find no other stable ground from which to stage a campaign for universal human rights.

At the same time, libertarians go right on affirming Jefferson’s claim, and this includes many who don’t believe in God. Ayn Rand wrote that “man, every man, is an end in himself and not a mere means to the ends of others.” We may quibble with the exact construction—strictly speaking, only God is an end himself, and God is our chief end as well. But is there any doubt that in saying this Rand, however improbably, was groping toward the truth? Surely our fellow human beings should be treated as ends—as intrinsically valuable—not as mere means to our preferred ends.

The question is not whether we should be treated as ends or merely as means, or whether atheists can discern this truth. The question is, in what view of reality does such an assertion make sense? As it happens, leading materialist philosophers have been saying for decades, not merely that individuals don’t have rights, but that individuals as we imagine them don’t even exist.

For instance, the father of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, saw it as the job of psychology to get rid of the vulgar belief in individual men and women. “Autonomous man has been constructed from our ignorance,” he wrote in a book tellingly titled Beyond Freedom and Dignity, “…and as our understanding increases, the very stuff of which he is composed vanishes… To man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real causes of human behavior. Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable.”

This sounds crazy. After all, surely we experience—we know—our own existence as distinct individuals as much as we know anything. (That’s the valid core of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, whatever philosophical abuses it may otherwise have inspired.) But for the consistent materialist, unified human agents with their own causal powers are so much nonsense. The logic, if not the premise, is unimpeachable. If reality is nothing but blind matter in motion, what sense does it make to talk about individual persons, let alone individual rights?

No Freedom or Responsibility

And if we are not individual human agents, then clearly we can’t enjoy anything like freedom or individual responsibility. Leading materialists consistently say as much. In his book Why I’m Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell, one of the twentieth century’s leading philosophers, put it plainly:

When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of the imagination.

For the materialist, you, or rather “you,” are simply the sum of features determined by physics and chemistry, along with environmental factors beyond your control. Nature, nurture, and nothing else.

This is no small problem for the libertarian outlook. Our choices, if they are free, cannot be entirely determined by forces outside our control. We can all agree that we are shaped by our biological constitution and upbringing; but if human beings truly have the capacity for what philosophers call libertarian freedom, then sometimes we must be able to choose between alternatives and not merely seem to do so.

The consistent materialist cannot countenance such freedom. Bertrand Russell understood this, so he bit the bullet and denied that human beings had either freedom or responsibility.

No Reliable Reason

Libertarians also tend to have confidence in the ability of human reason to attain the truth. They believe that empirical evidence and right reason can show that property rights, economic freedom, and limited government are better for human flourishing than are command economies in which there is no private property and the state is in charge of everything. They think that intellectually honest people, when presented with these arguments, should be persuaded, and should adjust their opinions and behavior accordingly. “Liberalism and capitalism,” wrote Ludwig von Mises, “address themselves to the cool, well-balanced mind. They proceed by strict logic, eliminating any appeal to the emotions.”

To make and follow arguments, we must be able to understand the relationship between evidence and argument, the inferential link between premises in an argument, and the conclusions that follow from those premises. But what is an inference or an entailment relation between propositions? Clearly neither is an object of the senses, like dandelions or red pandas. We see dinosaur fossils with our eyes; but we infer the prior existence of dinosaurs with our minds. We understand that if all men are mortal and Plato is a man, then Plato is mortal. When we consider this argument, we’re not observing the world around us. We’re perceiving logical relations between propositions. To speak in the language of many worlds, the argument would hold in any possible world.

It’s the difference between purely historical and historical-logical statements. That Columbus sailed the ocean blue is a state of affairs that obtained sometime in 1492. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue is an English formulation of a true proposition about history affirming that state of affairs. But when we conclude that Plato is mortal, we are certain that if the propositions that form the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Unless such mundane inferences are possible and reliable, we could have little or no knowledge. Yet all this is problematic for the materialist. In his classic book Miracles, C.S. Lewis’s puts it this way:

All possible knowledge…depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

If materialism is true, there can’t be such mental activities, since everything must have some non-rational, and non-purposive, physical cause. And we have no reason to think that such causes would provide us with a way of inferring correctly from a ground to a consequent (as Lewis puts it).

Many materialists believe they have arrived at their view of reality by looking at the evidence and following sound reasoning. More consistent and thoroughgoing materialists see a problem. Lewis quotes famous naturalist J.B.S. Haldane to this effect. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain,” said Haldane, “I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”

We find the same worry in Charles Darwin. “With me the horrid doubt always arises,” he confessed, “whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

For Lewis, the “cardinal difficulty of naturalism” (what we’re calling materialism) emerges from the lack of causal tools in the materialist toolkit. If materialism were true, then beliefs, purposes and inferences either wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t have any obvious power to transmit truth and so wouldn’t give us real knowledge of the world.

Lewis’s argument is more intuitive than precise. For analytical rigor, there is no substitute for Alvin Plantinga’s formulation. Plantinga first presented his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” (EAAN) in 1991, but he has continued to refine it in several publications since then. He offers what he hopes is the “official and final” version in his insightful 2011 book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism.

While Lewis focused on our reason, Plantinga focuses on our cognitive faculties in general, “those faculties, or powers, or processes that produce beliefs or knowledge in us.” These include memory, perception, intuitions about logical and mathematical truths, and perhaps other faculties such as our ability to discern the thoughts and feelings of others, our knowledge of moral truths and the existence of God. The EAAN concerns these faculties, which we assume are generally reliable over the range of ordinary subjects. For instance, we assume that we can know certain foundational logical and mathematical truths, draw conclusions for certain types of scientific evidence, and perceive the world around us.

The first premise of the argument is what Plantinga calls “Darwin’s doubt.” This is the idea that Darwinian evolution by itself seems inadequate to produce generally reliable cognitive faculties. The doubt is expressed, not just by Darwin and J.B.S. Haldane, as we saw above, but also by materialists and atheists such as Nietzsche, Thomas Nagel, Barry Stroud, and Patricia Churchland.

Churchland’s formulation is surely the most colorful:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive… Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.

Darwinian evolution, without any help from theism, can “select” for survival enhancing behavior, not for true beliefs. Any particular behavior is compatible with countless different beliefs. Natural selection can preserve the behavior. It is blind to the belief. Any true belief selected would be happenstance.

You may imagine that when you get hungry, you decide that you want to satisfy it. Based on this decision, you choose to go to the refrigerator to search for left-overs, and then opt for the taco soup. But the very idea of beliefs as causes of events in the physical world is problematic for the materialist. The reductive materialist will say that beliefs are really just electro-chemical events or neurophysical structures in the brain that are correlated with certain behaviors. The non-reductive materialist may recognize that beliefs have different properties than electro-chemical structures—for instance, the latter aren’t “about” anything as beliefs are. But he must still maintain that such beliefs are determined by an underlying physical structure. The physical structure causes the beliefs. The beliefs don’t cause the physical structure.

Plantinga, unlike Lewis, cashes out his argument in probabilistic rather than deductive terms. I’ll avoid the technical details, but the basic argument is easy enough to grasp: The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given materialism and Darwinian evolution, is low. Or, less precisely: If you think clearly and carefully about the implications of Darwinian evolution and materialism, you will see that, if they were jointly true, you should be skeptical about the reliability of your cognitive faculties, and thus, skeptical about your reasons for believing that Darwinian evolution and materialism are jointly true. Still less precisely and more briefly, If materialism and Darwinian evolution are true, then our cognitive faculties probably aren’t reliable.

The temptation at this point is to object that it’s more rational to trust our cognitive faculties rather than the outcome of some highfalutin skeptical argument. I agree, but that misses the point. The point is that the implications of the materialist hypothesis are contradicted by what we know and trust about our cognitive faculties.

The other common objection is that true beliefs should confer a survival advantage, and so natural selection could select for them. But this objection doesn’t survive a cursory analysis of the situation.

Think about how we are supposed to have arisen according to the Darwinian story under its materialist interpretation. By some unknown combination of chemistry and dumb luck, a reproducing organism emerges on a suitable planet. (To avoid what philosophers refer to as skeptical self-reference problems, let’s posit a separate world similar to our own.) For several billion years, single celled bacterial organisms populate that planet. Eventually more complex, multicellular organisms emerge. During all those eons, the blind process of natural selection is culling random genetic mutations, preserving organisms in populations with slight survival advantages over their kin. Survival-enhancing behaviors are preserved, while survival-diminishing behaviors are not. Such organisms lack beliefs and consciousness. Three and a half billion years into the story, many animal phyla arrive on the scene, and somewhere near the last page of this cosmic book, beliefs begin to emerge in a few creatures from certain neurophysical structures or events that are either caused by or correlated with survival-enhancing behaviors.

How confident would you be that this blind process—which it must be if materialism is true—would produce not just survival-enhancing beliefs, but true beliefs, especially abstract scientific and philosophical beliefs such as Darwinian Theory and materialism? Recall that the number of false beliefs compatible with survival-enhancing behavior is immeasurably greater than the number of true survival-enhancing beliefs. The process might give rise to a true belief by sheer luck, but it’s much more likely to give rise to survival-enhancing behavior correlated with wildly false beliefs.

This is why consistent materialists such as Patricia Churchland conclude that truth definitely takes the hindmost.

In his recent book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg goes so far as to argue that beliefs and thoughts aren’t really about anything at all. “The notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory,” he argues. “Think of each input/output neural circuit as a single still photo. Now, put together a huge number of input/output circuits in the right way. None of them is about anything; each is just an input/output circuit firing or not.” An implication of his argument, of course, is that his book isn’t about anything either. If I believe that Jen left at half past nine, then my belief is about something, namely, it’s about Jen’s leaving at half past nine. If beliefs are just circuits firing, however, then it makes no sense to say that they are about anything. The atheist libertarian who wants to maintain fealty to reason and true belief is in a real conceptual thicket, whether he realizes it or not.

No Moral Truth

Spend a few hours in the libertarian blogosphere, or reading libertarian icons such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, and it will be obvious that these thinkers, even when they use utilitarian arguments, are moral realists, that is, they believe that moral standards are “out there,” are real things, and not merely our subjective feelings about things. These thinkers believe it truly is wrong for a person or a government to forcibly confiscate the private property of another, not merely that it feels wrong to them. They believe that it is wrong to coerce a person to do something he finds repugnant. They believe that coercion should be limited to preventing people from killing and molesting others. They believe governments should have strictly limited powers. This may not be a complete ethical system, but it is clearly moral realism.

By now, you may be anticipating a pattern. As with individual rights, freedom and responsibility, and reason, moral truths are ill at ease in a materialistic mindset. Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson spoke for many fellow materialists when they argued that “our belief in morality” is “merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.” As they go on to say, “In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding…. Ethics is illusory inasmuch as it persuades us that it has an objective reference.”

On this view, a culture that teaches that it’s good to eat one’s first born child for the fun of it will be displaced by cultures that teach the opposite, since the latter cultural norm is clearly more conducive to survival than the former; but the moral judgment that it’s wrong to eat your firstborn child has no “objective reference.” The claim that it is wrong is either false or nonsensical.

The implication for the libertarian is clear. The moral judgment that a culture that protects and celebrates individual rights, freedom, responsibility and reason is morally superior to one that denies these things is also either false or nonsensical. To put it succinctly, if materialism holds, the libertarian credo doesn’t hold water. If, on the other hand, some libertarian moral commitments do hold water, if they are truly about something, then materialism is false.

Theism and “Libertarian Values”

The status of individual rights, freedom and responsibility, reason, and moral realism are quite different in a theistic context. The point may be obvious, so I won’t belabor it. But let’s sketch the outline. Theism is the idea that ultimate reality is an eternal and self-existent, perfectly transcendent yet fully present, personal God who freely creates everything else. The material and the non-divine spiritual realms are real, but derivative. Biblical theism also maintains that God has created human beings in his image. Each of us, therefore, has an intrinsic dignity, equality, and purpose.

Freedom flourishes in this framework. God exercises freedom in the purest sense by creating the world without help from anything outside himself. But he has not made a world of automata. God gives his creatures, as St. Thomas said, “the dignity of causality.” And to human beings, his image bearers, he has granted us not just causality, but intelligent agency, rationality, and freedom. Our reason is appropriate to our status as finite embodied creatures; but as image-bearers of the all-knowing Ground of reason, we have a basis to trust in the general reliability of our cognitive faculties.

God has given us a freedom so expansive that we are capable of destroying each other and rejecting him eternally. That same freedom and agency, however, make us responsible for our actions, actions that can be judged in light an eternal and transcendent moral standard.

I haven’t argued that either libertarian values or theism is true, or that theists must be libertarians. My argument is more modest: if one affirms the libertarian values described above, then one’s coherent philosophical home is theism, not atheism.

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