In 1985 Benjamin Libet published a peer-reviewed paper where he instructed his test subjects to lift their arm while recording their brain activity. What he found was interesting. Brain activity increased before the subject had even decided to lift their arm. In other words, the brain made the decision before they were aware of this decision. This lends some evidence towards the position that we do not have free will. Instead decisions might be made subconsciously based on both internal and external conditions and stimuli. That is, the neurological and the environmental.
(For the sake of intellectual honesty, I must also point out that the author went to great lengths to avoid jumping to conclusions: “it is important to emphasize that the present experimental findings and analysis do not exclude the potential for ‘philosophically real’ individual responsibility and free will.” But he also said this: “Processes associated with individual responsibility and free will would ‘operate’ not to initiate a voluntary act but to select and control volitional outcomes.”)
There is a very minor debate about free will in the scientific community, but most of the community agrees: The idea of free will is a construct. We are not free to decide. I’ll leave a bibliography at the bottom of this post if you wish to read the scientific literature on free will.
If we take the scientific position that free will does not exist, then we are not free to decide whether or not supernatural agencies exist. Whether or not we believe in the supernatural—be it god or other—is the result of natural response through internal conditions to external stimuli. We might also invoke the rational actor model (which makes few assumptions about free will, but many about natural response). Our position regarding the divine is a natural conclusion based on how much utility that position grants us. Since we are all utility driven creatures, belief in supernatural agencies might grant us some comfort in a dog eat dog world. However, as existential security rises, the utility of belief declines, and our natural position then shifts back to the default position and disbelief might offer more utility.
Both atheism and theism, therefore, are probably natural responses. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make fun of religious belief, because doing so increases the amount of external stimuli that might lead religious people toward reason.
To sum up, the religious idea of free will is largely contradicted by what we’ve discovered in the scientific community. It’s unlikely that we are free to decide whether or not we believe in supernatural agencies. I would suspect, however, that secularism will continue to rise in the West as existential security increases.
Further readings on free will in the scientific literature:
(Contact me for copies of these articles)
Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Free will in scientific psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 14-19.
Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-566.
McAdams, D. P. (2013). Life authorship: A psychological challenge for emerging adulthood, as illustrated in two notable case studies. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 151-158.
Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.
van Roekel, E., Verhagen, M., Scholte, R. H. J., Kleinjan, M., Goossens, L., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2013). The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) in relation to state levels of loneliness in adolescence: Evidence for micro-level gene-environment interactions. PLoS One, 8(11).
Further readings on secularism and existential security
Inglehart, Ronald. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Inglehart, Ronald, and Pippa Norris. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.