The FANG Argument: A Refutation
Renowned atheist Dan Barker is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He writes prolifically defending atheism, and often attacks the God of the Bible. One argument that he claims proves that God does not exist, he calls FANG. The letters in FANG stand for Freewill Argument for the Nonexistence of God. To summarize this argument, Barker claims that a being can be defined as personal only if it has free will. He then claims that God cannot have free will because, he asserts, “Free will, if it exists, requires that you not know the future” (2008, p. 127). He further states:
However, if you are omniscient, you already know all your future choices and you are not free to change what you know in advance. You cannot make decisions. You do not have a period of uncertainty and flexibility before selecting. You do not have free will. If you do change what you thought you knew in advance, exercising the prerogative of omnipotence, then you were not omniscient in the first place. You can’t have both free will and omniscience. If God is defined as having free will and knowing the future, then God does not exist (2008, pp. 127-128).
Barker’s FANG argument has several problems. First, he has extreme difficulty maintaining that a personal being must have free will, because he does not believe humans have free will. Barker’s atheistic evolutionary assumptions force him to believe that humans are products of nature that do not possess independent minds capable of truly making any choice that is not directed by genes and nature. In his debate with Peter Payne, Barker stated: “I happen to think that we have the illusion of freewill.... I’m a strict determinist. We are natural creatures. The material world is all there is. We actually don’t have what we would call libertarian freewill” (Barker and Payne, 2005). If humans do not have free will, then they cannot be personal beings. Knowing the absurdity of this conclusion, Barker must somehow change the definition of free will to allow humans to be personal beings and still be completely controlled by their alleged naturalistic origins.
How does Barker accomplish this? He simply changes the definition of free will. He states: “I am a determinist, which means that I don’t think complete libertarian free will exists. Since we don’t know the future...we have the illusion of free will, which to me is what ‘free will’ actually means” (2008, p. 128, italics in orig.). Notice the devious switch in which having the illusion of something now means that a person actually has it. Suppose that we used this type of thinking in the real world. A man is in the desert dying of thirst and sees a mirage in which he has the illusion that he is drinking a tall glass of water. Does he actually have the water because he has the illusion of it? Certainly not. Will the illusion of the water save him from dying of thirst? No. Having a thing, and having the illusion of that thing, are very different situations, indeed. In essence, then, Dan’s FANG argument falls apart because of his incoherent assertion that a personal being must have free will, but humans are personal beings despite their lack of free will.
There are other reasons why FANG is false. Remember that, according to Barker, “Free will, if it exists, requires that you not know the future.” This statement, however, is simply an assertion, with no factual or logical backing. Who says that free will requires that you not know the future? Is there a logical syllogism that Barker has produced that proves the statement to be true? No, there is not. Dan merely tosses the statement out there, sounding very confident in his assertion, expecting the listener or reader to accept what he says, but he does not prove the validity of his major premise. A mere assertion proves nothing.
In fact, free will does not require that a person be ignorant of the future. Could a person know what would happen in the future, have the ability and power to change it, but still choose what he knew would happen? Yes. The life of Jesus Christ gives a perfect case in point. In Isaiah 53:9, the Bible says that the Messiah would not lie. This prophecy was written about 700 years before Jesus walked the Earth. According to Dan, that must mean that since God knew that Jesus (God in the flesh) would not lie, then Jesus did not have the ability or choice to lie. Yet, when we look to the New Testament, we see that Jesus was tempted in all ways like other humans are (Hebrews 4:15), but He did not sin. Did Jesus have the ability to lie? Yes. Did He have the opportunity to lie every day of His life on Earth? Yes. But did Jesus know that He would not lie? Yes. We see, then, that foreknowledge of an event does not rob a person of the ability to change the event. It is not that God, by knowing His future actions, cannot change them. It is simply that He does not choose to change them.
At this point in the discussion, the atheist might raise an objection. He might say that using the biblical example of Jesus to reinforce the fact that free will does not require ignorance of the future is unacceptable, since the atheist does not acknowledge that the Bible is God’s Word. This objection is plagued by a serious problem. Where did the idea originate that God is omnipotent and omniscient? The atheist has used the Bible’s description of God to construct the FANG argument. If the Bible was used to construct the “problem,” how could a person object to using the Bible to solve the problem? In reality, the skeptic often wants to use the Bible when it is convenient, but reject the Bible when the text clears up an alleged contradiction. One of the primary purposes of the Bible is to show the consistency of God’s characteristics. To say that God has qualities (derived from the Bible) that are inconsistent, and then to completely ignore His explanation that reconciles them, is dishonest.
Furthermore, even if a person were to reject the factual validity of the prophecies and the life of Jesus, the example of Jesus would still provide a valid hypothetical situation that would disprove Barker’s statement: “free will requires that you not know the future.” Even if we were to say that, hypothetically, there was a person named Jesus who knew he would never lie, but had the opportunity and ability to lie every day of His life, that would be sufficient to prove Barker’s assertion false [NOTE: Just for the record, the historicity and deity of Christ has been established as fact, see Butt & Lyons, 2006.]
Additionally, the FANG argument fails because it equates the knowledge of the future with the cause of future events. Suppose a person knows that at 12:00 p.m. tomorrow he will choose to drink coffee instead of tea. At 12:00 p.m. the next day, he chooses coffee. What caused him to choose coffee? According to FANG, the cause of his choice must be his knowledge of the future. But, if you ask him what caused him to choose coffee, he might say that he hates tea, is allergic to tea, likes coffee better, etc. His knowledge of the fact that he would choose coffee did not force him to choose coffee, nor did it take from him the ability to change his mind. To further illustrate this fact, consider the idea of God’s omnipresence in relation to the actions of humans. According to the biblical definition, used by Barker to form FANG, does God know all future actions of every human? Yes. So, God knew that you would be reading this information at this moment. Does God’s advance knowledge cause a person’s actions? No, because foreknowledge does not equal causality.
The FANG argument in no way accomplishes its stated purpose of disproving God’s existence. It is incoherent based on Dan Barker’s own concept of human free will. It is invalid because its basic foundational assumption is false: free will does not demand that a person be ignorant of the future. The FANG argument turns out to be nothing more than the False Assertion for the Nonexistence of God.
Barker, Dan and Peter Payne (2005), “Does Ethics Require God?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.ffrf.org/about/bybarker/ethics_debate.php.
Barker, Dan (2008), godless (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press).
Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons (2006), Behold! The Lamb of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).