Chemistry, Not Character, and Why Is No One Suing Ohio Over This?

Driving on I-75 in Cincinnati the other day I passed a billboard telling people with a gambling problem, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry.” The web link on the billboard took me to a site put up by the state of Ohio that leads after a couple clicks to the same slogan.

And the Freedom from Religion Foundation hasn’t sued the state for it.

This saying isn’t unique to Ohio or specific only to gambling. Christian pastor Rick Warren has gone on record saying the same thing with respect to depression, the disease that tragically took his son’s life. I’ve lost a cousin and a close Christian friend and mentor to the same disease. When a Christian says there’s a difference between character and chemistry it makes sense. Christianity teaches that you are not just your chemistry. Your mental processes are more than mere chemical reactions; there’s more to you than that, as a person created in God’s image, with freedom to live and choose and act based on your character. This is standard theistic thinking.

That’s very close to what the state of Ohio is saying with this billboard. More than that, the state is expecting people to believe it. So, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry,” could very well be a violation of the First Amendment, right?

Well, no, and I doubt anyone will try to claim it is; but let me explain why the question might not be as outlandish as it might sound.

The standard “secular” explanation for human character (meaning in this case, allowing for no “religion-based thinking”) begins from the conviction that the world is a closed system where nothing except natural causes and processes can operate. Humans therefore came to be through strictly natural causes. We know this because (a) the world is a closed system where no other causes exist, and (b) in its focused search for natural causes explaining where humans came from, science has only found natural causes.

(It’s rather question-begging, isn’t it?—but let’s move on.)

Natural causes were the only causes, according to this version of secularism. They’ve always been the only causes and they always will be. That means your own behavior is strictly a result of natural causes. Take that down to the level of the source of your behavior—your brain—and you’ll recognize it means that your behavior is strictly a function of brain chemistry.* Your chemistry runs the show, and you’re just sitting there watching. (Who “you” are on that view is hard to explain, but let’s move on from that, too.)

Given that secularist view, your chemistry is your character. That’s why secularists like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris insist there’s no such thing as free will: your actions are strictly the product of electrochemical processes in your brain, and absolutely nothing else.

To say therefore that it’s chemistry, not character, is to say that this secular view of reality is false.

Which is obviously true. Everyone knows there’s a distinction between character and chemistry. It’s why patients experiencing early dementia tend to feel relieved when they’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Their mentally intact family members do, too.

One reason an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be comforting to both family members and patients, suggests Carpenter, is that it provides an explanation for what’s been going on with the patient. Caregivers, he notes, are often quick to attribute symptoms of dementia to the person, rather than the disease, and patients wonder if they are going ‘crazy.’

It’s their chemistry, not their character, causing the problems. There’s a difference between the two, and everyone knows it.

It’s one thing, however, for a pastor like Rick Warren, a believer like me, or a researcher studying dementia to draw conclusions like that. It’s another thing for the state of Ohio to shout it from billboards. It’s a message whose meaning is clearly tilted toward theism, away from secularism. So why isn’t the Freedom from Religion Foundation suing?

My guess is, it’s because the billboard is only expressing a common sense view of a scientific finding. Filing suit would draw attention to the true silliness of naturalistic secularism. They won’t touch this: they wouldn’t want to face the laughter.

*It’s electrochemical, not just “chemical”—as if the two could be separated—but I’ll stick with “chemistry” since that’s what the slogan sticks with.