Belief Is Not a Choice

April 16, 2016

Truth is important to me. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. If I’m wrong about a belief I currently hold, I want to know about it. Part of this is understanding how to test a belief for it’s validity. The other part, maybe more important, is understanding what beliefs actually are and how we get them. A belief, simply put, is something we accept to be true. The way we acquire beliefs is a little more complicated.

Often times beliefs are gained through study, learning and experience which are usually justified by evidence, logic and reason. Other beliefs are formed environmentally by the chance of our birth, upbringing, or by the beliefs of our parents, siblings and friends. For example, I’d be more likely to hold the religious beliefs of Hinduism if I was born in India. But the one misconception—that hopefully I can dispel—is the idea that we can choose our beliefs.

A simple thought experiment is to consider our belief that the earth is spherical. We could go into the evidence of how we know this to be true and that would most likely be the cause of the belief in a spherical earth. But, with this knowledge in mind, can you choose to believe the earth is flat? Can you will the disbelief of a spherical earth? A flat earth has been believed in the past, but it was only believed because of a lack of knowledge. We once believed the earth was the center of our solar system, but once the evidence presented itself, we changed our views to Heliocentrism.

If you’re a Christian, consider the claims of Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, Jainism or any other religion. Can you choose to genuinely believe those other religions are true and yours is false at will? You are a Christian because you were convinced Christianity is true by some method. Maybe you had a personal experience, maybe you found a message, argument or book compelling. Perhaps simply reading the Bible convinced you it was true. Maybe you were born in a Christian family and you grew up around Christian friends and you never gave any opposing view much thought. But there’s a reason you hold Christianity to be true and it has nothing to do with choice. I personally can’t force myself to believe something that I genuinely think is false and I don’t think anyone else can either. That’s simply not how beliefs work.

For the majority of my life I believed Christianity was true. Becoming an atheist was a very long process that spanned a few years of me studying Christian apologetics, reading books by atheists, listening to debates, studying biology and cosmology until one day I came to the realization that I didn’t believe anymore. I wasn’t trying to find reasons to disbelieve, nor did I decide I didn’t want to be a Christian anymore. In fact, becoming an atheist has been a very lonely and isolating experience for me. My entire family, all my friends, even my wife are all Christians. Even though I wish that Christianity was true and that I could believe, I just can’t.

So why does the idea of willed belief keep getting spread? Why do theists, for example, assert that atheists choose disbelief in god? I think the reason, especially in the religious community, is that the Christian theology depends on it. If the criteria for someone being saved relies on them believing the claims that the religion makes, it must be a choice. If it’s not, then it becomes a doctrine of credulity. This verse is quoted often when referring to atheist:

(18) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, (19) since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (20) For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

—Romans 1:18-20 New International Version (NIV)

The implications of this verse are that deep down, atheists actually do believe but choose to call themselves atheist for other reasons (sin or anger towards god are commonly asserted here). For a Christian who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of god, there’s nothing I can say to convince them about my experience. They can dismiss everything I have to say, all my thoughts, feelings and experiences with this one verse. In a way, it protects their own beliefs from any form of criticism, scrutiny or doubt. But for those that are at least open-minded enough to hear me out, let me try and explain why this position is not convincing at all to someone like me.

The best way that I can think to show a Christian why this mode of thinking isn’t constructive is to reverse it on them. Imagine that a Muslim came to you and said that you don’t actually believe in Christianity. You know that Islam is true, but you deliberately suppress it’s truth because you want to live against the true teachings of the Quran. So, are you a Muslim yet? No? Of course not. That is probably the least convincing argument someone can hold. I actually don’t think it’s meant to convince anyone. It’s to stop the conversation and reassure the believer. It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m right and you know it” and then promptly walking away. It merely holds as a defense (and a poor one when examined) of their own beliefs rather than a rationalization of others.

What I want more than anything is simply to show that whatever someone believes, be it religious or not, is never simply because they chose to. People are complicated and they have a life full of experiences that account for their beliefs. If we belittle and marginalize one another and shut others out from the conversation, we only keep ourselves from growing as individuals and truly understanding who our neighbors are. As an atheist, there’s nothing I love more than to hear the stories of people who think differently than me. I want to know what they believe and why. The way I see it, if there’s really a god out there, I want to know about it. If I ever change my views on god, it will certainly not be because I chose to, but because the evidence, logic and reason has pointed me in that direction.


What do you think? Do you agree or am I way off? What do you believe and why? I want to know what you think.


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