Why atheism or theism is not a choice

Religions, particularly the theistic ones, place huge emphasis on belief. Those who believe will be saved; those who do not will be doomed. The natural implication of this is the idea that we can control our beliefs. A so-called good person believes, and a so-called bad person does not. However, in my opinion, we cannot choose what we believe. Our beliefs are simply the result of the evidence we have seen. Regardless of what we profess to think, our beliefs, and thus our atheism or our theism, are not a choice.

What is belief? How do we change it? Can we convince ourselves that the moon does not exist? What if we told ourselves this a thousand times? Would it still be present when we look to the sky, or would our minds refuse to acknowledge its existence? In this sense, perhaps we can tell ourselves that God does or does not exist. Perhaps we can fool ourselves into thinking one way or the other. However, we would always know that we had not truly considered the issue. We would know that our “belief” was simply the result of conditioning and will-power. Therefore, we would not truly believe it.

Deep down, a true belief can only be based on our own evidence and reasoning. This evidence may take many forms – it is not restricted to bolts of lightning and flaming bushes. The sense of God speaking within our heart may count as evidence. Whatever we tell ourselves, it is ultimately this evidence, and our interpretation of it, that determines whether we believe or not. We can tell ourselves otherwise, we can tell the world otherwise, but deep down we believe what we believe and we have no choice in this.

So what can we do? Is there then no way to change our belief? If we are now a theist, will we remain this way forever? If we atheists, are we forever doomed? No, there is one thing we can do. We can open our minds and look for new evidence. Be open to the possibility of a God and listen for his word. Or consider what may seem a scary possibility that there is no God. You do not know what will happen when you try this. Maybe your theistic or atheistic beliefs will be confirmed. Or perhaps you will begin to doubt what you have always known. At any rate, we believe what we believe and we cannot change this. We can gather evidence, but we cannot know upon which side this evidence will lead us. Hence, in this respect, atheism is not a choice. If we are atheists, then this is the only conclusion we could come to given what we knew. Similarly for theists. We may wish to deny our theism or atheism, but we are only fooling ourselves. We have no choice in what we believe, so we had best admit to it.

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  1. Carnival of the Godless said,

    December 9, 2007 @ 6:07 am

    [...] Is theism a choice? How about atheism? While this post doesn’t quite delve into the complicated theories of memes and the hardwiring of the brain, C.J. does pose some thought provoking questions in our next submission, “Why Atheism or Theism is Not a Choice.” [...]

  2. Michael Heath said,

    December 10, 2007 @ 12:51 am

    I understand your point and it’s a good one. However, as someone who was raised to be a fundamentalist who even at a young age was always beyond belief, the evangelical/fundamentalists have a response they believe is rational and discredits your point as our only choices.

    A born-again Christan believes in a theistic God because of personal experience. This experience is powerful enough to elicit a belief that is certain. The non-theists are non-believers because they’ve rejected the opportunities in their life where if they had “opened themselves up” by repenting of their sins, they would then receive God’s grace and spirit, providing them with a data point to reject non-belief and thereby either securing their ticket to heaven, or “back-sliding”.

    Thus, if you don’t believe in theism, according to them, one must add an AND operator, i.e., I have found no evidence to believe in theism, neither rational or empirical AND I’ve rejected the opportunities God has presented to me that would have then provided overwhelming evidence of the possibilities of experiencing a personal relationship with a theistic God.

    If one responds they that they did try and open oneself up and failed, well, for some reason your “heart was hardened”. Tails I win, heads you lose. Here is an excellent link from a recent deconvert that provides many of the mantras used against those that reject faith for enlightenment: http://thechapel.wordpress.com/2007/11/29/rational-vs-religious-thought/

  3. Felicia Gilljam said,

    December 13, 2007 @ 1:15 pm

    Although I’m sure Michael Heath is correct in that many religious people will have what seems to them a perfectly valid response to the argument that disbelief in god is not a choice, I think this is mostly an issue between us non-believers. I fully agree with you that one cannot choose what to believe, one can only choose what evidence to partake in. I’ve met quite a few atheists online who seemed to believe that their disbelief is a rational choice, something they _decided_ after looking at the evidence. I don’t know, perhaps some people actually can _decide_ to believe one thing and not another, but that’s not how it works for me, and I sincerely doubt that other minds can be so different from my own that they may as well be another species…

    In short, thanks for a great post.

  4. Robert Madewell said,

    December 24, 2007 @ 1:48 am

    I can honestly say that I did not choose to be an atheist. I battled with doubt for many years. I even continued attending church, nodding in agreement to sermons, even though I didn’t buy one word of it. The day I realized that I was an atheist was the day I was finally being honest with myself. There is no switch that I can turn off or on to believe or not. I didn’t decide that I was an atheist, I discovered that I was one. That statement is all I usually need to refute Pascal’s Wager.

  5. Gcapet said,

    January 28, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    Everything is a choice. Maybe you don’t choose to be an atheist, but you can certainly “choose” not to look at the evidence (or absence of, in this case), and call yourself religious. Either way you DO make a CHOICE.

    @MichaelHeath: Yeah, I just was too busy to pay attention to the times “god” tried to show me the “truth” and his “grace” and “spirit”. Gimme a break.

    I would like people to really have “faith” in THEMSELVES, not in some imaginary friend.

    ’2 hands working, do a 1,000 times more than a 1,000 hands praying.

  6. Administrator said,

    January 28, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    Yes, here I would direct your attention to my assertion: “We can tell ourselves otherwise, we can tell the world otherwise, but deep down we believe what we believe and we have no choice in this.”

    Therefore, you could “choose” not to look at the evidence and thus call yourself either a theist or an atheist, but this is not reflective of what you believe deep down. We can choose to be honest with ourselves and be open about what we really believe deep down, but we cannot change this deep down belief.

  7. Integrity: honesty about beliefs said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    [...] because it leads people into trying to convince themselves that they believe something, whereas belief is not a choice. We cannot consciously change our beliefs. We can only question them with an open mind, and allow [...]

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