Beliefs and Choices: Do You Choose Your Religion?

If Beliefs Aren't Voluntary Acts of Will, What Causes Our Beliefs?

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The question of how and why we believe things is a crucial point of disagreement between atheists and theists. Atheists say believers are overly credulous, believing things much too easily and readily than reason or logic can justify. Theists say nonbelievers deliberately disregard important evidence and are thus unjustifiably skeptical. Some theists even say that nonbelievers know that there is a god or that there is evidence proving a god but willfully ignore this knowledge and believe the opposite due to rebellion, pain, or some other cause.

Beneath these surface disagreements is a more fundamental dispute over the nature of belief is and what causes it. A better understanding of how a person arrives at a belief can illuminate whether or not atheists are overly skeptical or theists are overly credulous. It can also help both atheists and theist better frame their arguments in their attempt to reach each other.

Voluntarism, Religion, and Christianity

According to Terence Penelhum, there are two general schools of thought when it comes to how beliefs originate: voluntarist and involuntarist. The voluntarists say that belief is a matter of will: we have control over what we believe much in the way we have control over our actions. Theists often seem to be voluntarists and Christians in particular commonly argue the voluntarist position.

As a matter of fact, some of history's most prolific theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard have written that believing — or at least believing religious dogma — is a free act of will. This shouldn't be unexpected, because only if we can be held morally responsible for our beliefs can disbelief be treated as a sin. It isn't possible to defend the idea of atheists going to hell unless they can be held morally accountable for their atheism.

Often, though, the voluntarist position of Christians is modified by the "paradox of grace." This paradox ascribes to us the responsibility to choose to believe the uncertainties of Christian doctrine, but then ascribes the actual power to do so to God. We are morally responsible for choosing to try, but God is responsible for our success. This idea goes back to Paul who wrote that what he did was not done by his power but because of the Spirit of God within him.

Despite this paradox, Christianity still generally relies upon a voluntarist position of belief because the responsibility lies with the individual to choose the uncertain — even impossible — belief. Atheists are faced with this when evangelists exhort others to "just believe" and to "choose Jesus." It is they who regularly claim that our atheism is a sin and a path to hell.

Involuntarism & Belief

Involuntarists argue that we cannot choose to just believe anything. According to involuntarism, a belief is not an action and, hence, cannot be attained by command — either by your own or by another's to you.

There hasn't been a noticeable trend among atheists towards either voluntarism or involuntarism. It is common for Christian evangelists to try to tell atheists that they have chosen to be an atheist and that they will be punished for this; choosing Christianity, though, will save me. This idea of choice is highly correlated with Max Weber's idea of the Protestant Work Ethic, which views all social outcomes as a choice. 

But for some, atheism is the only possible position given their present state of knowledge. Atheists can no more "choose" to just believe in the existence of a god than one can choose to believe that this computer doesn't exist. Belief requires good reasons, and although people may differ on what constitutes "good reasons," it is those reasons which cause belief, not a choice.

Do Atheists Choose Atheism?

I frequently hear the claim that atheists choose atheism, usually for some morally blameworthy reason like a desire to avoid taking responsibility for their sins. My response is the same every time: You may not believe me, but I didn't choose any such thing, and I can't just 'choose' to start believing. Maybe you can, but I can't. I do not believe in any gods. Evidence would make me believe in some god, but all the playacting in the world isn't going to change that.

Why? Because belief itself simply does not appear to be a matter of will or choice. A real problem with this idea of "voluntarism" in beliefs is that an examination of the nature of holding beliefs does not lead to the conclusion that they are very much like actions, which are voluntary.

When an evangelist tells us that we have chosen to be atheists and that we are deliberately avoiding belief in a god, they are not entirely correct. It isn't true that one chooses to be an atheist. Atheism — especially if it is at all rational — is simply the inevitable conclusion from available information. I no more "choose" to disbelieve in gods than I "choose" to disbelieve in elves or that I "choose" to believe that there is a chair in my room. These beliefs and the absence thereof are not acts of will which I had to take consciously — they are, rather, conclusions which were necessary based on the evidence at hand.

However, it is possible that a person may wish that it not be true that a god exists and, hence, has directed their research based on that. Personally, I have never encountered anyone who has disbelieved in the existence of a god based simply on this desire. As I have argued, the existence of a god doesn't even necessarily matter — rendering the truth emotionally irrelevant. It's arrogant to simply assume and assert that an atheist is unduly influenced by some desire; if a Christian sincerely believes it is true, they are obligated to demonstrate that it is true in some particular case. If they are unable or unwilling, they shouldn't even consider bringing it up.

On the other hand, when an atheist argues that a theist believes in a god simply because they want to, that isn't entirely correct either. A theist may wish it to be true that a god exists and this could certainly have an impact on how they look at the evidence. For this reason, the common complaint that theists are engaging in "wishful thinking" in their beliefs and examination of evidence may have some validity but not in the exact way that it's usually meant. If an atheist does believe that some particular theist has been unduly influenced by their desires, then they are obligated to show how this is so in a particular case. Otherwise, there's no reason to bring it up.

Instead of focusing on the actual beliefs, which are not themselves choices, it can be more important and more productive to focus instead on how a person has arrived at their beliefs because that is the result of willful choices. As a matter of fact, it is my experience that it is the method of belief formation which ultimately separates theist and atheists more than the details of a person's theism.

This is why I have always said that the fact that a person is a theist is less important than whether or not they are skeptical about claims — both their own and others'. This is also one reason why I have said that it is more important to try and encourage skepticism and critical thinking in people rather than to try and simply "convert" them to atheism.

It is not uncommon for a person to realize that they have simply lost the ability to have blind faith in the claims made by religious tradition and religious leaders. They are no longer willing to shut away their doubts and questions. If this person then fails to find any rational reasons to continue believing in religious dogmas, those beliefs will simply fall away. Eventually, even the belief in a god will fall away — rendering that person an atheist, not by choice but instead simply because belief is no longer possible.

Language & Belief

"... Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

This passage from Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking Glass emphasizes important issues regarding the nature of belief. Alice is a skeptic and, perhaps, an involuntarist — she doesn't see how she can be commanded to believe something, at least if she finds it to be impossible. The Queen is a voluntarist who thinks belief is simply an act of will which Alice should be capable of achieving if she tries hard enough — and she pities Alice for her failure. The Queen treats belief like an action: attainable with effort.

The language we use provides interesting clues as to whether or not a belief is something we can choose by an act of will. Unfortunately, many of the things we say don't make much sense unless both of them are true — thus leading to confusion.

Such idioms are not followed consistently in how we discuss belief, though. A good example is that the alternative to beliefs we prefer are not beliefs we don't prefer, but beliefs we find impossible. If a belief is impossible, then the opposite is not something we simply choose: it is the only option, something we are forced to accept.

Contrary to the claims of Christian evangelists, even when we do describe a belief as hard to achieve, we do not normally say that believing in the face of such obstacles is praiseworthy. Rather, the beliefs people tend to be "proudest" of are those which they also say no one can deny. If no one can deny something, then it isn't a choice to believe it. Similarly, we can disagree with the Queen and say that if something is impossible, then choosing to believe it isn't one which any rational person can make.

Are Beliefs Like Actions?

We have seen that there are analogies in language for belief being both voluntary and involuntary, but on the whole, the analogies for voluntarism aren't very strong. A more significant problem for the voluntarism held by most Christians is that an examination of the nature of holding beliefs does not lead to the conclusion that they are very much like actions, which are voluntary.

For example, everyone realizes that even after a person has concluded beyond any doubt what they must do, that doesn't mean that they will automatically do it. This is because well beyond their conclusion is the fact that extra steps must be taken to make the action happen. If you decide that you must grab a child to save it from an unseen danger, the actions don't happen all by themselves; instead, your mind must initiate further steps to take the best course of action.

There does not appear to be any parallel when it comes to beliefs. Once a person realizes what they must believe beyond all doubt, what other steps do they take to have that belief? None, it seems — there is nothing left to do. Thus, there is no extra, identifiable step which we can label the act of "choosing." If you realize that a child is about to fall into water which they don't see, no extra steps are needed to believe that the child is in danger. You don't "choose" to believe this, it simply because of your belief due to the force of the facts in front of you.

The act of concluding something isn't a choice of belief — here, the term is being used in the sense of a logical result a reasoning process, not simply a "decision." For example, when you conclude or realize that a table is in the room, you aren't "choosing" to believe that there is a table in the room. Assuming that you, like most people, value the information provided by your senses, your conclusion is a logical result of what you know. After that, you make no extra, identifiable steps to "choose" to believe that there is a table there.

But this does not mean that actions and beliefs are not closely related. Indeed, beliefs are usually the products of various actions. Some of those actions might include reading books, watching television, and talking to people. They would also include how much weight you give to the information provided by your senses. This is similar to how a broken leg may not be an action, but it certainly might be a product of an action, like skiing.

What this means, then, is that we are indirectly responsible for the beliefs we do and do not hold because we are directly responsible for the actions we take which do or do not lead to beliefs. Thus, although the Queen may be wrong in suggesting that we can believe something just by trying, we may be able to achieve a belief in something by doing things like educating ourselves or, perhaps, even deluding ourselves. It would be wrong to hold us responsible for not trying hard enough to "choose" to believe, but it may be appropriate to hold us responsible for not trying hard enough to learn enough to arrive at reasonable beliefs.

Thus, while we may not be able to have rules about what we should believe, we can create ethical principles about how we acquire and affect our beliefs. Some processes can be considered less ethical, others more ethical.

Understanding that our responsibility for our beliefs is only indirect has some consequences for Christian doctrines, too. A Christian might criticize a person for not making an effort to learn more about Christianity, even to the point of arguing that such lapses could be enough to send a person to hell. However, there can be no rational argument that a just God would send a person to hell if they had investigated and simply failed to find sufficient reason to believe.

This is not to suggest that following ethical principles for acquiring beliefs will automatically lead a person to Truth, or even that Truth is what we necessarily need to work towards all the time. Sometimes, we may value a comforting lie over a harsh truth — for example, by allowing a fatally wounded person to believe that they will be fine.

But, oddly enough, the fact is that while we may be willing to allow others to believe a lie for their peace of mind, it is rare to find anyone who does not doggedly believe that they must always believe things that are truthful. Indeed, many of us would consider it blameworthy if we pursued anything else — an apparent set of double standards.

Desire and Belief vs. Rational Belief

Based on the evidence thus far, it does not appear that beliefs are something we arrive at by choice. Although we don't seem able to command our beliefs at will, for some reason we seem to think that others can do this. We - and by that I mean everyone, atheist and theist alike - ascribe many of the beliefs of others that we don't agree with to their desires, wishes, hopes, preferences, etc. The fact that we only seem to do this when we disagree with the beliefs - indeed, that we find them "impossible" - is instructive.

This indicates that there is a relationship between belief and desire. The mere existence of "intellectual fashions" points to the fact that there are social influences on the beliefs we have. Factors like the desire for conformity, popularity, and even notoriety can impact what beliefs we hold and how we hold them.

Do we believe things because we want to believe them, as we often claim about others? No. We believe the best about our relatives not so much because we want to hold those beliefs, but because we want the best to be true about them. We believe the worst about our enemies not because we want to hold those beliefs but because we want the worst to be true about them.

If you think about it, wanting the best or worst to be true about someone is much more plausible than simply wanting to believe something good or bad. This is because our mere beliefs about someone don't necessarily amount to much whereas the truth about someone does. Such desires are very powerful, and although they may be enough to produce beliefs directly, it is more likely that they will aid in the production of beliefs indirectly. This happens, for example, through selective examination of evidence or our choices in what books and magazines we read.

Thus, if we say that someone believes in a god because they want to, that isn't true. Instead, it may be that they want it to be true that a god exists and this desire influences how they approach the evidence for or against the existence of a god.

What this means is that the Queen is not correct that Alice can believe impossible things simply by wanting to believe them. The mere existence of a desire to believe is not in and of itself sufficient to produce an actual belief. Instead, what Alice needs is a desire for the idea to be true - then, perhaps, a belief can be produced.

The problem for the Queen is that Alice probably doesn't care what the Queen's age is. Alice is in the perfect position for skepticism: she can base her belief solely on the evidence at hand. Lacking any evidence, she can simply not bother to believe either that the Queen's statement is either accurate or inaccurate.

Rational Belief

Since it cannot be argued that a rational person simply chooses the best beliefs, how it is that one acquires rational as opposed to irrational beliefs? What do "rational beliefs" look like, anyway? A rational person is one who accepts a belief because it is supported, who rejects a belief when it is not supported, who only believes to the extent that evidence and support allows, and who has doubts about a belief when the support turns out to be less reliable than previously thought.

Notice that I use the word "accept," rather than "chooses." A rational person does not "choose" to believe something simply because evidence points that way. Once a person realizes that belief is clearly supported by the facts, there is no further step which we could call "choice" that is needed for a person to have the belief.

It is important, however, that the rational person is willing to accept a belief as a rational and logical conclusion from the available information. This may even be necessary when one wishes that the opposite were true about the world because sometimes what we want to be true and what is true isn't the same. We may, for example, want a relative to be truthful but we may have to accept that they are not.

What is also required for rational belief is that a person attempts to assess some of the non-rational, non-evidential things which lead to belief formation. These include personal preferences, emotions, peer pressure, tradition, intellectual fashion, etc. We will probably never be able to eliminate their influence on us, but just identifying their impact and attempting to take them into account should help us. One way of doing that is to avoid some of the ways in which the non-rational ideas affect beliefs - for example, by trying to read a wider variety of books, not just those which appear to support what you would like to be true.

We can say that the Queen is not going about acquiring beliefs in a rational manner. Why? Because she explicitly advocates choosing beliefs and having beliefs which are impossible. If something is impossible, then it cannot be an accurate description of reality - believing something impossible means, then, that a person has become disconnected from reality.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how some Christian theologians have approached their religion. Tertullian and Kierkegaard are perfect examples of those who have argued that not only is a belief in the truth of Christianity a virtue but that it is even more virtuous precisely because it is impossible for it to be true.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Beliefs and Choices: Do You Choose Your Religion?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Beliefs and Choices: Do You Choose Your Religion? Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Beliefs and Choices: Do You Choose Your Religion?" Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).