Is belief/non-belief a choice?

Jake Farr-Wharton 12 comments Poll
Is belief/non-belief a choice?

As many may know, while I do identify as ‘atheist’ (i.e. no belief in gods or the supernatural), I was raised in a strictly theistic (Catholic, then later Fundamentalist Christian) household.

Arriving at the atheistic conclusions as I did, took many years of deprogramming and was a tremendously arduous process, however the old adage, ‘you only get out what you put in’, reigned true when I came out the other end with a far greater appreciation for life, love and living than I ever could have before that point.

This aside, I proposed question yesterday which utterly rocked my world. I’ll get to this in a minute.

In debates which I engage and am involved in, I am often asked (presumably as an end-game style argument/question) what would it take you to believe, to which I reply, ‘tangible evidence that; god/s were real and that belief in them provided some intrinsic benefit’. Thus far, no such evidence has eventuated and I remain better for my disbelief.

In a similar vain, I often see frustrated atheist debaters resort to similarly fickle questions, “what would it take you to relinquish your belief?” The answers one receives to this question is always the same, “nothing; my belief is unshakable!” This is usually followed promptly by the theist storming out of the debate as they realise they were not as open minded as they once thought.

While I maintain that I am open to belief if presented with evidence, I asked myself this question yesterday and find myself with a changed opinion.

The question: Is atheism a choice?

I thought I’d share some of the 200 answers I received:

M.H.: “Given that my mind posesses the information that is subconsciously processed and makes it impossible for me to believe in things that contradict such information, I'd say no, it's not a choice.”

R.R.: “I made a choice to be a skeptic and empiricist. My atheism was an outgrowth of my adoption of critical thinking. It took years to eventually get to it was not so much a choice as it was an arrival. Being an atheist really isn't all that much fun, but it is better than living in a make-believe world. I like reality even when it's harsh. With reality you know where you stand.”

M.M.: “It's more of a conclusion than a choice.”

E.V.: “Nope. I can no more choose to believe in gods than I could believe in square circles.”

R.H.: “Sometimes I think that I would like to believe in God and a life after death, but I have no choice because I would be deluding myself. It is not a choice!!”

A.H.: “Belief is not a choice. But using the title of "atheist" is a choice.”

J.F.W.: “I don't think it really is, once there is no more reason for belief, you can't choose to believe again.”

K.M.: “Any belief is just a thought you keep thinking. To not believe is still a thought you just keep thinking. Therefore yes. You are choosing to think it. IMHO!”

J.G.: “No it's not a choice, if i asked if not believing in the invisible pink unicorn or the flying spaghetti monster was a choice.... You would laugh, because the real choice is being logical.”

M.W.: “I don't think it is a choice. I don't "choose" not to believe in leprechauns or Bigfoot. I think *belief* is a choice. But if you're someone who examines the evidence and concludes that belief in God is unwarranted, then an atheist is simply what you *are*.”

X.K.: “Being atheist is the most logical but most uneasy choice. It's rough and not as pleasurable nr commiserate as other choices, but worth it, over all. I think it's like asking: is being empathetic or realistic choices? Yes, they are.”

F.T.: “If evidence were what was required there would be no religious beliefs...all info is anecdotal and impossible to confirm or refute.”

A.N.: “Out of the protected classes; race, color, religion, sex, National origin, age, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, veteran status - religion is the only one which is really a choice.”

B.D.: “As we all start out unindoctrinated, it is the default setting. The state of being godless is not a choice. We are all godless, right? The self-identification with the label is a choice, IMO.”

J.S.: “We are born atheists -- realists! To be otherwise is acquired ignorance.”

C.P.: “Perhaps a rediscovery, since we are all born atheists. A lot of us have the misfortune of being waylaid by religion when we are too young to defend ourselves. Some of those victims are fortunate enough to find their way back to freedom.”

J.G.J.S.: “I can't make myself "believe" there's a god. I tried. I really wanted to for a very long time. I tried hard. I tried everything I could short of an elective lobotomy. I'm not ... See moresure that would have worked. If one could "choose" beliefs, I would most definitely be a Christian for all kinds of good, bad, family, social, benevolent, and selfish reasons. I couldn't do it. I finally gave up on it when I realized it was just impossible to bend my brain that far.”

G.P.H.: “It is a choice to read, investigate, ask questions. Being an atheist, however, is not a choice but an involuntary realization that happens for many on its own along the way.”

A.D.: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

There are just some of the responses. It’s an interesting question, perhaps one you should ask yourself.

Is your belief or non-belief a choice?

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Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 11:34 AM
119 total kudos

That's my first vote. I got 100%

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Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 11:41 AM
119 total kudos

But now that I think about it. Maybe it could be a choice for some, but not for me. But I'm not post theist. I've never even been in a church, and glad of it. I don't like having my opinions, morality, guilt or anything else like that given to me.

Sadly, I can' t video talk on Skype to my girlfriend and comment at the same time, so I gotta' cut this short.........Hi Jake....


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Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 11:54 AM

Speedos all the way, baby!


Nah, but seriously, it's definitely not a choice.



Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 11:59 AM
119 total kudos response to this comment by Gina. What means all this Speedo stuff I've been reading of late?

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Marvin the Martian

Marvin the Martian

Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 01:37 PM
105 total kudos

I too grew up in a religious home. When I was 15 or so, I spent the better part of two or three years going from church to church, synagogue to synagogue, imam to imam etc. asking the same questions about life, death, morality etc.

in the end, I found that the people who were supposed to be experts - or at least guides - to religion and faith had no satisfactory answers. In fact I often left their offices with more questions than I started with.

The use of the term 'Atheist' is indeed a choice, but I think that being and atheist is a matter of serious inner thought. In the end, I would like to think that the belief in a god of any kind would make me happier, but I fail to see what they 'see'.

Also, if you do 'choose' a faith, what can possibly convince someone that 1 particular faith is correct over any other, never mind and sub division of that faith (i.e. baptist over unitarian, shia over sunni, orthodox over lebavich)?

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Tyler V

Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 02:27 PM

These questions could be mirrored in every worldview that some comes through as the result of scrutinizing and finding their previous worldview lacking.

But two problems -

1. You characterizations of the required "proof" to relinquish belief on either side are both equally absurd. For the atheist to demand tangible evidence for a non-material reality is like asking for spiritual proof for the non-existence of the soul. It is asking for a KIND of proof that is itself contrary to the nature of the thing being proven. It is to beg the question and rig the discussion in order to make any real discussion impossible. The only people who demand this are anti-intellectual fundamentalists who seek to shelter their position from any real scrutiny. Just as the "theist" you show who throws up their hands and says that there is NO proof that could shake their belief in God and runs out. Both are fundamentalists - just on opposite sides of the spectrum.

2. This "theist" is the lowest strawman possible. I dont know any articulate theist, let alone Christian, who has studied their faith and are even halfway capable to defend it, that would ever say something like that. You know what it would take for you to prove to me that God does not exist? Since you cannot provide tangible evidence regarding a not-material transcendent being (per above) AND proving a universal negation is absurd, then you would have to prove that God is either a) a logical impossibility (i.e. there is something in the nature of God that is contradictory to itself), b) that there is a better explanation of all the evidence regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, c) that I am really just a brain in a vat (or some equivalent state) in which all the evidence and logical structures that I have been tricked into believing (i.e. the laws of logic, the uniformity of natural laws, facts concerning the situation surrounding the resurrection event, etc.) are in fact "inception" and that the real world is nothing like the dream world that I have hitherto been living in. (That last one is more for kicks and giggles - it is the first two that I am serious about.) But since it seems that the nature of God is perfectly consistent (and thus necessary per the ontological, cosmological, and contingency arguments) and the best explanation of the all the events surrounding the resurrection event of Christ are best explained by the resurrection of Christ, I think you would be in for a herculean effort that has thusfar been unattainable by the best minds skepticism could throw at it.

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Henk V

Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 04:58 PM

As usual a lecture from baby bear...

belief is a choice to not seek better data and consider risk assessment. Belief is presenting ideology so that someone might be on the same (and most likely absurd) page as you are. Its called brain washing children AT BEST.

Believing in buzz lightyear, as some fundamentalists do, does hinder their rhetoric.

Having said that, the duckspeak of new atheism is abominable. They'll attack christians and muslims at the drop of a hat and yet practice disastrous , fashionable environmental and "health practices". It's a gross luddism for the vast majority of folk. Religious and non religious.

Not happy Jan...



Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 05:05 PM
98 total kudos

Sometimes our intellectual thought gets the better of us, and we should step back and realize that we can't "prove" that a deity exists, nor that it doesn't.

Having said that, believe what you want if it gets you through the day. But don't think there is one shred of evidence that supports either side of theism, or atheism.

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Marvin the Martian

Marvin the Martian

Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 05:34 PM
105 total kudos response to this comment by Tyler V. Tyler, your point is well taken but you seem to have the ability to make a leap of faith that I cannot make. You are willing to believe in something that has no proof. You are willing to accept living by a set of doctorins set out by man that governs virtually all of your daily routine (assuming you are a true follower). You are willing to pass over the obvious contraditctions of your faith and faith in general.

Frankly, I am not capable of making leaps of faith - in that regard.

I'm glad that you accept that most people of faith are not well versed in thier own religion, never mind religions in general, but that is religion not faith. Religion simply means following doctorine, while faith means making a leap to belive in the unprovable.

I'm not knocking your faith. I'm simply pointing out the obvious. You have the ability to believe in the supernatural, while I am not. I also don't believe in ghosts, taro card, voodoo etc.

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Tony Fyler

Tony Fyler

Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 05:36 PM
14 total kudos

Hmm...fascinating question. I think once one has gone through the process of moving from theism to atheism (as you and I and plenty of others have both done), it becomes extremely distasteful to contemplate another reality, and so it does not 'feel' like a choice. However, I think there may well be some people who, having gone this way, find their need for a deity construct to give meaning to their lives is too great, and so 'choose' to go back, which therefore makes it a question of something akin to choice, and one could say we 'choose' to reamin persuaded by what we see as superior evidence that the existence of gods is at best extremely unlikely. I suppose one could make a (probably unwise, I admit) analogy to the whole business of whether one's sexuality is a choice. There are people who, having been 'raised straight' come out as gay, but then go into those programmes to 'make them straight' because they feel they miss out on something vital they need (be it social acceptance or whatever) by virtue of their sexuality. Now of course those programmes often fail long term, but some people so 'stick' with their new 'straight' sexuality, which argues in favour of the choice factor. I wonder if it's possible that, once we've arrived at atheism, it becomes our comfort zone, it becomes what makes sense and becomes a part of who we are (in the same way as when someone's struggled with their sexuality and finally come out), so that we COULD, technically, make some Herculean effort to overcome that by-then-essential part of ourselves, but most of us, appearing to have both reason and evidence on our side, simply do not see the point in making such an effort? (Shrugs) Just an idea, not one I'm necessarily committed to.

Interestingly - read this in the New Scientist a while ago, been meaning to share it for a while:

I find the idea that 'if given evidence,' we'd accept the existence of gods interesting. In my fiction writing at the moment, I have a demon who, while knowing, by virtue of his existence, that gods and demons exist, doesn't think that's any good reason to take them too seriously, or think that any particular theology is pre-eminent. I supposed that's the dividing line between simply being an atheist and being an anti-theist, is it? As an anti-theist, even if I had proof they existed, I don't think the existence of gods would be a terribly desirable thing...

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Wednesday 21st July 2010 | 09:55 PM

I'm still sticking with atheism (and theism by consequence) not being an active choice on our part. Of course, you can choose to apply the label to yourself, so in a sense it's a choice to accept what the label entails. And you can say the words, "I choose to not believe in God anymore," but is saying the words the same as the cognitive effect of not believing? We can even choose to entertain a notion, imagine what it would be like if we did believe or not in a deity, and act accordingly. Yet is either of these cases truly the same as choosing that belief, or are we just mouthing?

Look at other examples, can you choose to not believe in gravity? Perhaps a test will be in order, where you climb the tallest building you can find then suddenly decide to not believe in gravity. How many people do you think could make it and jump off without hindrance? Or how about choosing to believe that fire doesn't burn? Do you think you could manage enough to stick your hand on a lit burner for a full minute?

Beliefs, at least the deeply held ones, are something we discover about ourselves. When they change it's often at the behest of new information we discover, which is mulled around in our conscious and subconscious mind, competing with the old information we'd gained. And as bits and pieces are discarded as wrong or outdated, we will find that our beliefs are changing and eventually discover that they'd become something else. But is this active choice in the way we mean when we "choose" atheism, that is directly volitional?

Now that's not to say that there aren't steps you can take to indirectly choose atheism, that is to weight the deck in such a manner that atheism (or theism) is much more likely. For instance you could sequester yourself from all information about deities and religions, which would make you more likely to be areligious or atheistic. You could also "fake it till you make it" and pretend to be atheist, hoping that it sticks - and this even works sometimes. I'm sure you can think of other ways to do this as well.



Saturday 24th July 2010 | 07:40 AM
11 total kudos

I grew up in a traditional Lutheran family and I am the only one in my family that is an atheist. In all honesty I think I owe my atheism to my hatred of waking up on Sundays. If church had taken place on a Friday night and it were one of those new age brain washing churches I probably would have been all over that. At the same time I've always been a rebel (or Badass as I prefer to call it) and always seem to do the opposite of what I'm told.
Having fairly liberal parents, however, I was not beaten when I didn't go to church or spoke out against it. So in all honesty I think I made an active choice to not believe in a higher power. I opted for the world of science and fact instead of the world of religion and faith.

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