Belief is not a Choice

The festive period is often a time for many non-attending Christians to go to church, possibly the only service they attend that year. In fact, in the UK, most of those who call themselves Christian only go to church for births, marriages and deaths (or the occasional midnight mass). While not exactly being the most devout bunch, I think it would be wrong to call most of these people agnostic. Some of them may be but most would profess a belief in the Christian god even if not agreeing with all of their church’s teachings or policies. You could argue that not agreeing with the teachings of the church prevents you from being a member but it seems clear to me that most people appear to pick and choose which pieces of their chosen religious text(s) to adhere to and which to ignore. Can you be a gay Christian? Or a Christian moneylender? Surely not a Christian soldier? It seems to me that you can be all of these as long as your chosen biblical teachings do not contradict your own core beliefs.

In all 3 of the major monotheistic religions, the single core belief that you cannot choose to ignore is the existence of a god. It follows from this that this god must have had a hand in creation. Whether starting the ‘big bang’, guiding the path of darwinian evolution or full on creationism, you cannot have a belief in an omnipotent god without also believing that our existence is not just a result of physical laws but that god had at least a part to play (from the interventionist god of Genesis to Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’). In Christianity you’re also supposed to believe in the divinity of Jesus and most (but not all) would say this includes a reading of the New Testament as fact rather than allegory or metaphor.

Given that these beliefs, at least the looser versions, need not directly affect one’s life unless you wish them to. You don’t need to go to church or stop charging interest on loans to call yourself a believer. Jesus died such a long time ago that whether he was divine or not doesn’t really change much now (he doesn’t seem to be here anymore). It takes a lot of effort and devotion to be a religious fanatic but to have nothing but a belief in god, a god who in modern times seems to have very little direct access into people’s lives, seems to be fairly easy. Indeed it is probably easier to believe than not, given the shared religious heritage of monotheistic cultures from Alaska and Buenos Aires in the West to the Hindu Kush and Jakarta in the East.

Of course you may believe that a person can choose to believe in god, in much the same way as one chooses who to vote for in an election or what to have for breakfast. History would suggest that this is not the case. If it were truly a simple choice, one would expect an even or random grouping of citizens in nations granted freedom of religious expression. If x% of people in Europe are Roman Catholic and y% are Greek Orthodox, there should be the same percentages in all European countries, this is clearly not the case. History has affected culture, schooling and parenting, making it much more likely a child growing up in Madrid will be Roman Catholic than a child growing up in Athens. Clearly the credibility or validity of a religious position plays second fiddle to the veracity of its teaching. History has also shown us that forcing people to convert does not (in the short-term) make them believe. They may, given time, teaching and repeated practise come to believe anything they are told. You can force a person to act but forcing them to believe instantly is impossible, it takes time. Much like it takes time to teach your children table manners. A child’s belief is about training and teaching rather than any choice on the part of the child. An adult is the same except that an adult can choose to lean about that which is not thrust upon him or her (although most do not).

What about religious conversions? I hear you ask, many people in Europe and North America have ‘chosen’ to convert to Islam despite having no ethnic or historical links to any Muslim country. Nobody can convert to any religion without first attending some sort of educational class to learn about what the conversion will mean for their life. Here lies the choice, they have chosen to listen to another point of view, to find out about another way of doing things. A conversion normally follows a feeling of unease, either with the current religion of the future convert or with the way of life they currently follow. At least a smattering of knowledge of the proposed religious conversion must be present to give the convert an idea that it may be for them. They choose to listen, conversion may follow but only if the core values of the new religion are already present in the convert. It is more a conversion of behaviour than belief.

These factors are also present in a person’s rejection of belief. I do not believe in any god, not because I was told or taught in a secular way, indeed I attended religious schools until I was 16. Reading the bible then witnessing the behaviour of people who called themselves Christians opened my mind to the possibility of other belief systems. The more I read of the bible and other religious books the less I believed in any of them, it was once I started reading history however, that my ‘conversion’ to atheism was complete. I made a choice, my choice was to learn, to educate myself. The result of this education was my current belief system. Through this experience, I have learnt that however much I may want to through facts at believers and shatter their pre-held misconception, I know this is not possible. They need to be educated before they can learn the truth, but they have to choose to learn first.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll do my best to answer as many as possible.

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5 Responses to Belief is not a Choice

  1. jasondegray says:

    Very well written. One statement you made troubles me though. “I have learnt that however much I may want to through facts at believers and shatter their pre-held misconception, I know this is not possible. They need to be educated before they can learn the truth, but they have to choose to learn first.” To me this implies that those who believe in God aren’t educated well enough to see there is no God. This, I’m afraid, is a misconception in itself. I think it’s an academic folly to equate religious belief system with a person or society’s level of education. But this belief has been prevalent in the secular world and especially in academia for quite some time. The belief of, “Only ignorant mendicants would ever believe in God. We are faaaaar too intelligent for that,” has been spouted in some form at many faculty parties over wine and cheese. My belief in God isn’t a result of my education. It results from seeing Him work in my life and from feeling His presence with every breath I take.

    • Hi Jason,
      I probably got a bit too vitriolic toward the end but I still stand by my opinion that learning enough about how the world works removes the need for a divine presence. I don’t think its necessarily a result of intelligence but it does tend to follow that those more educated in the sciences tend to be less religious than those who aren’t. Sorry if it sounds patronising but you may see him working in your life where I see only natural, physical processes.

  2. Nowhere Man says:

    I’ve just started reading the bible myself so I’m still on the fence with this whole religion thing. To be fair I don’t really consider myself Atheist or Believer. I fall more along the lines of “Don’t know, Don’t care.” One thing I will say for certain. This book is weird.. really weird. Great blog, though.

    • Thanks! It was actually reading the bible & apocrypha that started me on the road to atheism. As the post said, I think its important to know what you belive before you belive it.

  3. Ha! scooped, I am.

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