Beliefs and Choice

Belief is a slippery word. You can believe in something the way you believe in everyday things: the sky, trees, air, gravity, electricity–beliefs that we see evidence for all the time, that we take for granted, that we usually call “knowledge” rather than “belief”. Or you can believe in things like ghosts, gods, magic, and homeopathy–things many people believe in without solid evidence, or even with evidence which contradicts those ideas.

I don’t usually like talking about my “beliefs”, because I don’t like it when people take my belief for that second type of belief when it is the first. For instance, a lot of people who deny the theory of evolution (which is thoroughly backed by mountains of evidence) like to frame the conversation in terms of belief. I cringe when I see people defending evolution say that they “believe” in evolution, when they mean it in that first sense of belief, and the people who they are arguing with take it as the second. When you let conversations about knowledge become conversations about belief, you are ceding ground.

But, today I am going to talk about beliefs.

One thing I hear fairly often is that it is our choice whether to believe in God or not. That God purposely made it so that we would always be able to choose to believe, or not believe.

If God is real, and wanted to give us a choice… then why make it a choice about believing or not? Wouldn’t it make more sense to leave us a choice of whether to follow him instead? Or to choose which god to follow, whether that be the Christian god, or one(s) of another religion? It seems to me that if we cannot know for certain, one way or another, whether the Christian god exists, then people like me aren’t getting a choice on whether to follow him or not, because we don’t think he exists. Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, everyone who doesn’t believe in the Christian god, is not getting a choice about whether to follow him or not. And, if Hell exists and everyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is going to be tortured there for all eternity, just because they didn’t believe in the right god? When we might have chosen to follow him if we knew he existed? I really cannot reconcile that with the idea of a loving god.

Besides, I don’t think beliefs are really a choice. We can make some choices that affect our beliefs, sure, like choosing to only socialize with people who share our beliefs, or purposely seeking out people who disagree with us, so that we can debate, and learn, and refine our beliefs. But we can’t just randomly decide, one day, to believe one thing, or stop believing another.

For example, if you decided one day to believe that you could fly by flapping your arms really fast, would you be willing to step off of a cliff? I don’t think so. You can tell yourself that you can fly all you want, but that doesn’t mean you really believe it.

I never chose to believe in God when I was a child. I was taught that he was real by my parents, and I believed because, like most young children, I believed whatever my parents told me. This is the way it usually goes. Most people follow the same religion as adults that they were taught as children. That doesn’t sound like most people are getting a choice about what god they believe in to me. None of us choose what family we are born into, or what others teach us as children.

I didn’t choose to become an atheist, either.

I did decide, once I had gotten older, that I wanted a stronger reason to believe in God than simply because my parents taught me that way. So I started looking for a better reason. I was firmly convinced I would find one. I wanted to find one. But I didn’t. I only found reasons not to believe. And given what I found, I couldn’t keep believing what I once did, even though I was very afraid of not believing anymore.

I most definitely did not choose to retain my belief in Hell after I had admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in the Christian god anymore. That was frightening. I was afraid that I was wrong and that I would go to Hell. I couldn’t quite shake my belief, my fear, of Hell, after I’d stopped believing in God. I did stop believing in Hell, sometime later. It was a relief. I wish I could have let go of that belief at the same time I let go of my belief in God, though. But it’s not like I could magically choose to stop believing something just because that belief was unpleasant and frightening and unwanted.

I’m still open to the idea I might be wrong. If I saw some convincing evidence for the existence of the Christian god, then I would believe in him. And then I could make a legitimate choice of whether to follow him or not. The same applies for any other religion’s god(s). But I can’t simply choose to believe without any good reason. I could tell myself I believed, but that wouldn’t make it true. I can’t just ignore everything I’ve learned since I started questioning.

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14 thoughts on “Beliefs and Choice

  1. Very logical and well written post. If I was Christian I would honestly have nothing to say to that. I think I am a little biased because I favor atheists over religious people (ironic since I believe in a god, I mean not the Christian God, just spiritual, but that’s another story) and its funny how I’m not even atheist yet I get offended when religious people attack and defend idiotic views or I feel grossed out by how tacky some religious quotes are. I guess you could say I dislike religious people. I tolerate them if they are nice, but in my experience, they usually choose their BELIEFS and RELIGION over serious things like eating meat, gay people, and would even be willing to murder people “for god” I honestly feel so sickened sometimes. What century are they living in. Great post. You are a great model for the atheist community. Very respectful and smart. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I do try to be respectful of other people, even if I don’t necessarily respect their beliefs. I wish they would give me the same consideration, but, unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

      Although, saying that does remind me a bit of the people who say “love the sinner, hate the sin”. I don’t think that idea works out very well in practice. For instance, there are plenty of people who say they accept gay people, but think it’s a sin for gay people to have sex. People with these views vehemently opposing marriage equality or advocating for harmful “reparative” therapy doesn’t come across as very loving. So, I wonder, is “respect people, even if you disrespect their beliefs” similar? But I don’t think it’s even possible, much less desirable, to respect every belief ever, including ridiculous and harmful beliefs like denial of the germ theory of disease. And it’s certainly possible to respect people and still disagree with them. So, I don’t think that works out like “love the sinner, hate the sin” in practice. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about that, though.

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      • Yes. You are give them a lot more respect than they deserve. Atheists have such a bad reputation, especially in America. (Pretty sure 83% of the population is Christian, so go figure.) I agree with you. It’s confusing on where I stand regarding being respectful or being respectful, as honestly, it’s extremely hard for me to respect the kind of Christians who hate gays, or the kind of Muslims who oppress women.

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        • Yea, it’s definitely harder to be respectful towards people who are actively harming others. In situations like that, I think trying to stop the harm is more important than being perfectly polite and respectful. If that’s something you can do by having a respectful conversation, then great. But being nice is often not the best way to deal with things like that. Besides, if someone is harming other people with their actions, they are doing something that earns them a loss of respect.

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  2. I like this post.

    I’m a Christian; I’ve never had the liberty of an “is there isn’t there” struggle because I’m not wired that way. In fact I don’t understand in anyway either side, but “believe” me I tried to force myself to doubt or believe when little because everyone said it was either /or.

    I found it so freeing to say that was someone else’s issue not mine. But it took a long time to get there.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for answering. I think people like to say it’s all choice because it gives them a sense of control, and many people make themselves and others miserable by insisting on total control of everything.

        Yet, life doesn’t work that way. Other people control our employment, systems control our lives, weather controls our food, and we have to just follow the doctor’s instructions to heal. Learning this interconnected nature about ourselves is a big part of self-realization and being “human” that I am glad you’ve achieved. If beliefs are human they aren’t gonna be isolated from the experience, like in my beliefs God if he loves humans for being human, has no motivation to remove such a human defining thing from his relationship with them. Otherwise he’s not relating to humans.

        Have a great holiday season.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As Maritza said in her comment, as a Christian I certain have nothing to say or argue about with your article. Myself, I believe in God, yet I cannot prove his existence. Now, I am against Christian people attacking people who think differently. I think each of us should be free to choose how we live and what we believe. I think no matter what, each of us should be accepted and our views respected. Obviously we can talk and discuss our differences and we can disagree, but that should be the extent of it. Fighting and attacking others is so un-Christ-like (my interpretation). There are more Christian people out there who feel the same, yet we usually always hear about the loud, outspoken people who do these ungodlike things. Unfortunately, religion has taught us about a god that does not sound so loving. I believe Jesus came to show us what God is really like, a loving God who accepts all people and wants the best for each of us. Again, this is my interpretation and I understand not everyone agrees with this, and that is OK. As a Christian, I agree with what Maritza said, I dislike religious people too. Those who think they are right and everyone else is wrong, who think they are better than others because of what they do, what they believe and what they are involved in. Those who fight, argue with and attack others because they do not believe just like them. To me, Jesus was the example we should look too. He loved and accepted all people, and only had issues with the religious leaders of his day. Each of us, Christian or not, should do the same. Good article, and I like the way it is written in a non-attacking way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I think no matter what, each of us should be accepted and our views respected.”

      I think we pretty much agree here but I have a quibble with wording, that may or not may not reflect the intention of your statement. I think that we should always accept and respect each other by default, that we should try to get along even when we disagree, that we should never attack others just because they have different beliefs or because we don’t like their beliefs. And that’s basically what I think you are trying to say, here.

      But I don’t think the beliefs themselves need to be respected. For instance, I have absolutely no respect for the belief that vaccines cause autism. I think that belief is harmful and absurd. It contradicts the available scientific evidence, and encouraging people to avoid vaccines is harmful to society as whole. Vaccines work best when the majority of people have them. One person having a vaccine isn’t necessarily 100% effective in preventing that person getting the disease they have been vaccinated against. But when the vast majority of people in a population have been vaccinated, then we get herd immunity–enough people have the vaccine that the disease can’t spread through the population, even when each individual vaccine isn’t 100% effective.

      Even so, I can respect someone who believes that vaccines cause autism. I understand that it can very frightening when you notice symptoms of autism in your child after they have been vaccinated. It is a logical fallacy to conclude that this means the vaccine was the cause of their autism (specifically, ad hoc ergo propter hoc–Latin for after, therefore becase of–that is, just because B happens after A, doesn’t necessarily mean A caused B), but people make logical fallacies all the time, and that includes me. It’s a result of how our brains are wired.

      Part of my resistance to the idea that beliefs need to be respected comes specifically from my experience as an atheist, though. Often, people demand demand that their religion be respected, and claim that any criticism of their religion is rude and disrespectful. Sometimes, this even goes so far as people being offended merely by people saying they are atheists. For example, atheists often run into resistance when trying to run billboard or bus ads. You could argue that some of these ads were provocative or offensive… except that when some atheists tried to come up with the least offensive bus ad ever, one that just said “atheists”, it still got rejected. Some people are so vehement in demanding respect for their beliefs, and yet at the same time, they are completely disrespecting for atheists’ lack of beliefs. So, I’m pretty fed up with the idea that beliefs ought to be respected, after seeing it lead to silencing or disrespecting atheists too many times.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the reply. Yes, the wording is probably a little off. I do agree with what you are saying in regard to beliefs, that “we should always accept and respect each other by default, that we should try to get along even when we disagree, that we should never attack others just because they have different beliefs or because we don’t like their beliefs”. I also agree with your comment as a whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, I thought that was probably what you meant, given everything else you’ve said. I just wanted to nitpick about the wording because of, well, all the things in my comment above. Sometimes people using that wording mean something quite different that I vehemently disagree with, so, yea.

      I find it really cool that we can agree on so many things even though we have very different beliefs. It’s sad when differences in beliefs come between people who would otherwise have much in common or get along with each other.

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  5. “The difference between belief and knowledge is that knowledge can be demonstrated. Knowledge is a subset of belief but it’s justified belief.”
    – AaronRa
    The video it came from: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isV9hWXpNjc)

    I liked the part about Hell, because that’s so very true. My belief in Hell (lost completely at 23) lasted many years after my belief in God (15 years old), so there was this terrifying 8 year limbo where I couldn’t shake the fear. I couldn’t believe in God, but I couldn’t get the fear of Hell out of me either.

    Also, I just realized that I’ve never really read your blog! Nor was I subscribed. Well, this post more than earned that follow, and I’m very interested to read more ^.^

    Thank you very much for writing this and have a beautiful day sunshine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eight years? Ouch. I’m glad I didn’t have nearly as long between admitting to myself that I didn’t believe in God anymore and being able to let go of my fear of Hell. Maybe a year. It’s good to know I’m not the only one, though. Most people seem to get confused when I tell them I stopped believing in God before I stopped believing in Hell. I’ve never met anyone before who said “me too”.

      It’s great to have you on my blog, Ivy. I’ve really enjoyed reading yours.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, it was a tense time lol My husband was also the same way. Everyone I’ve ran into has had the same issue. It’s harder to let go of fear I think.
        And thank you. I’m glad to be here. I’m getting so much food for thought, it’s fantastic ^.^ You’re a very good writer.

        Liked by 1 person

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