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.