Belief and Choice

Question from Apostate:
Hi there,

I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

Answer by SmartLX:
The statement “belief is not a choice” (a variant of which I used here) may be more absolute than is justified, especially given varying definitions of “belief”. Nevertheless it applies very well to the most likely subject of those “atheist documents”, namely belief in gods.

I would actually go further and say that for the most part, opinion is not a choice. Whether to take action based on belief or opinion is a choice, whether to state your true beliefs and opinions is a choice, but the ultimate position of your mind on an issue is usually not.

When one is presented with evidence for a given proposition, one either accepts it or doesn’t. This is a subconscious process (as evidenced by several studies where people’s brains were scanned while they made quick decisions, and their own thoughts beat them by several seconds). One may consciously decide to openly accept the evidence or else pretend to reject it, but this has nothing to do with what one really believes.

Your atheist who couldn’t believe he could fly was assuming that conditions such as gravity, atmosphere and the size and shape of his arms would stay roughly as they really were. If the question were changed to, “Do you believe you could fly, given your choice of environment and any imaginable conditions?” the same person would probably give an answer like, “Yes, if I could really change anything at all about the world.” Importantly, this person would not suddenly choose to believe, he or she would believe. The altered conditions would provoke a different judgement of the possibility of the act, about which the atheist would merely choose whether to be honest.

The second example you raise is essentially optimism, a belief that the future will turn out favourably. You might think of this as a deliberate belief, but what of all the pessimists who wish they could be optimistic but can’t manage it? It seems to be either a predisposition or an ongoing opinion based on one’s circumstances.

That brings us to the general exception to all of this: the case where one convinces oneself of something. It does happen, and in fact an entire industry has been built around your example alone; think how many books and seminars there are on how to think positive and become optimistic. Actually turning 180 degrees on an issue without any changes to the evidence or arguments one way or another (and emotion can have a great effect on what we perceive in this area) requires one to manually affect one’s own subconscious thought processes. This can be achieved through self-hypnosis, or affirmations, or forms of brainwashing, or all three, and the results are not often permanent. The important thing here is that for most of what we think and believe, we don’t do any of this to ourselves. Our beliefs and opinions are therefore nearly all the natural conclusions of our brains, and our choices are based on them rather than causing them. I do not regard these conclusions as deliberate decisions.

Applying all of this to the debate between atheism and theism, whether one accepts or rejects the assertion that a god exists is down to how one’s brain reacts to the evidence presented. This includes simply being told there’s a god, which children in particular will often accept as good enough and later reinforce.

The resulting theological question is why a god would punish people for not truly believing in Him if it’s not their choice, and especially if He has the power to show Himself. Believing in and yet denying a god is a conscious action which might legitimately earn punishment if the god is real (and many believers do think “atheists” secretly believe), but simply not believing is nothing of the sort.

Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.

An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.

On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.

The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.

Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.