Can You Choose NOT to Believe?

ChoicesI try not to get sucked into too many arguments about religion in my friends’ social media spaces because I never know how personally their friends and relatives will take the discussion. Arguing in the comment section of a blog or on Reddit is one thing, but when you’re on people’s Facebook walls you may be crossing their anxious mother, their racist uncle, or their well-meaning friend from high school days who truly believes the Illuminati are conspiring to wipe out 95% of the world’s population to make way for a coming alien invasion or whatever.

But sometimes they say something that just touches a nerve, like the other day when one well-meaning friend of a friend insisted that anyone who doesn’t believe in God must be choosing not to believe. It was very important to her to insist on that.

This irks me to no end. I want to explain both why it’s so wrong and why it bothers me so much, because I know I’m not alone in this.

When Did I Start Believing?

For starters, I grew up believing in God—specifically the God of Christianity—but I don’t recall ever choosing to believe in him. Do you know why? It’s because I was taught to believe in God from my youngest days. Where I live, Christian theism is just something you inherit. It’s something you learn at your grandmother’s knee, so to speak. It is a part of my cultural heritage.

That’s why I can’t recall ever choosing to believe that such a thing as an invisible Creator exists. I just always believed in one because it’s what I was taught to believe from my youngest days. And to be fair, for most of my youth it just made sense as an explanation for why the world is the way it is.

Of course my beliefs grew and matured over time. They became more specific as I became more indoctrinated into my family’s religion. Eventually I went from just believing in God in general to believing more specifically in the salvation narrative wherein Jesus is God’s only begotten son who died on a cross to take away the sins of the world, etc.

But even that didn’t start out as a choice, per se. I rarely ever doubted that the crucifixion and resurrection happened, only I didn’t consider them of personal importance to me until I reached that much ballyhooed moment in my youth in which I professed faith in that narrative and publicly confessed my belief in Jesus.

This is an important rite of passage for evangelical Christians, and I threw myself into it wholeheartedly just before I turned 16 years old. I “got saved” at a youth evangelism conference (Dawson McAllister, if you must know) and didn’t look back. I hit the ground running and almost immediately found myself studying the Bible voraciously, teaching, evangelizing, and dreaming of doing great things for the kingdom of God. I was hooked for a solid 20 years, at least. My faith dominated my life for two decades.

But I never chose to believe in God. That’s just something that was always in place, and I suspect that’s the way it is for most of us.

What Choice Did I Make?

Now hear me out: We did reach a moment in our lives where we made a choice. We chose to “follow” Jesus in the sense that we surrendered our autonomy, our personal agency if you will, to the Christian system of belief. At the time of course I wouldn’t have worded it that way. I would have simply said I had given my life to Jesus. I chose to place my trust in him and in the story about him that I had been told, and that for me that was a transaction that was as real and life-consuming as it could possibly be. That was a deliberate choice I made.

But believing that such a thing as “God” exists was far more basic, far more preliminary and set in place back during my youngest days.

Can you see the difference? Isn’t that distinction pretty clear when you think about it? I was raised to believe in a supernatural deity from the time I could speak—no choice was involved at all. I just always believed in God because that’s how the world was presented to me, and to me at the time, it made the most sense out of things.

If I hadn’t been raised in a Christian home, would I still have believed that there is an Invisible Spirit behind everything that happens?  I don’t know. Maybe I would have. It’s hard to say. I know many atheists would insist that atheism is the default position, but I would have to disagree depending on how you define the word “atheist” (and if you didn’t already know there is a raging debate on that subject, I dare you to ask someone who’s an outspoken atheist).

Related: “Atheist or Agnostic? What’s the Difference? (Video)

What I do know is that your beliefs aren’t always things you can just choose like you’re in a cafeteria or something. Most of the time, your beliefs are simply an automatic thing. They are a spontaneous response to what you have seen and learned. They just happen.

You can choose to delve deeper into a topic, of course. At least some volition is involved whenever you choose to spend time thinking about a topic, or reading about it, or talking about it with other people. All of that involves choices. But that’s merely choosing how much information you really want to take in before drawing your conclusions about a matter. The beliefs that follow simply are what they are, and they result from what you learned or experienced along the way while seeking out the truth for yourself.

I suppose one could argue that at some level you can choose whether or not to allow yourself to directly face the questions that swirl around inside your mind and heart. But is that even the same as the moral choice implied by Christians who argue that we chose not to believe in God? I don’t think it is, unless they’re prepared to argue that even thinking about whether or not gods are real is an immoral move in and of itself.

Are they suggesting it’s a moral failing even to ask the questions in the first place? Because if they are, that really changes the nature of the game for me. But I’m not sure they’re really willing to put it that way. I suspect they’re simply saying that losing faith in God (usually with Jesus thrown in, because most Christians lump them together as a unit) represents a deliberate choice for which people can and should be held morally accountable.

And that right there is where I feel the need to push back.

Why This is So Important to Them

Why do Christians insist that not believing in God is a choice? I think there are at least a couple of reasons.

First of all, it’s because there’s a verse in the Bible that says so. Or at least it can be interpreted that way. In Romans 1 the apostle Paul argues that even polytheists scattered about the Roman Empire knew deep down in their hearts that there is only one true God, and that presumably his God, the Abrahamic one, is the only one that’s right.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

I would love to learn from this passage how he believes Joe Polytheist is supposed to know this, but unfortunately Paul is super skimpy on those details. He never really explains how we’re supposed to arrive at these conclusions, only that we’re supposed to just know, and any of us who says otherwise must be deluding ourselves.

This always bugged me even during my days as a Christian, so I was thrilled to learn last year that the much adored Reformed pastor John Piper took time to respond to that very question. He was asked, “How exactly are God’s ‘invisible attributes’ evident to everyone merely from looking at the world?”

His answer? To paraphrase, “Fools! You know better. Pray and ask God to show you what you already know.”

He didn’t answer the question at all. From a Reformed perspective, directly answering questions like this is almost like undermining the gospel because you’re supposed to just accept what the Bible says. And you know the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true, and that’s supposed to be good enough. Now bow your will and be done with these questions, maggot.

Related: “John Piper and the Art of Not Answering a Question

The second reason why I think Christians, particularly of the evangelical variety, insist that people choose to believe or not believe in (their specific) God, is that they believe that in the end we are all judged NOT according to what we DO, but according to what we BELIEVE.

Remember the thief on the cross? We never learn his name but he is virtually the patron saint of Protestant theology. He never got a chance to live a virtuous life, to turn over a new leaf and make up for all he did, because he died on the same day that he met Jesus. But he did the only thing that’s truly demanded by Pauline theology (which, let’s face it, is the filter through which we see everything in the New Testament): He believed in Jesus. That means he gets into heaven.

When you think about it, that’s ultimately the most important thing about a person according to the kind of Christianity that dominates the world I live in. According to evangelical Christian theology, thieves and murderers and sex offenders will be in heaven if they “came to Jesus” while in prison, but virtuous Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists who live self-sacrificial lives without Jesus will burn for eternity in Hell.

But that doesn’t even sound right, does it?

That’s because it’s not right, and people know it. They sense at the most fundamental level that it would be unjust to punish people for all eternity simply for thinking incorrectly about metaphysical questions, or for being taught the wrong gods to believe in. Holding people accountable for that would make no sense. It would mean basically punishing people for being born at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or into the wrong culture. And I think most of us would have to admit that would be cruel and unjust.* (see endnote for more discussion of this point)

Yet that’s what evangelical theology asserts. According to their framework, what ultimately determines people’s eternal destinies is what they believe about the Christian story. If you believe it, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out.

So it has to be a choice. Because punishing people for something over which they had no choice would be unjust. And that cannot be. So there must be a choice in there somewhere. And that’s that.

See how easy that was? Life is so much simpler when you have a book telling you how to think. I do miss those days, sometimes.

Why This Irks Me So Much

There are two or three reasons why this issue galls me the way it does.

First, it bothers me because it takes a matter that for me followed the natural course of my own intellectual journey and then judges it a moral failure on my part when I feel it was nothing of the sort. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people portray my adult disbelief in the Christian story as an act of overt and deliberate rebellion.

But rebellion implies that I know better, and I’m choosing to go against what I know. And that’s simply not the case. I honestly no longer see adequate reasons to believe that invisible beings are real things at all. Moreover, I see positive reasons to disbelieve in the Christian God in particular because the internal contradictions are too numerous to overlook. I’ve written about my reasons for leaving many times, so I won’t reproduce that here, but you can feel free to read what I’ve written about that before.

Related: “The Two Main Reasons I Left My Faith

Second, to continually interpret my unbelief as an act of rebellion misunderstands my character at its most basic level: I am a seeker who throws himself entirely into following the evidence wherever it leads. Others have done the same and still accept the Christian story. I can’t tell them what to think about what they have seen. But I can tell you that my own personal journey led me out of it all, and I can tell you my pursuit of the truth has always dictated my steps.

Having my own hunger for reality and pursuit of the truth denigrated in this manner is frankly insulting. It shows an ignorance of who I am. It misrepresents me and reveals a failure to understand what makes me tick.

Don’t you push back when you feel misunderstood or misrepresented? If you’re a Christian, when someone misrepresents what you believe or paints an inaccurate picture of what kind of God you believe in, doesn’t it upset you at some level? The displays of emotion I see in my social media spaces (and good grief, in real life!) incline me to believe it bothers you, too, to have your own character or mental faculties misrepresented.

That’s what’s happening here when someone says I chose to disbelieve. It means I’m being misunderstood, and that’s never a pleasurable experience. It means that from this point forward we are going to be talking past each other, not really communicating with each other. And frankly life is too short to waste time talking to people who don’t even hear the words you’re saying.

So maybe the third reason it bothers me is that I see how it works at cross purposes with what my still-devout friends say they want from our interactions. When we are accused of rejecting beliefs at will, simply because we choose not to believe, we are being misunderstood, and now you’ve lost us. It seems to me that any evangelist who truly cares for his or her intended audience would take better care to understand the people they purport to help. But that’s not what’s happening when we tell them we honestly don’t have reasons to believe and then we’re told that we really know better, but are choosing to disbelieve.

No, you don’t get it, and you’ve just lost us. Conversation’s over.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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* (Endnote:) Most would agree it would be unjust to send people to Hell just because they were born at a time or place in which they never had the chance to hear the Christian message. But there are some for whom this isn’t even an issue. Most Calvinists, for example, maintain (with the apostle Paul) that God can do as he pleases, and whatever he does is right by virtue of the fact that he is doing it. He is God, and therefore whatever he says is right simply is right. End of discussion. This is often called the Divine Command Theory.

Besides yielding an ethic that is inescapably subjective and relativistic, the other main problem with this is that the same people insist that the only reason non-Christians can live moral lives is that we have the law of God written on our hearts, meaning that we have an innate God-given internal compass by which we KNOW what is right and what is wrong. This flows together with the argument that everyone can be held accountable for the good and bad things they do since supposedly this law is inherent in us, so we are without excuse (see Rom. 2:12-16).

But then when our internal sense of justice is offended by the notion that people will be punished just for being born at the wrong time and place to hear the name of Jesus, we are told that we have no right to tell God what he can and cannot do. Suddenly our sense of right and wrong is irrelevant and must be put aside because we’re just creatures, clay in the hands of the potter or whatever.

Do you not see the contradiction in this? Either we have a God-given sense of justice or we don’t, and if God’s own reported behavior violates that sense of justice, we’re supposed to just overlook that? Suddenly his ways are higher than our ways? Which is it? Because it can’t be both. Asserting that it can would violate the law of non-contradiction, and we all know that the Christian faith is supposed to be logically consistent, right? No one is requiring that we check our brains at the door, right?

They need to make up their minds.

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.