I’ve gotten into more than my fair share of interchanges with people on the internet arguing over whether or not faith is a matter of personal volition. Can you simply choose to believe in God or Jesus if you don’t already? And do people who leave the faith of their youth do so by choice? Or does it happen in a way that is beyond their control?
I “came out” as an atheist four years ago by participating in something called Interview an Atheist at Church Day, agreeing to field questions from a local Church of Christ minister here in Jackson, Mississippi. By all accounts it was a well-received talk, and to this day I’ve probably gotten more notes and emails about that talk than anything else I’ve done. It showed that an atheist and a Christian can sit down and have a civil discussion about their differences of belief without insulting or belittling one another. For many devout families, that in itself would be a major breakthrough.
In the excerpt embedded at the end of this post, I list eleven things atheists like me wish Christians knew about them. One of the points I raised was that, from my perspective and experience, belief isn’t a choice. You can’t just flip a switch and change what you believe about the big metaphysical questions by a sheer exertion of the will.
I try to explain in that portion of the talk that while most evangelical Christians can point to a time when they first made a public profession of faith, or in some cases even an exact moment in which they were “born again” into faith in Jesus, general belief in God for them was prior to each of those things. In other words, they were probably raised to believe in God from the time they first learned words, which means they never really had a choice on that particular question. They simply always believed in a God, whether or not they had yet done anything beyond that to identify themselves as “saved” or unsaved, Christian or not.
This subject comes up again and again, particularly whenever someone decides to chastise people like me for leaving the faith (or did it rather leave us?) because they see it, not as an intellectual disconnect, but as a moral failing on our part.
See, if faith is a choice, then from their perspective anyone who doesn’t believe the Christian message (assuming they’ve been exposed to it, and where I live, everyone has…many times) does so by an act of will. If they say they don’t believe in God, then either a) they’re lying, because deep down everyone knows there is a God and the Christian one is the right one, or b) they are choosing to reject what they know, rebelling against the knowledge of God as it says in the Bible:
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.
As a side note, I always have to comment on the presumptuousness of the apostle Paul declaring that deep down all people who have ever lived, including the polytheists scattered around the ancient Roman empire, are closet Abrahamic monotheists. Who knew? Also I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how “what has been made” makes it so “plain” that if there are any deities, there can only be one. Because my understanding is that polytheism and animism are far older, far more prevalent belief systems looking back through ancient human history. But I’m off my current subject again.
Why They Think It’s a Choice
In the past I have always given the same explanations for why people of faith, particularly the Christian faith, chalk up nonbelief to an act of the will. Just a few months ago, in fact, I felt the need to address this question again in a post entitled “Can You Choose NOT to Believe?” In that post, I explained that there are two reasons I see for why people of faith can’t let go of this notion that faith is an act of the will, as if you can flip a switch and choose to believe or not believe in gods, demons, angels, and the like.
The first reason is that the Bible leads them to think that way, as evidenced in the quote above. As long as there is a verse telling them what to think, those at least of the evangelical tribe feel duty bound to conform their thinking to whatever that book tells them to think. Ironically, that means they don’t actually get a choice, do they? Are they free to disagree with the Bible? Free to find fault with what it says?
The second reason I always enumerate is that it wouldn’t be right to punish people after they die just because they didn’t get exposed to enough evidence to believe the Christian message is true. I mean how wrong would that be? Doesn’t the very idea of that cut against the grain of your sense of justice? Consequently, if they could reframe this issue as one of rebellion—of willful disobedience to a set of propositions everyone is supposed to just know are true—then people like me can be rightly condemned for rejecting those beliefs.
Incidentally, it’s a separate discussion whether or not eternal torture is a punishment that fits that “thought crime,” but for now we can just stick to the question of whether or not this all boils down to a deliberate choice.
As recently as this past weekend it finally dawned on me that there is another reason why so many Christians still cling to this notion, no matter how many of us try to tell them we didn’t choose to disbelieve—it just sort of happened for us and we couldn’t stop it. Something finally clicked and it occurred to me:
Maybe some people really can choose to believe what they believe. That would certainly explain why they can’t let go of the idea that it was a choice for the rest of us as well.
I had a hard time accepting this idea because, speaking for myself, I cannot do this. Once I reach a certain understanding and the conclusions I draw become unavoidable for me, I cannot simply choose to look the other way or shut down my need to understand. Granted, I doubt many would characterize their choice to believe in this way. But for me, that’s what it would have entailed.
A Matter of Wiring
Thinking back to a time when I reached the ledge of unbelief but then managed to pull back for a while, it occurs to me that I may have successfully been able to do this once before. Not long after I deconverted, I was rummaging through old files and journals and discovered a gut-level honest prayer entry from six or seven years earlier which spelled out a number of the very ideas which later drove me completely out of the faith.
[Related: “Reading Through My Old Journals, I Found This“]
How did I make it back at that time? How was I able to keep from falling over that ledge and resume “following Jesus” for so many years afterwards?
The answer is that I couldn’t follow through with my own questions because the cost was too high. I looked ahead to where it would lead for me to lose faith in those things around which I had built my entire life, and I was terrified. I counted the cost, so to speak, and found the prospect of losing it all far too much to bear.
Which means I made a choice, of sorts. I decided then and there to bury my questions because I had already sensed where they were leading. So I chose to ignore them. And somehow I did. I took them out and dusted them off once in a while because they would occasionally assert themselves whether I wanted them to or not. But it would be years before they surfaced again as a cohesive unit of interlocking issues that spelled the end of my faith journey after two decades of devout pursuit.
My need to understand became stronger than my need to belong.
And that’s the sticky part. See, wherever we are on the belief spectrum, we each have both of those needs, and from time to time they compete with one another. Some of us have stronger needs to understand the world around us, while others find their own need to belong to a group far stronger. Whichever need outpaces the other will likely determine where you end up in this dilemma.
Is Belief a Moral Issue?
Which leads me to ask an interesting question: Is belief a moral issue after all? I know my evangelical Christian friends would say it is for the reasons listed above, but what if the morality of the issue lay elsewhere? Put differently, is it morally right to shut down your own curiosity in order to preserve the social structures on which the life you have built for yourself depend? Is there not some self-deception involved in that?
In those places where a person’s own knowledge is incomplete, it becomes harder to determine the level of personal accountability. But what if the limitations of that person’s knowledge and understanding are due his or her own decision NOT to follow questions or ideas to their logical conclusions? Is that really virtuous?
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Maybe you really can choose to keep believing in whatever it was you were taught to believe. And maybe those of us who kept going, allowing our own curiosity to lead us right out the door, did make a choice of a kind. But if that’s the case, under the circumstances I would have to argue that the people who decide to set aside the hard questions like I did are no more virtuous than the ones who kept going. The ones who stay in don’t get to claim moral superiority (by God’s grace or by any other means) to those of us who eventually leave.
And more to my point: I don’t think I even had a choice. For some of us, our curiosity is just too strong, and we have to keep thinking through things until they start making more sense. The need to understand just becomes too powerful, and it eventually overrides the need to remain settled in a life in which people still like you and think you’re okay. You can kiss that state goodbye, I’ll tell you that right now. But people like me hardly even have a choice. We just end up there whether we want to or not.
So for some people, it probably is a choice. Ultimately for others of us, though, it’s just not a choice at all.
What Atheists Wish Christians Knew About Them (15:54)
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