People talk as though they don’t have control over what they believe.
I ask some atheists why they don’t believe in God: “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
I ask some Catholics why they believe: “I was born Catholic.”
And Latter-day Saints are just as guilty. We certainly believe in a process of searching and praying for truth. But listening to testimony meetings makes it clear that after all the prayers are done, people believe their “testimonies” will arrive gift-wrapped from God.
We talk about belief as though it’s something we receive, rather than something we build.
Forgive the click-bait title format and cheesy grin. I used it to emphasize that believing is a conscientious process. We can tackle it in the same way as “Lose 10 pounds in 3 weeks,” “How You Can Whiten Your Teeth Almost Instantly,” or “The One Trick to Saving for Retirement.”
None of this is to say believing is easy (just like those examples). But even though they are difficult, we can approach them like problems with workable solutions. Belief has always worked that way for me.
1. Get Over Yourself
Do whatever you want with yourself. But I had to get over myself.
I’m nine years old, staring straight out the window of my parent’s Buick station wagon. There is an impressive semi in the highway lane to our right as we near the end of some congestion. When all of a sudden we start to move backward!
I felt the sensation of the car moving. And all my visual information had us getting closer and closer to the end of the trailer.
Everything from my senses, logic, and experience told me we were moving backward.
Of course, once I burst out loony, Mom explained that the semi was moving faster than we were. I had been tricked.
Yet somehow, we convince ourselves that by the time we are adults we’ve perfected our minds to the point that we can reliably believe anything they pop out.
Why be so confident in the brain that’s telling you the circle on the right is bigger?
I’m guessing you have no trouble seeing that your political opponents are too influenced by emotion to see fact and reason. And, surprise, they think the same thing about your political beliefs. Maybe you’re both right.
I once won a debate in my Biology class on whether or not a VW Beetle qualified as a living creature by biological criteria. Our minds are not that reliable.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t bring our best mental efforts to the fore. But sometimes those best efforts work against us. Perhaps we should be a bit more circumspect about what they produce.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
2. Choose to Believe
In my freshman philosophy class, our professor used one lecture to outline the history of the question of God’s existence. At the end of the lecture, he opened the class for comments. One person asked if our professor believed in God. (Our professor was by nature very open about his personal life.)
He paused, looked up, crossed his arms. “The people who are like me, that believe in God,” he said, “are a lot happier than I am. I wish I could trick myself into believing in God.”
There is no silver bullet that refutes the truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ. And there is no evidence so powerful to force belief.
Most of the world’s greatest minds have believed in God.
While you may personally find one narrative more likely than another, someone who is smarter than you has chosen a different narrative.
I’m not here to convince you to believe what I believe. But believing is great. And lots of people already want to. So do it. Articulate in your mind, this might be true and that might be true. There is evidence for both. Smart people believe both. So I choose to believe __________. Fill in your blank.
This is not to suggest that anything you fill in that blank will be equally valid. This is not to say once you choose to believe you should unrelentingly stay with something that is clearly not working.
What do you do with all the reasons you had to choose the other option? You file it away for now. If you’ve already accepted that every thought you had isn’t the most reliable, you can simply accept that if what you chose is right, you’ll find answers in time.
Some who leave the Church of Jesus Christ hate this, because in leaving they lost something. They need to believe that whatever argument, or evidence, or pamphlet they saw is so irrefutable that they have no choice but to stop believing. If reasonable people can see those same arguments and continue to believe then they could have too. So you’ll hear phrases like “cognitive dissonance” or for the less articulate “brainwashing.”
But there is nothing wrong with the brains of people who believe. And if you want to be one of them, the first thing you have to do is to decide.
“Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two.” – Boyd K. Packer
3. Engage Your Mind for Belief
My junior year of high school I was in a speech and debate class. We had three debates during the semester, and when our teacher introduced the subject, she let us self-select sides.
One of the topics was capital punishment. At this point, I would have described myself as strongly in favor, so I joined the pro side. But unlike the other subjects, the class split quite unevenly with all but three students siding with me.
The teacher’s philosophy was usually to allow students to choose the side they felt, but in this case, the class was so uneven, she asked for volunteers. All three people opposed to capital punishment happened to be friends of mine from our drama club and mock trial team, so I agreed to switch sides.
With almost no effort, I was able to construct arguments opposed to capital punishment. When I went to the library to prepare that afternoon, finding evidence was trivially easy, and I began plugging it into my arguments.
Over the next few days, I kept hearing more and more about capital punishment in places I would never expect, and seemingly unrelated topics (like a scale graphic from my science class) immediately prompted new ideas for arguments.
By the time we debated in class, I had persuasive and cogent arguments that I personally believed for a side I only adopted by circumstance. The exercise changed my belief on the topic to this day.
When faced with a doubt, I often pose to myself the question, “If it were all true, how would this make sense?” Once I’ve framed that question, answers often rush in.
There is a phenomenon that occurred to me during this process that you can also take advantage of to help your belief. Have you ever noticed after you get a new car that you begin to notice it everywhere? This is called the Baader-Meinhoff effect. We notice what we are aware of.
Once we’ve chosen to believe, and we are looking for reasons to believe, we tend to find them. But they’re not going to appear until you’ve put yourself in a mindset to find them. This also works for those issues you’ve filed away. Over time answers will often appear where you wouldn’t have otherwise seen them. And that list of reasons to not believe begins to dwindle.
You’ve probably noticed this informally with believers. Someone who believes wholeheartedly will often describe something like a well-timed raise or a child’s change of heart as a “miracle.” These aren’t likely supernatural phenomenon, but for the person who wants to believe they give them reasons to.
“Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.” Mosiah 4:9
4. Address Reasons for Disbelief
Anyone who’s attended two weeks at the Church of Jesus Christ knows that the worst time to attend is when your child is between twelve and eighteen months. They are impossible to corral. And there is nowhere for them to go. You spend your hours wandering the hallways keeping them from interrupting other people.
I am exceptionally familiar with reasons for not believing in the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog. And wouldn’t you know it, just as my son was passing through this phase these arguments began to improve. Suddenly there appeared to be real reasons to abandon my faith, where there were none just weeks before.
Belief, it seems, is a lagging indicator. Lagging indicators are predictable effects that happen after some other cause. For example, clumsiness might mistakenly be seen as the cause of workplace accidents, but it’s a lagging indicator for rest. Implementing additional breaks reduces clumsiness which reduces accidents. Spending time trying to get employees to use more precise hand motions or eye paths may seem like they are fixing clumsiness, but they wouldn’t be addressing the underlying problem.
Most Latter-day Saints who abandon their faith cite belief as the reason. They no longer believe what the Church teaches.
But why did they stop believing? Why did arguments that have existed for the better part of two-hundred years suddenly find resonance? Why when faced with two coherent arguments did they choose the one away from belief.
If you want to believe, but are struggling, it’s worth the exercise to ask what is it about not believing that appeals to you. And try to fix it. For me, it was sharing toddler responsibilities more evenly with my wife. Once she started watching him every third hour so I could enjoy priesthood meetings, arguments against my faith quickly appeared as basic and unappealing as always.
“There is nothing noble or impressive about being cynical. Skepticism is easy—anyone can do it. It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Many will respond to these thoughts by suggesting that nothing in this shows why believing is a good choice or a more rational choice. I agree. If you don’t want to believe, don’t do what I’m suggesting. But like that philosophy professor, there are many who do want to believe. The peace, focus, and community that faith brings are powerful. If you want them, you are not a victim of your own mind, you can choose to believe.