Choices That Aren’t Actually Choices.

Choices That Aren’t Actually Choices. December 15, 2014

I’m noticing lately that Christians are starting to drill down on belief being a choice. I want to talk about this idea, make some speculations about why this nasty habit is starting to pervade the religion, and talk about what really goes into disbelief.

It all started a few days ago when I was re-reading one of my favorite books in the world, The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Every time I read it, something new springs out at me. This time, this is what noticed for the first time:

Once Valancy sneezed. Now, in the Stirling code, it was very bad form to sneeze in public.
“You can always repress a sneeze by pressing your finger on your upper lip” said [her mother] Mrs. Frederick rebukingly.

And I stopped, and raised my gaze to the ceiling, and said something that startled my cat (though considering his size, he’s surprisingly high-strung). Mrs. Frederick was convinced that Valancy had deliberately chosen to sneeze.

That seems like a strange thing to think. I mean, who chooses to sneeze? It’s not really something anybody can control. But it is a brilliant bit of characterization. With just that last sentence, Mrs. Frederick firmly establishes herself as the type of person to get irritated at someone for something as unprovoked as a sneeze.

I got to thinking about this idea of choices-that-aren’t-really-choices a little more. There seem like a lot of situations that religious zealots insist are choices to be made that are actually more like conclusions to be drawn. For example, despite the weigh-in of countless scientific bodies (like the American Psychological Association), we still see high-profile Christians insisting that being LGBTQ is a choice. It’s just baffling how they and their flocks can just ignore the wealth of studies about this topic.

Poverty is another situation that many Christians think is a choice. Thanks to ruthless campaigning, a huge swathe of our country now associates poverty with sinfulness and is convinced that poor people deliberately choose to be poor thanks to a combination of laziness, stupidity, sullenness, and shortsightedness. Not surprising, really, considering the pervasive nature of prosperity gospel, that idea that the Christian god lavishly rewards his favored pets children with wealth.

The choice-that-isn’t-a-choice I want to focus on at present, though, is the weird way that I’m starting to see Christians drill down on the drastically mistaken idea that belief in their god is some kind of choice that people make.

I thought that way myself as a Christian, so we’re not talking about some brand-new idea here, just one I’m seeing more often lately. Someone chirped it at me just a few days ago on Facebook–and claimed that she herself had made this choice, implying that those who did not believe had just decided one day for their own silly reasons to stop believing. I know Christians come by this delusion honestly; the Bible has some (misunderstood, cherry-picked) clobber verses in it about how everybody secretly believes deep down in the Christian god. Non-believers’ lived reality certainly does not trump the Bible to people who idolize a book so much they would rather believe that millions of people are liars than doubt that a (misunderstood, cherry-picked) clobber verse, like Romans 1:21, might be as inapplicable today as Numbers 5:11-31, where Yahweh ordered his people to force abortions on any pregnant wives suspected of adultery.

Interestingly, it’s Christians themselves declaring that belief in Christianity is a choice. The people who aren’t Christian don’t tend to call their non-belief a choice. Definitely the people who have left Christianity don’t tend, either, to characterize their discarding of the religion as a choice that was consciously made. It smacks of a certain amount of disingenuousness for so many Christians to blithely assert that the belief that they just happen to hold, the religious belief that they just happen to think is the correct belief out of the many thousands of other religious beliefs out there, just so happens to be their belief because of the deliberate, conscious, particular choice that they made to believe it. They looked across all the anecdotes and pseudo-science they mistakenly thought constituted compelling evidence, nodded to themselves in a most grave fashion, and then reached out to put that belief on their mind’s shelf next to “the sun will rise tomorrow” and “puppies are cute.”

I’ve got to wonder: do these Christians actually know what belief is, how it’s formed, and how it works? Because what I’ve described is not how belief works. When someone gets what they think is a good reason to believe in something, then they believe in it. Belief can’t be forced or chosen. It can only be stirred or withered. When that person subsequently realizes that there actually really is no good reason to believe in that god, then belief simply dies away of its own accord. Before their final deconversions, some ex-Christians spent many months–sometimes years!–on their knees crying out for their god to help them maintain their fading belief. (Such agonized cries get answered about as often as any other prayer does.)

I certainly wouldn’t call my deconversion a choice. Some aspects of my deconversion were choices, of course. Stopping church attendance was a choice, for example. But my actual belief? No, sorry. I know it messes up the story when I step off-script that way, but that’s the truth.

So much of what Christians think is a choice is really actually a conclusion–the culmination of a long period of doubt, questioning, and investigation.

1914 Santa Claus in japan
1914 Santa Claus in japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I couldn’t choose to believe again in Christianity any more than someone over the age of ten could choose to believe again in Santa Claus, or start believing in the gods Cthulhu or Hionhurn the Executioner. I know too much; I’ve seen too much. At best, I’d just be forcing myself to say the right words and behave the right way. I suspect that’d be perfectly peachy with the Christians who say this stuff to me; even I used to think, when I was starting to doubt, that by going through the motions I’d brainwash myself into sort-of-believing again. Living that kind of a lie is a misery I would not inflict on my very worst enemy, and it obviously didn’t work anyway. I couldn’t force myself to un-learn what I’d learned or to un-see what I’d seen. It’s hard to imagine a more dishonest way to win a convert than telling someone to “fake it till you make it.”

Meanwhile, stuff that’s factual–like historical or scientific claims–isn’t stuff I need to force myself to repeat over and over again. I can look at objective, credible evidence for those claims, review that evidence, check it against other sources, and question it. And if I turn out to be incorrect about something, I can amend my opinion. Nobody needs to indoctrinate themselves into something factual.

There is a very solid reason why Christians need being LGBTQ to be a choice, why they need poverty to be a choice, and why they especially need belief in their god to be a choice.

But it’s a terrible reason.

Let’s briefly glance back to Valancy:

One winter they [her family] kept Valancy housed up from November to May, in the warm sitting-room. She was not even allowed to go to church. And Valancy took cold after cold and ended up with bronchitis in June.
“None of my family were ever like that,” said Mrs. Frederick, implying that it must be a Stirling tendency.
“The Stirling’s seldom take cold,” said Cousin Stickles resentfully. She had been a Stirling.
“I think,” said Mrs. Frederick, “that if a person makes up her mind not to have colds she will not have colds.”
So that was the trouble. It was all Valancy’s own fault.

Thus, we discover why Mrs. Frederick believes that Valancy is choosing to sneeze and to be sick: this belief allows her to blame her daughter for doing those things and to justify withholding sympathy and kindness when–not if–either situation occurs.

If someone “chooses” something harmful Christians don’t approve of, like being LGBTQ, poor, or non-belief, then that person opens him- or herself up to punishment for making those choices. People who make unapproved choices get painted as shallow, immature, dumb, selfish, rebellious, vain, or “just wanting to have sex sin.” And grotesque, eternal torture in the next lifetime and odious discrimination and mistreatment in this lifetime all becomes totally acceptable for those foolish souls; they “chose” their fates, after all. The implication of course is that this “choice” is really very obvious to anybody with half an eye and a few brain cells, and that anybody sensible would make the exact same “choice” given the same exposure to the same anecdotes evidence. If the wrong choice is made, then nobody needs to feel any sympathy for the person who then totally deserves his or her punishment. We’ll get what’s coming to us. We’ll see. But it’ll be too late. Even as a Christian I didn’t think that mindset was very loving, and I’m even less impressed with it now.

In the same way that such Christians reserve their compassion only for those who fit into the correct narrative by “deserving” it, they reserve respect only for those who made the correct “choice” in believing just like they do. Disbelief is denigrated and demonized, which leads to something even more insidious than simple dismissal: feelings of contempt, which in my opinion is the real opposite of love. It’s simply surreal to see one of these Christians react to a non-believer sometimes–they offer up the flimsiest possible anecdotes and junk science, and when those are debunked sniff haughtily that Christians shouldn’t need evidence anyway when they have faith, so who even cares about all this, I dunno–pfft–evidence. I’d offer them some cheese with that whine, but only awful wine is made from grapes that sour.

When those Christians get that convinced that non-believers are nitwits who can’t recognize anecdotes evidence, it’s not a far leap to decide that maybe they also can’t make reasonable decisions of any sort, and from there maybe start thinking that those non-believers need to shut up, hand them the car keys, and let Daddy drive for a while. We already see this thinking in action in society right now. Blaming dissenters and those who don’t fit the mold for being childish or willfully ignorant is a necessary first step toward forcing those people to accept the oversight and control of those who think they can run other people’s lives better than the owners of those lives ever could. When I hear such Christians talk, all I can hear is their frustration that nobody’s listening to them and everyone’s making all these awful choices and not caring what they think about any of it. You’d think a religion founded on principles of social justice, love, and charity wouldn’t be trying this hard to figure out if someone deserves or doesn’t deserve respect, compassion, and kindness before carefully doling any out, but not much about Christianity seems even remotely interested in doing any of that boring stuff. Instead they find tons of rationalizations for doing the stuff they really wanted to do in the first place.

In fairness, I don’t expect Christians to magically decide not to believe in their religion, either, any more than I could start believing in it again. It’s not as easy as demonstrating that no, actually, there is no way in the world that the Exodus myth could have possibly happened and suddenly the walls of faith are torn down. I don’t think most Christians chose their religion any more than I chose to leave their religion. Given our cultural indoctrination and our very human cognitive biases, there’s not much choice at all there. And like with anything involving spirituality, there may well be someone out there who thinks he or she really did just consciously choose to stop believing. I’m okay with that. It’s just not how I rolled, and not how I think most folks roll.

As for my own lack of belief in religions’ claims, I’d be a lot more impressed with Christians if, instead of passive-aggressively insulting me, talking over my lived experience, and trying to refocus the conversation on whether or not I made a choice in leaving Christianity, they instead ponied up some credible support for their various claims. If they could do that, they wouldn’t be able to stop folks like me from believing. My belief would spring up like Old Faithful, just as theirs did when they saw whatever they thought was evidence for their beliefs. Because I know better than to think that what Christians have is compelling evidence, though, my belief is unstirred. So they will do the next best thing and demonize and vilify my non-belief in any way they can. It’s painfully obvious that they treat outsiders the way they do because that is literally their only option. There isn’t any compelling evidence for their claims, so all they can do is try to negate non-believers before we infect anybody else.

And the really funny part? It’s not like any of these supposed “choices” are Christians’ business anyway or that Christians’ input and opinions are actually requested in most folks’ lives. The even better part? A huge number of people are getting estranged from the entire religion the more its adherents mistreat the marginalized. The huge gulf between Christians’ insistence that they totally “love their neighbor” and the soul-shattering reality of how most of them actually treat those neighbors is starting to feel jarring to young Christians, a growing number of whom are choosing simply to walk away from a religion that looks increasingly non-divine and which, further, seems to be way more about chest-thumping, privilege, and dominance than about love or charity. In a very real sense, a Christian parroting that tired nonsense about “choices” is a symptom of the disease infecting Christianity–and part of the religion’s problem. The harder they try to lock down their superiority over those they hate and fear, the further away they push others. I’m tellin’ ya, they should have listened to Princess Leia.

Let’s summarize:

My disbelief is not a choice.

It is a conclusion.

I could not choose to believe in Christianity again because nobody actually chooses to believe anything. Belief springs forth; it cannot be compelled either way.

If I had a good reason to believe in any religion’s claims, then I’d believe.

But I don’t have a good reason to believe.

Instead of giving me a good reason to believe, way too many Christians denigrate my disbelief as some kind of petulant choice I made, like some recalcitrant toddler who didn’t want to wear anything but her Batman costume to daycare that morning.

In so doing, these Christians show their true colors and make me feel more certain of my conclusion.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Like a skeptic’s circle of life.

Be aware of this rhetoric about choice. As ex-Christians, we are not required to prove anything to anybody about our disbelief, but when you see the word “choice” get bandied about, you’re well within your rights to object to it if that isn’t your particular experience, especially since this rhetoric is so often used to rationalize away mistreatment of and contempt toward non-believers. The more of us who speak up and say that disbelief was not a choice for us, the harder it is for Christians to go there.

There is another good reason for speaking up about the nature of disbelief: statistically speaking, quite a few of the Christians saying this stuff (especially if they’re young) are entertaining some doubts themselves but clinging onto their worldview by the edges of their fingernails. By openly talking about just how our belief faded, we can help demystify the process of deconversion. When I was Christian, I knew atheists, sure, but I didn’t know any ex-Christians and I didn’t have anybody I trusted to talk to about what was happening in my head. My deconversion took a lot longer than it needed to take because I was reinventing the wheel and doing it all alone. Because I was convinced that belief was a choice, I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Knowing that faith doesn’t depend on conscious choice would have been a great help to me, long ago.

And maybe this news will of help to someone out there as well.

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