People argue over religious belief and disbelief. Christians generally say everyone should believe in Jesus, and will be judged by God according to whether they believe or not. Non-believers criticise, and sometimes mock, believers for their belief.
But can we choose what we believe?
I discussed last post the question of whether we have free will, but I’m assuming here we can make choices. But can we change our beliefs if we want to?
The question is important, because if we can’t change our beliefs, how can God condemn us for unbelief?
What are beliefs?
Beliefs are pretty much everything we think is true, from what we believe about God to thinking that I am sitting at a computer right now. Some of our beliefs are based on good evidence (e.g. I believe Mount Vesuvius blew up in the first century), some are just opinions (e.g. I believe I prefer chocolate to coffee) and some are strongly held but much argued over (e.g. I believe in God).
But of course we are mostly interested here in beliefs that are important for life.
Why do people doubt we can choose our beliefs?
The argument is that, if we have information about some subject, we can’t choose to believe something that is contrary to that information. For example, if I am holding a red ballon, and someone offers me $1000 if I believe it is blue, I cannot make myself believe it is blue for I know it is red.
The test is simple. Think of something you believe, and make yourself believe the opposite. You can’t do it (it is claimed).
Thus belief is considered involuntary, whereas actions are considered voluntary, because we can choose to walk over to the fridge and get a drink, or not.
What determines our beliefs?
Many factors influence what we believe, for example:
- our upbringing and what we have been taught to believe;
- preconceived opinions and biases;
- what we want to be true;
- our choices of what we read, listen to, watch and think about, and which of these we value or dismiss – it is easy to live in a bubble of our own choosing;
- the information we have in our head, even if it is wrong information;
- how we interpret information.
Our beliefs are the end result of all this. We can clearly choose most of these inputs, but once we have all these things in our head, there is no choice left, it is said, we have a belief.
Wait a minute now
But does this mean we have no choice about our beliefs? Clearly it is true that there are some things we can’t make ourselves believe, and many beliefs we can’t change on demand. But I can think of several reasons to doubt we can never change our beliefs.
A matter of definition
There’s an old joke about jumping off a tall building – it’s not the fall that kills you it’s the sudden stop at the bottom. Clearly we can choose to jump, but once we have, we can’t choose to avoid the sudden stop. So while in a pedantic way the stop is what killed us, it is just as true to say the choice to jump killed us.
I can’t help feeling it is the same with beliefs. If we choose what we will read, whose opinion we will value, and what evidence seems most important to us, we have chosen the information that is now in our head. Since that information either is our belief or directly determines our belief, we have effectively chosen what we believe.
Sometimes the waters are muddy
In many aspects of life, the information we have is conflicting and unclear. We can think of reasons to vote for either side of politics, we can think of moral arguments for and against harsh prison sentences, and there are arguments for and against believing in God.
Reading a book or having a discussion on one of these difficult topics can leave us pulled in both directions. Two people with the same information can come to different beliefs. It seems to me that sometimes at least we choose a belief rather than remain in doubt. Some may say we should remain agnostic, but nevertheless, we don’t always choose to.
No-one is totally logical
The argument against choosing our beliefs often assumes people are behaving totally rationally (if we can even define what that is). But other motives can easily determine our beliefs:
- We may set our minds and refuse to accept the logical conclusion of the information we have before us, effectively choosing not to believe what is uncomfortable to us. Atheists accuse christians of this enough for them to agree this happens – and I think the same can happen with non-believers too.
- If we hear about some questionable behaviour by one of our friends or relatives, we may refuse to accept the information because we want to believe the best of them. Again, we have effectively chosen our beliefs.
- Sometimes athletes and sportspersons visualise success and train their minds to believe that they will succeed. Their belief may be poorly based, mistaken and manufactured, but it still seems like they have chosen it.
- The power of positive thinking also seems like a way of choosing to believe we will be successful.
So are we responsible for our beliefs?
So I can’t help feeling we are responsible for most of our important beliefs, because of the choices we make about the information we will accept and take notice of. If our beliefs follow automatically from our choices, then the gap between choice and belief seems to be small, pedantic and perhaps even illusory.
Believers and non-believers alike are generally interested in “converting” people to their beliefs. But how can this occur?
In theory, all that is needed is for us to be given new information that leads to us re-assessing the evidence and thus revising our beliefs. But while a reasonable number of people change their beliefs about God during their lives (see True life stories for some accounts), sometimes more than once, it seems to happen less often than each side hopes. Why?
Each “side” has its reasons, which it applies to the other side, but we are all less likely to apply them to ourselves. If it was simply a matter of clear evidence, then logically we would all agree. So clearly we are all significantly affected by other factors – how we were brought up, what we want to be true, biases and selective thinking and reading, etc.
I think it is important to make sure we are familiar with both sides of important questions, and where we need expert input (from scientists, historians, philosophers, etc) we try to get balanced input not from the extreme views. Continually pointing up the weaknesses of other people’s views is an easy way to remain untroubled in our beliefs, but being willing to consider and admit the areas where our own belief is challenged is tougher!
Does God judge us by our beliefs?
I actually doubt this is true anyway. I believe God judges us by our actions and character. Jesus called people to receive God’s forgiveness and follow him. We are required to trust him with our lives. Those who haven’t heard of Jesus are judged according to the light they have been given (I believe). Certainly Jesus taught (Matthew 25:31-46) that there will be some who will be surprised to be with him in the age to come, but they received his grace and forgiveness, and so were there, because of their willingness to serve those in need.
Of course what we believe about Jesus will influence our character and actions. But I can’t help feeling that our response to Jesus is often based more on whether we want to follow him or not, which determines what we read and take notice of.
Some more reading
- Why we can’t choose our beliefs, by atheist Austin Cline.
- Disbelief Is Not a Choice by David Niose and Choosing to Believe? by Michael W Austin, both in Psychology Today.
- The Formation of Belief by christian Bruce Little.
- Do humans have free will? on this website.