Is Atheism a Choice? December 2, 2009

Is Atheism a Choice?

by Jesse Galef

Is atheism a choice?  I ask because the issue kept coming up not only in an earlier post’s comment thread, but also independently on my facebook wall. It’s clearly a question that provokes some thought.

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of choice for a long time.  The word is used in different ways by different people, but a recurring theme seems to be the importance of conscious thought controlling the decision. (One of the reasons I like this formulation is that it avoids the sticky issue of determinism and free will – we don’t need to argue over what sparked my conscious thought to get breakfast, only recognize that conscious thoughts occurred and they resulted in me eating delicious waffles.)

So is atheism under the control of our conscious thoughts?  Even that’s a complex question!

I’m inclined to say no.  While it’s a conscious effort that leads us to seek out the truth through study and reflection, we can’t decide ahead of time what the evidence will say.  Evaluating evidence is in the domain of our subconscious.

But there is a way to affect our beliefs with conscious thought by exploiting our capacity for cognitive dissonance:

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. [emphasis mine]

Isn’t it fascinating that behavior can affect belief?  So even if we don’t start out believing that the evidence points to the existence of a god, we could act as though it did.  After a while of going to church, praying, and doing all the “believer” things, there’s a chance that some of us would genuinely start to believe – rationalizing our behaviors by changing our beliefs.  And since the dissonance “can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms,” once it starts to kick in, reverting to our old beliefs would be less and less likely.

That’s the best I could come up with.  In my conception of belief – confidence that something is true – it’s very difficult to argue that my atheism is a choice.

But many religious individuals have a different conception of belief – they don’t see evidence as they only factor.  A friend in college once told me that he didn’t think Mary was really a virgin, but that he still “believed in the virgin birth.”  He was never able to satisfactorily explain what he meant by that and I still haven’t figured it out.  I wonder how the cognitive dissonance is resolving itself in his head…

Theists often seem quite capable of talking themselves into belief without evidence.  I find this to be delusional.  But it explains why religious believers often think that our atheism is a choice: if they put evidence aside to believe, they assume we can, too.  I’ll try not to generalize to all atheists, but for me, belief doesn’t work that way.  I recognize that this is begging the question – in essence, I’m simply asserting that I’m incapable of accepting something as true without evidence.  But why do I feel this way about belief when others feel differently?

I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you used to be one of those theists who was capable of “willing” yourself to believe.


[Administrative Note] Sorry for any confusion – I accidently scheduled my draft to be published.  For about half an hour my first draft was up, before I frantically noticed the mistake and took it down.  It needed more thought, polish, and editing.  To be honest, it still does – I’m never perfectly happy with posts; I always feel they could use more thought and time.  This is a particularly heady topic and I find myself wanting to go off on all sorts of tangents.

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  • Chad

    No. Rationalism is a choice; but once we commit to rationalism, our other beliefs are (ideally) determined by evidence.

  • Hannah C

    Hm… I am really not sure. I do know, though, that I couldn’t just here and now believe in a god. And for a while, when I did go to church, I really did want to believe in what the pastor was saying. But I didn’t. I tried. I prayed, I read the Bible, went to study groups, youth group, all of that. But, even though I enjoyed the community church gave me, I realized that I still didn’t really believe in any of it. Then, this summer, I started reading some stuff, and it just kind of clicked. It was like “oh, I am an atheist. Okay.” I didn’t one day choose not to believe in any gods. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. So, I guess No, being an atheist is not a choice. But calling yourself an Atheist is. I could change my label, but not my beliefs.

  • John Perkins

    It certainly wasn’t a choice for me. I tried to be like everyone else and believe in god and the bible, but I just can’t. I never chose to not believe in god, but I certainly did choose to try to believe. It felt like a lie I was telling myself regardless of how much I tried.

    Just because it wasn’t a choice for me, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a choice for others though.

  • CatBallou

    I’ve never thought of it as not a choice, but I understand what you’re asking. I think.
    I’m not sure you’re correct when you say that our “subconscious” evaluates evidence. I did a lot of conscious thinking about the issue (which included recognizing that I didn’t have an emotional connection to the notion of god—I never had any epiphanies, so to speak) before I declared myself. And reading atheist arguments and philosophy certainly confirmed my opinion.
    Not liking country music is definitely an emotional response to the lyrics and what I perceive the culture to be, rather than a thought-out choice. But in my opinion, atheism was a choice for me.

  • I am agnostic on the area of choice here :). I tried for years to convince myself that there was a god and to be a good Christian and I talked it and repeated it to myself over and over. I finally got to a point where I could not keep telling myself the same things. I realized that if I truly believed in god then I would have to keep saying it and I wouldn’t feel like I was lying when I did.
    I also was embarrassed to witness or even admit it because my rational brain was so offended at the things I was espousing.
    For me, atheism was simply an acceptance of the truth as I knew it to be, an acceptance of reality. I don’t think I had a choice in the end. I was tearing myself apart daily with guilt and self doubt and the cringing self-hate of living a lie.
    I am more balanced and happy and sane just accepting reality.
    Whether or not it is a choice for others, I don’t know for sure but I am just wired this way.

  • Andrew Morgan

    It can go either way, since you can be an atheist for good reasons and you can be an atheist for bad reasons.

    I agree with Chad that how you’re going to go about the business of thinking (or even to think at all) is a choice. You can choose to think poorly or you can learn to think well.

    If you’re an atheist because you’ve thought about the question and you rationally can’t justify a belief in a god, I consider that to be a good reason to be an atheist, and it’s not really a “choice”. But if you’re an atheist because, I don’t know, your alcoholic dad was deeply religious and you resent him and so in trying to be nothing like him you rejected the idea of a god, that’s a bad reason (not that, of course, your motives weren’t laudable), and a choice.

    I suspect most of the people who read atheist blogs, etc., have thought about the issue. Someone like my mother, on the other hand, probably never thought much about it but is an atheist anyway (Sorry mom! We’ll talk!).

  • Amyable Atheist

    I think Chad puts it nicely – “Rationalism is a choice; but once we commit to rationalism, our other beliefs are (ideally) determined by evidence.” Atheism is the logical result of a commitment to rationalism; it just takes different motivations and amounts of time for individual people to clear out the cobwebs of self delusion.

    For me that’s why rationalism is such a tremendous relief, breath of fresh air and amazing system of moral guidance – it doesn’t allow me to delude myself with pretty untruths or force me to reconcile rational observations with arbitrary dogma (that old cognitive dissonance again), as the Catholicism I was raised with did. The only demand it makes on me is that I be honest with and responsible for myself, which I find incredibly liberating.

  • Lynn

    I don’t think belief is a choice, not for me anyway. I was never able to believe in God, much as I tried, and much as I feared Hell (which was the only part I actually believed). In a way I guess I did “choose” to believe, but I failed. I also chose to believe in various forms of Paganism as a teenager, but failed at that too, even though I wanted it more.

  • Jesse Galef

    @ Chad (& Amyable Atheist) –

    IS rationalism a choice? Is it the result of conscious thought to base decisions on reason and evidence?

  • Leia

    I was raised Mormon. I believed, just like I used to believe in Santa and the tooth fairy. But as I grew out of my duality, I found myself going to church to be good, not because I necessarily believed.

    It was expected of me to ‘feel’ the holy spirit and to get my own testimony by borrowing from other people’s ‘light’ until I was able to have my own light of Christ… what it started to feel like was brainwashing. I went, I prayed, I even got my poor husband baptized. But I didn’t ‘believe’ like I used to.

    So I guess I chose not to be Mormon. Walking away was definitely a painful choice as I lost my family in that decision. I definitely chose to be vocal about my Atheism. But I didn’t choose to be Atheist the same way I could have chosen to be Methodist or Catholic.

    I view my Atheism as a puzzle. It didn’t make much sense to me at first, even while putting the pieces together it was all kinda fuzzy, but when I finally chose to take a step back and look at all the pieces, I knew I couldn’t believe in what I was taught growing up.

    I didn’t have a choice, like I didn’t have much choice ‘believing’ in medical science or the color blue. It just was.

    I am still recovering from religion. Even though I know certain things to be true, old habits die hard.

  • No, rationalism is not a choice for me at least… the whole of what I was trying to say is to that point. I have this deep and burning need to know the truth of things and only evidence and rationalism slake that need. For me there is no choice.

  • Peregrine

    I think there’s something inherent in the nature of the individual that inclines them toward one belief or another. Not that the inherent nature absolutely defines the individual; there’s definitely an element of choice as well. But once the individual comes to terms with who they are as an individual, the choice becomes easier; perhaps even obvious… to them, anyway.

  • Rationalism *was* a choice for me, and once I started to discover the concept, I fed it by reading rational (and sometimes, but not always, atheist) blogs. A first (and so far only) semester in graduate psychology coursework helped my burgeoning love of critical thinking to grow roots.

    And, somewhere between those two events, I allowed myself the space to think about what the implications might be if there truly was no God. The result was that my world suddenly made much more sense, and I wasn’t having to justify reality so much anymore. In that respect, atheism was definitely not a choice, just (as Chad described) an inevitable outcome of evaluating the evidence.

    Great post (another one to share on FB). You’re on a roll today, Jesse!

  • For me, it was a choice. I chose to put more importance on finding out if things were true than if they made me happy. It’s a conscious effort to wipe away the stain my indoctrination left in my mind. It colors the way I think about things, and I have to consciously choose not to think that way anymore.

  • Why would anyone “choose” to believe in gods with all the baggage and worry that goes with it?

  • Ronnie Applewhite

    When I was a child, I believed what my parents told me to believe, and we went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. The congregation was the Church of Christ, who believe that everyone, including other Christians, who is not a member of the Church of Christ has a one-way ticket to hell. When I was about 11 or 12, I began to actually read the Bible intensely and form my own opinions rather than just soak in whatever parts of the Bible were being poured down my throat by my parents and my Sunday school teachers. There was so much that didn’t make sense, so I asked questions. As I got older, my questions became more plentiful and more serious and thought provoking. I was branded a trouble-maker, simply because I questioned what I was being taught.

    Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days when I was blissfully happy in church, believing in God and failing to take responsibility for my own actions and my own destiny. I just can’t. The concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God, who created an infinite universe yet somehow has a plan for an insignificant being like me and is concerned with what I eat, who I sleep with, etc. is just so foreign to me. I did not choose not to believe, I just don’t.

  • llewelly

    Friendly Atheist does not show up when I google for either “Friendly Atheist” or “Hemant Mehta”. Please see google’s policies, email them, and find out why this has occurred.

  • Of the vast number of possible things to not believe in, we certainly don’t actively choose to not believe in them.

    If you ask someone who’s never heard of Santa if they believe in him, I guess the normal response would be “no”, and it wouldn’t be so much a choice as an expression of the default position.

    So is atheism a choice, or is it (just like it’s a lack of belief) a lack of choice? I didn’t choose to be an atheist, but I did choose to stop being a Christian. If you choose no religion, then you’re an atheist.

  • J B Tait

    Recent brain research showed (and I over-simplify) that for some people the same brain activity that allowed them to assert their belief in God also happened when they asserted their belief that 2 + 2 = 4.
    My conclusion after reading the papers was that some people learn everything, even provable facts, by believing in them and consider all their opinions to have the same veracity regardless of how or where they learned them.

    Thus it might not be whether atheism is a choice but whether the ability to doubt, research, examine, and confirm one’s opinions is or is not a choice.

    This turns the question around. Is Faith a choice? It might not be; it might be wired in.

    Then those who have the capacity to doubt can choose Faith or lack thereof based on evidence, but those who learn by remembering do not have the choice.

  • J B Tait

    It shows up here just fine. Do you have Safe Search turned on, maybe?

  • I would say it’s a conclusion you get to, not a choice. One day you just can’t believe anymore.

  • TXatheist
  • J B Tait

    Another approach to this question is whether it is more important to be sure than to be right.
    In the book, On Being Certain, by Robert A. Burton, subjects were willing to reject their own handwritten notes made at the time of an event to support their current belief based on faulty memory years later.
    “Yes, that’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

    In the same vein, research showed that the witnesses who were most sure of their “facts” about an incident, were more likely to be wrong but more likely to be believed. Less confident witnesses were more likely to be right but easier to doubt. (Too bad our Courts and juries don’t understand this.)

    Having this surety factor reduces choice too.

    I have a family member who is so convinced he always has to be right that even in the face of overwhelming evidence, he will stick to his memory or opinion no matter how faulty it is made out to be. Everyone else must have remembered what happened wrong, the photos were not the whole story, the contradictory logic was just everyone else not understanding how it works, the video didn’t capture the whole conversation, we are all stupid, misinterpreting, misinformed, or have bad memories, or we weren’t there when it happened despite remembering most of what he remembered. Arguing with him, even if it is just presenting evidence, makes him angry. This person does not have a choice.

    Being able to say, “Maybe I was wrong,” and re-evaluate your position is evidence that you do have a choice.

  • I’m conflicted on this question of choice. On the one hand, I like to think that I am able to choose things like whether I believe in god or not. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that I am really choosing. There may be subconscious processes going on out of my control.

  • Karen

    So even if we don’t start out believing that the evidence points to the existence of a god, we could act as though it did. After a while of going to church, praying, and doing all the “believer” things, there’s a chance that some of us would genuinely start to believe – rationalizing our behaviors by changing our beliefs.

    In fact, many churches I used to attend counseled people to do just this. Even if they expressed doubts, they were told to attend church, bible study, small group and so on as if they were believers and eventually the holy spirit would banish their unbelief and make them true believers.

    It was always expressed in a kind of magical way, but I think it probably does work for some people due to the behavioral component, not to mention the peer pressure.

    In my case, I do remember making a conscious choice to pursue rational thinking, which later led to the loss of my religious faith. I technically could have squelched that impulse, stopped reading skeptical books and blogs and closed my mind again, but it would have been at the expense of my mental health, for sure.

  • Adam Tjaavk

    I didn’t choose to be an atheist – it isn’t a choice. I’m an atheist because I don’t think any gods exist; just as I don’t think other postulated fabulous beings exist. As we grow in understanding, some of us finally come to realise that all the gods are imaginary; I have yet to come across any convincing evidence for one of them being any less so than the others. I’ll keep being an atheist because until the very improbable emergence of good reasons to think otherwise, I can’t choose to believe in something I have no belief in.


  • Interesting thought– I always find it difficult to ignore social and psychological determinism when considering questions like this, but I can get past it for the sake of discussion. My instinct is to say that atheism is just the natural endpoint of a certain philosophical mindset; that is, the pursuit of truth no matter how uncomfortable that truth makes you.

    That said, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine someone who identifies as an atheist just to piss off strict religious parents. Perhaps not as noble as a well-researched conclusion, but I give them kudos nonetheless!

  • happycynic

    I’d always had some problems as a kid with just believing in religion–I suppose at some level I compared the skimpy “just so” explanations I received in church to the fascinating and involved “this is how” explanations I saw on National Geographic, Nova, and Nature documentaries. I resisted letting myself fully explore my questions and doubts because that’s what I was taught to do, but in the end I chose to explore them. That was a choice, albeit one that I was pushed into making by my own questioning nature.

    After opening pandora’s box, so to speak, I can’t close it again. I know that the evidence and my logic points towards atheism. I’d be lying to myself if I ever said “I believe in God” and of course when you lie to yourself, you always know you’re lying. So now that I’m here, there’s no going back. My atheism isn’t a choice, it’s taken on the status of fact, and needs to be disproven before I can consider it to be anything else.

  • I think there is an element of choice. At least in the early stages. When I was questioning my religious beliefs, I had a choice as to whether to continue to question them, or to just let them be. I chose to continue to question. I chose to read Skeptical Inquirer, to read about neurology and how the mind fools itself, etc.: all the things that led to me let go of my beliefs. I didn’t have to do that.

    Now, you could argue that I have an inherently inquisitive nature, and that once I know there’s an important unanswered question and the seeds of doubt have been planted, I won’t be satisfied until I have an answer. So you could argue that I didn’t have a choice. I don’t think I buy that, though. My inquisitive nature doesn’t follow up on every single mystery I encounter. I chose to pursue this one. (Of course, we have the question of whether free will even exists or choice is an illusion… but I don’t want to get into that particular can of worms here.)

    However, I don’t think I have a choice now. I can’t will myself to believe something that I don’t believe. You can’t un-know something that you know. I suppose I could stop hanging around atheist blogs and start going to church to see if that worked… but it seems unlikely that it would.

    But I wouldn’t equate it with race or gender or sexual orientation. It’s more of a choice than any of those. It’s a position, a conclusion, an opinion.

  • Amyable Atheist

    @ Jesse – I do think that rationalism is a choice – enforcing on oneself the rigor of basing decisions on reason and evidence takes dedication, continuous learning and research, and hard work, so it’s not only a conscious choice to begin doing it, it’s a daily decision to hold yourself to the standard. When I put it like that, it sounds exactly like any other moral framework that people generally ascribe to religion, and that’s because it’s a legitimate, albeit secular, framework.

    As with any moral framework, it can be tempting to be lazy and self-serving (small, inconsequential theft, believing in horoscopes or the less-than-human standing of people who are different from you), etc. LOL) but one chooses to run individual decisions through the litmus tests of moral rules or risk finding it difficult to look in the mirror. For me the big difference between rationalism and a religious moral framework is the lack of cognitive dissonance involved.

    Of course, this makes it difficult for me to tolerate the religious perspective because I find it equally deficient/repugnant both in extremist, ‘whole’ forms and in wishy-washy, cobbled together, cognitively dissonant forms (i.e. the cafeteria Catholicism/Christianity of my family and most people I know. Sure, it can work, but why Rube Goldberg your moral framework when rationalism is an option? Because many people make the conscious decision against rationalism for the sake of social lubrication in a society where irrationalism is the norm and thinking is hard…

  • Matt

    Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, I don’t think I was ever a strong believer despite being raised catholic and such. I never made friends with the kids in sunday school, I never prayed or was forced to pray at bedtime. I just sort of supposed it was kind of selfish to request things for myself. I always prayed really hard at mass when we did the intercessory prayers (because we all want to see problems solved and people’s health improve, right?), but after reading questions from, I realized that I wasn’t much of a believer.

  • Edmond

    In a sense, it is a choice.

    Becoming an atheist is (or SHOULD be) just like a good detective investigating a crime. Once you’ve reviewed the evidence, if you’re truly rational, reasonable, and open-minded, then your only real choice is to deny the evidence, or face and accept it.

    But since there IS no evidence in religious matters, the best real conclusion you can come to is that a state of existence that is based on the teachings of religion is not LIKELY. You must then choose whether to accept that or not.

  • Takma’rierah

    I could never bring myself to believe, even when I was a little kid and, rationalizing that believing in something is what gives it power, I made up my own gods. The same when one of my friends was trying out animism and other sort of spiritual stuff. As much as I liked her, I just couldn’t seriously entertain the idea.

    Still, it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to be less inclined to believe that anything supernatural is possible, as much as I think I’d rather have a little magic in my life. I mean, I know that the universe we do know is fantastic, but magic is pretty cool.

  • JulietEcho

    There’s a thread on the forums from awhile back, where we started discussing whether one could force oneself to be a theist.

    IMO, the short answer is probably – if you go into the project (and it would be a long project) with a decent understanding of how we trick ourselves all the time. The thing is, you’d have to *try* to essentially trick yourself until you eventually fell for it, and I don’t see the motivation to try.

    I mean, I could perhaps devise circumstances that would eventually trick me into believing that I was living in a “Truman Show” scenario, always being watched, etc. But why would I do that? I prefer living life with open eyes and trying to discern the truth, and I value my consciousness/reasoning skills/psyche too much to compromise it so that I can believe in something that I can’t accept rationally.

  • littlejohn

    I believe I was the first to bring this up, and I stand by my original post: I don’t see how an atheist could choose otherwise. The more interesting question, it seems to me, is can a theist choose not to believe? It seems obvious to us that they could, but I’m sure they’d see it differently.
    However, one does read all lot more books by former believers than by former atheists (Even allowing for the obvious lying done by some Christians who claim they were once atheists/communists/drunks, etc.).

  • Amyable Atheist makes a good point. Rationalism is, to a great extent, a discipline that has to be consciously practiced. The number of comforting lies I’ve had to let go of is pretty long.

    Example: It was weirdly hard to stop taking glucosamine for my bad knee once the research finally came in against it. Having a bad knee felt very much out of my control, and I liked the feeling that I was doing something about it. It was hard to let go of. It takes a certain amount of discipline to follow The Way of the Brain.

  • Do I really choose whether or not I believe the sky is blue?

    I might, through supreme effort, eventually be able to kind of make myself believe that it’s a kind of rosy shade of tangerine, but that possibility doesn’t make sticking with the evidence just a matter of choice.

    By the same token, my lack of belief wasn’t engendered by a choice. I didn’t wake up one morning and say “I’m just not in a believey mood today, and god doesn’t go with my hairstyle any more”.

    It was much more like this: “you know, if you really look at it without wishing so hard for it to be true, it’s all just obviously made up… how on earth did I manage to keep pretending like that?”

    There are FOUR lights

  • Dan

    I just ask a question in return.

    “Do you choose not to believe in Zeus, Thor, Aphrodite, Buddha, Vishnu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc?

  • James Koran

    The choice comes in believing something exists without evidence, e.g. I will not argue with someone about whether there is a nonexistent flower vase on the table.

  • Brian Macker

    I remember adults talking about god but I didn’t really understand what it was about. Just like when I heard in 1955 that the president had a heart attack I didn’t know what that really meant. I was thinking people were claiming that somehow his heart actually attacked him.

    Eventually as I was being indoctrinated with information about god and asked questions to clarify who exactly this god character was there were a few things that god me upset. For example the idea that god would punish you just for not believing in him, when I had not yet made up my mind which I realized was not true belief. Also that he actually tortured people for this. That he punished some people from seeking knowledge from a tree. Etc.

    I was told about prayer, and that you couldn’t just pray for what you wanted. So I tried praying for something good that had nothing to do with my benefit. It didn’t work. At first I was eager to be “good” and do the praying but very quickly decided it was a fraud and found it offensive.

    I don’t think that counts as believing because I was just trusting what was being told and trying to see if it works. Just like if you mom says try the ice cream you may like it. Just because I try doesn’t mean I liked.

    I know that by seven I realized I didn’t believe. It was too preposterous the idea of an invisible guy who can and doesn’t grant wishes, has such low self esteem he needs everyone to worship him, and was believed to be good but likes to torture people. Something wasn’t right.

    I wasn’t sure whether god existed or not because I didn’t have enough information. I mean it might be possible that some real powerful and mean bastard [who liked to drown those who didn’t worship and listen to him] existed.

    So at that point I didn’t believe yet still feared, and felt it extremely unjust that a god might exist and punish me for not believing. I found it especially annoying that he wouldn’t just show himself so I could believe, which by the way was one of my prayers that didn’t come true.

    I used to have nightmares about flying and then being blown up high and there would be lightening and it was god being angry.

    I had the same sort of experience with ghost and monsters. I didn’t believe they existed yet I had a nagging feeling they were under the bed, in the basement, hiding in the toilet at night, and long after I had enough knowledge to know they didn’t exist.

    It was never the case that I chose not to believe. It just never happened that way. I didn’t believe in god. I think by the time I was eight I no longer had fear of god and did an experiment where I actually swore at god in a lighting storm to test him, told him verbally in case he didn’t read my thoughts. Nothing happened.

    As more an more evidence of his non-existence built up I feared less and less. Some of that evidence was the injustice in the world, and some just learning more about science.

    I never remember it being a choice. I just didn’t truly believe. No more a choice than the fact that I do like ice cream. As someone else stated it wasn’t a choice but a conclusion or realization.

  • Bob

    I don’t believe atheism is a choice as is as much as it is the default. While humans may have an innate predisposition to believe nonsense, what any of us considers theism must be learned. I see rationality as learned as well. Either of those may be a choice, or they may be obtained by indoctrination prior to one’s conscious ability to choose.

  • Ed

    My comment is similar to Dan’s who asked if you/we choose to disbelieve in Thor.

    I did not choose to stop believing in Santa Claus, it was a lovely little myth, but once exposed to evidence it was impossible to maintain.

    Belief is not a choice but it is clearly subject to influence. All babies are born atheists, then taught to believe.

    I think it would be possible to “convince yourself” you believe in the same way it is possible to “convince yourself” your kidnapper/abuser loves you, as in Stockholm Syndrome, which I suppose is another example of cognitive dissonance.

  • Steven

    I really don’t recall ever choosing to stop believing. My unreliable memory has me as a believer until about age 10 when I lost my grandfather and my baby sister. I couldn’t reconcile the God I’d always been told about with these tragedies and my belief melted away. I guess I just didn’t buy “God works in mysterious ways”. I had also developed a real interest in mythology and couldn’t help comparing all those old stories to the “real” ones I’d heard in Sunday school. In the end, there wasn’t much difference between Zeus and God and no particular reason to believe in either one.

  • Pierre

    I have had this argument many times. It is indeed a choice. I am agnostic myself. My strict Atheist friends tell me children are born Atheistic, and I have trouble with this.

    To me, children/people are blank slates. They have to make a decision (leaving aside issues of indoctrination, that’s a whole other pot of stew) as to their ‘beliefs’ or ‘unbeliefs’.
    An Atheist has arrived to his area through choice, that rationality and scientific explanation offer him the best worldview, consistent with his environment.

    Also, Atheism, religiosity carry political labels as well…I don’t see this as being born boy/girl etc…there definitely seems to be some free choice involved.

  • I would argue that evidence doesn’t lead. It has no ability to move a person by itself. Investigation is a process of using evidence in order to reach a conclusion, the truth being revealed without any deliberation would be revelation. Data must be interpreted, standards of proof must be set, and evidence must be accepted and rejected based on deliberate criteria. I would consider deliberately selecting one thing rather than another to be choice.

    To someone who rejects materialism a priori an apparition is proof of supernatural entitites. To a strict reductionist an apparition is phenomena to be explained. A creationist looks at fossils and sees how they fit into Genesis. A paleontologist looks at fossils sees how they fit into the triassic. Dont’ get me wrong, one is right and the other is not but I think it uncontroversial to say that how we choose to react to evidence is based on the beliefs and evidence that come prior to encountering that new piece of data.

    If I were presented with a new religion I had never heard of and was asked if I believed in their god I would have to look at what their god was. I would have to make a deliberate effort to analyze the question and come to an answer. I would consider that choice.

    Choice isn’t about one day simply saying, “You know what, from now on I’m not going to believe in god”. Our choices are shaped (without getting into free will) by our beliefs and the information we have access to. So the process of choosing not to believe is similar to the choice to not eat rocks. We don’t, on a whim, decide not to eat rocks. We form an answer to the (often unspoken) question of whether we should eat rocks by considering the evidence of what they would do to our teeth and stomach and beliefs about our own wellbeing.

    So perhaps a succinct reconciliation of the two answers is “beliefs form over time through choices”.


    It wasn’t a choice for me. I honestly thought Christianity was a made up story my mom and dad told me to make me feel better about the dark and mean people and such – until I was ten and realized they took it seriously. Then I tried hard to be Christian and learn about it, but the more I learned, the more I was filled with disgust. The god my parents had described to me was NOTHING like the god in the Bible. Still, I didn’t want to hurt my mother or father, so I pretended to be Christian for twelve years. I did a brief stint as a Wiccan as it was everything they taught me Christianity’s values were (ironic since Christians are suppose to hate Wiccans, as they are ‘witches’ and ‘worship’ the ‘devil’.) I just couldn’t do it. So here I am a year later. Where I’ve been for as long as I can remember. An Atheist. I remember as far back as two years old. So no, I did not choose. I just am.

  • muggle

    No. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a person can’t help if they believe or not. Either they find a thing (whether “god” or some of the other excellent examples set forth here) credible or not.

    The only thing there may be something to is the suggestion that personality plays into it. If you’re inquisitive by nature, you’re bound to nose around, explore the world and question things and that can lead you to asking questions that someone else would just be happy to accept as truths without any thought at all. I don’t get that at all but my mother was always screaming at me “curiousity killed the cat” (I think I was severely scarred by this horrific image!) when I was little because my nosing about and exploring things and asking questions drove her up a wall. In the end of that though, you can’t help which personality you have, the one that questions or the one that just accepts.

    Rationalism is a choice; but once we commit to rationalism, our other beliefs are (ideally) determined by evidence.

    Hmmm. Actually, I’d disagree. I think atheism came first with me. It was only when I broke free — and I do mean free — of the chains of religion that I started to base the way I lived life on rational thinking. I don’t think I’m 100% there yet or ever will be. I’m a passionate person often ruled by emotion and with very strong instincts that often guide me with stunningly best results quite often. With the glaring exception of choosing horribly badly in a husband but note that I was not only naive when I met him but still believing in “God” though not Jesus and sorry to say somewhat crippled by a dysfunctional family life growing up as far as making wise decisions in that area. I’m older and wiser now. Picky as hell.

    As for for cognitive dissonance, I don’t know. I really don’t think I could force myself to believe. I have somewhat tried. I went through a period (fortunately, very short lived as it proved to be futile; I march to the beat of a different drum) in my ’30’s when I yearned to be “normal” (as if anyone really is). I tried to fit in and would even sometimes say, I wish I could believe in “God”. I think it was a period when I was feeling especially isolated and alone. Given the circumstances of my personal life, I really was in many ways. Even my friends, largely other single mothers, couldn’t comprehend the emotions of skipping state with your kid to protect them from their other parent and, of course, there was no one else around admitting they had done that. But I couldn’t make myself believe and going to church only pissed me off — especially when they’d get to how women need to let their husband lead and divorce is evil, lol. I’d have to walk out to keep from getting in an argument with the preacher. It just didn’t work. Finally, I accepted that I was what I was and since then, well, it’s been much easier to live independently and I treasure it so much that I can’t imagine why I tried to dance to someone else’s tune.

    LOL! I could really have used the internet back then. That’s one of the truly great things about the internet. You are able to converse with a much wider range of people and are steered right to people you have things in common with just because you’re all seeking out sites about what interests you. Nowhere near as haphazard as your immediate surroundings in the physical world. Though I do have fond memories of discovering FFRF just after deciding not to be “normal”.

  • Mister Trickster

    Ah but your friend in college is too easy a target. It’s pretty well known that the “virgin birth” was the result of an error in translation, abetted by some pretty dumb medieval attitudes about gender ethics. The fact that he tries to believe in the virgin birth just means he is not an intelligent believer…

  • For me, atheism was not a choice. It’s the default. It’s what I’ve fallen back on now that I no longer believe. I used to believe in a god, but recently I can’t believe in anything anymore. I either know something, or I don’t know it. It’s not that I don’t know if there’s a god. There is no god, until proof exists that there is one. It doesn’t work the other way.

    It’s like saying I choose to know how to spell. I can’t stop knowing how to spell. A long time ago I chose to learn how to spell. Now I have this knowledge and can’t unlearn it. At least not without shock therapy or something.

    Recently a believer told me to prove to him there is not a god. I said it is incumbent on the believer to prove there IS a god. If you believe, you must prove. When you accept that you cannot prove, then you will know. Choice? There’s no choice, here!

    Were I able to choose, I would have chosen my old belief system to be 100% actual. Even if religion were real, I’ve not encountered any two people on this planet whose beliefs are 100% identical. So which one of them is right? Theology is a lottery but no one has the winning ticket.

    If a god knocks on humanity’s door and offers credentials, then we can reconsider, but once one sees that religion is a lie, choosing to perpetuate the lie is either an act of madness (delusional), or an act of evil (premeditated dispensation of false hope, fear and ignorance for purposes of control and power).

    I’m not saying religion is overdue for a miracle. There’s been stories of countless miracles, only that’s anecdotal evidence. It’s not proof, because humans are prone to lie to one another for personal gain, or embrace false prophets for illusions of security and acceptance. There’s nothing substantial to prove the actual existence of any god. Even the Shroud of Turin has been proven fraudulent. We don’t need a rainbow or a burning bush or Mary’s head on a tortilla. We need absolute, indisputable proof there’s a god. Then, and only then, can one choose to follow it. Choosing to follow without proof is backwards. One must know something is there to lead before one can follow it.

    Until then, you either believe the lie, or you know the truth. I see no choice in that. You can’t choose to believe once you know with absolute certainty that it’s a lie.

  • bigjohn756

    All babies are born with no knowledge or faith in a god. No choice.

    Then, when the child’s language skills are sufficient, they are indoctrinated into their parent’s religion. No choice.

    Finally, when the child or young adult is capable of deeper thought, they can examine the situation and decide whether or not to continue to believe in god.

    Depending on the effectiveness of their indoctrination, and on how clearly they can think, it is possible that they could make the difficult choice of whether or not to eschew their parents’ instructions or to ignore their own thoughts.

    I think my train of thought has dissolved in alcohol, but, I will leave my ramblings here in case it might lead someone to make a sensible argument of them.

  • This is an interesting question, but it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the notion that religious belief (or lack thereof) can ever be a conscious choice.

    Maybe it works differently for other people, but I’ve been an atheist all my life. Since I was never indoctrinated, I’ve never had theistic beliefs. That wasn’t a choice on my part. It was simply a matter of circumstance. When I was introduced to the concept of a god and angels and heaven, I assumed that they were fictional. It wasn’t my choice not to believe they were real; it just never occurred to me that other people would think they were.

    I don’t know what it’s like for people leaving a faith. Maybe it’s possible for them to have some choice in the matter, but I know that for me, atheism was just the natural state of affairs. There’s no way for me to force myself to believe in something that I simply don’t believe in. I suppose I could choose to pretend to believe, but I have a hard time imagining that such a ruse would lead to me forming actual religious beliefs. I just don’t think I’m wired that way.

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