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Belief is not a Choice March 8, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion.
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13 comments

I’ve heard a fair share of testimonies by Christians who proudly proclaim how they “chose” to believe in Jesus and how much their lives have changed for the better after that decision. I have also faced many proselytization attempts based on the general idea of “choose Christianity or suffer eternal damnation”. These religious zealots present the choice as an easy one: believe in Jesus and enjoy eternal life in heaven, or disbelieve and endure fire and brimstone in hell. Who would be so stupid or defiant as to deliberately choose to get into the bad books of an omnipotent omnipresent being? But the fatal flaw in this is the assumption that we can choose what we believe in the first place.

We must first define what “belief” is. Simply put, believing in something means that your brain perceives that it is true. Can it be a conscious choice?

Let’s take a simple, secular example. Let’s say that there is a red ball placed on the table in front of you. Can you choose to believe that the ball is blue? What if someone offered you $100 to believe that it is blue? What if someone threatened you that if you did not believe that it was blue, you’d get a smack on the head? What if someone told you that not believing that it’s blue is immoral? It’s one thing to be able to make yourself say “that ball is blue”, but it is another thing altogether to actually force yourself to believe it. When you choose a belief knowing that it is false, is it really considered “believing”?

Well this is precisely how the skeptic sees the Christian argument and Pascal’s wager. The evidence, if any, is simply not sufficient enough to convince me to believe that the metaphysical assertions made in Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, are true. Telling me to choose to believe that Jesus is god is as absurd to me as asking me to choose to believe that I have two heads. Presenting me with Pascal’s wager does not make any difference: a belief cannot be consciously switched on or off, regardless of the purported consequences of unbelief.

Belief is not a choice, because the word “choice” implies that there are alternative options. It is impossible to choose to believe in something knowing that it is false, just as it is impossible to reject a true belief. Belief is something we have no control over; it is simply a stance taken by our brains after having considered the available evidence.

It makes me wonder what people really mean when they say that they have chosen to believe in Christianity. If you are already sufficiently convinced by the bible, religious leaders, or anecdotal evidence, then what is there to “choose”? But if you actually need to make a conscious choice, be it to disregard your skepticism, to ignore contrary evidence, or to simply disallow counter arguments from reaching your eyes and ears (aka the “la la la, I can’t hear you” method) then isn’t that just self delusion? Committing such acts of intellectual dishonesty to oneself is simply not worthy of respect, in my books.

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