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Belief is not a Choice March 8, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion.
Tags: , , , ,

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.



1. Lee Chee Wai - March 9, 2010

I think of belief as a fuzzy concept. A belief that something is true, at least for me, is subject to change.

Taking the red ball example, I could be convinced the ball is actually blue if someone could show that I suffer from some color interpretation disorder (however highly unlikely) that saw all blue things as red. That would probably have to begin with an understanding of the breakdown of the light spectrum and why I’ve always thought the sky was red, for example.

Science makes use of models of reality to explain reality. That is something we as scientists have to constantly remind ourselves. Things are true as long as the fundamental assumptions hold at the level of detail we care about. Light was once a wave, then a particle, now both a wave and a particle.

The trouble with organized religion has always been, ironically and to varying degrees, your exact title. Religions do not, in general, tolerate a choice where their “truths” are concerned. Science, on the other hand, would need to prove that a fundamental truth (for any reasonably accurate model of reality anyone can come up with) has always been, is, and always will be.

laïcité - March 9, 2010

I don’t disagree with you. Belief is simply a perception and can be subject to change depending on the information imput that the brain receives. But due to differences in personality or personal experiences or otherwise, different people tend to have different “standards” of evidence that would convince them to believe in something. The point I was trying to make is that changing our beliefs is not something we can consciously control: the only thing we can control is what “evidence” gets taken into consideration.

For example, maybe someone else would be convinced that the seemingly red ball is blue if a person of authority made the claim that it were blue. But for a skeptic such as myself, it would take an argument that made sense to me, to convince me that the ball were really blue.

2. Lee Chee Wai - March 9, 2010

Ah, ok, I understand the point you are trying to make now.

Basically, you are saying it is silly to “believe” in something and then change your mind just because someone says so? In that case, I totally agree with you, that the individual never believed in the former thing in the first place. There was no good evidence nor reason to switch from one conclusion about reality to another. It really is the hallmark of religious “debate”.

3. heathen - March 9, 2010

Not all things can be chosen. You cannot choose who your parents or siblings are, at least the biological ones. But you can, apparently, choose to eat chicken rice or briyani or nasi lemak.

It should be self-evident, or axiomatic, that no one chooses a “bad” thing for him or herself.

What differs from person to person is the measure of “goodness” in evaluating the options that he is aware of*. (*Not being aware of other options may lead him to make a “bad” choice from the options he knows of.)

For example for some taste is the measure, which is subjective, and so he chooses briyani, another is health, so he choose chicken rice, and yet another is money, so he chooses a $2 nasi lemak, etc.

And at the end of this goodness measuring process, usually there is no choice left, for there is probably only one option that is ranked above all else. And unless he is an irrational or inconsistent person, or a liar and hypocrite to himself, he has no reason to choose a lower ranked option.

As another example, there is no choice or option about truth, ie you should, rationally, believe in the truth and not in lies.(Would you rather believe in lies than the truth?) The difficulty however, is in knowing what is the measure of truth: some may not know of any, others may used a flawed one, and yet others may know it, but not able to tell others about it.

(So the rational response to Christians is to ask them how do they know what they believe is true, and by what means they know the truth. Do try this one day, and see if you are convinced they know the truth of what they say.)

There is however the possibility that all options are ranked equally and are indifferent to the particular “goodness measure” chosen. In such a situation, just a random and blind choice will do; and choice then is reduce to irrelevance, for there is no difference between having one option or many options, or even no options at all.

And if you hold the belief that there is no good or bad, and all is relative, then we are in this random, any choice will do situation.

So therefore, when we are told we have a choice, we really have to ask if it is indeed true, for it may reduce to just one option, for which choosing any other tantamount to you being daft, irrational or mad, or all of the above, or any random one will do.

The only real choice – if any – is your selection of the “goodness measure” with which to value these choices. For some it is health, another money, and yet another aesthetics. But then we can apply the same reasoning above, recursively, to these choices of “goodness measures”, and we may end up with the same situation yet again, namely only one option is the rational and “correct” one, or any random one will do.

4. heathen - March 9, 2010

To add, to the specific matter of “choosing” what to believe, my implied “goodness measure” is truth, ie I believe that which is true.

From what I have seen and thought about, the other options can be:

– I believe that which makes me feel good, or makes me rich, or is beneficial to me, etc, ie the measure of goodness being that which is beneficial to self. Most marketing and advertisement – and politicians too – appeal to this measure. (And I would add that most Christians actually believe for this reason too, eg to avoid damnation.)

– I believe that which is others say that I should believe, ie to rely on authority, something that is valid, in my view, but a dangerous one, unless the authority is proven and tested to be a reliable authority. And that is what PAP is positioning themselves as, reliable authority which you should believe unquestioningly. The Pope is another example. I however would accept no man for such authority.

There may be more.

5. laïcité - March 9, 2010

Heathen – Are you suggesting that you can actually “choose” your beliefs if having those beliefs are beneficial to you? Note that when I say “belief” I am not referring to a religion or a worldview, but to the actual mental state where your brain is convinced that something is true. Could you make yourself believe that 1+1 = 8 if you were promised a reward for it?

For example, I can choose my actions: I can choose to go to church, I can choose to get babtized, I can choose to say “Jesus is god”. But whether I am actually convinced that christianity is the “Truth” is not my conscious choice: it is up to the bible or the pastor etc to provice me with sufficient reasonings such that my brain can perceive such claims to be true. Threats of eternal damnation don’t even make it into the picture; the question is: am I convinced?

And of course, different people are convinced by different “reasonings”. Like you mentioned, if a claim were made by someone in a position of authority, then that in itself may be sufficient to convince someone to believe that the claim is true. Others may think history, tradition, or the majority’s support are also adequate and compelling enough to make a claim true.

A personal example: I don’t want to die and cease to exist. I would love for eternal life to exist. And I know that believing in eternal life would make me feel good too. But going by the avalible evidence (or lack thereof), my brain is simply not convinced that there is life after death, no matter how much I want it to be true. Wishful thinking is not the same as truly believing in something.

6. Godwin - March 9, 2010

“Wishful thinking is not the same as truly believing in something.”

LOL. Hebrews 11:1

7. heathen - March 9, 2010

I suppose you are are somewhat circular in your use of the word “belief”. But two key words/concepts are pertinent from what you have written, namely “mental state” and “convince”.

The former can be something totally unconscious and physiological, whereas the latter is that arrived at from a process of cognition.

I am not sure what you mean by belief, namely a state of affairs presented to your senses, conscious or otherwise, triggering a certain mental state, or that arising from a process that can be analysed and reasoned.

In the former you can believe anything, as long as a certain state of affairs, within yourself and in the external world, trigger in you a mental state, which you become aware of and recognised as that you know and have come to associate with the notion of belief.

It is entirely subjective and it will be impossible for others to understand at all what you so come to know. If that is what you mean by belief, then discussion is futility and a total waste of time, for it will be incomprehensible to anyone else but yourself.

And you may have no choice about it, as it may be due entirely to biochemistry, subjected to the laws of physics and chemistry, and not the will of man. Madness is a possible example of such beliefs arising from certain mental states.

So, therefore, I am only talking about reasonable and reasoned belief, and in a sense you have a choice about it, namely the choice of your “goodness measure”.

And we can even agree about what is to be measured, which in the case of beliefs, ought to be truths, but we can disagree about how to measure such truths. (But if we disagree that we ought to believe only that which is true, then either we start one or several steps back or forget about the discussion at all.)

One may say science, ie facts established via the scientific method, another may say, logic, such as contradiction and consistency, and yet another may say, authority or majority vote or reliable witnesses, and another, or yet something else. But if someone says feelings, ie something is true if he feels good about it, then it will be outside the realm of rational and reasonable discussion and more akin to the mental state model of beliefs.

But what I have written goes beyond these; what I am asserting is that in situations where you are, apparently, presented a choice, it can almost always be reduced to just one option or, if not, then any random option will do, which in both situations render the notion of “choice”, moot, irrelevant and meaningless.

And belief is just one of those things you apparently have a choice. So therefore I am saying that you either have no choice but to belief only one thing, or, alternatively, you can believe anything, and everything.

I need also to introduce an associated notion to belief, namely faith. Anyone can SAY they belief anything, including the purported fact that 1+1=8, or PAP is incorruptible, just for the rewards.

But there is a distinction between claimed beliefs and actual beliefs. The latter must and is substantiated by actions, namely faith: putting your beliefs to practice, walking the talk.

If you say you believe you can fly but refuse to leap off the 50 storey building, I will then have reasonable doubt that you actually believed what you claimed to believe. And in the case of 1+1=8, I give you one apple and then another apple and you will pay me the price of 8 apples if you truly believe 1+1=8.

But being faithful does not prove the truth of what you believe.The 9-11 hijackers who crashed into the WTC Towers were very good examples of faithful believers. Rather it only proved that faithful and staunch believers in a falsehood can be highly dangerous people.

And finally to your personal example, maybe you can start by thinking what kind of evidence – or more generally what kind of “goodness measure” – you need to be rationally and reasonable convinced about any truth.

8. AF - March 10, 2010

Good post and you’re right of course!

However, I think that, when religious zealots demand that you “believe”, they make the assumption that ONE of the religions IS true and they therefore are demanding that you choose theirs (because they do actually believe and want everyone else to join their “tribe”).

They are, though, really demanding at that point that you blindly FOLLOW (give lip service to) and PROFESS to believe in, the religion in question (whatever you might think privately).

To reinforce that “following” which they demand and acquire by means of threats and promises, once achieved, they then set about effectively brainwashing those followers and, using brainwashing techniques, humans can be MADE to believe something that is patently rubbish to normal people.

Therefore, it IS, under those limited but very effective circumstances, possible for someone to effectively “choose” to believe – first they choose to follow and, once that is accomplished, the brainwashing can be effectively applied to make them actually believe. If they don’t choose to follow in the first place, it’s much harder to make them believe.

Sad, eh?

laïcité - March 10, 2010

Very good point, Adam.

Although I think wanting to believe something and actually believing it are two completely different things, the use of threats and promises can be pretty effective in getting people to pick and choose what types of evidence and arguments even make it into their eyes and ears. If someone were so afraid of hell that he wouldn’t even allow himself to be exposed to scientific journals on evolution, or the liberal media, or other religions, or anything that could possibly lead him away from Christianity, then obviously he would be more likely to be convinced of the “truth” of christianity compared to someone who allowed himself be exposed to other religions and opinions and let his own logic guide his beliefs.

9. watchman - March 13, 2010

the christian way of proselyting is to first convince you that a great being exists beyond your intellectual ability to apprehend. once you accepted that your intellectual apparatus is unable to facilitate the incomprehensible God, and therefore a special grace is required for the privilege to be inducted, you are primed to do the bidding of your religious mentor.

though i believe in the bible, i find christianity to be an absurd notion.

10. permittedflavourings - April 4, 2010

On a personal level I agree with you, but for argument’s sake I could say that you could choose at least what you disbelieve, and some Christians would say that disbelief predisposes you to doubt the ‘truth’, regardless of how compelling the ‘evidence’.

Then again, if what is ‘truth’ and what is not is so arbitrary and heavily dependent on personal bias or predisposition, then is such ‘truth’ worth the proselytisers’ efforts to force down others’ throats?

11. M3nt1c1d3 - September 8, 2010

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