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Belief & Choice

Do People Choose to be Atheists?

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Question:
Why do people choose to be atheists?

 

Response:
The question of belief (and how it might be achieved) is a crucial point of disagreement between atheists and theists. Atheists contend that believers are overly credulous — that they believe things much more easily and readily than is rationally warranted. Theists, on the other hand, argue that nonbelievers deliberately disregard important evidence and are thus unjustifiably skeptical.

Some theists even contend that nonbelievers do indeed know that there is a god or that there is evidence proving a god but willfully ignore this knowledge and believe the opposite, whether due to rebellion, pain, or some other cause. Despite these important differences, there is little genuine discussion on just what belief is and, perhaps more importantly, what causes it.

A better understanding of how a person arrives at a belief can help illuminate whether or not atheists are overly skeptical or theists are overly credulous. It can also help both atheists and theist better frame their arguments in their attempt to reach each other.

According to Terence Penelhum, there are two general schools of thought when it comes to how beliefs originate: voluntarist and involuntarist. The voluntarists take the position that belief is a matter of will: we have control over what we believe much in the way we have control over our actions.

Theists often seem to be voluntarists and Christians in particular commonly argue the voluntarist position. Some of history’s most prolific theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard have written that believing — or at least believing religious dogma — is a free act of will. This isn’t surprising, because only if we bear some responsibility for our beliefs can disbelief be considered a sin punishable by sending nonbelievers to hell. Nonbelievers encounter this perspective when evangelists exhort others to “just believe” and to “choose Jesus,” reminding us that our atheism is a sin and a path to damnation.

Involuntarists, on the other hand, argue that we cannot really choose to just believe anything. According to them, a belief is not an action and thus cannot be attained by command. For example, everyone realizes that even after a person has concluded beyond any doubt what they must do, that doesn’t mean that they will automatically do it. Beyond their conclusion is the fact that extra steps must be taken to actually make the action happen.

However, there does not appear to be a parallel when it comes to beliefs. Once a person realizes what they must believe beyond all doubt, what other steps do they take in order to have that belief? None, it seems — there is nothing left to do. Thus, there is no extra, identifiable step which we can label the act of “choosing.”

But this does not mean that actions and beliefs are not closely related. Indeed, beliefs are usually the products of various actions, and we are indirectly responsible for the beliefs we do and do not hold because we are directly responsible for the actions we take. For example, one can be praised for not having any beliefs about a neighbor’s sex life because such a belief can only be acquired by poking about in someone else’s business. On the other hand, one can be blamed for not having a belief about who should win the next presidential election because this means not having paid any attention to the recent news about the candidates and the issues.

One can be praised for acquiring beliefs through having gone to the trouble of studying, researching, and making a genuine attempt to gather as much information as possible. On the other hand, one can be blamed for acquiring beliefs through deliberately ignoring evidence, arguments, and ideas which might tend to create doubt about long-held assumptions. Thus, although we may not be able to have rules about what we should believe, we can create ethical principles about how we acquire and affect our beliefs. Some processes can be considered less ethical, others more ethical.

Personally, I tend very strongly towards involuntarism. I try to explain to evangelists that I do not in fact “choose” atheism. Instead, atheism is the only possible position I can have given my present state of knowledge. I can no more “choose” to just believe in the existence of a god than I can “choose” to just believe that the computer on my desk doesn’t exist.

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