You Can’t Choose to Believe

Faith is a tricky thing for a lot of people.

For me, it’s pretty clear-cut: you can’t choose what you believe. You either believe something or you don’t.

Faith is like an emotion. You can’t choose to be mad or sad or happy or anxious. You just are. Think about it for a second. Can you suddenly think yourself angry?

How about now?

Of course you can try to will yourself happy, but it’s not that easy, is it?

When I’ve shared this idea with religious friends, their immediate reaction was that a person should try to believe, that faith is hard work sometimes, that it gets challenged and you have to persevere.

My response?

You can’t choose to believe something any more than you can choose to disbelieve.

If you think I’m wrong, choose right now, this very second, not to believe in your faith. Choose not to believe in Jesus, Yahweh, the Earthmother, Shiva (my favorite on the list), whatever. Just elect to not believe it anymore.

What? You can’t?

Well, the same thing goes for everybody else–nobody chooses what they truly believe. You can try to kindle some spark of belief, of course–that’s what a lot of unfortunate people spend their lives trying to do.

Example: you grow up in a Taoist family (I’m going to pick on Taoists, since I love their philosophy), doing Taoist things with all your Taoist friends. Everyone around you is a Taoist. But let’s say Taoism never really strikes you as being true.¬†As you get older, you feel pressure from your community to be a Taoist, even though you’re not. Eventually, you start feeling guilty for not really believing. You desperately want to fit in, to believe like you’re “supposed” to, but you just don’t feel it. Of course you know there’s something wrong with you. Tao just hates you or something. That’s why you don’t feel it. Hopefully you don’t live your whole life feeling ashamed of your inadequacy. I sure hope not, but sadly, a lot of people do this for decades.

But what you believe isn’t up to you (or anybody else).

I think this realization is important for 2 kinds of people:

1.¬†People who struggle with trying to believe what someone else tells them to (parents, friends, society, you name it). I don’t want you to feel ashamed for not believing what they tell you. It’s not good for you. Be your own person.

2. Holier-than-thou people. I know far too many people who feel superior to anybody who doesn’t share their faith. We all do, don’t we? You need to stop thinking you’re better than people who don’t see the light like you do. If you fall into this group, you probably wouldn’t admit feeling superior, but search yourself and see if it’s true. You might be surprised.

Maybe looking at faith this way will help somebody get a little clarity. I sure hope so.

(Read the follow up post here)

Do or Do Not. There is no Try!

13 Replies to “You Can’t Choose to Believe”

  1. I must say that I’m not talking about making a decision to join or leave a church. I’m talking about actual belief. I just engaged in a spirited discussion about what I meant.

  2. I disagree, with your position. I believe all faith is a matter of choice. There is no proof that can be definitively offered on the existence or nonexistence of a divine force. Every scientific explanation can be dismissed as “it works that way because (insert your favorite divine force) wills it so” and every religious explanation can be equally easily dismissed as a “lot of simple tricks and mumbo-jumbo.” In the end all we have is what we choose to believe or disbelieve.

    If belief could not be chosen there would be no Jehovah’s witnesses or Mormons. Missionary work would be entirely a waste of time, never turning up any converts.

    Is it easy to choose different beliefs? No, but it does happen.

    In fact I would argue that belief is a constant series of choices, every time a crisis of faith is encountered one must necessarily choose to hold to their beliefs or reject them in favor of something else

    The belief that nothing can travel faster than light is deeply held by some in scientific circles. Recent developments at Cern have challenged that belief, causing many to assert that the results of the tests are in some unknowable way flawed, or to assert that faster than light travel may indeed be possible.

    1. @BeardedDork As usual, you make some excellent points, BeardedDork. I intend to work up a follow post to this one and detail some of what I meant a little more. I contend that you’re talking about a level of belief a couple planes higher than I am. I’m not talking about the level where your faith is challenged by facts or proof.

      I’m talking about the very foundation of faith in something higher than yourself. You either feel it or you don’t.

      If, like me, you don’t feel it, you just plain don’t feel it. I certainly could attempt to believe in a god, but the existence of a creator being just doesn’t feel right to me. If I was so inclined, I could go to some church and read a book and search fr answers. That would be a choice. But if I did that, I would (and have) still feel the emptiness at the core of it. I can’t just choose to believe (any more than I ever chose to not believe). I just don’t.

      Now I’m going to write a follow-up post to this one.

  3. another nice little post! quick and concise, you have an amazing knack for keeping things organized yet thoughtful, i feel.

    i think really at the core notions of the topic, a quick investigation into epistemology might be enough for a person to completely change something they believe in instantly, regardless of emotion. i know i did. despite having a ‘born-again’ christian experience, that i completely and totally asked for, and changed my life permanently, whats happening here in this discussion i feel is more along the lines of questioning the nature of subjectivity, and its nuances. The internal clash between a priori reasoning and empirical understanding, i think can totally lead to questioning the assumptions of what you believe, and questioning the underpinnings of reality.

    to say you can’t choose to believe or not believe somethings would require a step back into just what a belief is. the very mechanics of belief, and whether or not this is the same as a ‘faith claim’ onto the veritableness of something about the universe, i feel might be different in some ways. does belief = faith?

    a brief classical approach might be of benefit here. In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ even though he is a staunch atheist, argues considerably about the power of subjectivity, and that only a believer can decide for him or herself just what a belief means to them. (And since, in existentialism, existence precedes the essence of who you are, everything is relatable by decision or experience, which to me seems that you may believe otherwise, which is of note, here.)

    While i think you,for the purposes of this post deliberately steered things in a very conclusive short manner (perhaps just to get out how you feel), just a quick moment into reflecting about the foundations of what your saying, might be rewarding. at best, your premise could be that clear cut, but at worst, its not quite as simple as perhaps you’ve proposed here.

    1. @BrandonHutchens Thanks, Brandon! I am going to do a follow-up right now and add some more to what I started with here. You hit it right on the head, though–it’s an issue of layers of belief. I am definitely talking about the very base layer, and not the stuff you can decide away through rational thought or experience. A born again experience is exactly the level I’m talking about. You don;t choose something like that. You may work toward it, ask for it, like you said, but you can’t just choose to have it.One of my friends claims that you do choose being born again, that you must be looking for it in order to have it. This may somehow be true, I don’t know. I do think that if you close yourself off to something like that, you probably won’t have that sort of experience short of some kind of life changing event that causes you to “see the light.”

      1. @JustinBarba @BrandonHutchens I think the notion of spiritual development is key, as far as this topic is concerned. For the most part I agree with Justin. On the most basic level, you don’t choose your spiritual path. You go with what makes sense to you. And you don’t choose whether a thing makes sense to you or not. How fervently you follow said path, however, is most certainly a choice. And this choice can result in spiritual experience, which will likely reinforce your initial direction. It’s also worthwhile to note, that the differences between one religion and another exist largely on that initial surface level. In my experience, genuine spiritual practices become more and more similar the deeper you go.

  4. This is an interesting topic, and one that I hope you don’ t mind my joining. I fundamentally understand what you are saying here and don’t particularly disagree. However, I feel compelled to play the (pardon my language) devil’s advocate.

    The premise that we don’t change what we believe may be a bit shortsighted. For instance, when we are young, we express very specific and strongly held philosophical beliefs about society, crime, punishment, the economy, emotions, and relationships. Yet over a period of time, given exposure to different environments and experiences, we often change our beliefs.

    I think that many people who might object to your position would do so with the idea that given enough exposure to a specific religious philosophy, a person might change what they believe. I think that is part of the reason that many people continue in the whichever particular faith they were exposed to as children.

    On the other hand, and in favor of your position, how much of what we “choose” is, in fact, related to what we are able to deeply and legitimately “feel?”

    Thanks for the interesting forum.

  5. Thanks for chiming in!

    Well, I’m not trying to say that our beliefs don’t change. I think they change for a lot of people, especially as life happens.

    I’m really saying that you can’t just choose to believe or disbelieve in something. Like right now, I couldn’t just elect to suddenly believe that Jesus died for my sins or that Muhammad is God’s greatest and final prophet. I just don’t have that in me. But who knows? There’s the possibility that some big event could happen in my life and I’d believe. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

    I totally agree that people change over time and belief can certainly change with that–not in a moment, but over time and with experience.

  6. @justinbarba You can choose to test your beliefs against reality, and accept the result honestly. “#Faith” resists that. #religion #atheism

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