You Can’t Choose to Believe 2: the Onion Analogy

Last week, my post about the nature of belief (check it out here) drew a lot of disagreement. Yes!

I think a lot of it came from me trying to tackle a gigantic subject in few words. Well, I’m back to try again from another angle.

Faith is like an onion.

It has layers. When I say that we can’t choose to believe or disbelieve in something, I’m talking about the very center of the onion, deep down in there beneath conscious thought.

At this level, you either have it or you don’t. There is no thought involved. No decision-making. You can’t select anything at this level. The religious/spiritual decisions you make (like which religion to follow) happen a few layers up.

To be clear, when I say you can’t choose to believe in something, I’m not talking about life experiences that change you. I’m not talking about the church you go to, or the philosophies you like. I’m talking about the very core of belief or disbelief that you can’t just consciously change in an instant (like I said before, just choose, right now, to disbelieve your faith–nobody addressed that in my previous post and I’d like to see someone who claims they can just choose at will not to believe in their faith).

I’m not saying people don’t change religions throughout their lives–they certainly do. We all see it all the time, don’t we?

Just not spontaneously.

The question of missionaries came up as a response to my previous post. I am not saying you can’t be talked into changing religions. You obviously can. You can “see the light” and convert and start going to a church. You can suddenly, through new experiences, new exposure, whatever, shift your beliefs.


That isn’t you selecting a new religion. It’s something shifting inside you because of these new experiences and exposure to new stuff. You didn’t just suddenly decide, “You know, today I’m going to see the light and become a Muslim.” Nope. You didn’t decide that. Life changed you whether you liked it or not.

So there you have a little more of my thoughts on faith. What do you think?

5 Replies to “You Can’t Choose to Believe 2: the Onion Analogy”

  1. If I may, a (very) brief summary of the points made on the last post:

    You can’t choose what you believe, just like you cannot choose your emotions.

    People think that you should try to will yourself to feel/believe in something.

    People think that they should believe in something, but can’t because it strikes them as hollow/false.

    This is an important realization for:

    1. People who want to fit in.

    2. People who think everyone should think like them.

    Comment: With enough exposure, you may change your mind.

    Comment: Questioning your assumptions may lead to change.

    Comment: Faith is a matter of constantly choosing to hold on to your beliefs.

    Comment: If we could not choose faith, missionaries would be obsolete.

    I think there may be some mixed terminology here. We’re talking about consciously choosing to believe (or not) in your faith. But you’re also saying that you’re not talking about the noun or verb versions of faith. I don’t think you’re really talking about faith (either one).

    Here’s my reasoning – that little core of ourselves that knows something to be true or not – what you’re calling the center of the onion – I agree that it isn’t conscious thought. But it’s also not faith. I don’t know what to call it, so I’m calling it your self-certainty. Faith (the verb) is choice. Faith (the noun) is choice. So equating those two (three) doesn’t make sense. And that may be where some of the – er – disagreements are coming from.

    But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) I am also curious what your time frame is here. If you’re talking about sudden instantaneous change – than no – short of a sudden life event – I don’t think people (usually) suddenly go – hey! I’m going to be Catholic (or Muslim, or whatever). And even if they do that’s a choice based on (over time) looking at what being Catholic and Muslim entails and deciding that it fits what they feel to be good and true for them. But I do believe that you can choose to systemically strangle a part of yourself – which would include this self-certain core that has determined there’s something greater that ourselves. So in that sense yes you can choose to change your self-certainty.

    So ultimately – to fall back on the supremely unsatisfying English language – what I think you’re trying to say is that our self-certainty in something is not (usually) a choice (barring life changing epiphanies). And what everyone else is saying is that our expression of that self-certainty (faith) is a choice.

    So Ha! You’re all right.

    Also, I agree.

    1. @dakotamarie Well, I agree with you for the most part, Dakota. I guess I think it’s important to think about mostly for:

      1. People who feel trapped into thinking they should believe what their community (whatever their community is) wants or expects of them. I’d like these people not to feel guilty if they don’t believe the status quo. I think this is a common problem.

      2. People who feel superior due to their faith and think everyone who doesn’t agree with them is going to hell. I want these people to realize how damaging this state of mind is for them and other people.

      I have been told a few times that I should study the Bible, and that if I make an honest effort to pursue Christianity and seek communion with God, the holy spirit will descend upon me and reveal the truth.

      That’s actually what first got me thinking about the idea that I didn’t choose not to be religious. I’m just not. I just don’t feel it. When I took a moment to be introspective, I realized that I hadn’t chosen not to believe. I just don’t. I never did. That’s not to say that I don’t feel some connection to mystical weird stuff–I do (but I’ll go into that in another post).

      When I said this, a friend insisted that I just needed to give it a chance. But I can so easily see that there isn’t any reason for me to do so. Why would I want to follow something that just seems so hollow and empty? I feel that way about every religion I have studied (I like some philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism). None of them awaken anything within me.

      This friend disagreed with me until I told him to disbelieve (right that second) in Jesus. The cool thing about him was that as soon as I said that, he understood what I meant and agreed. He couldn’t do that any more than I could just decide to believe (even enough to start down a path toward believing it).

      He now believes I need to have some sort of divine intervention in order to see the light. I appreciate that, since it shifted his thinking. Now he doesn’t feel like I am quite so willfully electing not to become a Christian. I think he still really feels sorry for me, but that’s to be expected.

      I feel the same way for him!

      1. @JustinBarba LOL. Yes, I have the choice of going to several different versions of hell (and limbo) as well and am also in great need of divine intervention. Some folks are quite concerned about it, in fact. Aren’t we special? 🙂

        Unfortunately, while your ideas may benefit the first group you’re talking about, the second group probably won’t even want to hear what you’re saying.

        It is interesting that you recognize your inner-core, despite not choosing to follow a particular path of expression. I don’t know a lot of people that recognize that but don’t choose an expression.

        1. @dakotamarie The funny thing is, one of my Christian friends (the one I mentioned) really responded to it. The second one, though, really disagrees with the idea and thinks I need to look for Jesus. Seek and ye shall find, I guess.

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