Do We Choose To Not Believe?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Spot On!, which was about Alise Wright's list of assumptions for Christians not to make about Atheists. I thought they were excellent.

There was one little thing that she said though, that has spurred a follow up post on her own blog, about Free Will and Faith. She said,
Most atheists who have “deconverted” from a religious background have studied it and other religions thoroughly before choosing not to believe.

Mikespeir, in the comments, called attention to this:
If I have any reservations at all about this, it’s that “choosing not to believe” hung off the end there. I never chose not to believe. Once I realized I didn’t believe anymore I chose not to keep practicing the Christian religion. That was the choice involved.

I agree with Mike. I never chose not to believe.

Of course, I agree with Alise that we seem to have some say in our actions. We choose to read certain books/information (the bible1 and/or Dawkins), attend different events (either church or TAM2), and we choose the people we associate with.

I have to throw in here, that this assumes that we have free will. I have learned in the past year that we most likely don't. We are determined by a myriad of previous factors. But I won't get into that here. 

So, as a child, you're indoctrinated by your parents/role models3. You started out with no beliefs and they give you theirs. You don't (normally) question those values and beliefs.

As an adult, as I said, you sort of (in a deterministic sense) choose what information/people you expose yourself to.  But these decisions are based on your values that you formed in your younger years, which are already in place.

So even if you choose to read the bible, some people will find it compelling and it will strengthen their faith. But others will read it and find themselves disbelieving in God. They don't necessarily read the bible to make that decision. In fact I know several atheists now who were in bible college when their studies led them to atheism. Not by choice, but just because the information compelled them to make that honest conclusion. It was traumatic for some of them, certainly not fun for any of them to go through such an experience.

So you just can't make yourself believe or disbelieve at will.

Here is a simple two part experiment. 1. Stop believing in gravity.  2. Start believing that dragons live on top of your building.

If you can make yourself believe and disbelieve at will, I would venture to guess you are quite unusual and easily deluded. No offense, but I believe that would be considered a mental illness.


1 There are many people who read the bible and that has led them to realize that it's mostly contradictory and full of horrible fairy tales, and has led them to become atheists. And many atheists will read the bible just to be better informed. But we also read other books that are atheist, skeptical and scientific.

2 TAM is The Amazing Meeting, a James Randi Educational Foundation sponsored convention for secular/skeptical people. They sound really awesome and now take place around the world.

3 There are a very few parents that teach their children to think for themselves, and share multiple worldviews with them and let the children eventually form their own belief system, but this is very rare.


  1. I have to add that we can blind ourselves to contrary evidence. We can shunt aside considerations that we suspect might lead to uncomfortable conclusions, and we can sometimes do it without conscious thought.

    As I grew up an emotional attachment to the Christian faith was instilled in me. I wanted it to be true. For many years it was true--for me. Because belief is rooted in emotion, it often takes quite a contrary emotional jog to knock one loose of one's beliefs enough so that one is able to step back and look at them somewhat objectively. Even then, it was only after I moved across country at the age of 48, after my responsibilities as a Bible teacher ended, that it dawned on me that I just didn't believe anymore, and hadn't for quite some time.

    But for someone with a reputation to maintain, family to appease, and friends to keep friendly, the force field might never come down. Such a person might never make the distinction between believing and believing he believes. In fact, I'm not sure there is much of one. That's why I'm a lot more sympathetic to believers than some other atheists are. Sometimes we former believers forget what a crazy confluence of circumstances and influences was required to pave the road to our unbelief. For some good, intelligent, educated people events will never conspire toward that end.

  2. anti_supernaturalistApril 17, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    'islam' means submission

    According to the Danish protestant theologian, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), 'christian practice' means subordination.

    Turning away from xianity implies not doubt, but rebellion against "God":

    “They would have us believe that objections against Christianity come from doubt. This is always a misunderstanding. Objections against Christianity come from insubordination, unwillingness to obey, rebellion against all authority. Therefore, they have been beating the air against the objectors, because they have fought intellectually [against] doubt, instead of fighting ethically [against] rebellion. . . .So it is not properly doubt but insubordination.” (Lowrie 122)

    Ultimately what turns us against xianity (or islam) is not good reason, but good taste.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  3. Well, I can't turn away from God if God doesn't exist. How can I be insubordinate to someone else's invisible, intangible, unprovable delusion?

  4. Yes, that's true, Mike. Confirmation bias among other things. What would the opposite be called? There's a logical fallacy for when you deny evidence that is contrary to your beliefs or already set position. But it escapes me now.

    I think my brain popped with if someone believes or if he believes he believes. There might not be any difference.

    But yes, I would agree that often there is a crazy chain of events that helps us lose our childish beliefs in God and the supernatural. Mine was definitely a circuitous, interesting journey.